Monday, 10 December 2012

"Roof" Is Stocked at Nickel Books

Nickel Books is a gorgeous treasure trove of an independent children's bookshop in Sittingbourne, Kent. Located on the high street, it is easy to find and hard to forget once you've stepped into its Aladdin's cave of interesting books, games, and toys. And if by any chance they don't have what you're looking for, Andrea, the incredibly friendly and helpful owner, will source it for you (assuming it's still in print, of course).

But it's not just a children's bookshop. Nickel Books is host to numerous events through the month, including Musical Bumps, children's parties, and story time which takes place every Tuesday at 11am. Check their website for more events as they come up! There's always something going on.

Not only is Nickel Books a lovely place to visit, if you can't make it, their online ordering service is second to none. With an easy to navigate online shop, free postage, and a personal service, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

2012 is the year of the independent trader - buy local, support local. And Nickel Books is just the sort of shop that deserves our custom.

Now, you may wonder why our book about the places and the inhabitants of the Isle of Sheppey has anything to do with an independent children's bookshop... Well, there's another side to Nickel Books. They also sell local interest books and maps. Whether you want to learn about Victorian Kent, or you want to know more about which walks to talk small children on, they've got the information.

And they've also now got A Roof Over Their Heads.

Please, take a look at this fabulous shop, and enjoy.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Our First Review

A detailed review from one of our readers, Gabrielle:

Just as the hitherto thriving cultural life on the Isles of Sheppey is in danger to be swept away by the tide of cut backs the local council has had to impose on culture a small book has been published on the Island with the title ‘A Roof Over Their Heads’. The book owes its gestation to a local writer’s workshop (still financed by the council before the latest cuts were announced) where participants were asked to write about local houses. This could be either from personal memory or through research in local archives for any information that could become the seed for a story to be written about.

This brief was enthusiastically taken up by all six writers with each of them giving a short introduction to their story. Some of the stories are from personal experience or witness account, the rest have been inspired by some historical fact the writer used for his imagination to shape into fictional history.

The strength of each one of these stories is the vivid evocation of life on the island during different epochs from the sixteenth to the 21th century. Sometimes the narrative leads the reader back and forth in time, as in ‘Tales of Marine Parade’ which tells the story of one family over several generations in stories within the main narrative as told by the grandmother to her grandchildren in our time. The problem with this imaginative if complex way of story telling is that the reader might get confused by the characters now old, now young, popping in and out of the narrative. It requires careful reading and sometimes re-reading not unlike reading a novel by Tolstoy that is peopled by a multitude of characters, some of whom make a short appearance and disappear only to make their come-back much later in the narrative. However the dialogue in this story is a good guide through the different epochs and the social standing of a character, as when Polly informs her granddaughter Sally (the main narrator of these stories) ‘I have ter say that being in service wasn’t all that good if you got a rotten family, but the Sutherlands were a lovely couple’. Polly’s tale and vernacular places her clearly back to the turn of the 19th to the 20th cent. Whereas Polly’s great-great-granddaughter Laura’s diction ‘ Mum says we are to leave you after lunch’, is that of a middle class girl of our time.

The title story ‘A roof over their heads’, takes a similar approach by letting the characters tell their tale, though contained over a shorter time span of about twenty-seven years as the first narrator, Brian, indicates at the beginning. Here the narrative roles are very clear and each character’s individuality well defined. Though at heart decent, Brian is easily led by Carol into a life of deceit and criminality. When Brian’s resentment at Carol finally leads to their final argument with him stating ‘I didn’t want to make all those cons, that was you’ she replies ‘You’re so weak; I should have hired someone else, not a coward like you’ the reader is left in no doubt as to who lacks moral scruples. Brian’s murder of Carol does not change this as his immediate horror at what he’d done in self- defense, almost accidentally, overwhelms him. The dramatic scene of the murder as told by both Brian and Carol is riveting, the tension of the moment palpable, and each of their narratives illuminates their very different character. The ending of Carol’s narrative is particularly well constructed with the unfinished sentence ‘And now I feel…’ mirroring her final thoughts being cut short by death.

The use of such taut prose, leaving it to the reader to infer what is happening or how a character feels instead of over-detailed descriptive would have made Mr. West’s account that follows Carol’s tale less self-righteous. The tension created by the irony of the murderer actually being morally conscious, whereas his victim Carol is not, is weakened by Mr. West’s somewhat patronizing contemplations that delegate the riveting narrative of the two main characters to his own narrow minded moral judgment.

Colorful characters, interesting juxtapositions of different social backgrounds at the end of the 19th century dominate ‘Fleeting Glimpses’. Emma, a prostitute, is pitted against the middle class in person of ‘Harridan Hall’, and the upper class as personified by Sir Cedric Greet, his mother Lady Dora, and Lady Victoria his fiancé. They and Emma’s servant and companion Bea are distinctly characterized. The aged Bea, suffering from a bad back, is particularly well evoked when ‘she run her free hand over her hip and across her spine, as far as she could reach, trying to squeeze the pain away, knowing it was useless but only realizing she was doing it when it was already done’. The climax of this story is the encounter between Emma and Lady Dora at the ball. Emma’s defensive address to the assembled society in the ballroom is splendid. She has all the sympathy of the reader and one hopes of some in the audience too. Emma’s speech leaves no doubts about the gulf between her, the despised prostitute and the so-called respectable society in front of her, listening aghast to her outburst, which reveals them as hypocritical, since not only Sir Cedric but also ‘several others’ present ‘pay very well for her company’. The narrative is compelling, the structure of the story well thought out, though sometimes a detail seems either unnecessary as when Sir Cedric ‘chewed his thumb’, or somewhat far-fetched as when Emma remembers her ‘time in Africa, among the tribes in the wilderness’. Equally Emma’s emotional state of mind is clear after her speech at the ball, the reader doesn’t need to be told that her she has a broken heart. The end of this story finds Emma in Marrakesh, ready for new adventure, a liberated woman more of our times one feels, for what freedoms could be awaiting her in her time in this town peopled by a strict patriarchal society and a few Europeans of largely dubious background.

The story of ‘29 Manor Road’ focuses on a local ‘upright common English, British family’ and the issue of renting the house the family ‘dwelt’ in. The writer remembers what happened when his mother refused to pay the rent until the landlord carried out long overdue repairs to the house. It is a story of courage against injustice, and also about the question of trust and the lack of it. ‘ What do honest upright people need receipts for? Our word is evident’ young Steve declares after the magistrate advised that the mother should have got a receipt for paying the rent and rates. The story is told in 4 sections that create a tableau of domestic life in the 1950th, as when the family watches a repeat of the 1953 Coronation, or when the family celebrates the mother’s return from prison with the table laid out plentiful for teatime. This is a charming story, well told in lively scenes that illuminate the situation of many a ‘lowly proud ordinary families’ who dwelt in rather than owned their ‘roof over their heads’.

‘Groene Vitriool’ is narrated through a letter written by Mathias Falconer in the 16th century to his wife Anna when he feels close to death. The narrative offers a fascinating insight of the historical background of that time which is well researched, though the characters, except for Mathias, are fictional. Mathias and Anna are protestant Dutch immigrants who escaped religious persecution in their country that was ruled by ‘those Papists’ of catholic Spain. Since he was a copperas processor in the reign of Elisabeth the 1st, who ‘‘offered up monopolies ‘to certain Dutch Mynerall men’ he took up this offer to start a new and safe life with his family. Copperas was used to make gunpowder and men like Mathias were instrumental in the difficult and dangerous production of this raw material. The description of how copperas was extracted from copperas stones gathered on the beach below Minster and Warden bay is captivating. The reader almost holds them in his hands ‘Those heavy, knobbly, dull grey pebbles full of iron’. Then, when the stone is broken, ‘Pale green globules like fish eggs lie on the cut grey-green surface which shines like metal’ the dull stone’s mystery is exposed by the two imaginative similes followed by the tangible ‘bad egg smell of Brimstone’ emerging from the stone which makes the reader recoil. This is descriptive at its best, the reader can literally feel, see and smell what is described as he follows the narrative.

This story’s strength lays not only in its vivid descriptive but also in the skillful juxtaposition of Mathias’ personal story with the historic background of the copperas production. Mathias’ personal story is emotive but never melodramatic. We feel for him when he implores Anna who’d only reluctantly come to England and was never quite happy in her new home land ‘with all my heart, I am very sorry for the pain you have endured over the years’. The well-informed account of the copperas production is fascinating with the story of Toby, the ‘whippersnapper’ (a wonderful nick-name) who kept a copperas stone in his pocket that ‘burnt a hole through his breeches and singed his legs’ demonstrating just how dangerous these stones could be. The political background, brought to the fore again and again in the story underlines the importance of copperas production at that time since gunpowder became a vital part in the defense of Elizabethan England, as well as a means to revolt as the gunpowder plot shows. This story in the form of a relatively short letter, but full of interesting facts and told in imaginative fiction is a pleasure to read and proof that even an obscure theme can be brought to life by a truly creative writer.

‘Flora A. Wisdom’ creates a vibrant picture of life in Sheerness in about 1917 against the background of the Great War with its social and political upheavals. The story as related by Flora, a servant in one of the houses of Shrimp Terrace, is highly theatrical and full of wry humor as when she lets the applicant for her position come into the house; ‘ Come for my job, have you? My Job? Well you’re welcome to it’. The characterization of Flora is vivid (she doesn’t need the stage directions that litter the narrative, though her monologue would lend itself very well to a stage production!) she comes to life as we see her stuff the chicken whilst explaining the duties awaiting the new servant ‘otherwise I won’t get finished ‘til midnight’.

Flora’s personal story is that of many girls at that time who had to find a position early in life, she was only seventeen, usually to escape difficult conditions at home ‘what with three brothers a step da and no room of my own’. Finding a position and having to share a room with only one other girl was ‘heaven’ for Flora and many servants like her.

Flora’s language is forthright, daring ‘some of you (applicants) looks a bit long in the tooth’ but she’s also caring and astute in her observation of the world around her as the war destroys old certainties. She’s not carried away by the general hysteria that makes people suspicious about everything and of everybody. ‘We’ve gone spy mad’ she tells the job applicant for she realizes that such hysteria unleashes hatred which can culminates in tragic injustice as in the case of Mr. Losel, or in absurdity such as when the postmaster of Eastchurch and his entire family were arrested for having a map of new sewage pipes on the wall.

When we meet Flora she’s the only servant left at the house for, as she says to the job applicant, ‘domestics aren’t so easy to come by’. Flora’s story mirrors the social change, the end of an era that saw many servants seek employment in industry and commerce rather than be tied to the confines of domestic service. Flora herself is planning to emigrate to America with the ‘young man I am seeing’. She’s not only ‘plain fed-up with all this war’ but also adventurous and eager to start a new life. ‘ Oh, I know all about me patriotic duty and all that’ she tells the applicant who looks at her disapprovingly, but Flora is determined and eager to break with the past by seeking a new if uncertain future.

Though this story is told from an entirely subjective viewpoint Flora’s narrative moves seamlessly from the private to the wider public sphere, intertwining both and creating a rich tapestry of local life during the war that brilliantly mirrors the wider world outside.
This compendium of stories is a welcome addition to the existing literature about Sheppey that ranges from Folklore to modern literature. From Nicola Barker to Uwe Johnson, the East-German writer who came to live in Sheerness, writers have taken the Island’s contrasting landscape and social condition as inspiration for their writing. But their voice was that of the outsider looking in. ‘A Roof Over Their Heads’ is as one of the contributing writers in the book phrases it ‘that Sheppey voice speaking loud and clear’ from the island itself.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Amazon - Paperback Available

Hooray! Finally, A Roof Over Their Heads is available in paperback through Amazon! It's taken months, but we've made it! Here's the link:

And .com

Perfect timing for a great Christmas present!

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

We're Famous Now!

The Sheppey Writing Workshop found itself in the local newspaper (The Sheerness Times Guardian) this week.

There we all are! This photo shoot was a lot of fun, even if I was holding the book back to front for half of it! Thankfully I realised and, rather red-faced, managed to get it the right way round (you'd never know I'd made an error from the photo though!).

If you'd like to hold your own copy of this fascinating book about the Isle of Sheppey (although the stories are universal tales of smugglers, con artists, masked balls and struggles during war time), please click on this link:

And if you have an eReader, the eBook is available on Smashwords: 

If you do purchase it, please let us know what you thought by leaving a review - we'd love to hear from you!

Sunday, 28 October 2012

We're Stocked!

The Sheppey Writing Workshop is pleased to announce that our book, A Roof Over Their Heads, is now available to buy from the Blue Town Heritage Centre!

The centre can be found at 69 High Street, Blue Town, Sheerness, ME12 1RW, and can be contacted on 01795 662981.

It's well worth a visit (and not just to buy our book!), as it's a fascinating place to find out more about the Isle of Sheppey, its history, and upcoming plans for its future.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Launch!

On Friday 21st September, we officially launched our beloved project as a paperback book - A Roof Over Their Heads!

As part of the Promenade 2012 events, the Sheppey Writing Workshop were invited to give a reading in front of Mayor of Swale Pat Sandle, MP Gordon Henderson, and an audience who were offered traditional cream teas for elevenses!

To start, Geof Reed, the man who organised the Roof Over Their Heads project, as well as Jo Eden, one of our writers, entertained us with a rousing rendition of the beautiful Summertime from Porgy and Bess. If you would like to hear Jo sing (and it's certainly worth it), she will, I'm sure, be engaged in events all over the island in the coming months.

We have sold out of our first run of books, but don't worry, we're taking orders for more! If you would like to buy a copy, you can do so through Lulu;jsessionid=4AAFDC370536D709B4F9C28E7A520936

It will soon be available through Amazon as well.

Alternatively, you can contact me ( to order a copy (you never know, we may even sign it for you!).

We hope to be stocking the book in local shops soon, and we will be updating this page as exciting new things happen!

I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved for making this project come to life. Here's to the next one!

Friday, 24 August 2012

A Roof Over Their Heads - Available as an eBook!

If you like to read your books electronically, A Roof Over Their Heads is now available for all eReaders including Kindle, Nook, and in pdf so you can read it on your phone or computer! How exciting is that?

To download from

To download from

To download from Smashwords (all formats):

The paperback will be available from Amazon soon, but can currently be bought through

Saturday, 4 August 2012

We Have A Book!

After months of hard work, meetings, research, more meetings, and of course writing, the Sheppey Writing Workshop has produced the paperback version of A Roof Over Their Heads.

We think this is a great achievement! What better feeling than to have created something that started from nothing but an idea and a group of like-minded people? To see a project through from initial conception to finally being able to hold a physical copy of the book in our hands?

And now, because we're so proud of it, we want everyone else to see our hard work and be able to hold a copy of the book (or download the eBook, if that's your preference!)...

The book will soon be available to buy from Amazon in paperback and Kindle versions, and Smashwords in other eBook formats (Nook, pdf, Epub, LTF, PDB, RTF, and HTML). As soon as the process is complete, we will put links here to where it is being sold.

In September, we will be taking part in the Sheppey Promenade event, and will be selling and signing copies of the book in Blue Town, at the Heritage Centre. More on that to come in a future blog post!

Next step: we'll be contacting local shops and libraries, museums and places of interest, to ask them if they would like to stock A Roof Over Their Heads.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Blue Town Heritage Centre - Have You Been?

It's been a while since we posted any news, but a lot has been happening recently, and the A Roof Over Their Heads project is nearing completion. The stories have been edited, checked and, as I type, are about to be double-checked. The cover is coming together and taking shape. The eBook is being formatted.

Exciting stuff!

And even more exciting is our launch for the book. The Blue Town Heritage Centre in Sheerness is providing the Isle of Sheppey with entertainment this September, in the form of the Promenade 2012. In conjunction with the Sheppey Little Theatre, the What the Dickens? themed festival will be open to everyone, and will share the history, nature, and people of this fascinating island in Kent. There will be talks, open houses, film screenings and much, much more, including us! Yes, the A Roof Over Their Heads writing group will be launching our special and Sheppey themed book during this event.

We will be available for readings, questions, and book signings, and you can walk away with a first edition copy of the finished product. It's a unique collection of stories, and you should be able to recognise many of the streets and places and buildings mentioned within it. Maybe even some of the characters, as some of them can be found in past census listings and so actually existed!

The Blue Town Heritage Centre is a stunning example of what people can achieve when they have love for a place. A TARDIS of a building, I certainly did not expect to find a cinema, music hall, cafe, and museum inside when I first visited.

Did you know all that existed in Blue Town?

The cinema can hold up to one hundred people, and shows recent films on the first Friday of every month - and the prices are great. Where else can you pay £5 to see a film, and get tea and cake at the same time? In July, they are showing The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel which is well worth seeing. Not only this, but the cinema can be hired privately - contact Jenny for information (01795 662981).

The Blue Town Heritage Centre also hosts other events. They are currently running a model exhibition. Our very own Geof Reed is starring in a play bout Hogarth's drunken trip around Sheppey. There's a Laurel and Hardy film evening coming up in July, and it's only £1!

The centre is easy to find in Blue Town, and there is plenty of easy, free parking. So why not do yourself a favour, and pop in for a visit? There's so much going on, you're bound to find something that you're interested in.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

We Won The War, Didn't We? by James Apps

(This is a story based on the fragmented memories of my childhood immediately after WWII and is more or less centred my experiences at age five.  Mixed in are memories of a retrospective nature as information about the Holocaust, the Atomic bombs and the Japanese POW camps became common knowledge. I was allowed to read newspapers from when I was a small child and if the tale seems to exclude my father that is because he was a working all hours he could and was often away until he worked locally.)

 We won the War, didn't we?

The first time I realised what had happened was when my parents and my uncles and aunts answered my questions. At my primary school we played a game of Us against the Nasties, in which only the rotten kids got to play the part of the Nasties and the rest played Us.  The rotten kids ran away and hid so it was more of Us pretending and running around like five and six years olds do, full of energy and excitement, chanting “we won the war” and me wondering what on earth it was all about. I knew there was bombs and airplanes, and I had seen the tanks and armoured cars in Rochester being driven across the bridge.  I had spoken shyly with the men who had marched in a column up the hill past our place and listened to the strange language, and seen the soldiers with   shouldered rifles looking on disapprovingly when one of the men handed me a small bar of dar chocolate and ruffled my hair.
            I was there at the party when the soldiers led the singing of Ten Green Bottles, and gave us tea-cakes and strange sweet tasting concoctions to drink and eat with real spoons. It was a magic time when all the grown-ups were happy and there was grown-up things going on and lights on so I was told. It was later when my aunts and uncles came back in uniforms that I had the idea something big was happening. It, the war was over, the sirens were silent and I remember magic things happening.  We had bananas, half of one each and at first I wondered what they were but the delicious smell was so nice and eating my share was a treat almost as good as having an egg for breakfast, a real one that is, with the shell, runny in the centre and buttered soldiers to dip in the centre. The runny yellow yolk was too nice to miss and with a little salt and pepper,  egg on Sunday morning was a breakfast to look forward to.
            But, back to the school and the chanting children. I had an idea what was happening but no real idea of what had happened.  I had to ask the questions.  I wanted to know who We were and who were the Nasties we didn't like and had obviously beaten.
            Mum explained that it was Hitler and his 'mob' the Nazi's and told me that We were the British and the Americans and explained about how Canada, and Australia and New Zealand had helped out and how Nanny and us had been saved by all of them, which was sweet of her.  She was patient and answered more of my questions and told me about what had happened and how Hitler, and not a Charlie Chaplin lookalike had invaded Europe, attacked Russia and wanted to take over England.  She told me about Winston Churchill, ignoring Stalin and for the Americans only told me about Eisenhower.  She didn't mention the Japanese, or India, or anything about China. She told me about my uncle Sid who came back off the beaches in one of the so-called little boats arriving at Sheerness, half dead from exhaustion, his lungs contaminated by fumes and oil who years later had a large and second family, but at the time was unfit for combat although later he went off again. 
            I listened, I heard stories and always I recall our house was full of service uniforms as the war ended and relatives found their own homes. My uncle Sid and my cousin David lived with us for a while which was fun and at that time my two brothers were toddling around as well. What with me, my Mum and Dad and our Grandmother the house was crowded.
            But we had won the war.
            We had rationing.
            Some parts of our town were rubble filled craters.
            The Army and the Navy were there in numbers and most things we bought were what my Mum described as 'utility'.  School was magic, the smell of pencils, the books and blackboards, sitting at desks, and Christmas when we gave a present and got one in return. The gift of packs of dried fruit from Australia, the singing and the fun of the Jungle Jim in the playground.  It was idyllic  for a small boy trying to make sense of things.
            Slowly I heard about the atrocities carried out by the Japanese, the Italians in North Africa, the battles in Italy, and of course the two Atomic bombs.  I began to read the newspapers not understanding much of it at first but the more I read the more I understood.  One day I saw a picture that shocked me. It was in a paper my uncle had left laying on the table.
            Men in pyjamas, men so thin and wasted they looked like the stick people we drew in our pictures, men and women and then further in I saw there were children, skinny, hollow eyed, staring and all wearing little more than rags. I saw a name. Belsen.  I read about these stick people and learned the name Jews and thought then of Jesus, he was a Jew but in the pictures in our bible and at the church he didn't look like that.  I was so absorbed that when a noise behind me was loud enough to startle me I turned away from the awful pictures and the writing to see my uncle standing looking at me.
            “I'm sorry Jimmy, you should not have seen that,” he said and began to gather up the paper.
            “Why not? Those people, are they real? And what happened to them? Who did that to them?” I asked and stood waiting, as a determined child does, for an answer.
            He shrugged his shoulders and as if coming to a difficult decision he said: “All right, I'll tell you but let's go outside in the sunshine.”
            And outside sitting on a scullery chair each he told me about the Nazis and Hitler, and the men, and women, who had allowed such a thing to happen.  He told me how nasty our playground Nasties really were and showed me some of the pictures and explained what they meant.  We fell silent for a while and watched the chickens scratching in the dirt of the shed and our ginger cat stretch in the sun, yawn and go back to his snoozing.  Those people, those Jews, were like the chickens; all the time they were useful they lived but, as soon as they were too weak to work they were killed off.  I shudder at the comparison.  They too were consigned to the ovens.  The difference was that we fed our chickens properly and when we had one for dinner it had been looked after before we – well, murdered it.
            These people were not even fed properly.
            “How many?” I asked.
            “We don't know.” He said.
            And then of course I asked the difficult question: “Why would people want to do such a dreadful thing?”
            Again he shrugged his shoulders and fell silent staring bleakly into the distance and it was a long time before he spoke.
            “I have no idea why,” he said.
            My uncle wept.
            I looked up at the house, the slate roof on top of the yellow and red brick and, knowing that, like my uncle had said those poor people had nowhere to go, I was glad of the roof over our heads; glad also that now my questions were in part answered.  
            Yes, We had won the war.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Extract from Fleeting Shadows by Lisamarie Lamb

Emma carefully put her head out of the small gap in the door of the Hansom cab. “Are we there?” Knowing full well that they were not, knowing that they were a walk away from the Victoria Club yet, Emma’s heart jumped a little – what arduous issue was rearing up now? Why was nothing ever simple anymore? She wondered if it ever had been.
“Not exactly, Miss.” The driver, John McDonald, shuffled from one foot to the other, turning his cap in his hands. “It’s just… There’s a bit of a commotion up ahead, and the horse won’t like waiting. I know it’s a liberty, Miss, but if the horse gets afeared and bolts I could lose my carriage. And there’s ever such a long line of cabs ahead of us.”
“A commotion?” Emma was curious, so much so that she forgot to be annoyed at the delay. She could hear, now that she had been informed of it, a strange kind of chanting coming from further up the road. “What is it? What is everyone waiting for?” Chanting reminded her of her time in Africa, among the tribes in the wilderness, but this was not the same. This was not the comforting charm of old traditions. This was angry. This was scared.
“Oh, nothing much, I wouldn’t have thought. But whatever it is is in the road.” The man clearly wanted to say something more; his mouth was opening slightly and then clicking closed before any words that he might regret could escape.
Emma chose not to watch his discomfort any longer, even though it did amuse her. And she thought she knew what he was trying to say. “If you cannot take your animal any further, then perhaps you might escort me to the door of the club? I would appreciate it very much.”  
  The smile that broke across the scruffy man’s face told Emma that yes, she had guessed correctly. She stepped from the carriage, being careful not to tread on the freshly stitched hem of her newly made dress, and took the driver’s arm, linking it with hers. “Shall we?” she said, indicating the Victoria Club, the red brick work and creamy corner stones that Emma could see a little way ahead of them. She could also see a gathering of people standing outside, and was that… could she see placards waving in the air?
“If you would rather, Miss, I could take you home again.”
Emma shook her head before she had considered the driver’s offer. She shook her head again, more slowly, when she had had time to digest it. “No, no, I shan’t do that.” She looked at the man and smiled. “I have been looking forward to this ball for some time.” She winked, and, flustered, John McDonald stepped forward, taking Emma with him, almost making her stumble with the sudden force of the movement.
As the pair drew closer to the Victoria Club they could make out the building bedecked with lanterns and baubles, fluttering flags and streaming ribbon decorations in various shades of gold and black. It looked as expensive as the invitation had. It looked rich. It looked, in other words, like Cedric Greet.
But the crowd gathered outside was not the usual group of curious spectators, wanting to see who was attending, wanting to stare in awe at the dresses, at the glamour, at those luckier than they were. Emma knew those people. She had, in her youth, been one of them. Before she realised that it was better to be watched than to be watching.
This crowd was loud. It was moving. It was stamping its feet and waving large wooden signs. It was not happy.
Emma squeezed the driver’s arm, stopping him before they were noticed. “I should put my mask on,” she explained. “The invitation states that it must be worn upon arrival, worn until Sir Cedric makes his speech and we are told that it can be removed.” She slipped the mask over her face, instantly feeling strangely anonymous, even though half of her face was still on show, and most likely recognisable. To some, at least. To a number, she imagined. To everyone if they could see her scar.
 As they approached the crowd they could see now that it was marching, in a circle, out across the Broadway, the road in front of the Victoria Club, thus preventing traffic from passing in either direction. Impatient carriage drivers shook their heads, shouted, cursed, as even more impatient horses stamped their hooves on the cobbles, snorting exhalations of furious breath.
But more impatient than all of these were the men and woman within the carriages. Dressed up, masked, excited, invitations clutched in expectation – and hope – of showing them to someone, anyone. Emma craned her neck as she passed the ones on her side of the blockade and discovered that she knew the names of some of the people within. “Mrs Jones!” she called out, “Miss Baker! Pay your drivers and follow me! Take to the streets, the walk is not far and whatever these people are protesting against surely won’t affect us!”
But no one exited their carriages. No one dared.
And as Emma and her driver drew up to the circling protesters she could see why she was the only one. The anti–masquerade brigade had found Sheerness, preaching about the evils of a masked ball, and handing out crudely printed pamphlets, detailing exactly what they knew to happen at these wicked celebrations, with illustrations, to anyone who happened to pass by. Their placards, raised high in the air and bobbing up and down were brief and damning; Ban this Foreign Influence! Masks are Immoral! We are Civilised in England!

Marie by James Apps

When we heard the news there was silence.
                Marie was dead!
                I felt a cold grip on my heart and tears came easily.  The whole village stopped for a moment, shocked, people whispered.
                Marie’s dead!
                The bright girl behind the Co-op counter.  The lively voice in the gaslit shop with its stacked goods and filled shelves. The smell of her scent was a honeysuckle bloom in a kerosene heated room with clean sawdust on the floor adding to the musk magic aroma.
                I saw her laying pale on the road.
                She was surrounded by young men, frightened young faces and two sobbing girls. I saw her from the bus seat and I knew. Death has a way of saying ‘I am here mortal’.  Death and funerals bring rain. It was raining, a fine rain that drenched with its persistence, wetting everything under lowering clouds. The bus eased past moving down the hill on the wrong side of the road and there was not an eye that didn’t look at the sadness on the wet road.  We looked at each other before the bus pulled in to the last stop. Daft Colin was at the terminal waiting to direct the bus.  He wore a slickered raincoat and Al Jolson gloves and as soon as the bus moved from the stop to turn around he began his hand waving. 
                The driver stopped the bus and spoke quietly to him. Colin visibly slumped and with his hand folded across his chest he walked slowly off. I watched him go and walked quietly with my mother across the road and on up the hill.
                Marie was dead.
                Later we found out what happened. She was riding with a bunch of cyclists down Brake’s hill and her front wheel hit something, they said, and she wobbled across the centre line at high speed. She bounced off the unforgiving side of a car crawling up the hill and flipped over the top to smash against the tarmac. Her friends tried to help her but it was too late.
                Marie was dead.
                She was going to be married to one of the young cyclists. Had all her life before her. What a lovely girl! Such a shame that one so young should.... The whole village talked about her, said how they had last spoken to her. So unexpected, tragic, a loss.  The village mourned and so did I.
                But I didn’t know her.
                And yet I will never forget that pale face on the wet road.
                Marie was dead.  

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Extract from Groene Vitriool by Jo Eden

When I first came to live on Sheppey in October 2008, I started to research the Island’s ecology and history.  One of the many things I discovered was that a substance called copperas was processed here on quite a large scale in the 16th C and even up to the 19th Century. Copperas was a very important commodity, with many commercial uses, bringing wealth to England and in particular to Queenborough.  I found a very short reference to a man named Mathias Falconer, by historian William Lambard in his “Perambulations of Kent”, written in 1570.  Falconer was a Dutch immigrant who started processing copperas at Queenborough.  It is thought to be the earliest known reference to a chemical factory in Britain. This is my imagining of his story.

A Reading from a Letter locked in a small iron box, which was dug from a trench, during the archaeological excavation of Queenborough Castle in 2005.   It was addressed to Anna Falconer, closed with the seal of Mathias Falconer.

My Dear Anna,

Before I am laid in my grave, I am compelled to write this letter to you as my dear wife.  It has come to you sealed with instructions “To be opened by you alone after my death”.   There’s a dreadful ache in the sinews in my old hands, which makes this all the harder to write, but I must try to set things right by you, before it is too late.

I know that you have always shared with me a deep love of the flat heath-lands around the home we built together back in Brabant, in our Dutch motherland in the year 1545.

You were my companion and help through the years I spent learning my trade as an alchemical engineer, working with what to you was the accursed copperas.   In truth, I wished only to give the best support I could to our little family.   But you know it became impossible for us to worship as our consciences saw fit, because the Spaniards still ruled North Brabant.

Oh Anna, I remember you fondly as a young woman of 20, dressed all in white and pink for our wedding day, what a joyous day that was!  And do you remember that Christmas-time when we visited your cousins in Antwerp?  The goose was so fat we thought it would not be cooked in time for the festive meal.  The trees were all dressed in white and the bells were ringing out when we took our little Pieter tobogganing for the first time after morning church.  How he loved it!  Reluctant as you were, but brave woman that you are, you took a turn on the sled, and how you laughed when you fell into that snowdrift and came out looking like a snow-woman, with your bright red nose!

Ah yes, we had some happiness in our years together and I was reluctant to take you and our beloved Pieter, who was then but seven years old, to England, against your wishes, but I felt it was for the best.  I believed it would give us freedom from religious persecution, and give us the chance to build a better quality of life.   And it did give us those things, did it not, Anna?
Think what a guileful Act the Pope decreed, to make Antwerp the only place where copperas could be bought!  Hah, those Papists sowed up the market as tight as a duck’s arse!  So, in the year of ‘65, when the Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth of England offered up monopolies to “certain Dutch Mynerall men”, I had to take the chance to come to England.  I am proud to be one of those few men charged by the English Crown with the task of seeking places which yielded the stones to make copperas.  Aye, that was the same year that the Spaniards sent their Armada against the English fleet, and were defeated by the clever strategies of Drake and our Queen.

I won’t forget what a time of unease and triumph that was!  Stalwart fishermen from Queenborough, Leysdown, and Minster were called to sail with Drake for their country in 11 small ships, such a time!

Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself.  So it was that, in ‘73, I fetched up with you and Pieter at Queenborough on the Isles of Sheppey, and we were furnished with very serviceable quarters, at the Castle.   I had found that copperas stones were indeed plentiful on the Minster and Warden shores.

Those heavy, knobbly, dull grey pebbles, full of iron.  Only when they are broken open and exposed to the air and sea-water, do you see their true essence.   Pale green globules like fish eggs lie on the cut grey-green surface which shines like metal.  Your nostrils pick up the faint but unwholesome bad-egg smell of brimstone.  Peuch - and it has a nauseous taste! You didn’t know what copperas was at that time, and God knows you always hated it after! But I still think it is almost a magical substance!

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Flora A. Wisdom by Geof Reed

(Flora in the kitchen 1917)

Come in, come in stop mauldin at the door.  That’ll do.  Keep off that damp floor you lot I’ve just washed it and I haven’t time or patience to do it again.

Come for the job, have you?  My job?  Well, you’re welcome to it.  Been upstairs?  Spoken with Mr Woolmer?  What’s up, cat got your tongues?  Well I suppose you ‘ave.  So I’ve got to tell you what it entails?  Hmm.  (Looks at the audience dissatisfied)  I know there’s a war on and every able-bodied person and some that ain’t have either volunteered by now or else they’re doing the jobs that were left, but you lot?  Are you sure?  I mean there’s a lot of graft in this job.  Up before six because that bloody thing (pointing at the stove) never stays in over-night, cooking , cleaning, washing - yes cleaning and washing as well as the cooking –I know there used to be two or three of us a couple of years back but them days are long gone so you’ll be on your own now.  Are you sure you’re up to it?  I don’t want to be rude but some of you looks a bit long in the tooth.  No offence.  Oh well, you knows what’s what, I suppose.

Well I’ve got ten minutes to give you but I’ll have to carry on with this (indicates the chicken she is stuffing) while I talk to you otherwise I won’t get finished ‘til mid-night.

I suppose you must need the money. What are you offered? Twenty eight?  Well, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs.  That’s three quid a year more than I’m getting! (sniffs)  Oh well, domestics aren’t so easy to come by what with one thing and another.  Twenty eight?  When I first started, 1901, the old Queen had just died, seven pound  ten I got.  Seventeen and just up from Dover and as green as grass.  First time away from home.  Mind you what with three brothers a step Da and no room of my own I was pleased to go, know what I mean? 

Oh but I did love my little room upstairs as soon as I saw it.  Plain it was but clean and over the kitchen so it was warm - and only sharing with one other girl.  I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.  Sarah, the one in with me, was jolly enough, she’d been to India, you know, father in the army. She’d tell such stories I didn’t know what was true and what was fibs but I didn’t care: India, Australia, Canada, Africa well a lot of it anyway, they were all ours and the furthest I’d ever gone was from Dover to Sheerness!   That’s not right – I knew I was going to see some of these places myself before I got too old. But there was another one, a nurse see, older and snooty, thought she was better than us.  Emma Paine were her name – Paine by name and pain by nature – and you know where! Must have her own room and wouldn’t speak to us except to find fault and always running to the master with tales about something or other until even he got fed up with it - you’d have thought she was the mistress.  Me and Sarah were always giggling  – well you got to, haven’t you? - but I never saw Madam Muck crack her face once.  Mind you she didn’t last long.  Looking back I can see she was lonely.  Didn’t fit in, see?   Neither fish nor fowl.  Talking of which if I don’t get this in that oven there’ll be no lunch and then there’d be trouble.

Don’t look so worried they’re alright (nodding upstairs)  You’ve met Mr Woolmer.  Good as gold. Like most of ‘em along here officer in the navy. In charge of the stores or something.  They come and go see.  Mostly two or three years before the Navy hoiks ’em off somewhere else and then somebody new moves in.  Well the married ones like to live a step away from the docks where they work and Blue Town of course what with all the pubs and the music hall and the...well you know what I mean.  And full of Tommies and Blue Jacks – rough as rough some of ‘em especially when they’d had a few.  They’re not always respectful to the officers when they go by especially if they’d got the missus with ‘em.  Well it’s a funny thing that when  they’re single Blue Town’s  “got a bit of life to it” and they’re happy to stay but as soon as they’re married they’re after somewhere respectable so as to not offend the missus.  Mind you some of this lot along here, her up at 69 for example well...(pulls face) The new tenants don’t always keep us on but they usually do – well it depends if they brought a domestic with them or not.  The thing is we know the ropes and they don’t  (taps her nose).  Best to always try and keep it like that.  (Lowers her voice) When the new master  moved in a I remember him saying (adopts posh voice)  “I see that there’s a new provisions store opened in the High Street.  I would like to offer them our trade”.  Well, I had to knock that on the ‘ead straight away.  I mean Dudley Grout’s has always given me good service and very particular at Christmas (pause) about dropping off a consideration, (pause, audience hasn’t understood) for me  (pause and then with further emphasis) what chinks. Oh don’t worry – you’ll pick it up.

I miss Sarah.  Been gone three, no four years.  Married.  So that’s the end of her.  Her husband wont let her see me.  Says I’m a bad influence!  Me!  That’s a laugh. We used to go out together though it was difficult to get the same day off we could manage the evenings quite regular.  Just walking up and down the prom was good enough, what with the docks it was so exciting.  And Sarah!  She told me to take her arm and to hold on no matter what.  And then we’d go into Blue Town.  She was so brazen. She’d give the Tommies as good as she got.  I’d thought I’d die of embarrassment at first so I just tuck my head in to her armpit.  But I soon got the hang of it.  It was all just messing about.  And if the blokes got too, insistent, we’d just walk away.  I mean there were a lot of other girls ready to oblige.  To be honest we could take or leave the blokes but we loved the music hall. What’s his name? The manager of the Hippodrome?  Fred Leighton. Used to live down at 67, would slip us a couple of tickets (adopting a theatrical voice) “always room for a couple of “respectable” girls in my palace of varieties”.  And the way he’d say “respectable” would make us laugh.  Well, he’s gone so no more free tickets and no Sarah to go with but I still goes, on me own if I have too.  (Excited)  Oh I went to see Marie Lloyd a month ago, Marie Lloyd, and it weren’t the stalls neither.  Sixpence I paid, in the plush seats.  I’ve never done that before but it was worth every penny. She was brilliant.  The way everybody looked at her.  Usually there’s a lot of backchat and calling out to the acts, that’s why some of the fellas go, to show off how clever they are.  But not that night, not when Marie’s on stage.  Not only were they not talking I’d swear some of the men weren’t even breathing – red-faced and sweating they were.  And when some bloke did say something, something about her getting too old and fat to show her legs off like that, a Blue Jack in front turned round and laid him out there and then.  There was general cheering and then she said, quick as a flash, “it’s always gratifying to see at least one gentleman in the house”.  The place went mad.  I know what those suffragetes want, a fair deal for women, and I agree with ‘em, of course I do, but when I saw the power that Marie Lloyd had, especially over the men, I thought, there’s more than one way of skinning a cat.

Talking of women, what about the tram eh?  Talking of being knocked down by a feather! There I was, up by the Clock Tower, when along it comes regular as Beechams Pills on the quarter of an hour and there she was with curly hair and lipstick taking the fares.  Well. And she helped me off with the shopping outside.  I don’t know why I was surprised. Is there a job we’re not doing? Working in the docks, in the factories I hear they’ve even got women in the mines: the only job that is too much for us is scrawling an x on a piece of paper – now that’s man’s work! (sniffs)

Daft Colin by James Apps

The trouble with Colin was that nobody took him seriously.  Not that taking him seriously was easy, you had to look deeper than the surface. In the days when he walked the lanes of our village the pace of life was slower the hill was steeper and not many vehicles made it further than half way up. Those that did make it most of the way zig-zagged and turned where the coalman’s horse and cart finished his round.

The day the bakers van tipped over and spilled its load we ate free cakes and buns. Colin a man sized child with a simple face stuffed them down his face joyfully and took those he couldn’t eat home to his Aunt. Everybody knew Colin was daft but he wasn’t stupid.

He wore a brown button up jacket over his shirt and tie and neat grey slacks creased down to a proper pair of socks that filled his sturdy brogues. He was always polite and doffed his hat to all the ladies. Manners, said his maiden aunt, maketh man.  He was a big man and not very active, simple in his ways and although we children could have made fun of him we didn't; we realised that upsetting him hurt him more than it did others.  Colin's happy smile was a reward for kind words, and besides, if we upset him we risked a whacking from our Dad and another from his Aunt.  He wasn't the village idiot, but more the village pet; a poor unfortunate to be cared for.
In the summer and on kinder winter days Colin stood at the bottom of the hill directing traffic. The half hourly bus was his special joy and mostly the drivers would let him direct them as they turned around for the journey back to town.  Sometimes other drivers abused him or made to run him down and Colin would stand on the sidewalk tearful and scared. Not understanding. Often’ as if making up for their fellow's human failings the bus drivers or conductors would give him lollies. And then Colin and the world was happy blessed by his sunny child like smile.

Now Colin is long dead and where he used to stand and wave his arms there is a traffic island.  Black rubber tyre marks smear its smooth surface and litter dances on the asphalt covering. Yellow and white lines divide the road and where there was once a house and a pond with a Bullace plum tree hanging dreamily over the water there is a neon lit tavern.

I stood on the island waiting for a gap in the traffic intending to cross the road and have a drink in the new plastic fantastic pub. And then Colin was there stopping the local bus on it way up the hill with one purposeful hand raised, and a smile on his face.

Thank you Colin, I said, thank you, officer.

Thank you, driver, he said.

I smiled and walked easily across the road knowing I was in safe hands.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Being A 'Roofer' by James Apps

I suppose now that the project, A Roof Over Their Heads, is well under way; the stories finished and the post production process started we who could be termed as “Roofers” need to look at what is next.  For me the project has opened up new ways of expressing myself, offered a clearer focus for stories about the place I live.

I remember some years back as a mature student at Auckland University being asked to write a short piece about my home projected from today back through memories of my childhood. It was a strange experience to suddenly recall a story that popped out of my memory complete with the images that impinged on my mind of the time.  There was a girl, a popular and pretty girl the local lads swarmed around who, as far as I can remember worked at the local Co-op shop and taught at Sunday school.  She was part of a local cycling club and was one of those girls whose personality and presence in the village turned heads; young men admired her, parents thought much of her and she was one who all, in their way loved. She was always a happy, friendly face behind the counter when we went to spend our pocket money and always seemed patient and kind to us scruffy herberts.  Marie was a much loved personality. 

The day that all ended as far as I remember when my Mother and I were coming home on the bus from Chatham to Walderslade, our village.  We had to stop at the top of Brakes Hill and move slowly past a stopped car and cyclists standing around with another of their number laying, pale and still on the road.  I cannot remember what age I was but I was very young but I knew who it was and I remember the shock of seeing her so still and knew I would never see her again.  I think I was about six, a little while before we trudged off to Canada. 

I was right, we did not see her again and I remember how shocked and grieved was the whole village at Marie's loss.  No more would her pleasant smile grace the shop counter, adding to the magic of the gas heaters and the smell of foods and spices, the rattle of the sweet jars, the sawdust on the wooden floor and the mystery of the ration book coupons.

Writing as a “Roofer” has unlocked the memory of the University exercise taken during a demanding Creative Writing course and shown me a different way of presenting those memories.  In that little tale I had to put myself in the scene and although I was tempted to fictionalise the tale I kept to what I truly felt of the time.  In all such stories the mind has time to sort out the chronological sequence and although it is a vignette of what may have been written it does have a beginning, an end and a middle although it is circular.   In effect it is a mind and memory re-visited. Which, I believe is what we have done in the Roof Over Their Heads project, excepting that we have taken historical memories and created stories around them.

Also, as part of the same exercise we were asked to write about the same place re-visited as an adult.  I had made a journey back to the UK to visit my father and family and had a chance to use the bus from Chatham to Walderslade and then to walk up to Lordswood where my Sister and my Father lived.  The village had changed; the dreaded steep hill, the first section of Robin Hood Lane, was no longer the killer slope it used to be for the modern vehicle.  The memory of the baker's van, a three wheeled Trojan that had to zig-zag to reach the cottages above our house, or the cars that could only manage halfway came back to me as I watched vehicles drive up and down easily.  The wide turning space the busses used when I was a child was gone, and the house that used to be there was now a pub all plastic and anonymous décor, and the village was a small shopping centre.  The old church hall was gone, the post office and store with its fine Silver Birches was no more yet some of the older houses remained. I saw the house where the man I will call Colin lived with his Aunt; the man who at forty or more was still a child.  In those days when I was a child he would direct the traffic and nobody minded. He used to guide the busses as they turned although most drivers didn't need his help. In a less politically correct time we would describe him as “retarded” but I never knew what it was that was wrong with him, we just accepted him.

Now, I have two short tales; one about Marie and the other about Colin.