Illustration by Jade Spranklen
People may have seen the Whitstable Whistler. It’s a new magazine that first appeared in April 2021, given away for free at various venues around the town. It is published by Brightside publishing and is one of a nest of magazines from around the coast, including the Margate Mercury, the Ramsgate Recorder, the Broadstairs Beacon and the Deal Despatch (they like to alliterate their titles). The Margate Mercury has been going since 2016 and won the Highly Commended Magazine of the Year award in the Kent Press and Broadcast Awards in 2020.
I write a regular column, called Written in Stone. People will recognise the title as I’ve used it before. (It was suggested to me by Chris Rowden in the Labour Club many years ago, and I’ve been using it ever since.)
Unlike other free titles, the Whistler pays its contributors. This ensures that the quality of the writing is always first class: a good model for the future of publishing, both in print and online.
My column is loosely based around my life here in Whitstable, on my friends, and on hidden aspects of the town. I’m particularly keen to give the less fashionable parts a mention. Everyone talks about Harbour Street; how many pay attention to Lucerne Drive?
Anyway, following are my first three columns for the magazine, with links to where you can find the originals.
A dose of Whitstable life, past and present
I moved to Whitstable in 1984. You could call me a DFB – Down From Birmingham – except that the previous place I lived was St Pauls in Bristol. Before that I lived in Humberside, and before that, again, Cardiff, South Wales.
If you look on the map you’ll see that all of these places are on estuaries. I don’t quite know why I am drawn to this particular topography. I guess, coming from a big, old industrial city in the Midlands, it was the openness of the landscape that appealed to me: the big skies and restless seas, the spaciousness and fresh air. When I moved to Whitstable I was immediately at home.
The town I moved into was scruffy, friendly, old fashioned – and completely undiscovered.
There was a menswear shop on the High Street called Hatchards which was like stepping into the past. It was a haven of old, dark wood, a nest of drawers behind glass counters, with three assistants with tapes around their necks eager to take your measure. They were like living adverts for the stock, kitted out in snazzy waistcoats, with neat ties and shirts with immaculate sleeves and cufflinks.
They sold flat caps and homburgs, trousers with turn-ups, silk cravats, braces, belts, and other accessories, and they would measure your waist for a pair of underpants. You could get all sorts in there: Oxford shirts, leather gloves, long-johns, fleecy pyjamas, all filed away in those drawers which lined the walls from floor to ceiling.
Just up the road at number 37, there was a newsagent stuffed to the rafters with old newspapers and unsold stock from the 60s: jigsaw puzzles, puzzle books and grimy magazines that only the manager would read.
There were – let me think – three bakers, three greengrocers, three butchers, several newsagents, sweet shops, tobacconists, hardware shops, bookshops, electrical shops, furniture shops, clothes shops, and cafés. It was a fully functioning high street. Sadly, few of the shops have survived.
I was talking to Jim on the bus the other day. Jim runs Canterbury Rock in Canterbury. He’s married to Belinda who used to run Herbaceous on Oxford Street, where one of the new barbers has since taken over.
Herbaceous was a unique shop, unlike anything that has been seen before or since. It sold health food, herbs and spices, herbal medicine, bamboo socks, Buddhist statues, incense, incense burners, window decorations, candles and a host of other arcane and interesting items of a distinctly heathen nature.
More than this: it was a gathering place for the whole of the Whitstable community. Belinda was like the oracle of Oxford Street. You would go there to consult her on the auguries. She knew everything that was happening in the town and it was impossible to pass her shop without popping in for a chat. She was forced to close after 17 years, once her rent had gone up beyond what she could afford.
These days Belinda is one of the trustees for the Stream Walk Community Garden. Still keeping the community spirit. Still reading the auguries. Let’s hope it stays that way.
Story first appeared here.
The smallest shop in Kent (possibly)
Mosaic on Harbour Street is probably the smallest shop in Kent. It’s a bit like the Tardis in reverse: seemingly smaller on the inside than on the outside, you duck your head through the door and step down into a Hobbit-cave of ethnic wonder, with a fascinating array of art, clothing and jewellery, all hidden away in two tiny rooms. It’s like stepping into another dimension.
The first time I ever went into the shop Shernaz, the owner, addressed me by name and asked if I had written any more books recently. She had obviously been paying attention.
I met her on the train to London once and we had an engaging conversation about various philosophical matters. It was then that she told me that she came from a Parsi family. I was very impressed.
For those of you who don’t know: the Parsis are the remnants of the ancient Zoroastrian religion who fled to India from Persia after the Muslim takeover.
Their priests were called Magi, which is where we get our word “magic” from. The Three Wise Men of Biblical fame were probably Zoroastrian priests.
Shernaz was born in Calcutta of an Irish Lancastrian mother and a Parsi father. Her mum left when she was two and she was sent to a boarding school run by Catholic nuns in Darjeeling from the age of four. At ten her dad died and she was brought up by an aunt in Mumbai. You could say she’s had a heterodox upbringing.
As a young adult in Mumbai, she ran a column in the local English-language newspaper, and hosted a morning radio programme. She also helped set up an NGO whose mandates were women’s reproductive health and HIV disease control.
She came to Whitstable in 1988 on a visit. Coming down Borstal Hill for the first time, she thought, “I could live here!”
She moved to the town in 1999. She was very open-minded about what she might do for a living and, on the back of her work in Mumbai, applied for a position with one of the local papers. In her interview, she criticised the paper and suggested a number of improvements. The editor said, “You want my job!”
Eventually she settled for opening a fair trade shop utilising stock she got from the women’s cooperatives she had worked with back in India. It was very Indiacentric at first but has since broadened its range to include any fair trade goods, as well as work by local artists. She also makes and designs stuff herself.
Shernaz remains a campaigner. We went for a walk one day and she was picking up bits of plastic from the beach to turn into art with her grandchildren. Making art out of waste. It’s part of her philosophy.
Mosaic still has ethical sourcing at its root. Shernaz is there most days and is usually willing to stop for a chat about the things she’s interested in.
A woman after my own heart!
Story first appeared here.
The Naked Truth
I’m sitting in the Labour Club with two old friends, Alan and Sharon Smithers. We’re in the garden, perched on raised chairs at a table built around a post, which means that, as Alan is sitting opposite me, we both have to peer around to see each other. There’s a kind of peekaboo element to our conversation.
I’ve known these two for approaching 40 years. We met at the old Labour Club, when it used to be under the arches. Alan is dyslexic but a genius with his hands. He ran a business fixing jukeboxes and pinball machines, and the Labour Club wanted both.
He is old school Whitstable. He was born here, though his dad was from Catford. Sharon is from Ramsgate. I asked how they met, and Sharon giggled and blushed. Alan answered my question by looking Sharon in the eye. “The first time I saw you I knew you were the one for me,” he said.
“It was probably because I was smiling,” said Sharon.
As it happened, Alan was due to go abroad almost as soon as they got together. Sharon’s family weren’t keen on him. She was subjected to a barrage of abuse while he was away, which, of course, only made her more determined to follow her heart.
“You had to fight for me,” she said. “It was quite exciting.”
They’ve bought their council house on Lucerne Drive, which means that Alan has to work as a courier, despite being past retirement age. He also fixes Raleigh bikes and 2CVs and does occasional window cleaning jobs as well.
They have one child, Sam. He works as a chef. They are both immensely proud of him and what he has achieved.
Sharon also works. She’s an artist’s model. She does so without clothes. I was intrigued by this. Personally I would find posing naked excruciating, but Sharon says that, although she was shy at first, it gives her the confidence to be who she is.
She’s very good at it according to Alan, who keeps a gallery of her images on his phone: paintings, sculptures and photographs. The sculptures can take several days.
“How do you keep so still?” I ask.
“It’s my job,” she says. She puts herself in the zone. “I shut myself off, think about life, look out of the window…”
“It’s a form of meditation,” I suggest, and she agrees.
“Love it. Been doing it for 20 years.”
Alan says she’s very much in demand, and that some famous artists have asked for her. He’s obviously proud of what she does.
He tells me this story of a woman who insisted that she knew Sharon, even though she couldn’t have. “Everywhere we go people think they recognise her,” he says. “It’s because she smiles all the time.”
“I don’t want to be miserable,” says Sharon. “I’m happy everywhere I go. At least I get to meet people. At least people remember me.”
I certainly do, and am happy to call both of them my friends.
Story first appeared here
To contact Sharon go to: https://www.life-models.co.uk/sharon-smithers.php
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