Knit Toxteth: a labour of love

yarn-bomb

verb

To cover (an object or structure in a public place) with decorative knitted or crocheted material, as a form of street art.

“knitters have yarn-bombed Toxteth”

 

The idea

“I want to yarn-bomb Upper Parliament Street with hearts.”

This was Chantelle’s idea. We had met just before Christmas through a mutual friend, and a bit through serendipity too, while I was working at Red Brick Vintage in Cains Brewery in Toxteth.

Chantelle and I bonded over the vintage loveliness of Red Brick and red wine. It’s always a relief to meet someone who gets you on a level that other people just don’t. And so we became friends.

Before moving to Liverpool, Chantelle and her family lived in Vancouver where yarn-bombing was a popular occurrence. Trees across the city were often found with bright yarn wound around their trunks. Practically anything screwed into the ground was fair game: bus stops, bike rails, parking metres, benches. Further afield such things have been yarn-bombed as a tank in Copenhagen, a bus in Mexico City and statues in Bali.

Yarn bombing is seen by many as a subversive act. It reclaims public spaces, drawing our attention to those things that usually go unnoticed. Yarn bombing can also be a way of delivering a peaceful protest with more and more people realising they can challenge the status quo and create positive change.

In 2014, Chantelle and her family moved into the vicarage at St Margaret’s church, set within the Granby Triangle in Toxteth, and while clearing out the cellar one day she found an old map of the parish: a bold line cut across the faded paper, running down Upper Parliament Street, along Windsor Street and onwards zigzagging through Toxteth. To Chantelle, the border symbolised a community where people live and work, and public spaces where acts of community take place. It was this map that inspired her.

The first plan was to somehow knit around the whole border but the distance proved unrealistic.

“I thought knitting little hearts would be a good idea. That way, lots of people could join efforts and knit together.”

Chantelle decided that a section of Upper Parliament Street would be enough to represent the original vision. This was the beginning of Knit Toxteth.

The parish

The public perception of Toxteth is not usually a positive one. The area received worldwide attention in 1981 for what was termed the ‘Toxteth Riots’ outside but is more commonly described as ‘the Uprising’ within – a time that was for many a response to years of institutionalised racism, being ignored and isolated politically, within a context of decades of police brutality. A yarn-bomb of hearts certainly wouldn’t change national perceptions of Toxteth, but quite simply our message would be love, love for the community, love for Toxteth. Our hope was that this love would be shared.

St Margaret’s parish has a population of just over 3000, within a small geographic area of Toxteth that mostly covers the Granby Triangle, the most ethnically diverse area in Liverpool and home to some inspirational community initiatives.

The Turner Prize-winning Granby4Streets Community Land Trust (CLT) has become world-renowned: four streets of beautiful Victorian terrace houses, previously marked for demolition under the Housing Market Renewal Initiative, are now being renovated due to the unwavering determination of the community and those involved with the CLT, bringing about ‘a thriving, vibrant mixed community, building on the existing creativity, energy, and commitment within the community, where people from all walks of life can live, work and play.’

Granby market, originally set up by the community, brings life and energy to the streets once a month with wonderful smells, music and dancing, local buyers and sellers. The vision for the market is that it will sow the seeds for the re-establishment of shops and businesses on Granby Street, which once thrived generations ago.

Beyond the Granby Triangle is Windsor Street, with its expanding community food production project known as the 100-year food street plan. Take a stroll down Windsor Street and you’ll see chalkboard signs promoting community food gardens such as the Grapes Garden, the base for Food For Real Film Festival which seeks to ‘explore the environmental, political, health and cultural impacts of the food we grow, eat, waste, and share.’ Further on, the soon-to-be-opened Toxteth Food Central is home to Squash Nutrition, a social enterprise and community-food organisation who ‘work with food as an ingredient to stimulate a more socially active, engaged, fair, and inclusive community’ and will house a local affordable fresh food shop, training space, and food garden.

At the end of Windsor Street is Toxteth Library, with a well-stocked children’s library and the base for literary organisation Writing on the Wall. WoW’s incredible team coordinate projects and events with all of Liverpool’s communities to celebrate writing in all its forms, supporting marginalised writers and giving them a voice, loud and proud. They have just finished their annual month-long literary festival, WoWFest 2017, with the timely theme of Revolution. The festival brought writers, activists, poets, journalists, commentators, spoken word artists, and audiences together. Akala, Gary Younge, Raoul Martinez, Margaret Aspinall, Chris Riddell, Natalie Bennett, Howard Gayle, Vicky Pryce, Phil Scraton, and many more explored their take on the palpable change that is in the air.

As well as these there are dozens of other great projects, charities, social enterprises, community-run businesses, seen and unseen, to explore in this small parish and throughout the rest of Toxteth.

Toxteth is rebuilding itself after years of deprivation. To this day St Margaret’s parish ranks as 23 out of 12,599, where 1 is the most deprived. Within the parish child poverty is at 50%, working age poverty is estimated at 30%, and pensioner poverty is 70% (ranked 2/12,599). There is still work to be done, of course, but help is coming from within the community. If you are wondering how you can help solve these and similar issues in your own community, do some research and find projects already doing something and connect with them. I know Squash Nutrition are very passionate about ending child poverty, so if that is something you want to help end, get in touch with them.

The call out

We did the call out in January for knitters and crocheters via Open Culture, Art in Liverpool, and Knit Toxteth’s Facebook and Instagram. There was no deadline.  We hadn’t decided when we would do the yarn-bomb. We intentionally didn’t push so we went with the flow to see if anyone was interested. Looking back should we have had a bit of a strategy worked out?

Chantelle doesn’t think so: “Having a strategy would have defeated the purpose of it. I just wanted people who were interested in coming along. I didn’t want to make people do it or convince them. I just wanted them to do it out of their own goodwill.”

In the lead-up to the yarn-bombing we received some media exposure through BBC Merseyside who approached us because they wanted to help. Chantelle and I were interviewed live on air on separate occasions, and we were able to hold a heart knitting session through BBC Merseyside’s Up For Arts project. That day around 20-25 people turned up to knit, crochet, and sew hearts, many of whom continued to support the project. Chantelle decided to launch the yarn-bomb on May 6th. This coincided with Voluntary Arts Festival – Up For Arts’ partner – which promotes community participation in the arts.

In the following four months we were inundated weekly with stunning hearts: some big, some small, some brightly coloured, others embellished with tinsel, buttons, tiny dolls, the Jamaican flag, some stuffed, some made from fabric and sewn together and attached to string. Altogether, over 1100 hearts were donated. We still aren’t sure how many people were involved. We’ve estimated about 50-60 but there could have been more. Families, individuals, knitting groups, social groups, and work teams all contributed.

Photo courtesy of @skatiecreates

And thank you, thank you so much if you are reading this and you are one of those who took the time, energy, and resources to be a part of Knit Toxteth. You have all been so wonderfully generous. We are also so grateful for the support and encouragement received from all of the organisations and the people behind them, who helped spread the Knit Toxteth message.

There is something so powerful in the word-of-mouth passing-on of an idea or message through trusted sources such as friends, family members and colleagues. A good idea in the right hands and at the right time can grow naturally and that is an important lesson this project has taught me.

The yarn-bomb

I woke up on the morning of May 6th so excited and a bit terrified. Doing anything public is scary but if I’d learned anything in putting myself out there, it was that there will always be a tiny minority who don’t like what you have to say or do. And if you allow them, they will make you angry with their opinions. But generally, in my experience, there is always a majority of people who will love and support a positive idea.

About 15 people met at the vicarage to help us hang the hearts – friends, family, contributors and those who just came along to get involved. After a quick cuppa we stepped out onto Princes Road with our bags and boxes of hearts. One of our volunteers immediately got cracking on the fences of the Greek Orthodox Church while the rest of us carried on to Upper Parliament Street. Hearts were hung on railings as we made our way to an overgrown grassy thoroughfare in-between two Georgian houses. We covered the iron bars there in hearts while Chantelle got to work hanging her Knit Toxteth sign. Half of the group broke off and carried on down Upper Parliament towards Toxteth Library then onto St James’ Church.

It was absolutely thrilling working with such a mix of people, some of whom I knew fairly well, some absolute strangers and those I’d met maybe once or twice, people similar to me and people who live very different lives.

“I felt there was a really good turnout of people who came to help,” Chantelle agreed. “It was really great to see people stopping and taking pictures and looking out their windows wondering what we were doing. I think the actual putting them out was quite fun and just seeing how it changed the whole street. And then seeing the online presence too was cool.”

Yeah, it wasn’t long before people started to notice.

Next

We are still thinking about what happens next. There is scope for us to set up a regular group at the vicarage so we might do just that. We will definitely launch another project but we aren’t going to force it. I guess when it feels right, when things align, then that will be the time.

Knit Toxteth was our way of celebrating and honouring the wonderful community and beautiful things that are happening in Toxteth, and we were able to bring people together into the process at every step of the way. There is exciting and fulfilling work to be done in every community. What great things are already happening in your community? Connect with them. What issues are not being tackled? See what you can do about them with the resources you have. Get together with friends and talk about these issues and pool your resources. We need to be engaging with our own communities again, at neighbourhood level, even street level.

The most important thing about this project was the connections that were made: the families, friends, and groups that got together to create hearts, new friendships formed, and the connections the hearts made with people as they walked past. More than ever, we absolutely need each other. We need to be able to have open, honest, and real relationships and we need to build our communities on these relationships.

We hope that what we have done together will inspire others to do something similar. Ideas like Knit Toxteth aren’t owned. We have merely given it a go.  It worked.  Hopefully it will work for others too.

“Just like each of those small hearts,” says Chantelle, “if we do our own little bit in our communities, we can build and create something extraordinary.”

Coming Home

A little over a year ago I woke up early to the sound of a cockerel crowing. After stepping out of bed, I walked towards my small balcony and opened its wooden doors wide. The hot morning light spread across my room. I leaned against the iron railing, looked down to the bottom of my street at the Saigon River, and took in a few deep breaths.

My beautiful white, ginger, and tortoiseshell cat rubbed up against my ankle. The only time she was nice to me was when she wanted feeding. After seeing to her needs, I got dressed for the day ahead choosing suitable clothes for teaching English to energetic children in classrooms that had one or two slow old ceiling fans, while temperatures often reached 32 degrees.

Before leaving the house, I wrapped a long skirt around my waist, pulled on a flowery face mask, a pair of long beige gloves, and a long-sleeved thick black cardigan – suntan lotion cost a fortune –strapped a helmet under my chin, and put on a pair of my favourite fake Ray Bans; preparation for the forty minute scooter ride to a primary school on the other side of Ho Chi Minh City.

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Today I woke up in my mum’s house in Kirkby. Those morning rituals are from another life. After three years living in Vietnam, I left on 24th June 2015. And, after a short period travelling through Cambodia and Thailand, I came home on 19th August 2015.

Those exact days when I left and arrived are completely etched in my mind. I remember subtle details like the sweat on my back as I stood at Vietnamese immigration and the warm eyes of the young man who greeted me at the guesthouse in Phnom Penh. I remember the car journey from Heathrow airport. The cold English rain running down the windows. The curry I ate with my mum and aunty in our B&B bedroom. Days of extreme opposing emotions.

When I returned home, I spent weeks visiting friends and family I hadn’t seen for years. Each big bear hug was a healing experience. I had actually got through it; through the painful loneliness I’d felt for so long. And coming home was my reward.

Then began the process of thinking about work. Actually, this process had been going on for some time. ‘What will I do?’ had haunted me from the moment I’d decided to return home. I knew what I’d enjoyed doing in Vietnam. I loved writing articles for two of the biggest English magazines in the country; Word Vietnam and AsiaLIFE. I especially loved writing a really controversial piece about sexism within the expat community. The then editor of AsiaLIFE, Chris Mueller, had seen me argue with a bunch of Neanderthals on some expat Facebook group, sent me a private message to ask if I was the writer of a blog post called ‘Why I will leave Vietnam a feminist’ (I was) and if I would write a version of this for the magazine.

I wrote the article and got paid $50. I was made up! Then the article went to print. What followed was probably the most transformational experience I have ever had. So much love and support came my way. Men and women sent me private messages on Facebook and Twitter thanking me that finally someone had spoken up. And how disgusting it was the way many expat men treat Vietnamese and other expat women. Thank you thank you thank you!!

Oh, and then all the really awful, nasty, abusive public comments that were written about me and the article on social media. I expected the fallout. What I didn’t expect was to not be able to physically write anything of substance for over a year. My self-confidence was shattered. It wasn’t the pathetic delusional comments like “she’s just jealous because no one wants to have sex with her,” but the comments that criticised my writing ability and poor grammar.

A year or so later, we held a party in our house for a friend’s birthday. I sat on the floor of the spare bedroom with a girl I’d just met called Njeri who had recently arrived in Saigon to teach English. By this point I’d become disillusioned, knackered, and cynical of life in Vietnam but tried, and failed, to hide my true feelings from her. I mentioned that I’d written an article the year before about sexism. She looked at me excited, “Did you write Why I will leave Vietnam a feminist?” I choked. Someone I had never met before had read my work, liked it, and actually remembered the bloody title. I realised then that I’d done something very powerful in writing that article. I’d encouraged someone. I’d empowered another woman. My shit grammar didn’t matter anymore. I’ll always treasure that conversation with Njeri.

So I was back in the UK and adamant that I wouldn’t return to 9-5. Before I’d left for Southeast Asia in 2012, I worked as an Intelligence Analyst for a law firm in Liverpool. The job had its interesting moments and I think I was good at it. What I wasn’t good at was working in a corporate environment. The only way I could utilise any creativity was by coming up with efficient and organised systems of work. It was dry and I died a little bit inside every day.

I needed to separate myself from what I thought was expected of me and instead realise what I wanted to do. Not in any selfish way. I wanted to use my skills in a pure and unhindered way. To wake up every morning enjoying the work that I do. To show others that there are other, happier ways of living. That was the goal, anyway.

By October 2015, thanks to the kindness of my cousin Robyn at Innovators Hub, I landed a two-month internship with Wordscapes, a print and digital communications agency based in the Baltic Triangle, working with the very talented Fiona Shaw and Andrew Beattie.

During my internship I did a bit of copywriting, research, admin, interviews; basically loads of dead interesting work that I completely believed in. Halfway through I was asked by Fiona to do some research for the launch of a new initiative called The Beautiful Ideas Co. that would be funding social enterprise ideas with the aim of regenerating North Liverpool. I needed to find stories of social innovation around areas such as money, spaces, manufacturing, regenerating the docks, mobilising the workforce, and real-life social networks.

The stories I came across were fascinating; a worker-owned cut and sew textile factory in North Carolina; a community hub and market for the distribution of wholesale food and local artisanal goods in Detroit; a city-wide initiative to incubate local creative enterprises using empty shops in Newcastle, Australia; a renewed transportation infrastructure to mobilise the local workforce in Medellin, Columbia; a local city-wide currency to support independent businesses in Bristol.

Beautiful Ideas Co. launched in November through a series of events across Liverpool. What I’d researched and written about was hung on large A-frames at all of the events and used to inspire people to come up with their own beautiful ideas for North Liverpool. It was through these events, specifically a hack day at The Sandon pub in Anfield, where I met someone who would change the direction of my life.

The morning of the hack day, I walked through Anfield where I’d lived with my mum until I was 13. It had been maybe ten years since I’d been anywhere near the place I grew up and I was curious to see how much of it had changed. I walked past my old primary school on Anfield Road, along quiet streets of Victorian terraced houses, then on to Stonehill Street, and saw my old home. When I dream about it – and I dream about it often – the front door is always open and I go inside. Sometimes the interior looks completely different, but I always feel safe.

That day I saw my old house boarded up in between other boarded up empty homes. And I stood in the street with this sinking feeling in my stomach. I took a few steps back, pulled out my phone, and took a photo.

As I walked away, I burst into tears. I don’t know why. It could have been the memories of life on Stonehill where we used to regularly hold street parties. Where kids would play until it went dark and people would stand to chat at one another’s doorsteps. Where everyone knew everyone else’s business and that was fine because we were looking out for each other.

My childhood home
My childhood home

Ten minutes later, I arrived at The Sandon on Oakfield Road. As the function room filled with some new and familiar faces, I showed Fiona the photo of my old house, the windows and doors boarded up. We both agreed it was a real shame and then I got on with the job for the day.

Once everyone settled, Ronnie Hughes stood up. I’d briefly met him the night before at the Beautiful Ideas launch event but had no real idea who he was other than a well-known local blogger. Ronnie began introducing the day ahead which was to be about coming up with some beautiful social enterprise ideas that would ultimately regenerate North Liverpool. Someone shouted out “Like what?” Ronnie suggested a project could be set up that would see the thousands of empty homes in Liverpool lived in again. Fiona and I looked at each other and smiled. What a coincidence.

Later that day, I ended up interviewing Ronnie to camera for a short film. I asked him questions about social enterprise and his answers were elegant and succinct. Afterwards, we chatted about Ronnie’s work with the Granby 4 Streets community and also some with Homebaked and I knew I wanted to be friends with this kind, honest, and gentle man.

My internship at Wordscapes ended just before Christmas with a promise of partnering in the New Year. By early February, I still wasn’t working but instead kept myself occupied with a screenwriting class I’d joined. I hated being at home on my own all day so made the decision to get out the house and find a café in town where I could work on a screenplay and be around people.

I went to 92 Degrees on Hardman Street, ordered my coffee, pulled out my laptop, and scattered some papers on the long wooden table to make myself look legit. Not long into my session, I noticed Ronnie had been sitting at a table at the other end of the café. As he was leaving we had a little catch-up and that was that.

Over the next four days we bumped into each other twice as we walked in opposite directions on Bold Street. We laughed at the ridiculousness of it all. Ronnie asked me if I had any dreams for a social enterprise. Not really, I said, although I had dreamt about my childhood home the night before. But in real-life it was boarded up and empty. He told me his idea was the one he’d mentioned at the Beautiful Ideas hack day about the empty homes.

We met up properly a few days later at The Egg on Newington. Ronnie said he’d tried to give away his empty homes idea to someone else but it turns out he was the perfect fit for it. He’d worked in housing since the 70’s and has been heavily involved with the Granby 4 Streets; the most recent winners of the Turner Prize. I explained my background, my dreams for my future, my faith, my family story, pretty much laid out my whole life before him. For some reason, Ronnie liked what he heard and decided to put his trust in me.

Coming Home – the fitting name Ronnie gave his empty homes idea – will soon be a Community Interest Company (CIC) working to get many of the thousands of empty homes, primarily in North Liverpool, made into beautiful safe places to be lived in again. So far, the core team is me, Ronnie, and local artist Jayne Lawless. We also have a strong board of proper amazing people; a few national but mostly Liverpool-based.

I’ll be Writer-in-Residence. At a pitch for funding with The Beautiful Ideas Co. I was asked what it actually meant to be a Writer-in-Residence. I’ve never Googled it to find out or really asked around but I know what I am capable of. Since coming home to Kirkby in August last year, I’ve written a few articles and blogs, have a regular column at Ethos Paper writing about new ways of doing business, and have coordinated a grassroots business festival partnering with Wordscapes. I teach English to asylum seekers and work as a social media manager for a small local company. I am also building relationships with fascinating people who love Liverpool.

I know I’ll be writing regularly, be it blogs, tweets, bids, proposals, press releases, emails, and even a book! I’ll also be painting walls, updating spreadsheets, meeting homeowners, making tea for builders, project managing, and loads more. I’ll be using all of the skills I’ve picked up over the years. Nothing is lost. And I am dead, dead excited!

Recently, Ronnie, Jayne, and I were at a pub discussing all things Coming Home when Ronnie pulled out a book called Soil and Soul by Alastair McIntosh; the story of how a community on the Isle of Eigg fought against corporate power by organising themselves and using their collective resources. Ronnie told us that this book inspired him and others when working on Granby. The following day I flicked through the beginning pages and read this beautiful passage:

“If we can persist and sit with the reality, not running from it, a music may eventually be heard. The fetters of destructive control loosen. Life’s dance resurges. And there is joy in spite of everything.”

Yes. Joy in spite of everything. That’s what I see. That is what Coming Home is about.

Independent Liverpool are proper sound

As many of you know, I’ve recently returned to Liverpool after 3 years living in Vietnam. I left in June but the months that preceded my departure were some of the hardest I’ve ever had.

I’d known for a while that it was time for me to leave but I didn’t feel ready at all. Social media became an obvious way for me to escape from reality and find out what was happening in the lives of my friends back home. Around the same time, loads of people I knew had liked this Facebook page called Independent Liverpool which promotes local independent businesses, writes blogs like 10 of the best Sunday roasts in Liverpool, and posts the odd photo (see below) to mix things up.

David Hameron

Independent Liverpool made me feel so excited to come home. I was simply delighted by each post and blog they wrote. I felt proud to be coming back to Liverpool and I knew it was the right thing to do.

Even though their content is stunning and hilarious and makes me dead hungry and sometimes I actually physically drool, there’s so much more to Independent Liverpool. They themselves are a business and sell these cards – £15 each or £20 for 2 – that give you access to discounts at nearly a hundred different local independent restaurants, café’s, bakeries, bars, pubs, clothes stores, arts and crafts shops, theatres, bookshops and more. It’s incredible.

When I arrived home I wanted to let the fellas at Independent Liverpool know how much they’ve helped me while I was away so I sent them an email thanking them. I received a lovely reply and they offered me, as a welcome home pressie, two free cards. I couldn’t believe it. A few days later and today they’ve arrived in the post.

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So, now I have the joy of giving away one of these cards and I’ve come up with a cunning Liverpool-themed plan.

If you live or work in or near Liverpool and would like the chance to win a card, then take part in my ‘Ooer, How Scouse Are You?’ quiz.

So get your mate Google ready because some of these questions are proper rough.

 

Ooer, How Scouse Are You?

1) If you have new kecks, what do you have?

a) New pants/trousers

b) New trainers

c) New friends

 

2) What doesn’t go into a pan of Scouse?

a) Potatoes

b) Mushrooms

c) Onions

 

3) Which came first?

a) Everton FC

b) Liverpool FC

 

4) When did Liverpool become a city?

a) 1720

b) 1207

c) 1880

 

5) Which of these is not a middle name of a member of The Beatles?

a) Arthur

b) Paul

c) Winston

 

6) To be devoed means…

a) To have no money

b) To be drunk

c) To be upset

 

7) What is the most likely meaning of the name Liverpool?

a) Pool of life

b) Muddy water

c) Pond of livers

 

Send your answers to me at ourjencanjump@gmail.com. I’ll randomly select a winner from those who get every answer correct. If you get any wrong the first time, don’t worry I‘ll let you know and you’ll have 2 extra chances to try again. The winner will be announced Wednesday 30th September.

Good luck!

 

Courtesy of Independent Liverpool
Courtesy of Independent Liverpool

 

For more info visit Independent Liverpool at independent-liverpool.co.uk and like them at facebook.com/IndependentLiverpool