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 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.