On a day of sorrow

Necklace of Stars

Making poems by phone during the pandemic

Phil Davenport

“I think it’s helped me deal with lockdown. It’s helped me sound out what I’m thinking. I’ve been chasing a little flicker of understanding. Trying to think and digest and let it filter in. Or else you drown in your own thoughts, don’t you? If you’re left alone with them too long.” M, participant quote

Necklace of Stars was a project designed to reach out to isolated older people in Derbyshire, with home visits to make poems and art. But when the pandemic started at the same time the project launched, the whole thing was at risk of being cancelled. It took a few deep gulps to move the project from face-to-face workshops to working over the phones. Now the home visits wouldn’t occur — but would phone workshops be anything like a substitute, for participants and for me? 

With poems, we question, reflect and reconstruct ourselves. They’re an internal communication, with the self. They are also a messenger sent out to the world to say “I am here”. They tell stories, histories, fantasies, truths and lies; poems can strip away illusions, or pile up mysteries— sometimes all in the same verse. Poems have been around a long time, for good reason, however they’re usually considered to be a luxury. In lockdown, poems became part of the rescue package. 

Being alone is not a bad thing per se — it’s only by spending periods diving into your internal world that you’ll find space to hear yourself and find time for that voice, once formed, to be articulated. Spare time was forced on us in 2020, so this was a great opportunity to write. Learning to write is partly about learning the art of solitude. To make things that require time and repay it with depth and resonance. In this way, perhaps the pandemic could be turned to advantage? 

The Necklace of Stars theme of childhood lullabies, stories and the night sky was a great stimulus for some of the writers:

“There is an aura off the starlight, it’s very powerful. It draws us to it, gives us peace and makes us feel our place. Now I’ve got the time I’m coming back to those questions. Instead of taking life for granted, I’m exploring it. Opening my eyes to the starlight. If you can’t see it, you can’t write a poem about it.” N, participant quote

But other people wanted a different kind of space. They needed to address what was going on in the world immediately around them and in their own heads: 

“Stories come into my head. All the different ways people have reacted to this time of isolation and shielding. Each of us has a different idea of how we can react to now and how we can rebel. I’m trying to write about how this situation affects each and every one of us. This project is about the stars leading us out of despair. Demonstrate or rebel, and then everyone knows you still exist.”

J, participant quote

The workshops were often customised to people’s individual needs and if possible I tried to build in progression and a sense of challenge. For some people talking and writing became a way to unburden, and a way to make sense of Covid. But the deal was struck that some of the work had to be frivolous and jokes were a necessity.

Being solitary meant that some aspects of life were magnified. Older people often carry grief, for lost partners and friends, and part of travelling into memory meant encountering these presences. But in the case of T as with several others, we then moved onto the memories of childhood for a minute exploration of that part of life.

“The virus makes you go into memory because the future is so uncertain... Writing takes a big chunk of my day, it’s very important to me just now. What am I writing? I’m living in the past, not the recent past which is full of grief for me, but the past of childhood. I’ve stepped beyond the grief and gone right back to something that’s relatively harmless. And going back to these memories helps me to know myself, I see aspects of the child that are in me today.”

T, participant quote

Out of these encounters came a wealth of deeply-felt writing. If you go to the arthur+martha blog you’ll find poems and testimonies there; a mirror of the moment. The emotional intensity of the work was part of the intensity of this time and it made the writing shine. It was wonderfully uplifting to witness people alchemising something bright out of this dark moment. Some poems were modest little meditations on the garden, the neighbourhood, yet they were a big refuge. Here, seen on a local river:

Such a little duck,

holding her own in that strong current,

such determination to rid herself

of whatever was troubling her –

mud, weed, algae, parasites 

Minutes went by – then suddenly she stopped,

stood upright, shook off the last drops

from her feathers in a shower of light…

leaving a clearer space in my mind and eyes.

(From On a day of Sorrow, Lorna Dexter)

When I finally stopped in Spring 2021, I felt like I’d run a marathon — exhausted but also with a sense of achievement. In a grim year of lockdowns, fear and loneliness, this small glimmer showed itself. There’s a detailed evaluation of Necklace of Stars by researchers from Nottingham University and this independent evaluation showed that people benefitted from the calls. So did I — in this time of the plague, I was able to be useful, by means of (of all things) poetry.

This is a shortened version of an essay (also used for a case study) written by Phil Davenport for the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance www.culturehealthandwellbeing.org.uk

A Necklace of Stars is a meditation on childhood viewed from the other end of life. Alongside poems, songs and embroidery themed around childhood lullabies, we’ve invited written responses to the pandemic, so that people can share their experiences as an antidote to lockdown loneliness. 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.

The Good, the Bad and Covid

Necklace of Stars

Two Necklace of Stars writers share their thoughts on the pandemic.

First Jo:

The Good, the Bad and Covid

Strangers crossing the road to avoid passing me by. Social etiquette changed, no shaking hands or hugging and no standing next to someone you do not know. Throughout the world our perceptions have changed. The old normal is no longer relevant and new normal is here. It is one year now since the world has lived with Covid.

While I watch the news, questions arise in my head. Why were the Government slow to act?  Why too late in their actions ordering PPE?  Why no border controls for 12 months?  Why did they not follow medical evidence in February?  Why no strategy, or half-baked at best?  Why no explicit target on how to drive the virus out? No explanation on the failure in Track and Trace and the lack of disclosure or suppression of data. Scientists not challenging Government proposals when evidence suggests action needs taking immediately. U-turns in policies and non-action causes me to think the mistakes made amount to a state failure of mismanagement. My exasperation grows and a deep mistrust  surfaces within me.

But the Vaccine roll-out is a success.  The lockdowns caused by Covid gave me time to hope, to dream, to create and have time to act on my thoughts.  It gave me the space to finish tasks that needed completing, to breath fresh air and connect with nature.  I can pursue my hobbies cherish my family and friends.  I learnt of the caring and kindness of neighbours.  It allowed my imagination to wander to put my thoughts to paper and most all realise through the difficulties of 2020 — the human spirit is alive and well.

And now Lynn Ezea, and the summers ahead:

How have things changed? Trust has changed, because more is hanging on it. Some people can be trusted more than others. Some family members will stay safe within their bubble, some won’t — or can’t. For some people, the NHS is heroic, for others who couldn’t attend the death of relatives, they’ve lost trust in it. And what about trust in politicians? The politicians waited last year, trying to leave the difficult decisions ’til this year. A bigger lockdown could’ve happened a year ago. We have a Prime Minister who takes his time, but time is life. So many people have died in the hospitals. I’d be surprised if Covid has gone this year, what with the variants and the politicians.

My advice is to fill your mind with other things. Reading, writing, radio, TV. Go out if you can. People are dreaming of holidays, but that can’t be right now. The only thing you can possibly say is — it won’t last forever. Have hope – and look forward to the summers ahead…

Photo by Sue Dean

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. Alongside writing and embroidery themed around childhood lullabies, we invite written responses to the pandemic, so that people can share their experiences as an antidote to lockdown loneliness. The photos are by volunteer Sue Dean.

So this is Christmas

Necklace of Stars

Father Christmas sat at the table in his kitchen at his home in the North Pole.  He was despondent, worrying he would not be able to make Christmas the magical event it always is.

He turned to Mother Christmas, “Everybody thinks Christmas happens by magic.  No one realises the effort needed to make each one special.” He continued: “The Virus has severely reduced the production of toys , not helped by some elves having to self-isolate from their journeys.  I hated furloughing the elves, you saw how depressed they became without work.”

Mother Christmas nodded: “Yes dear, furloughing the elves was the hardest decision we ever made. With Elf School forced to close and students learning virtually from home, it made this year difficult to cope with. Although the elves were still able to look after the reindeers and baking of candy canes continued without interruption.”

“Then there is Rudolph,” Father Christmas exclaimed. “His red nose helps light the way when we are travelling the world, but if he is seen by others they may think he is suffering from the virus then Rudolph and the other
reindeers will be required to quarantine and the travel corridors will be closed to us. Christmas will be ruined if that happens.”

Mother Christmas quietly said: “The whole world has been suffering. There may not be as many toys but the little ones will know the struggle everyone has gone through. They will appreciate their presents even more and know the true value of Christmas. I am sure you will be allowed to travel across the sky. And no leader would want to cancel Christmas…”

Story by Jo

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.

How do we get through?

A Book of Ours, poetry

How do I survive? It’s a question that everyone has to face, at some point, especially in these plagued times. But people who have experienced homelessness, and the support networks around them, give a lot of thought to it. Perhaps some of their answers will be useful to you, right now. 

This workshop at the Booth centre asked people for their survival tips. They jotted down their answers and then read them the top of a backing chanted by everyone in the room: “How do we get through?” The first suggestion is in the word “we” – you need other people to help and in return help them.

I’m looking at the poems right now, with their shopping lists of survival. First, as Mr Darwin once suggested, you need to adapt, to change. Connect to the deeper forces of life – breathe, follow your instincts, find joy in the power of life. Look after your resources (food, friends, shelter, morale). Be careful whose “truth” you listen to. And most of all, create calm inside yourself so that panic doesn’t stop you thinking clearly.

The poems for the Book of Changes are developing into chanted songs, like the old mediaeval Gregorian chants but with more than a hint of contemporary rap music mixed in. The first two weeks of making A Book of Changes have centred on people’s personal experience, formed into poems. This week we worked together as a group, bound together by the music that we made, chanting, clapping, stamping, banging on objects. Glueing us all together was songwriter Matt Hill, in the Booth for the first time since February. 

Then we discover a talented rapper in our group and so we explore finding rhythm in our spoken words…

Matt: “Covid measures mean we aren’t allowed to sing inside. So instead we head back into history to the early Middle Ages when monophonic chanting was the music of the moment. Our monotone voices chanting in unison, with no harmony or melody, suddenly seem relevant and powerful. The repetition of the phrase “How do we get through?” adds weight to this important question. Then we discover a talented rapper in our group and so we explore finding rhythm in our spoken words.”

For me, the whole session was shot through with many tiny moments of intimacy and tenderness. I was deeply moved to hear our support worker Harriet’s words, which felt like they’d been offered many times, in many desperate moments: “Just make it through the next 5 minutes. The 5 minutes after will be easier. I promise.” 

Perhaps most beautiful and mysterious of all were the instructions on survival given in Polish, Lithuanian and Finnish languages. I don’t speak any of those tongues, but the magic of the sounds seemed to suggest many meanings, many possibilities, and although we translated them to English, the words themselves hummed with a different music…

Volunteer Sue Dean took the photos and made these notes about the workshop: “An uplifting session. We started with learning to clap a basic beat. Then putting a word at the start and end of the beat, but continuing it in a round. The group enjoyed hearing a beat form from their own hands. An upturned plastic box was used for a drum, and a mandolin for the riff. We then wrote small poems or lyrics of experiences or memories. The whole group clapped and sang the basic beat while individual lyrics were recorded. The group music-making was a massive success – people still chattering about it over dinner and as they left. Shakespeare – if music be the food of love play on!”   

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.


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.

Writing in the Year of the Plague

Necklace of Stars, poetry

Tony Shelton, the author of our previous blog A-Z of Childhood, describes how to write yourself out of lockdown.

An inveterate and incurable itch for writing besets many and grows old with their sick hearts.
Juvenal, Satires.

Writing…is but a different name for conversation. 
Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy

Writing, I explained, was mainly an attempt to out argue one’s past; to present events in such a light
that lost in life as either won on paper or held to a draw. 
Jules Feiffer, Ackroyd.

All these quotes (from books I have never read, I’m afraid) have some truth in them for me.

Ever since the age of six or so, when I was praised by Miss Puttock for writing a piece about my electric train set and managed to spell ‘electricity’, I have written, mainly because I had to. For most of my life writing involved essays, exam answers, official reports and memos but I even enjoyed those (well, not the exams perhaps). It was the craft that appealed to me: of finding the rights words, putting them in the right order and editing them. Creative writing began at a time when work seemed to dominate my life and I developed an itch to write the ‘novel of the century’. I started with a WEA evening class in Leeds and in the latter stages of work began to jot down ideas during dull meetings. I wrote humorous articles for professional magazines. I managed to have two stories and a few short pieces read on the radio but it wasn’t until early retirement that writing really took off. I wrote my work memoirs, to get it all out of my head. I researched a local history book which sold out and discovered the huge kick of finding people enjoyed what I had written, fan letters and requests for signings, even!

Then, when my wife and I retired to Cumbria, we both joined a U3A creative writing group and, after a year or two, I found that I liked writing poetry, really playing with words and tweaking them to fit. She did, too, and for a few years we wrote separately but together, commenting on each other’s work and enjoying it. You could say she was my audience, my muse (and I hers). Now she has gone and for three years I have been trying to regain my
desire to write, to find a new motivation.

And then came the virus and the lockdown and my shielded isolation and an almost total absence of face-to-face conversation. I no longer have any of my old interest in drawing and painting, I am no good with my hands and my knees put me off long walks but my need to write is now acute and it is a need, almost an addiction. Bread and butter writing – emails, texts and so on – has been a kind of substitute and writing a diary of my life for a future
archive makes me write something every day but these do not require the craft of poetry or fiction or the intensity of concentration which keeps out sad memories and self-recrimination. It does not give me that kick – of making a reader or listener amused or moved. I have never written for myself: like a stand-up comic I need an audience, one person will do. And I sometimes need another kind of kick – the motivation to write, the suggestion, the deadline, the prospect of a reaction, no matter how critical, because I still want to learn, to improve.

The Necklace of Stars project has now provided all that for me and, once again, ideas are coming into my mind demanding to be jotted down on scraps of paper and in notebooks. Guided by a tutor, I am learning again and finding new ways of writing. The project has nudged me into writing down memories of the dull but strange world of my suburban London childhood and the increasingly odd members of my family. Many new or long-forgotten memories have emerged as if called to action.

I used to imagine my grandchildren coming up to me in the garden and asking: ‘Grandad, what was school like when you were a little boy?’ or ‘Tell me again about the time when you…’ They never have done. Maybe children don’t actually do that at all, maybe it’s an advertising fantasy dreamed up to sell Werther’s Originals. So, this memory project is a kind of substitute. More important, recording childhood memories has pushed to one side the darker memories of the last few years, of my wife’s decline and death. I did write about those years and my experience of caring for her, trying to set it all to rest, to prevent all the ‘what ifs’ going round and round to no purpose.

I am now convinced that writing can be therapeutic. But it should also be enjoyable and good for one’s mental wellbeing. If possible, it should provide a positive sense of identity, helping you to think ‘I am a writer’, even if you now know you will never write the novel of the century. Writing for the project is now helping with all those things. I am sure it has certainly helped my mental health. And writing, as I am now, about childhood memories is making me feel a little more ‘interesting’, helping me value my life more. It is helping me to start to understand about how my character was formed in my early years.

Writing is once again helping me get up in the morning (well, most mornings), and, in the most basic sense, filling the time like nothing else. I have plenty of time to fill.

Tony Shelton

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.

Channel 70

poetry, Whisper to me alone

Dream I’m still a kid
Wish I was but
You do the best you can mate
That’s what I say
You’re playing a video game
Called life
Level 8

Go round the corner from trouble &
Don’t give up’s what I say
Word of advice mate, it’s a gift:
A toy car, a cowboy gun
Bubble-blowing set
(Best thing I got for Xmas ever)
Sometimes I dream it &

Dream I’m still a kid
Wish I was, but
Living in Hotel Whatsit now
The name’s on my prescription. There
You can dream the past, go on son!
It’s telly in your head
Course I do, still dream

Of being Superman, Bionic Man
Love my dreams me
In my dreams, always no socks or shoes
In my dreams, trying to run

In my dreams
someone’s chasing & they’ll
beat you fuckin up mate
In slo-mo
In horror dreams on Channel 70, Level 8
Fall off a cliff & wake before you hit the
Deck of the deck of the deck of
Smoking sly behind bike sheds
Of school
Of being
In care.

They’re good aren’t they mate
Having them dreams?


Photo Sue Dean, 2020

This poem was dictated by Paul to Phil, at the Booth Centre 19 August 2020. The treated photograph is by Sue Dean, taken on her mobile phone. WHISPER TO ME ALONE 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. Supported by Arts Council England, partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

During the first lockdown the Booth Centre ran an advice drop-in and accommodated people under the Everyone In scheme. At 11am every day they ran a Facebook activity session to combat isolation, which included the arthur+martha WHISPER TO ME ALONE 2-minute poetry videos.

Earthbound delights

Necklace of Stars, poetry

Necklace of Stars participant Pam describes the story of her poem Sweet Space — and the positive impact of writing poems during lockdown:

Sweet Space

The Milky Way tastes of whizz bangs and pops.
Flying saucers trail streams of sherbet.
We ape cocktail sophisticates, posing
red-dipped tips of sweet cigarettes,
aimed skyward into
all sorts dreams and liquorice night.

The universe spangles with sweetness,
a kali rainbow poured into twisted
paper cones for wet finger dips.
We are freewheeling space cowgirls, licking
the chocolate edges off our wagon wheels,
dib dabbing fingers in the sherbert fountain,
bite a galaxy of hopes and dreams out of this sugar mountain.

Home safe in Grandma’s warmlit kitchen,
Grandad shows us how to lift the dumpling out of our stew,
a craggy meteor rolling in a puddle of treacle.

Pam Butler

How have I felt about the Necklace of Stars project during lockdown? A friend told me about this project combining poetry and embroidery – two of my favourite things! I was thrilled when I found there would be space for me to join. I already write and belong to an informal poetry group as well as doing a class once a fortnight. But my class had moved to Zoom and my poetry group were trying to communicate by email, which was nothing like as much fun. Every one of us wrote a Lockdown poem that month.

But then Lockdown went on. I went from being a busy, sociable, active member of my community to being a shielded ‘old person’. I became an old person, I couldn’t even do my own shopping. There was no one to talk to – and when we did meet out dog walking, once we had checked everyone was ok, there wasn’t much else to say. We were all in the same boat, nothing was happening.

So it was lovely to meet an interesting, delightful new person in Philip (even if only via the phone). It was fun to be given interesting and challenging creative tasks to do – fun being in very short supply in Lockdown. I started with a list of 8 random word-pairings and fitting them into a poem was an enjoyable word puzzle. Then I did another puzzle, the HAPPY acrostic. I filled my notebook with word lists and scribblings. It was so encouraging to talk to Philip and get a positive responsive to the poems and share a mutual enjoyment of wordplay. I’m not short of entertainment, but the tone of life was very flat so the weekly conversations were something to look forward to. It was very enlivening having something to report – when every day was so much like another – and someone to report it to.

At first I wasn’t much taken with the Milky Way idea of a poem – to be honest, neither Milky Way (too sickly) nor Mars Bar (no crunch) are sweets I enjoy and they weren’t around when I was a young child so I have no emotional attachment to them, although I do still fall for a Galaxy now and then.

I did a little bit of freewriting, trying to find a way in to the poem, then spent a whole week thinking back to my small childhood (under 10) and quickly went back in memory to the corner shop my grandma and then my aunt ran in Denholme in Yorkshire. My father was in the army and we were stationed in Germany and Malaya (as it was then) so my memories of my grandparents are few but intense. I have vivid memories of the shop – dark and full of smells from the bacon slicer and everything else from candles to shoe polish. I wasn’t allowed in when it was open, but could wander in behind the counter from the back kitchen when it was closed and the blinds were down. I got such a telling off when I tried to be helpful and polished the rank of wonderful brass weights for the scales. It was explained to me quite forcefully that I could have rubbed off the brass and got my Auntie Gladys thrown in jail for giving short measure!

Grandad in the back kitchen sitting with us and showing my brother and me how to take the dumpling
out of our stew, put it on a side plate and then pour golden syrup (which he called treacle) over it and have it for pudding – a strange, only-Grandad activity like drinking Black Beer, keeping pigeons and playing snooker. We always left the shop with a good selection of sweets and I did love kali and sherbert. We both faked being grown ups with sweet cigarettes, little cylinders of sugar paste with a red tip.

Wagon Wheels came a bit later, when we lived in Manchester and an ice cream van came every Sunday in summer into our little cul-de-sac and the whole streetful of kids would dash out and queue up. The Corona pop man came as well, but Dandelion and Burdock are much more earthbound delights.

Pam Butler, writing about the Necklace of Stars project, summer 2020

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.

Social dancing

Whisper to me alone
Social Dancing. Photograph by Sue Dean

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers experiences of 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.

Phil writes:

The isolation that has come with lockdown has forced many of us to look at ourselves and try to understand some of our dilemmas. It’s brought the good and it’s brought the bad. For some it has felt like a prison sentence. For other people it’s been a kind of opportunity. Anastasia points this out:

“I’ve had the chance to slow down, to quieten all the noise around me. To still the voices of busyness and make myself be calm. I’ve been thinking a little bit zen these days. Taking time to exist. It’s a choice isn’t it, what you do with this moment. Maybe I’ll learn from it.”

The writing and art is part of this process, it can be a tool for holding those reflections, so they don’t just melt away but are kept and thought about. Making a poem now is like no other time in people’s lives. We’re also experimenting with making poems over the phone, the author speaking lines down to the scribe (myself) and an edit agreed by reading it back.

It’s a whole different time
It’ll be unique in the telling
A different way of looking
We’re thinking the new thinking.


July 13. Photograph by Sue Dean

In reflecting the world through writing and art, we look at it more closely. This can be a celebration as well as a reckoning:

The birds tweeting
The squirrels hanging out — see!
Small bird, one of the tiny ones
The owl’s fascination
The great grey bird on the canal
Encounter in the kitchen, a Queen Bee
(Got to be careful with that one)
The squirrels drop round our way
For nuts and
Since we’ve kept our distance
We’re not so close to each other
But then. I look again and
There’s a hedgehog.


And in making things, we also make ourselves.

“I’ve loved having this writing and art, it’s keeping me going. It gets stuff out of my head onto paper. The art process helps. And when I lose making art, it feels like I lose myself some days. I hang onto me through the images and the writings. It’s all you’ve got sometimes…”


Selfie with mask. Adapted photograph by Sue Dean

The lockdown photographs of Manchester that illuminate this blog were by Sue Dean, using her favourite camera, her phone. WHISPER TO ME ALONE is supported by Arts Council England. Partners include The Booth CentreBack on Track, Bury Art Museum and With One Voice arts and homeless sector global network.

During the first lockdown the Booth Centre ran an advice drop-in and accommodated people under the Everyone In scheme. At 11am every day they ran a Facebook activity session to combat isolation, which included the arthur+martha WHISPER TO ME ALONE 2-minute poetry videos.