Manchester is a young city in the grand scheme of things. Entire histories had been stretched thin and washed away in storms thousands of years before we stood in the same wet mists, skriking passing complaints about the weather in barely sheltered bus stops down Portland Street. There’s one thing that runs through both Manchester, and civilizations long gone: stories. Look at Pettakere Cave in the Maros-Pangkep karst, Indonesia. It’s considered to have the earliest figurative art in the world, and looking at the negative handprints feels like the touch of a ghost from 44,000 years ago. Further forward in time, go to Argentina 13,000 years ago and see the Cueva de las Manos - the Cave of the Hands. The hand is an enduring image throughout our shared history. For those who can, the hand is how we communicate with the material world around us. We touch with our fingers, and hold it against the nerves of our palms, and not one of us has touched the rest of the world in the same way that any other person has. Our hands and our voices are not dissimilar. They are the root of our spirits, and so they are the root of our stories. Having not seen these places in the flesh, I can only go back to the Google image onslaught of those far-flung caves when I see Manchester Street Poem’s logo - it’s own name, next to a paint worn negative of a handprint; a shared story enduring throughout time.
Manchester Street Poem describe themselves as “a co-produced art collective whose works reflect the personal experiences of our city’s marginalised communities. Guided by the principle that there is “no us and them – only us”, we aim to promote this viewpoint through art and storytelling in the belief that by exploring our shared humanity we can break down barriers.” If you’ve seen their work, you can immediately recognise their social ethos. If not, you can find their website, as well as their social media on Instagram and Twitter (@mcrstreetpoem), and their Youtube which showcases some of the great work they’ve done over the years, including the stories shared by marginalised people during the pandemic. They use big pieces of cardboard and paint over them with the stories of their experiences; their lives and how they’ve fought against crap circumstances. Set up in 2017, Manchester Street Poem was a project conceived by Karl Hyde and Rick Smith of Underworld. They wanted to shine a light on the issues in the city, namely - according to MIF - a city where homelessness was just a word that people used to disenfranchise “individuality, identity and integrity.” It’s a world the vast majority of us don’t understand. Since participating in MIF17, Manchester Street Poem took a step back and re-equated it’s position in the world. They’ve continued to meet up as a group, and grow and change as need be and have broadened their scope beyond just homelessness. They also became a resident of Islington Mill in February 2020, so in light of our month celebration of the Mill, we had a natter with Simon Leroux. Simon has had a long history of working for local authorities, and has worked as a Digital Storyteller with charities such as Stretch and Mustard Tree using short films and music to transform people's lives. He took charge as Managing Director of Manchester Street Poem in 2019, and has been involved since the start, so we wanted to know how it all got set up.
“At the time this Manchester Street Poem was an idea in someone's head and it was gonna be delivered at MIF 17. I saw that this was going on, and it was around storytelling and the homelessness project and I just thought I want to get involved with this. We put on this big project on Oldham Street where we took over this old shoe shop, we covered it in cardboard - Karl Hyde from Underworld - so it’s an Underworld project that’s where it kind of came from. Karl Hyde had experimented with this aesthetic before and thought it might be a good vehicle to highlight voices of homelessness in Manchester, which it seemed like was a very very visible problem in 2016. Yeah, so we decided this would be a good thing to do for MIF17, highlight those voices but to do it with any integrity, it would need to be done in solid co-production with those communities. Y’know you couldn’t just impose something on them, or expect everyone to get on board. So, looking back and seeing this going on, I was really impressed with that process with the way that they reached out and involved the community properly. They brought a really lovely group of people together to do that piece in 2017. So, there was this group of 15-20 people that had come together to do the work,and it finished in 17 and was really successful. It got thousands of people through the door.
We were really excited and energised afterwards about what we’d done. This is a great thing. We still want to do this. There’s still loads more legs of this project, so let’s keep meeting. But, nothing was happening. We were trying to meet monthly, talking about what we’d done at MIF, and there was a little bit of money we’d made from selling some artwork at MIF17, the idea was “okay, let's get a manager in.” Everyone else was kind of working or doing it as a voluntary role in between other things. I was doing free-lance things at the time, my timetable wasn’t full. I can completely do this two days a week. I can move this project forwards. And thankfully, everyone else involved in the project agreed when I voiced my thoughts. I took over as Project Manager at the beginning of 2019 and 2019 was just like fzzzzzzzzzt [mimes rocket shooting off]. Things went absolutely crazy. We were involved with MIF19, again. We did a huge project, where we produced 15 giant works of art like 10 m x 3 m. We produced one of those everyday for two weeks. And we went to Japan with a view to going back again in 2020 to do something alongside the Olympics. We went over to Amsterdam. There were talks going on, we were gonna put on a big thing in Amsterdam. This was all 2019. Everything was fucking fabulous. “
Then 2020 hit like a brick shithouse.
“It did, it did. So we had to have a big rethink. So, 2020 was in a lot of ways - it was very positive for us. We became a charity. We signed ourselves up properly as our own entity. Obviously, the pandemic stopped us from doing all this face to face stuff we’d be doing - the workshopping, the public installations. Couldn’t do any of that anymore. So we sat around for a couple of weeks fretting and licking our wounds, and then MIF helped us out with some tablets and data packages. It’s alright everyone saying “put everything online”, but a lot of the guys we’re working with haven’t got good access to the data, a decent device. I’m on an iMac here. The thought of doing zooms on a little phone or something - it’s a nightmare. Do you remember when Jeremy Corbyn said everyone should get free wifi and everybody laughed because it was ridiculous? It’s really shown - the digital divide has been laid wide open. Kids at school, some of them are coming back after lockdown better educated than they would have been but others are way, way behind. So, we got these tablets. I was able to distribute them to the group. And we started doing Zoom workshops. That unlocked 2020 for us. It was something that worked really well online, and at the time we really needed something like this to work. These zoom workshops, we produce pieces of art - but it’s a wellbeing thing as much as anything else. We come and we’ll riff on a subject, it could be friendship, it could be community. It’s really worked. And in a lot of ways, going forwards its given us an incredible toolbox of skills.”
So not all bad in the year that time forgot. It’s great work, and especially important to the people taking part in it. A large number of people this last year have had their access to community support cut dramatically back, and it’s definitely one of the ongoing repercussions of the pandemic that is only touched in dribs and drabs on daytime television shows. But hope is important, and taking advantage of what’s thrown at you, and changing it into something positive a real crux in their work. Simon is quick to point out that “What we also try and really sort of avoid is any sort of poverty porn. What we want is people to read the stories and then feel uplifted. Ah right. People can break out of these bad cycles, bad situations with the right support. There’s hope at the end of the tunnel. That’s what we want people to take from that. Not just be like ooh, the world’s so awful. There’s nothing you can do about it. We want people to think there’s a practical thing I can do. I can help this charity. I can just talk to that person on the street, even if I don’t give them money I can just have a conversation with them. Or treat people with a bit of humanity, dignity wherever you can.”
Helping charities out is a fundamental part of the process of changing the worsening conditions of our society, and the people that work for them are the trained professionals we need. For those of you who can, there’s an article here from 2017 on 21 small Manchester charities you can help out. It’s the network that's the important thing, and Simon mentioned to us about Manchester Street Poem’s links with various support agencies, and how they all give each other a hand. In light of this, we wanted to know more about how people could get involved with Street Poem itself.
“There’s a variety of ways. What we did not want to do was to take advantage of people that weren’t able to make decisions for themselves at the time. Although we started off as a homelessness project, we’re probably a little broader than that now. But what we didn’t want to do was approach people in shop doorways in the middle of the night, and stick a microphone in their mouth and say “tell us the story.” So the people that we work with, that we think are ready to work with us, are the people that are engaging with other services. So support services. Say if someone’s going along to The Mustard Tree, for example, and they’ve got a support worker who’s helping them with their housing and they’re engaging with that support worker and they’re making those steps, and they’ve got other support there - that’s a good candidate to come and work with us. So we’ve got relationships with lots of support agencies around the city. And occasionally, people might approach us on social media, we’ll have some conversations, decide to take the relationship forwards, and they’ll come and participate in some things with us. Various ways, so we try and keep ourselves open to communication with social media as well. That’s probably our loudest voice.”
As always, one thing we do ask everyone we talk to is to recommend us three businesses, groups, collectives, musicians, charities - anything that’s in Manchester that we should know about.
“Invisible Manchester? They’re a tour guide thing, they’ve taken people who’ve got experience of homelessness and put together a tour of Manchester but taking the other side of interest to them. Whatever, art, music, or where they used to sleep. It started a couple of years ago, and it recently got tipped by Lonely Planet as one of the best tours in the world. One of our guys who’s been with us since the beginning called Danny - he went over as one of their tour guides. He’s a scouse guy, he’s fabulous - he really is - and he’s taken that and he’s run with it.
Obviously, there’s our neighbours at Islington Mill - overbrimming with really cool, artistic people. My favourite is a guy called Qbek. He’s a graffiti artist. He’s amazing. Did this piece outside the Mill, and it was about two days after the American election. Turned up this work mocking Donald Trump.
One little thing that I’ve been doing to keep that community together is a thing called Song Club. Every Friday afternoon on Facebook Live - it was a session we used to do every Friday afternoon in the building about 20 of us would come together with a couple of guitars and bang out tunes, singing our heads off, top of our voices and all come out afterwards feeling like 10 men. There were 10 men in the first place. 100 men. We really missed Song Club, so we’ve been doing this thing on Facebook Live where me and one or two other people usually with me bang out some classics and hopefully people singalong at home. Mustard Tree Song Club, that’s my third tip. Musical and creative, we just bang out all the classics. All killer, no filler.”
Simon leaves us by saying “We’re proud of what we’re doing, and we’re really chuffed when people want to hear about it and want to talk about it.” We were chuffed to find out about them, and to speak to Simon, so thanks to him for chatting to us and thanks also to everyone involved with Manchester Street Poem for their amazing work.