Writing in Solitary

Necklace of Stars

Necklace of Stars writer Tony Shelton on writing and healing:

When my wife died after 50 years of marriage and five years of terminal decline, I resolved to rebuild my life. I moved, I joined, I volunteered, I explored, and I made new friends. I also made an effort to keep in touch with old ones and with distant family members. Then a news report emerged about a virus outbreak in an obscure city in China and the world changed. Looking back, I have always written, from student days onward and over the years I have tried short stories, even a novel, and poetry. For some years, I even wrote (amateur) music reviews and a few articles (some satirical) for professional journals. I enrolled for creative writing courses. I have researched and written about local history. In total, I have been paid about £150 for my efforts.

But now, in the eleventh month of being locked down and isolated and with almost all my other activities suspended, I have almost become a full- time writer. I sometimes used to imagine how I would cope with being imprisoned: I would ask for pen and paper and write, write, write. Now I am shut up, shut off, I am doing just that. Almost as soon as I have had breakfast, I open up the laptop and write. I scribble in a notebook, sometimes in the early hours of the morning, and ideas go in and around my head. On some days I write for 4-5 hours or more.

My writing is varied. I keep a diary of my experience under the Covid regime (now nearly 200,000 words long). I write emails, texts and WhatsApp messages to friends, new and old, both nearby and distant. I keep in touch with distant family members in the same way. And, to one old friend in the West Country, who doesn’t use email, I write and post letters. I have contributed to a University dream survey. I sometimes send in pieces to a creative writing group in Cumbria which I used to belong to. I have entered one or two competitions with no success. I also write very practical stuff as secretary and ‘scribe’ of a local charity, drafting policies and compiling an archive.

And thanks to the guidance of arthur+martha’s Necklace of Stars project, I have compiled a series of pieces on my childhood memories, some of the most rewarding writing of all.

I’ll not turn anything down if it gives me a chance to write. But I can’t write if no one is going to read it – that would be like a stand-up comic performing to an empty hall. But if a piece of writing is useful or that people might get something out of it, that is rewarding. I
like the idea of being a journeyman writer – able to turn my hand to almost anything. Writing is about communicating and is some compensation for not being able to meet and talking in a café or pub, visit people at home or entertain visitors. Writing gives me
challenges, it keeps my brain working, keeps me focussed, stops me thinking and brooding too much and passes the time like nothing else. At the moment, I have no idea what I would do without it…

Tony Shelton
February, 2021

A Necklace of Stars, working with older people in Derbyshire, is supported by Arts Council England, Arts DerbyshireDCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service. This project is particularly aimed at countering isolation; during the pandemic we’ve been working using distance methods – post and phone conversations.

Breaking News…

Necklace of Stars, Projects


The shortlist has been announced for the National Campaign for the Arts’ (NCA) Hearts For The Arts Awards 2021. The awards celebrate the unsung heroes of Local Authorities who are championing the arts against all odds. 

Derbyshire County Council has been nominated for Best Arts Project for Necklace of Stars – an embroidery and creative writing project set up to tackle the lack of person-to-person creative engagement opportunities for housebound individuals, with arts organisation arthur+martha.

This year’s winners will be selected from the shortlist by a judging panel of key arts industry experts and practitioners, including:

Le Gateau Chocolat, Drag artiste and cabaret performer

Paul Hartnoll, musician, composer, founder member of Orbital

Adrian Lester CBE, actor and director

Petra Roberts, Cultural Development Manager, Hackney Council (2020 winners for the Windrush Generations Festival)

Samuel West, actor, director, Chair of the National Campaign for the Arts

Despite the incredible hardships faced by Local Authorities in 2020, this year’s awards have seen the NCA receive a record-breaking number of nominations, as local communities turned to the arts for solace, strength and connectivity during the pandemic. 

Nominations were received from across the UK for each of the three award categories: Best Arts Project; Best Arts Champion – Local Authority or Cultural Trust Worker; and Best Arts Champion – Councillor.

The shortlist was judged by representatives from some of this year’s partners in the awards: Culture Counts; Wales Council for Voluntary Action; Local Government Association; National Campaign for the Arts; and Voluntary Arts Wales.

Discussing Derbyshire’s nomination Hearts for the Arts Award partners said about Necklace of Stars:

“This is an inspirational project that has supported an extremely vulnerable group of individuals, made more vulnerable by COVID-19. It has clearly given participants purpose and focus, helping to reduce loneliness and mental ill health. The way the project adapted to provide one-to-one support to individuals remotely during lockdown is impressive and we were struck by the strong partnerships across a range of partners that allowed the project to expand its impact by signposting participants to other services”. 

The winners of the Hearts for the Arts Awards 2021 will be announced on Valentine’s Day, 14th February. 

The National Campaign for the Arts present the Hearts for the Arts Awards each year. The awards are delivered by the NCA, in partnership with Culture Counts; the Local Government AssociationThriveUK TheatreVoluntary Arts WalesWales Council for Voluntary Action.

For more information on the shortlisted nominees visit forthearts.org.uk/campaigns/hearts-for-the-arts/

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Notes to editors:

  • Hearts For The Arts is a National Campaign for the Arts initiativedelivered in partnership with Culture Counts; the Local Government Association; Theatre NI, Thrive NI; We Are Voluntary Arts Wales, Wales Council for Voluntary Action.
  • The National Campaign for the Arts (NCA) is a charity and independent campaigning organisation, run by a board of volunteer trustees. They campaign for more investment in the arts, to improve the lives of everyone; and they champion those who make that happen. forthearts.org.uk

The Magic in Blueberry Wood

Necklace of Stars
A midnight walk in Blueberry Wood, when I perchance did hear
The sound of playful laughter, a ringing in my ear.
While glow worms twinkled in the trees, and spiders webs were spun
I held my breath and hid myself, to watch the evenings fun.  
The fire burned so brightly in a perfect fairy ring
Whilst sitting on a fallen log three tiny mice did sing.

Moths and bats and fireflies joined forces in the air 
Whilst far below a feast, fit for a King was being prepared.
Wild flowers scattered on the ground, true love this night was surely found
A marriage witnessed silently, from where I hid behind my tree.
This wondrous sight should not be seen.. The marriage of a Fairy Queen.

All the woodland creatures came out to join the fun.
Ants and woodlice scurried about, no tiny soul had been left out.
Foxes, Badgers, Hedgehogs, in their time to hunt, not play
joined in the celebration, before the moonlight stole away.

Mystical worlds we only dream of, but this secret I shall save 
and with me when my life is done, shall be taken to my grave.

Jenny P

A Necklace of Stars, working with older people in Derbyshire, is supported by Arts Council England, Arts DerbyshireDCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service. This project is particularly aimed at countering isolation; during the pandemic we’ve been working using distance methods – post and phone conversations.

Here Comes the Sun

Here Comes the Sun, Projects, quilts, Whisper to me alone

The Here Comes the Sun quilt hangs on my studio wall, it’s nearly complete, 3 hems to be stitched, a hanging system to be devised, a bit more stitching, more colour to balance the composition. It’s now time to pause, to reflect on this unique and wonderful project, to thank everyone whose joined in and to share. It takes time for me to write, for ideas to percolate. There has been much learning, some heartache and lots of joy with this project. I’m splitting my reflections into parts, so as not to overwhelm. So here I start at the beginning.

(artist Lois Blackburn)

Detail, Amy Rubin’s embroidered sun. “How exquisites is the beauty of an ordinary day.”

Bringing of people together through creativity. 

Phil and I working as arthur+martha have always aimed to breakdown boundaries through the arts;  to bring people together, forge a greater understanding of each other, share experiences. However previous projects have been limited to one sector of society, for example: older people, people living with dementia, people with experience of homelessness, war widows, carers…  This project gave us a unique opportunity to bring everyone together, without hierarchies, without labels.  

Drawing, anon (from Back on Track) and Embroidery, Sara Scott, Volunteer.

How we worked

We invited people from across the globe to make embroidery and write a short piece of poetic text for a new quilt, Here Comes the Sun. It was open to everyone,  wherever people lived, whether they regularly make art, or haven’t picked up needle and thread since school, everyone was welcome.

The project researched and developed new ways of working for artist Lois Blackburn during the Covid 19 pandemic. It built on the learning from recent project War Widows’ Quilt,  and current project Necklace of Stars. It looks and prepares for an uncertain future.

Lois’s first goal was to engage a cross section of people in the project, from many parts of the world and many backgrounds, then from this participant group, build a team of volunteers to stitch on behalf of those who were struggling. Lois started by spreading invites to join in the project via social media and the web, and targeting groups that have previously worked with us, such as War Widows. 

The interest and take up was fast and enthusiastic. Approximately half way through the project, due to time and financial restrictions, Lois stopped promoting the project to new participants, as she didn’t have the capacity for more contributions to the project. 

Detail of Here Comes the Sun, work in progress

In figures

130 embroidery squares have been created

28 embroidery squares were made by volunteers 

18 new volunteers

37 drawings/paintings/designs were made by people with experience of homelessness

11 embroideries where stitched by people with experience of homelessness/or struggling with economic hardship. 

Paul holding his embroidered sun.


Suns, are a symbol of alchemy. It represents life, influence and strength. It symbolizes energy, power, growth, health, passion and the cycle of life in many cultures and religions throughout time. In Egyptian culture, a winged sun disc symbol stood for protection. The Egyptians also worshiped the sun god Ra. In 20th century pop culture, the sun gives superhuman strength to comic book hero Superman. Such strength allows him to protect and rescue people in danger.

Particularly important during the crisis, for many of our participants and audience members, it’s a symbol of joy and hope. 

“Beautiful piece of work and I love the connotations of the sun shining again.” Julie New, Personal Recovery Coach

The sun theme of the quilt and poetry is easy for everyone to understand. Yet if can be interpreted in countless different ways. Each of our 130 embroideries are unique. 

We offered people the option of embroidering someone’s name on the quilt. This raises questions about remembrance, personal and national, the idea of a Covid time capsual. It also raises questions about how we give support, grief, hope. 

Liam is my 15 year old son. I have suffered badly with my mental health over the years and the lockdown has made my condition worse. He is my inspiration to keep battling on everyday. He is in year 11 and is one of the children that will not take exams, I have found that his attitude to this and everything that is thrown at him is exceptional. I am so proud of him.


‘Liam’ embroidered onto a sun by Julie

I haven’t embroidered a single name on it as so many people have done so much over this period. I wanted it to be inclusive of the people who have done simple gestures which have improved my days immeasurably. Such as someone smiling reassuringly from across the road, the post people still working and bringing supplies, my colleagues who have set tasks and set up groups to inspire and entertain whilst we are furloughed. The hospital staff who did my tests despite being in the height of the pandemic.

Deborah Louise Partington

Here Comes the Sun, is part of the project WHISPER TO ME ALONE, and is supported by Arts Council England. Partners include The Booth Centre,  Back on Track, Bury Art Museum and Arts and Homelessness International.

Hi all, hope you’re doing well.

A Book of Ours, Projects

Today blog for our project BOOK OF OURS, the medieval-style manuscript book, is written and illustrated with photos by the Booth Centre volunteer Sue Dean. She writes from the perspective of both a volunteer and participant.

Mondays with the arthur+martha group returned this week to the designs around the edging of the book, and to teach those who wanted to try Calligraphy. Several people wanted to continue with their partial complete designs around the edges for the book. Some expressed an interest in the beautiful designer writings of Calligraphy, while those who chose to continue their book designs were fairly quiet in concentration, asking few questions and mostly carefully bringing their imagined design to life.

We had pictures of insects, bugs and beautiful winged creatures to base our ideas on. The almost silent deep concentration was palpable. Meanwhile for those who chose the Calligraphy soon found this was much harder to master than imagined from the swooshing ease of pen strokes by the actual Calligrapher Stephen Raws. One or two mastered the basic idea and produced some excellent first attempts. For others it was much more difficult and not as expected from watching the Calligrapher write initially. Overall a quiet calm class with many happy faces at the work completed. 

The BOOK OF CHANGES project is funded by the Heritage Emergency Fund, supporting homeless and vulnerable people to participate in making the arthur+martha illuminated manuscript BOOK OF OURS. This project is partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

If you go out in the woods tonight

Necklace of Stars

A tale of frustrated villainy by Richard Owen

The wood had awoken to its usual night activity. There were scurryings up and down trees, calls of owls, snuffling and rummaging in the undergrowth; but even on this night, when the full moon cast its light and shade into the less impenetrable corners, the living sources of these sounds remained unseen. Only the trees seemed to be visibly alive, their knotted eyes following every movement, guarding the secrets of the night, warning off the unwary.

Big Bad Wolf sniffed his way along the floor of the wood

Watched by cautious onlookers up in the branches, Big Bad Wolf sniffed his way along the floor of the wood. He had a lot on his mind, so he was oblivious of the rustling of rabbits darting across the clearings and badgers digging in the roots. He followed the same path every night, pausing for thought at the same places. Things were not the same any more, not since the predatory animals had suffered a series of humiliations. He would habitually stop at the clearing where the third little pig had built his house of brick, the place where his grandfather had gained entry down the chimney and been boiled in a pot. He moved on to the cottage where his great uncle had almost got the better of Little Red Riding Hood, only to be foiled at the last moment.

He would often muse on the fact that it wasn’t only the wolf pack that had suffered from the schemes of lesser beings. He would come to another clearing and the mouth of the cave where Goldilocks, porridge thief and squatter, had taken advantage of the hospitality of the absent Bear family, but at least they had managed to catch her in Baby Bear’s bed. How she managed to escape was a mystery to all the woodland.

The Troll slept fitfully, his snores mingling with the resounding croaking of hidden frogs

On this particular night the Wolf made his usual stop at the rickety bridge under which the Troll slept fitfully, his snores mingling with the resounding croaking of hidden frogs in the little stream. He still had nightmares about the amount of time he had had to consider the wisdom of challenging Big Billy Goat Gruff as he described an elegant arc over his rickety bridge.

So while the woodland creatures went about their routines in disembodied anonymity, Big Bad Wolf sat on the rickety bridge, musing on the smug mockery of the Billy Goats Gruff, the Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, the Three Bears, not to mention various huntsmen and woodcutters; and he listened to the pathetic somnolent ramblings of the Troll, a plan began to form in his mind. Why should these fairytale upstarts always win?

As he sat looking at the rickety bridge in the moonlight he noticed it was on the point of collapse, concealing a future nasty accident. And he thought how the woods held many dangers for the unwary and unprepared. There were paths overhung by branches from which things could fall; the same paths were criss-crossed by roots and fallen vegetation; there were hidden holes dug out by foraging paws and noses, many of them hidden by fallen leaves.

Big Bad Wolf considered the hazards of the wood and how it might be possible to harness them to reassert the rightful hierarchy of woodland life. It was time to restore the natural order of things. He picked his way down the stony bank of the stream and crawled under the rickety bridge. He prodded the Troll who awoke noisily and bad temperedly.

“I thought we might pay a visit to Daddy Bear,” suggested Big Bad Wolf by way of apology.
“I’ve got one or two ideas I’d like to run past you both.”

A Necklace of Stars, working with older people in Derbyshire, is supported by Arts Council England, Arts DerbyshireDCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service. This project is particularly aimed at countering isolation; during the pandemic we’ve been working using distance methods – post and phone conversations. Lorna’s poem started with one of these telephone discussions.


Necklace of Stars, poetry
 I’m a path of light across your room,
 up the wall, into the mirror and out again
 through the open window, into the garden

 now a negative, shadow on shadow on black.
 I’ll sit on a branch with the owl, show him
 the hummocking mole, slip in and out between trees -

 I’m a flitter, a flibbertigibbet, play hide-and-seek
 with your certainties. On the twenty-eighth day I’ll be gone,
 your world will turn black , you’ll walk into a door,

 stub your toe in the darkness, and the owl will call,
 a lunatic cry, from the asylum up on the hill,
 night after night. But if you look out, look up

 you’ll see my new crescent, delicate, small
 in the overall blackness, a fragile sign -
 and you’ll know I’m on my way back.

 Lorna Dexter 24.10.20

“This poem came out of a prompt from Philip, suggesting we write a lie
about some solid heavenly body – the sun, moon, stars, Milky Way, etc.
Although I love the sun, thrive on its heat, come alive in the summer, the
moon’s phases have always had a strong effect on me, altering my hormone
levels every month. At full moon I’m speedy and active and wakeful,
sometimes not sleeping at all. At the dark of the moon I’m dozy, depressed,
with no energy, bumping into things.

“In his prompt, Philip had used the word ‘flibbertigibbet’, which I love, for its
complexity, the music of its repetitions and its silliness. I looked up its history
and it means ‘foolish woman, talking nonsense’ – so I had to incorporate that !
Which probably led me to instinctively give the Moon that voice, talking to me.
Of course the moon’s changeability is not a lie exactly, it’s just the way the
relationship between the sun, moon and earth, three very solid ‘realities’, seems
to us from our shadowed position on earth, only one of several realities.

“So this poem includes all my feelings about the moon – its strange transforming
light at the full; its very real effect still on my body and mind, no longer a
menstruating woman; and her apparent changeability.

“I live in the country, and my bedroom looks out on the garden, with big pine
trees beyond the wall, where the owl sits and calls, and I have a wide view of
the night sky, so the scene in the poem is very real, not a lie at all!”

Lorna Dexter

A Necklace of Stars, working with older people in Derbyshire, is supported by Arts Council England, Arts DerbyshireDCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service. This project is particularly aimed at countering isolation; during the pandemic we’ve been working using distance methods – post and phone conversations. Lorna’s poem started with one of these telephone discussions.


A pandemic epic

poetry, Whisper to me alone

#WhisperToMeAlone is a twitter stream of pandemic poems and songs, which give tiny glimpses of homeless and vulnerable lives, in rooms, on streets, isolated in hotels…

Phil Davenport and songwriter Matt Hill have worked with homeless and vulnerable people since May, to make the WHISPER poems and songs, over the course of many phone calls. The songs include recordings of phone calls, impromtu performances and snatched conversations.

“These conversations have gradually turned into a wide ranging poem of many voices, many experiences combining into a remarkable song cycle. All of WHISPER is full of life, full of humour and determination, in the face of this disease. And it’s inspiring, it’ll give any reader or listener the strength to keep on and learn from what’s happening around us. Sometimes life’s biggest lessons come from unusual teachers.” (Phil Davenport)

(Main image – Manchester street art, photographed by Sue Dean)

The project will be tweeted on 15 October and exhibited at Bury Art Museum next year, alongside an an embroidered quilt stitched with participants’ words HERE COMES THE SUN.

Poems, art and songs from WHISPER TO ME ALONE will be tweeted daily at from 15 October onward at https://twitter.com/whisper2mealone

WHISPER TO ME ALONE is funded by Arts Council England and partnered with The Booth Centre and Back on Track in Manchester. Photography throughout the twitter poem is by Sue Dean. Other contributors include members of the Inspiring Change Manchester group, associated with SHELTER, and MASH (a charity providing non-judgemental services to women working in the sex industry). Visual tweets were designed by the poets Tom Jenks and Nathan Williams.

Philip Davenport is a poet who co-directs the arthur+martha organisation with artist Lois Blackburn. For the last decade they’ve collaborated with Manchester’s homeless community. During the pandemic WHISPER TO ME ALONE has resulted in poems, songs and an embroidered quilt. Matt Hill is a songwriter who explores people’s experiences to co-write songs — with prisoners, asylum seekers, people experiencing homelessness, and others.

With royal approval…

Necklace of Stars, poetry

“As patron of the Queens Nursing Institute, Her Majesty thanks you so much for your poignant verses…”

(Letter from the Queen’s Lady-in-Waiting Philippa DePass)

We are delighted that Necklace of Stars poet Neil Sessions has been commended by Buckingham Palace for his poem giving tribute to NHS nurses during the pandemic. It was the first poem he read to Phil in their first Necklace of Stars phone conversations – and now his work bears the seal of royal approval. Phil’s notes from the cheery conversation give a flavour of Neil’s mood: “Royal consent! But I’m not going to be big headed about it. I’m biting my lip as I tell you…”

NHS nurses

I call you little angels
That shone so bright
As you stood by your patients
On those warm summer nights

Words have no meaning
As life was slipping by
But there was love and compassion
As the nights whispered by

May each nurse remember
How they helped them
Slip into that heavenly night
With their last breath we all say good night.

This is why you carry a halo
So you can shine some more
To help all the sick people
That need your love and warmth.

Thank you
God bless you all.

Neil Sessions
Example of a Royal Seal, from the previous Elizabeth.

“I’m very uplifted to be acknowledged by the Queen for this poem, it’s a big honour. The poem has appeared in newspapers and magazines and online and all sorts. It is my way of thanking the nurses who look after us all. They bring you into the world and it’s often a nurse who holds your hand when you finally say goodbye. Many people who’ve had Covid describe the nurses as angels. This poem is meant for the nurses who don’t hear the NHS clapping or words of thanks – because they’re still too busy working. It’s passing on appreciation, from the heart. I’ve put a lot of heart into my poems because I’ve needed to, its my way of finding release and of reaching out to people.”


A Necklace of Stars, working with older people in Derbyshire, is supported by Arts Council England, Arts DerbyshireDCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service. This project is particularly aimed at countering isolation; during the pandemic we’ve been working using distance methods – phone conversations and post.

The feel good factor

Here Comes the Sun, Projects, quilts, Whisper to me alone

Hands sanitised, masks on, socially distanced, we sat and talked, we all took small steps together out of lock-down, a lock down state of mind as much as a physical one. ‘S’ explained how nervous she’d been coming in on the bus, going into the unknown- for all of us, it was the first time in a group workshop for many months.

Phil and I have enjoyed keeping busy working since the beginning of lock down, connecting with people, finding ways to support creativity via postal packs, the phone, and on-line. Today was something different, something very special, creating work for the collaborative quilt ‘Here Comes the Sun’, part of the Whisper to Me Alone project. The host venue was Back on Track, it’s an inspirational Manchester charity that supports people who have been homeless or had mental health problems.

Our theme is the sun, a symbol of hope and re-starts, of warmth and comfort, of gift giving, as one participant described; “The feel good factor”.

A seemingly innocent and simple theme, it still leaves plenty of room for the imagination: “You don’t see dawn in the city, you don’t see sunrises, the blocks get in the way.”

Then the joy of putting our ideas onto paper started, the artistic play. I took in one of my favourite materials, oil pastels and ‘Brusho’. Brusho is a fabulous highly pigmented watercolour powder, you mixed with water, or sprinkle. The magic of creativity with your hands soon took over, creating a hushed room, heads down concentrating, the outside world disappeared.

20 fabric packs were laid out for our group to choose from. One at a time we walked with favourite paintings in hand to find the fabrics that matched the colours, texture and mood of the paintings. One of the group had experience of embroidery, the others- this was something new.

There is something beautiful about the simplest of stitches, running stitch, it’s where most of us start off when we learn to sew, it’s probably the stitch that you started with at school. When you’ve got the right needle and a rhythm going, there is something almost mediative in the repetitive nature of stitching. Then comes; choosing colours, textures, thread thickness, stitch size, pattern- when written down or spoken these creative decisions are complex, however when we make them, they are often instinctive.

The group left with their hands full of threads, fabric and paintings, and full intentions to return in a few weeks for our follow up session. Returning to share and celebrate their sun embroideries, and welcome new participants to the making of Here Comes the Sun.

Thank you so much to everyone who came along to my first group session of Here Comes the Sun, and to Back on Track, who as ever made me feel so welcome, and everything so easy for me.

Lois Blackburn

Here Comes the Sun is part of the project WHISPER TO ME ALONE. It gathers words and art from people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown, using journals of writing, art and song lyrics and phone conversations. The poems, songs and artworks will be launched as a twitter poem later in September. Supported by Arts Council England, partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.