“X was sleeping rough last night, came in here soaking and shivering. You can’t solve all of people’s life problems but you can give them a chance for just being. Just sitting and being. That’s what I saw him do today in the workshop, he was writing a poem, but also sitting quietly with his thoughts. Looking around a little, listening. Being a person.”
(Karen, Project Worker at The Booth Centre)
These images are pages from a book made by people who have experienced homelessness, and/or had mental health problems. A BOOK OF OURS holds within it life events, celebrations and memorials, wishes, prayers and curses. Dreams.
The style of the book is based on medieval manuscripts known as Books of Hours. The first section is the calendar, other sections include the prayer cycle Hours of the Virgin and the memorial Office of the Dead.
Over the last six months the Book of Ours project has grown into a wide-ranging exploration of history, of self, of what it means to be heard — and what it means to be ignored. It is a statement to say, “we are here.”
“The workshops, making the illuminated manuscript, have been the favourite thing I’ve done here at Back on Track. For me they’ve meant more than anything else, they’ve put me in touch with my own history. These memories stirred up and made new.”
We chose medieval manuscripts to give us a form, and to inspire us because they’re among the first history books, and this is the beginning of homeless history in a written form. Medieval manuscripts were the property of influential people, decorated with rich colours and goldlettering. We want to give this history the same treatment, make it the kind of book you can’t ignore. It’s a next step on from our history of British homelessness The Homeless Library in 2016 and links to projects such as The Museum of Homelessness.
The calendar pages are intricate tellings of the significant life events of nearly 100 people, intertwined with imagery and symbolism. It is a catalogue of tiny events, at first glance. Every day is a line of six words; read together they make a year-long poem that is a multi-voiced telling of the lives of groups. It is plum-full of the little things that make life rich with human encounters. Birthdays, weddings, the birth of children, falling in love. It also tells the story of sadder life events: bereavement, illness, addiction, violence. And yes, people commemorate the times they became homeless. They also talk with great power about the help they’ve received, especially from our host venues the Booth Centre and Back on Track.
All of the workshops start with a table loaded with prints of illuminated manuscripts from different world cultures. We also bring in information and workshop exercises that are full of references to mediaeval illuminated manuscripts. Whether it is writing or creating art, all of the making is in dialogue with this rich heritage, which reaches back hundreds of years. It also connects to more contemporary culture, with the influence of graffiti shining strongly on the work and the echo of poets like Charles Reznikoff.
A significant partner in the project is the John Rylands Library in Manchester, which hosted a highly successful research trip, designed for participants to encounter original manuscripts that are hundreds of years old. The group were not only intellectually engaged, but also moved, in some cases to tears.
“I work from my heart and soul. That’s why I get so tired, I put everything in. Everyone has their own reasons for joining in and for leaving… with lots of different things happening at once – poems, drawing, writing, calligraphy, a wide variety. Like us.”
This passion shows itself again and again — for making, for sharing, for diving deep into the art and the poems. Each page contains delight in colour, in wordplay, in storytelling and in turning the vast (and sometimes traumatic) life experience of everyone sitting around the table into a document that is as varied as the makers.
“I’ve got my wild days. But here I’m chilled out and I let the quiet in.”
Rich in colour and detail, full of compassion, but also shot through with despair, with anger, sometimes incoherent, sometimes speaking in tongues of fire. It’s an extraordinary experience to witness this book come together. Moments of gentleness and reflection sometimes erupt into fury, or weeping, or laughter. And the pages bear so many tales, bare so many souls, it’s a book that needs repeated readings, to fully take it in. And to get an inkling of the many layers of significance. We’ll end with this observation from Karen our regular project worker at The Booth Centre:
“One of the men sat next to me, he’s got a lot of things going on, sleeping on the streets at the moment. He’s had an amazing day. You could see how relaxed he was, how focussed… What you’re getting in this session is people who never join anything, ever. It is brilliant to see them getting involved, and it has a knock-on effect on how they engage with other services here and start rebuilding their lives, letting in the positive.”
(Karen, Project Worker, The Booth Centre)
A BOOK OF OURS is supported by the HLF. Our hope is that this project helps to show the individuality of people who are sometimes dismissed as “homeless” when they are so much more.