Friday, 19 February 2016

Hansel and Gretel, the remix

Sing Me to Sleep is a collaboration with homeless people in the UK and Lithuania. Fairytales are retold and embroidered into a quilt.

Phil writes:

This week's fairytale to be remade in the Sing Me to Sleep workshops was Hansel and Gretel. It's of course one of the well-loved children's stories in Europe. It is also a scare-fest, featuring abandoned children, starvation, and cannibalism. It finishes on a happy note of human incineration, in an oven. No wonder it's popular, the Brothers Grimm really pulled out the stops on this one, patching it together from the best chilly bits of a scattering of other stories.

detail of quilt sample, Sing me to Sleep

The theme, as with many of these stories, is survival. This time it's about using cunning to outwit those who are bigger or stronger than you. A theme that many of the homeless people in our group are extremely knowledgeable about. To be streetwise is to be as canny as Hansel and Gretel, in the urban forest.

It was a lighthearted session, strangely enough. I'd been worried that the gore of the story might be a downer. But the general approach was cheery curiosity. The moment that shone through was Phil's joy at constructing his own poem based on H&G and then improvising on it while I recorded him. It was a live remix using two columns of words he'd written down and then read aloud in whatever order pleased him, jumping between the two sets of words. Afterwards he said: "I'm pleased now, I'll be smiling all afternoon about that." As we talked he described being put off writing at school, despite adoring books. Seeing the glee in him made me smile too. It felt like he had made his way through a different kind of dark wood and found part of himself once more.

detail of quilt sample, Sing me to Sleep

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Ordinary Signal

Our Stitching the Wars project is centred around quilt-making. In satellite around the quilts are many poems and reminiscences about changes in rural life between and during the two world wars, but sometimes it's about being on the front: Here George describes a naval battle and the battle with language that dementia has brought:

Ordinary Signal

In those days 
In a battle
In a fresh air of bullets
Fighting in the water

Put in a uniform, pushed out into the sea
Given a gun to fire, a flag to wave
Ordinary Signalman
Stuck for words these days

If you take my life, war in 39
I was 18 years old, now I'm nearly 100
Irrespective of bombs
And things coming out of the sky

Always in Communications
I remember many things, but not in any
Particular order
A full alphabet in hands and fingers

The ship I was on HMS Mauritius
Me stood on top, 16 inch gun below
A Signalman is in the most danger
Naval battles are noisy, but

If the nurses gave you water
Thought you'd been given a gift
Young men of 18
Plucked from their family

People separately 
My brain isn't so good these days
I've stolen a bit of history

Hitting the ground with a bang
I'm talking about heavy guns
In a world that doesn't exist
All borders gone

I was Signalman, worked in visual situations
Passing messages all by hand
Signals taught me for A B and C
Now I'm stuck for words

1 Feb 2016

'Fresh Air and Poverty' quilt making in progress.

Monday, 15 February 2016

The wild, wild wood

Colin, Paddy and Stephen, designing for Sing me to Sleep.

It's always a test of nerves beginning a new project. We inevitably go in with ideas that change, in order to accommodate the reality we encounter. Today's session at The Booth Centre for Sing Me to Sleep was a case in point. We are in the process of remaking fairytales with homeless people. These reshaped tales will then be stitched into a quilt, which has a design that subtly echoes a forest.

We worked on the story of Little Red Riding Hood, whose escape from the wolf was cunningly imagined using lottery tickets, matches, diplomacy and the threat of a visit to the Wolf Dentist. The artworks had the swirl and power of trees in a magic wood.

So far so good. Then at the end of the session, a black hole suddenly opened. The group had gone very quiet and we assumed they weren't happy with the quilt designs. We quizzed people anxiously. Still the quietness remained. "What're you thinking?" Lois asked Paddy. He looked her dead in the eye. "I'm sleeping out tonight and it's going to be cold. I'm thinking about that." It was a moment that might be described as an immense reality check. "Looks cold to me tonight and I'm out in it. No flat, no nothing. Too many promises but nothing works out."

As we ended, I asked Paddy if he was OK, if he'd got something from the workshop. The whole point of these sessions is to leave people feeling better, not worse. He nodded to me reassuringly: "Its a break for me. I like these. Keeps me out of trouble and keeps me off the brandy." Then he leaned close to me. He nodded out of the window at the streets of Manchester. He said: "You want to see wild woods? The woods out there are wild."

'Go towards the sun' Paddy Reilly

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Sleeping Beauty, retold

Thicket of Thorns, Jayson Hendren, Feb 2016

As part of our Sing Me to Sleep project, we invite homeless people to rewrite fairytales in various new guises. Here is Jayson's Sleeping Beauty:

Sleeping Beauty
Retold by Jayson Hendren

I can see trees that go on for miles, birds flying past as the nighttime light reflects off the feathers. I can hear twigs breaking off the trees as the night comes to life... Light glistening off the cold winter river and streams.

I see a shadow coming closer, from between the trees. It starts to form into a luscious woman, leaves all over her body and she comes close, her features, all her curves... All I can do is stare into her eyes, falling deeper into fallen silence.

Leaves silky soft, branches dry, rough, prickly. Feel the tension of the twigs snapping, some break easily. Twigs flying past as I break in, break it into pieces.

The silence is loud. People lay along a cobbled path, every footstep could wake them. They look at peace with themselves, happy. I go to the women and give them each a kiss, of life. The joy effect is contagious and spreads around the castle like a snowflake.

Sarah and Jayson, Sing me to Sleep at The Booth Centre

Friday, 12 February 2016


Coming Home Dusty, part of Fresh Air and Poverty, Janet Edge

Our Stitching the Wars project is centred around quilt-making. But in satellite around the quilts are many poems and reminiscences about changes in rural life between and during the two world wars. We have often discussed the difference in expectations between people of different social backgrounds. The following poem re-appropriates a little of Great Expectations, as a hats-off to another writer who dealt with the rich/poor divide in all its complexity. Here is Janet, writing a portrait of a much-loved Dad:


A big world across the road
Big lorries, noisy
Dad, he'd carry 
Heavy sacks

Bags as heavy as me and
He'd never come home tired
Into the little world
In which children have their existence

I'd have a walk up there
In summer
My Dad, Blue Circle Cement Works
Long time ago

Pause you who read this, think a moment
Of a very strong man, tall
Coming home dusty
Into my little world

Thirsty for a cup of tea
Then out in the garden
Digging up the little world
In which children have their existence.

Janet Edge
1 Feb 2016

Age UK, Caroline Court Day Centre, Hope

Janet and her embroidery

Thursday, 11 February 2016

How to dispel demons

This was the first of our Sing Me to Sleep workshops in the Booth Centre. We've often talked about the power of fairytales, but last week that power was demonstrated most strongly.

We were rewriting Sleeping Beauty. The group first made a thicket of thorns, ink-drawing an armful of thorn bush branches that Lois had brought in. Then they retold the fight through the thicket of thorns and awakening the palace of sleepers in Sleeping Beauty. 

At first we joked about the story and there was some concern that we were asking people to be silly, childish. But these are old, old stories. They've been passed from storyteller to storyteller by word of mouth for uncounted years before they were ever written down or Disney-fied. The reason they've survived is that they're built to last. They have resistance to adversity encoded deep within, just like the group themselves. As people wrote and drew, the intensity of their involvement grew until it seemed as if they were spell-casting.

They entered the story they wove. They told of their own childhoods ("you wouldn't call my family nice") and also of their children. Very quietly, tears were shed as people made this work. And the demons of loneliness and hurt and despair showed up as they often do. But - as humans have done for thousands of years - we gathered together and told stories to keep the demons at bay.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Night School

We are often asked about the process of turning reminiscence into poetry. We use various poetic rules, but the basic principle is to write down a conversation as accurately as possible and then cut it into lines which the participant rearranges. What follows is a demonstration of this process in action. First the poem, then the reminiscence from which it came. 

In this case, for the project Stitching the Wars, the reminiscence was from one member of Hope Age UK Day Centre and another member of the group collaborated in rearranging the lines. We had been discussing the rich/poor divide and how Dickens wrote about it - the poem sprang from that conversation.

Night school

Dickens takes some reading, he does
Descriptive is Dickens
Went to night school
And asked for more.

Now take my life
Born in a poor family
In the village,
School were pretty basic.

Ordinary kids, expectations not great
Didn't mind them not being.
School, I played the wag
Down to the the stream.

Youths hanging around to find work
The long chains of iron
Or gold, of thorns, or flowers.
Accepted your situation. Played 

Kick can, football, or the Artful Dodger.
Miners didn't want their kids 
Down the pit
Wanted better for them.

1926 Strike. 
When Dad got to the surface
He said, "Not going down there anymore."
Happiness is another matter.

Scrooge loves cash
Nicholas Nickleby meets the crook
On the moors and makes his
Escape. Me?

I left school at 14. Dad says,
"Want to better yourself?
Go to night school."
The world lay spread before me:

Dazzling before me, the world.

Hugh Bradbury
29 January 2015

(Additional editing, Janet Edge)


Hugh Bradbury:

Dickens, he takes some reading, he does. Nicholas Nickleby meets the crook on the moors and he escapes. Scrooge loves the cash. Nickleby went to school as a teacher. Then there's Oliver. And he asked for more! The boy was rough. Artful Dodger. Descriptive was Dickens. And there was the one who was sent to Australia, aboard ship. Made money to pay for his education. On the moor with nothing to eat, they were hunting him...

Slight reading, light reading. The Three Musketeers, by Dumas. He had a lot of people write for him. Injustice in the stories. Dickens, people listened to him about injustice too. Count of Monte Cristo sent to jail. They'd talk to each other by tapping on the heating pipes. Fabulous wealth stashed away, he escaped and took it out of them. I could read them kind of books! The Man in the Iron Mask. It starts off with two characters like twins. And he ends up putting on the mask. "Don't put the mask on me!"

Scrooge has all the money, but he ends up alright. Ends up in A Christmas Carol. That's the thing with Dickens, he weren't vindictive.

Money doesn't do you any harm. Useful. But happiness is another matter. If you take my life, I was born into a poor family. Grandad was a miner. Row of houses. One room a shop. Mother a housewife, Dad down the pit til the 1926 strike. Bit of bother there. 

Eight years old in this row of houses. War started. Aeroplane above, taking photos. It was a Sunday in the Phoney War. We were sat in the yard. 

All in the same village, a sideline. School were pretty basic. I played the wag. Ordinary working class kids, their expectations were not great. You didn't mind them not being great. 

Born Feb 15 1932. Another kid who shared my birthday, he were well to do. Found out we shared a birthday and invited me. Went to his house, he had things like a telephone. His mother asked was I a somebody. She was a dolly bird. The dad knocked off any bird available.  

It's all history, my Dad worked down the mine. The kids had proper shoes, tho they might've been odd shoes. You accepted your situation. Played kick can, football.

The 1926 Strike. The pit ponies came up. Me dad, when he got to the surface, he said, "I'm not going down there anymore." Miners didn't want their kids down the pit. They wanted something better for them. Dad went to night school doing Surveyance. In his final year in 1926. If it hadn't been for the strike he would've been a Surveyor. Dad said the Union were thick, they called the strike when it was sunny and people didn't need coal. He was clever. Dad had an allotment and a motorbike.

School, I played the wag a dozen times. Down to the stream. Youths hanging around to find work, drift mine or factory. 

I did quite well. Left school when I was 14. Ended up President of Sheffield Builders, Captain of the cricket team and Chairman of Builders' Exchange. 

Dad says:"You want to improve yourself? Night school!"

Interviewed by Phil
29 Jan 2016
Age UK, Hope

Morag Stitching the Wars in Hope

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Suffering is the waste product of heaven

The Homeless Library is an attempt to record the lived experience of homeless people, using interviews, poetry and artwork. Part of the Library is also this blog, a diary of our own everyday triumphs and disasters while we work. Here is January 28 2016, a writing/art workshop at The Booth Centre.

I'm writing this in the canteen at the Booth Centre. Brightly painted, brightly lit, with purple and blue doors, yellow walls, many windows. An echoing room, I've never heard it quiet. Always the dance of voices, joking or angry or desperate, or bored… 

Right now there's a subdued tone, after a row. Someone left shouting, over and over, "You dirty dog! You dirty dog, dirty dog!" From a howled cry of fury, the shouting dropped away to resignation. Then staff and friends gently stepped in, with hushed voices to calm the situation. The shouter has left but the hushed voices remain.

So here I sit, post-lunch, writing these notes, piecing the morning together while the kitchen staff clatter dishes and someone whistles l Get By With A Little Help From My Friends. 

This morning we gave a workshop about ideas of suffering. It was a calculated risk I suppose you'd say. The homeless people who come into these sessions have often survived extraordinary life experiences. It's like meeting folk who've lived several times over. It seems only right to invite them to draw on that life experience in their creative work. 

Some definitions:

Suffering is learning to live.

Suffering is a lesson learnt by many people, one day at a time.

Heaven is recovery.

The risk, the downside, is that people might feel too exposed or intruded upon. For that reason, we always ask, never push - and always have a Plan B on offer. I invited the group to define first suffering, and then heaven. The pieces that they made were rewritten in large pieces of paper with brush and ink, encouraging people to think about the words in more depth. Next time they'll be cut and folded into books, further playing with the meaning. 

But here, in the big bright room, I write this project diary entry and I think about the morning.   

Heaven was created by those who haven't been to hell.

The Homeless Library is a project devised by arthur+martha to document the heritage of homelessness using interviews, artworks, poetry. It is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Illuminate me

The Homeless Library is an attempt to record the lived experience of homeless people, using interviews, poetry and artwork. Part of the Library is also this blog, a diary of our own everyday triumphs and disasters while we work. Here is January 14 2016, a poetry workshop at The Booth Centre.

Phil writes:

The weather is on the turn. As I cycle to the Booth Centre, pendulous grey clouds hang in the sky threatening snow. When I arrive the place is packed. I see Amanda on my way in and she explains that if there is a severe weather warning of three days or more they go into emergency measures to try to get rough sleepers off the streets and under a roof. Today the centre is not only a place for food and rehabilitation, it is also a lifeline to shelter. 

The canteen is dense with bodies. Everyone seems to be wearing dark clothes - ancient overcoats and denims and anoraks - further darkened by dampness. I feel as if I'm caught in some old black and white documentary about refugees. Colour has been sucked from people's skin; the expressions on familiar faces look odd because they are more etched. Someone nods over to a friend - "They found him sleeping in a park..." 

We set the tables upstairs for a poetry workshop. My assumption is that no one will be interested today, it's not the right moment. In fact a large band make their way wearily up the stairs, sit down and look at me expectantly. "Go on," says James, "illuminate me."

Phil and Lawerence

Sometimes the best thing we can offer to other human beings is a distraction. For the next two hours I deliver the best poetry workshop I’m capable of. Not because I'm particularly good, or inspired, or full of profoundity, but because today the need is particularly great. 

They work quietly and with massive concentration. I think I will always remember the quality of concentration in that room. Not a single argument, no one carping, no one playing the fool. It is with great dignity that they write, even with their bad spellings, bad educations, "bad" English, even when it is difficult to hold a pen in fingers disfigured by cold. 

I cannot think of a poem I have read in the last year that moved me as much as seeing writing happen in that room.

The Homeless Library project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund