Category Archives: Creative writing

Pepilepsy by Mark Jobanputra

One of a series of blog posts written by Brunel’s creative writing students, inspired by the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies.

Some individuals may find the topic covered in this blog post distressing. Should you require support please contact:

Brunel Students: Student support and welfare team

Non-Emergency NHS Helpline: 111

Samaritans: 116 123 (open 24 hours)

It’s getting faster, moving faster now, it’s getting out of hand. On the tenth floor, down the back stairs, it’s a no man’s land. Lights are flashing, cars are crashing, getting frequent now, I’ve got the spirit, lose the feeling, let it out somehow.

‘Disorder’, Joy Division, Closer. Factory Records, 1979 (lyrics Ian Curtis)

Such lyrics are electrifying and vivid, I am a rather electrifying and vivid person myself, so is my fellow epileptic bredrin, Ian Curtis of Joy Division. Divided between joy and sympathy, I’m unsure whether this character flaw is well and truly beneficial. I enjoy the freedom pass which allows me to journey through London without any incurred costs, but I cannot pass through true freedom (whatever that is). My brain is chained to this neurological defect, it infects my whole life. I enjoy the sympathy I get from women, but I know they don’t like me for me. I am their baby; I am not their baby. Why would they like the things I am called every day: a retard, a mong and a windowlicker? Why would anyone? Male or female. Who would? I don’t want to ruin anyone’s reputation, but I do because I’m me. Why is that? Oh wait, it’s because I have epilepsy. Most of the people in my life know nothing about it and seem to think my trigger is flashing lights. How cliched. What makes you think I can’t play videogames and go to concerts? What makes you think I can’t get drunk? What makes you think I’ll have a seizure straightaway whenever you repeatedly flash your iPhone torch in my eye? People are inconsiderate morons.

I want to be accepted, but I have to constantly justify myself. I have to prove myself, but I’m not sure how to improve when I have this condition. Although my father has good intentions, I am jailed and cannot move out in case it worsens. Maybe I’m jailed because of my epilepsy, maybe I am not, although it certainly feels like it. I am certain I can still drink, smoke, lift and run, but each one is dangerous. I just drink because…I just do. No that’s not it. It’s because I need acceptance from my friends and to seem more ‘adult’ to others. Mine is a Heineken, thank you. I smoke to help me concentrate, yes, I am aware it could kill me, however I would rather addiction kill me than the epilepsy, it means I can assume control. There is a 1 in 1000 chance of dying whenever I have a seizure, even if I take my lamotrigine, I am aware of it. If I have a seizure and don’t take my lamotrigine, the chance of death taking me by the hand increases to 1 in 150. I no longer lift despite how much stronger it made me; I don’t feel any stronger. I am strong physically, I can lift heavily to some extent, but I’m not strong enough to ask for someone to spot me, it would be far too awkward. I wouldn’t feel like I’m in control. Besides, who would want to help someone who isn’t ‘that disabled’ anyway? If a heavy weight fell on me, I would no longer have any sort of control left, I would be known as ‘that disabled guy.’ It became catch-22 ever since epilepsy caught me at age 22. I can still run, I guess. I used to run 5ks with ease, but I was always scared of having a seizure. Isolated from everyone else, left to foam at the mouth and have blood crawl down from my head to my lips, I can no longer take the risk. I am well and truly out of control.

Hmmm. Maybe I’m not as limited as I say I am. Am I just lazy? Have I become too complacent because of the epilepsy? Well, what feels like my brain is being electrocuted and constantly fried seems to force me into laziness and craziness. The gargling people hear whenever I have a seizure sounds like mouthwash keep continually swirling around and around in my mouth. I once had a seizure when I was partway through a sentence when talking to my friends on Discord. One of the women in the group chat told me to ‘shut the f*** up,’ although we were both oblivious to what happened. I was surprised she begged for my forgiveness, but I forgave her despite being unsure of what I was forgiving her for. I’d had no idea a seizure had occurred. How embarrassing.

I don’t want to keep on taking these pills, but I have to. I don’t want keep on having these existential crises, but I have to. I don’t wish to keep talking about my epilepsy because of how stigmatised it is, but I have to. Why do I have to talk about it? Well, people are going to have to be aware of what it is and aware of what to do when a seizure occurs. Why do I have to keep on talking about it? Well, I want to make my mark on public consciousness, specifically through writing. I have no other choice. Epilepsy is a contradictory disability, it can control you, but you can also control it. I will control it; I will beat any and all expectations expected of such a life altering disability. Maybe I shouldn’t call it epilepsy and instead call it pepilepsy for I must ensure I’m lively . . . You must be mad if you think I am a retard, maybe you are a retard yourself. We shall wait and see who prevails.

© Mark Jobanputra, 2020. All rights reserved.

‘Pepilepsy’ was inspired by ‘Fit For Anything’ by Wally Ward (2:798), in the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, Special Collections, Brunel Library, Brunel University London.

Author’s Note:

I decided to write Pepilepsy with the intention of highlighting the way(s) epilepsy, a frankly niche and misunderstood condition, has the ability to shape one’s life in a most negative manner. I am writing from my own personal experience having been diagnosed with epilepsy at age 22 (I am 26 as of writing this piece). I wouldn’t wish such a cursed condition on anyone, yes, even you. Although I personally feel cynical about this condition leaving me someday, Wally Ward’s memoir ‘Fit for Anything’ was the driving force in exploring epilepsy and the potential for ‘overcoming’ in this piece of writing about said neurological condition.

Mark Jobanputra is currently studying for an MA Creative Writing at Brunel University London. He tweets at @madstillainy

A Box of the Treasures by Claudette Dunkley

One of a series of blog posts written by Brunel’s creative writing students, inspired by the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies.

I remember the lady who lives opposite, on my street, at number thirty-eight, she is afraid and never comes out. I remember the faces of the people I once knew. Death has taken them all. The living room is a souvenir of pictures. The vase of plastic pansies makes me smile. I wait in bed for the nice lady who helps to dress me. Often, I pretend I am sleeping so she can wake me and make a fuss. I act out the drama of pretending to be tired and she rewards me with a heap of attention.

‘Mrs Pullman, Mrs Pullman,’ she says.

I open my eyes and see her face, she is like a nurse, although she denies this. I think her name is really Betty. The door of thirtyeight is quiet, the only disturbance is the dustcart. Betty hands me the mirror and I look at the frail person staring back, in an eightfive year old skin. I am Mavis Pullman. Since my Samuel died five years ago. I have been alone, he was a loving gentleman, who daily brought me flowers. The living room is my home as my feet will not allow me to walk far. The metal contraption at the side of my bed stands waiting. I call it my second pair of legs, aiding me when my balance goes. I wish to visit upstairs again and look inside my ottoman, where my life is stored and treasures from my house grow weary. It holds the crockery, beautiful towels from my wedding, Samuels box of trophy ties, with one missing, embroidered sheets for the beds, lavender leaves and bars of soap, boxes of pantyhose and thermal stitched longjohns, a few knitted cardigans, books and a box of brand new mittens, for special occasions. There is the newspaper.

Betty is not the only visitor, there is another lady called Audrey who also occasionally attends to me. They look first at my ageing frame, combing, buttoning, wiping, and then sit me near the window in the armchair scented of mothballs, with its crocheted cushions. I clasp Samuels handkerchief, and keep it always in my hands. I watch the outside, through net curtains, dressed in my light blue cardigan, cotton white shirt and a pair of grey elasticated waist trousers, white pearls hang round my neck, a gift and dark red slippers adorn my feet.

In the centre of the room is the fireplace, above is the mantelpiece with my photographs of the children. I am blessed with two and fifty years of teaching, a dead husband, and a house now a home. I recently heard the sound of siren opposite where the lady with a swollen stomach was supported out. She is smaller now and we are both alone. People say she has jars filled with the remains of the balls, tumours, which caused the swelling. I know she wanted children. I do not listen to idle talk.

Mrs Pullman is the lady I visit some mornings, who lives on a street where there are terraced houses. I am called Betty and look after her in the mornings. She thinks I am a nurse. Mrs Pullman is a funny lady but nice, she likes pansies and looking out her window. Her house smells old as if the doors never open. I like her as she is always talking about her ottoman. I get her ready in the morning, often she struggles to get up, I gently coerce her, until finally she is awake. Mrs Pullman always mentions Samuel her husband, I think they must have been terribly in love, she likes to wear the old pearls. I went upstairs one day to collect some clean sheets as she sleeps downstairs, I saw her ottoman, it holds many things. There is a newspaper inside with a picture of her husband. I felt it was too precious to read so I left it.

I am Audrey, I have visited Mrs Pullman many times, caring for her. She sits at the window and holds on to her handkerchief. The house is full of portraits of young faces laughing, women in frilly dresses and men with clean faces in tight fitted jackets. She often tells me about the chest upstairs and the contents of her life inside, there are many books and letters. There is a newspaper with a man on the front page, her husband. It says,

Long service, Samuel Pullman, worked all his life

for the railway and has been rewarded, now dead.

He proudly wears the work tie.

Occasionally she will murmur then laugh as if the house has whispered in her ear, other times she cries, then smiles

© Claudette Dunkley, 2020. All rights reserved.

A box of the Treasures inspired by Hilton Foord, The Survivor (2-398), and Louise Shore, Pure Running: a Life Story (2:707) in the Burnett Archive of Working Class autobiography, Special Collections, Brunel Library, Brunel University London.

Author’s Note:

Both articles I looked at were quite different, however, I was drawn to the idea of collection and objects of memory, tangible items valued and kept safe. I was looking at things held scared of importance. This was the ‘Punckton.’ In Survivor the black box keeps the object safe. I started to think about how we grow old and time moves on, how dementia slowly robs away memories. The woman’s character was slowly materialised as I also drew on personal experiences in my own life, I work with elderly people where some have early onset of dementia, I have elderly parents and their memories of past can be seen from the treasures in their home and great importance is placed on their value. This piece touches on my interest in oral history, I think about the past generation having read Colin Grant’s book, ‘Homecoming.’ where Derek Walcott says, ‘There are homecomings without the home.’ I am encouraged to think about the space we occupy how we make it ours and in it we place everything that has meaning to our lives.

Claudette Dunkley is a British female writer and artist. Born in 1966 of West Indian parentage, she is a graduate of Bradford College, with a degree in Art & Design. She has published artwork with Leeds postcard and is featured in the illustrated Leeds Postcard Hardback, published by Four Corners, 2018. Her artwork has also been exhibited at the Royal College of Art, London and various galleries in the North and South of England. She is currently pursuing an MA in Creative Writing at Brunel University, London, with an interest in short stories, novel writing, poetry and screenwriting. Her short story, ‘Home’ was published in Our Voice the Guinness South Magazine 2011. Claudette divides her time between being a mother, writing, working and living in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.

The Colossus by Kasparas Pakalnis

One of a series of blog posts written by Brunel’s creative writing students, inspired by the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies.

Some individuals may find the topic covered in this blog post distressing. Should you require support please contact:

Brunel Students: Student support and welfare team

Non-Emergency NHS Helpline: 111

Samaritans: 116 123 (open 24 hours)

Cigarette cartons, cards, and puke sloshed around the narrow corridor of the submarine as it crashed over waves, making even the gambling man sick. The mess boy never saw the gambler throw-up, but at least he knew that someone ate the grub that he made for breakfast.

Everyday he stood in the kitchenette that served the entire crew. They sat in the narrow metal space as best as they could make. Each of the ten or so submariners lined up for lunch and stood silent as the broth dropped down into their trays. Without even looking they turned around and took their place on the bench; put the warm trays down on worn knees that were as tired as the gears grinding in the engine deck bellow, and, without looking down, started eating.

‘What you serving today?’

Without taking his eyes off the ladle the boy replied, ‘Same as always’, and watched the mariner’s eyes fade as he walked back and sat with the others, their backs resting against the metal walls.

It wasn’t the work or the measly wage that wasn’t worth a breath that got to you eventually. No, it wasn’t how or why you ended up down here, in this lifeless vessel that breathed diesel and sweat. None of that mattered, and the boy knew better than the mariners. You were in the bowels of the Colossus not because of punishment, but because, in one way or another, you feared the bullet that wouldn’t kill you, just pierce your flesh and fill your lungs with blood and drown you slowly as you lay in a rotten trench.

He finished serving and joined the rest of the crew. The boy didn’t want any of the broth because he knew where it came from. Besides, he was the one who held the key to the dry-store and could always get his hands on something to eat. He watched them pick at the broth and was about to ask if it’s any good, but stopped himself because he would get the all too familiar answer, ‘Same as always’.

Through the thick glass of porthole you could see the sun. You couldn’t tell if it was rising over the ocean, or sinking with them because of the algae and sand that covered the glass. But you were happy because it was day and losing track of time down here was easy. What you knew too is that it was shallow waters and the only reason you would be in shallow waters is if you’re going to the surface.

The boy got up and made his way to the sleeping quarters. The chains that held the thin cloth the mariners slept in creaked under his weight as he climbed the bunk. He liked his new bunk because it was facing the only clean porthole on the whole submarine. He rocked in the hammock and thought about reading the bundle of letters in his pillowcase, but a momentary shadow caught his eyes. The submarine darted downwards and the bangs in the engine room grew louder. A black ooze splashed-over the porthole and everything went dark.

The whole room shook and the boy fell from his bunk. The howls in the engine room were relentless, but as he stepped into the corridor he could feel the cold water in his boots. He rushed over to the mess hall where the sound of metal tearing made his ears bleed. The hull’s had been breached and the cold ocean water poured through the gaping hole. It was quick and merciless, no matter how many buckets the crew threw at it, they were all spat back. The boy joined in the effort, but the spray was stronger and pinned him against the wall. A sharp pain seared through his spine and he screamed. For a moment he couldn’t feel his legs. There was no point in the madness and he was the first one to realize it as he watched the waters toy with his crew-mates. So that’s how it’s going to end, the boy thought, the ocean didn’t want us and we’ll all be buried here.

The crew had given up. There was no way to reach the surface. The men turned to prayer, some were crying over their skin torn to the bone because they tried to claw their way through the steel walls. The engine had died and everyone else with it.

Once the boy got back on his feet, the water already rose to his knees. He limped back to the sleeping quarters and found his overturned bench still dry as it rested against the wall. With a quick push he steadied it back on its legs and climbed back onto his bench. The bundle of letters in his pillow was damp, but he found what he was looking for. It was a picture of him and the gambler standing in front of the Colossus just a week ago when he was relieved of duty. He remembered watching how freely the gambler waved as he walked away and got lost in the crowd.

The bottom bunk was already underwater and most shouts had already died down. The boy laid down on the top bunk and took off his shoes. His back still ached, but it also felt nice to be out of his boots. As the water rose he felt tired and there was no better time to rest than now. He let go of the picture and watched it float around the room. It never left through the open hatch and instead circled the room as if caught in some rogue current. Eventually the porthole gave in too and pieces of glass scattered over his eyes. Just then, in the blank night before the water took the last of his senses, he remembered the last thing that the gambler said to him. It was better to be blown up here and be unknown than be a rotten body at your mother’s doorstep.

© Kasparas Pakalnis, 2020. All rights reserved

The Colossus was inspired by J.T. Haskins, Diary of leading stoker J.T. Haskins – aboard HM submarine “E14” Dardenells – 26th March – 19th May, 1915, in the Burnett archive of working class autobiography, special collections, Brunel Library, Brunel University London.

Author’s Note:

When I initially looked through the materials given to us at the Burnett archive, I couldn’t help but feel an outsider. After all, it is the working class autobiography of the UK. It’s hard then, for me to explain how and why I chose the diary entries of J.T. Haskins as source material for my story. Probably because it was about something slightly outside of the working class, not a coal-miner’s poem, or a short story about a teacher. But it wasn’t Haskins’ story that interested me, it was the space that it occupied, a submarine. I found it very isolated, confined from the outside world. It was interesting for me to see, and challenge myself, what kind of story could unfold down there. I started with writing the first sentence while still at the Burnett archive. I let the words sit for about a week until I was sure what I wanted to write. After I finished writing the story I read Magic Dust That Lasts, an Arts Council England report about creative writing in schools. It got me thinking about writers brought into different spaces, groups, and demographics not only to develop creative writing, but also for therapeutic reasons. What if writers went to army barracks to talk to young conscripts, or held workshops with veterans? It would be beneficial and interesting, and it wouldn’t be the first time soldiers wrote about their experiences. Poems of soldiers in the First World War come to mind, as well as some of the Lost Generation’s writing. At the end I just thought to myself – What if J.T. Haskins had attended a workshop like that?

Kasparas Pakalnis was in born in Vilnius in 1997, and has lived in Warsaw, St. Petersburg, and London, where he currently resides. He is currently working on a novel, as well as poetry. Kasparas has a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing from Brunel University London, where he is now studying for a Masters in Creative Writing. His literary interests include psychogeography, travel literature, and experimental poetry. Kasparas’ early short stories and poetry have been published in local university and borough anthologies, Pendulum and We Are Here. His blog is

The Osea Island Colony for The Afflicted by Simone Ayling Moores

One of a series of blog posts written by Brunel’s creative writing students, inspired by the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies.

Dear Sir,

You are officially invited to The Osea Island Colony for The Afflicted. Your invitation has come by recommendation and is based on your status as unemployed inebriate.

This programme will focus on ensuring your sobriety going forward and will consist of various forms of manual labour on the Osea Island. The pay for said labour will be sent home to your family to ensure their ongoing health.

There are three rules:

1) Prompt obedience to all orders

2) Complete sobriety

3) Observance of appointed hours

We remind you that you are lucky to have been selected for such a programme and we ask that you bear this in mind when it comes to adhering to the rules.

We look forward to welcoming you on 20th October 1904.

Our best,

The Osea Island Colony For The Afflicted

‘Fred, half of them look like they’re about to drop dead. What on earth makes you think they’re going to be capable of any kind of manual labour?’ Elsie looked up at her husband through what had been a painstakingly delicate coiffed hairstyle and was now a mess of auburn curls, worry etched on her porcelain features. She could see the concern behind his dark eyes, the slight tension in his thick eyebrows as he stared straight ahead at the group, but knew he would never admit to it. ‘We’re here to help them Elsie. The manual labour was just a way for me to get them here, You know that.’ Before she could say anything else, he had begun a confident stride towards the diffident group and she hobbled across the sand, her heels and heart sinking at every step.

The men would be sleeping four to a hut, each with a single wrought iron bed and modest trunk for any personal belongings. Each man had been instructed to bring one change of clothes and these were to be placed atop the trunks, along with a pair of steel toe capped boots, loaned to them for work use only. In Hut 3, William sat on the edge of his bed, a picture of his wife and two daughters tight in his hand, his face expressionless. Next to him, Ernest, significantly older than the men he shared a hut with, sat hunched with a newspaper, sighing any time any of the men dared to make a noise.

At the very edge of the room, Lawrence was unpacking his bag slowly and deliberately, folding each piece of clothing with utmost care before placing it carefully in his trunk. Meanwhile, Charlie threw himself onto the bed, the springs creaking vociferously as he landed. ‘Not much room for subtlety here lads. I’ll be sure to let you know in advance of any visitors of the female persuasion! What the wife doesn’t know won’t hurt her . . . and it sure as hell won’t hurt me either!’ His pale freckled face seemed to split in half as his laugh echoed around the meagre space, eliciting no response spare another sigh from Ernest. Instead of giving up however, Charlie rose from his bed and moved to extend an oversized hand towards William. ‘Charlie.’

William blinked as if caught unaware, placing the picture face down on the bed before extending a smaller, stockier hand. ‘Er. William. Pleasure.’

Charlie continued around the room, earning a softly spoken greeting from Lawrence and a predictably gruff, short tempered one from Ernest. Greetings extended, the men settled down to sleep for their 5am breakfast call. Tomorrow would be their first day on the job.

The sky was blackened, clouds hanging low in threat as Frederik watched the silhouettes of 30 beaten down men make their way towards the largest hut. Inside, Elsie had prepared enough porridge to feed every man, and lined up 30 glasses so they could each drink some milk. As they entered, most took a bowl without hesitation but she noticed and pointed out to Frederik that around three merely took a glass of milk and sat nursing it, empty eyes staring straight ahead as if they had no soul left at all. ‘Withdrawal Elsie. Many will go through it at some point here. It won’t be easy but we just have to let them go through it or else they likely won’t ever come out the other side.’ Years working for his father’s brewery had instilled a deep understanding of inebriates in Frederik, and a deep loathing for the poison that caused such disease. His decision to finally sell his shares had come when Elsie had been punched by one such inebriate; the move to buy Osea Island and create the colony, after he had looked into the eyes of said man and seen the hopelessness that lay beneath. The men of Hut 3 sat together merely to avoid any new meetings. The talk was more of a running monologue from Charlie, with Lawrence and William responding only as distraction from the man breaking down at the adjacent table. ‘-like I say, porridge reminds me of my Ma. Used to make it every morning with piles of brown sugar on top. Nothing like it. Course there’s not brown sugar on this but then what can we really expect. I mean, we’re here to work right?’ The men nodded. ‘How’re you all feeling about the day’s work?’

‘It’ll be hard no doubt.’ replied William, ‘But like you say, we’re here to work. Sooner we start, sooner it’ll be over and we’ll all be home to our families.’ Lawrence nodded in agreement, taking another spoonful of porridge in an effort to avoid talking. Meanwhile, Ernest made no such effort, staring ahead with a look so vehement that none of the men dared question his silence.

‘Hut 3. You’ll be building a new sea wall down on the shore. Instructions are here. You’re to work straight through till six when we’ll meet again for dinner. There is to be no leaving the island. There is to be no recreational time. Understood?’

The men nodded, William taking the paper from Frederik’s outstretched hand and leading the men down the beach and towards their spot. The threat of the clouds loomed ever closer until finally, just as the men reached the shore, the sky seemed to tear in half and a torrent of rain soaked them almost instantly. ‘Fucking cock-sucker!’ It was the first thing Ernest had said, or rather shouted, since they had met him and the men turned in shock at the obscenity.

‘Oh you can bugger off an’ all, lookin’ at me like I’m some kind of animal!’

They turned back in haste as William tried desperately to read the now sodden instructions to dispel the tension. ‘It says er . . . oh fuck I’ve no idea. Who the fuck thought it was a good idea to put men with fucking drinking problems in stressful situations they have no control over. Fuck!’

William kicked a nearby pile of rocks and stalked off across the beach to calm down, Charlie following close behind. Lawrence meanwhile, walked towards the assembled pile of materials and began to painstakingly inspect its contents, muttering under his breath as he did so. Eventually, he stood and walked towards Ernest. ‘It seems we ought to be using the larger rocks to build a sort of foundation. I’d imagine we’re then to use those pieces of scaffolding to assemble a frame which we can build the rest of the materials around.’

His voice was so soft it could have easily been lost to the wind and for a moment, as Ernest continued to stare out to sea, it seemed as though it had. Then, without averting his eyes from the waves, Ernest replied. ‘Better get started then. You sort the bigger rocks and I’ll get the others.’ And he might have been mistaken, could have imagined it or misheard a whistle in the wind, but

Lawrence could have sworn he heard from the older man. ‘Good job.’.

Slowly as the days went on and the storms came and went, the men found a kind of order to their work. Lawrence led quietly whilst William relayed the orders to the men in a way they could hear over the roaring winds. Ernest remained silent and angry, whilst Charlie remained brash and crude, but the work was done to target each day. The days were long, exhausting and all suffered with different forms of withdrawal from what had been their vice, but all remained strong willed and determined to finish the job.

The room was dark as William sat cross legged, small on the floor. ‘He’s coming back. He’s coming back/’ He whispered it so quietly under his breath that he could barely hear himself and the room only got darker and darker until finally he curled up where he was, face towards the door so he was ready when it finally opened. When a crack of light finally illuminated the room, William stayed curled, eyes squeezed shut, knowing better than to show he was awake at this time. His father’s voice interspersed with a woman’s, nonsensical mutterings merging with moans and the sound of their stumbling feet as they moved through the room. A sharp pain in William’s ribs. Heels scratching his face as the woman and his father tripped over him and onto the carpet just metres from where he lay curled miniscule. So miniscule that he was no more than a trip hazard resulting in a tumble into drunken giggles. No more than an excuse to begin what they had come here to do before even having reached the bedroom. The moans and animalistic noises he had only ever heard from his bedroom were much more alarming so close. Eyes squeezed so tightly they began to hurt, he folded himself even harder into a ball, hoping he might just disappear if he wished hard enough.

William woke in a sweat. Used now to waking in the dark, he was unsure whether it was night or morning. He knew this would be hard. Knew that the withdrawal would be painful, emotional, but nothing had prepared him for the dreams. Still, he was doing this for his family. He would not, could not allow his children to suffer because of his own problems. Best not to sleep now, he thought. Best to wait it out till morning where the dreams could not find him. Unbeknownst to him, Charlie lay awake in the next bed. He had not slept properly for weeks. Could not shift the memories long enough to find real rest.

She was dainty, elegant, well dressed. She moved through the crowd with incomparable grace and though she stood a couple of inches below most of the other women in the room, he couldn’t seem to take his eyes off her. Somehow, inexplicably and for the first time ever, Charlie found himself stunned to silence. When he eventually found himself in front of her, the words which were usually so ready to tumble from his lips without thought, found themselves halted by nerves. And when he finally found his voice, her smile stretched so widely across her exquisite face in response, that he almost lost it again. When he finally found sleep again, it was with a smile etched across his whitened face.

‘Apparently there’s women coming to visit later today lads! No drink of course, though I heard some of the men in Hut 5 managed to sneak down to the next town and get themselves some . . . Wouldn’t risk it myself. Need the money sent home don’t I. Anyway, I’d imagine the women will be welcome relief for some of the men here! Been far too long for me, while the cat’s away and all!’ His over exaggerated wink was lost to the men who were too busy shifting stones to look at him. William looked up shortly after though, speaking up over the wind so all the men could hear. ‘I heard one of the men who snuck out got caught. He’s being sent home today. I know it’s not easy but you’d think with the money being sent home and all that no one would be that stupid . . . this is the only chance for most of us . . .’

William and Lawrence spoke in hushed tones out of earshot from the rest of the halfway party. ‘I’m not sure what his problem is to be honest. I know we’ve all got our own reasons for being here but he just seems so… high spirited. Seems to have a great wife, loves the ladies. I feel guilty for thinking about it but I often wonder whether he really deserves such an opportunity.’ William really did feel guilty. He had grown fond of Charlie over the last couple of months, even felt he might miss him when this was all over, but he just couldn’t come to terms with the fact that while the rest of them seemed to be suffering through so much, he seemed to be coasting through the thing like a holiday camp. Lawrence nodded. ‘I see what you mean. Though we all have our secrets I’m sure. He seems happy but, well we don’t know what he might have been through. We can’t ever know what any other person has truly been through.’

William nodded and both men looked out at the high spirited group who were finally beginning to look unrecognisable from the men who had arrived months ago.

‘It’s a girl.’

Charlie had been totally overwhelmed at the sight of her. She was dainty, exquisite already, just like her mother. ‘Can I hold her?’

‘Of course Sir. In good time. But I do need you to sit down first I’m afraid . . . It’s your wife. It was a tough birth you see and well . . . I’m afraid she didn’t make it. I’m sure you were made aware of the complications often associated with childbirth. It really is very tough on the mother and well, many don’t make it. Anyway, I’ll give you some time with your daughter and if you need to talk any further, I’ll be just through here.’ The pain had been breathtaking, all encompassing and impossible to ignore.

‘You ok Charlie?’ William had heard him awaken, could hear his hurried breathing and gasping tears.

‘Fine thanks William. Just a bad dream.’ Rough nights were not rare in Hut 3. They had all awoken in tears at one time or another.

Lawrence stood whisky in hand, purposely lost in a crowd of identical men. The noise of post work drinkers was deafening but by his third glass, the noise had become a comforting blur. Finally, at closing time, the hordes were kicked out, stumbling in various directions towards their respective homes and waiting wives. Lawrence walked slower, not yet ready for the crossed arms and raised eyebrows that he knew would greet him at home. The darkness of the alleyway seemed to envelop him as he walked deeper. He knew it was not safe, knew the stories about this area, yet still he pushed onwards. Then out of nowhere, rough hands grabbed from behind. Arms grappled and pushed body against body against wall. The moment became a disjointed jumble of terror, pain and hot tears as he realised what was happening and what his choosing to walk down this alley must mean.

An empty bed where Lawrence should have been. The men looked at eachother, unsure of their next move. None had seen him leave and the storm outside told them wherever he had gone, the decision had not been taken lightly. Mercifully the storm meant his absence was disguised for the entire working day but when the day finally reached its end, the workload noticeably harder without the fourth worker, the men’s concerns had reached fever pitch. Sitting in Hut 3, Ernest was the first to speak. ‘We need to find him. The only place he could be is the town. It’s dark already so I suggest we head in now.’ Charlie and William turned in disbelief. ‘He’s the best of us all and you both know it. Now I’m not sticking around for a debate. Either you’re coming or you’re not.’ He began to pull his still soaked jacket on and just as he reached the door, the men snapped to attention, hurriedly putting their own coats on and joining him.

The journey was by no means easy but the image of slight, careful, softly spoken Lawrence trying to negotiate such a storm, fuelled the group onwards until they finally reached a small town consisting only of a pub, post office and small shop. Without discussion, they headed towards the pub, faces turned towards the ground in an act which seemed to protect from the storm but did more to prepare them for what was inside. The smell of alcohol hit them like a wall, the crowds of people, the familiar sounds, all drawing them in whilst at the same time pushing them back. They stood, breathing unsteadily, completely knocked for six and paralyzed to the spot, until they saw a familiar figure slumped across a table in the very back of the room. As they approached, they could see immediately that it was much worse than they could have imagined. Lawrence’s face was covered in his own blood. Across his neck, blue marks seemed to suggest some kind of strangling and the marks continued across his entire body to varying degrees of seriousness. In his shaking hand was a glass of whisky. ‘I . . . They . . . I wanted to . . . I needed to . . . and they, they— Before I came here I . . . I just needed to know . . . to know if . . . ’ William pulled him gently to his feet. Charlie put an arm around him. Ernest placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘We don’t need to know lad. Let’s just get you home.’

And they journeyed back through the storm, four men, broken, battered, to finish building a sea wall.

© Simone Ayling Moores, 2020. All rights reserved.

‘The Osea Island Colony for The Afflicted’ was inspired by May Owen, Autobiographical Letter (2-576), in the Burnett Archive of Working class Autobiography, Special Collections, Brunel Library, Brunel University of London.

Author’s note:

I was initially drawn to this particular archive because I was drawn to the idea of the writer’s alcoholic father being sent to build a sea wall to help his addiction. Mostly I was amazed to discover that there were such progressive ways of handling addiction in this period of history but something about the idea of men being sent to build a sea wall also got my imagination running wild and, though there were only a couple of sentences referencing it, I found myself wanting to know more about the men’s stories. Initially I read the whole archive as I was concerned that the part I was interested in was too brief but I found I couldn’t stop thinking about it and was building characters in my head before I even sat down to write. I decided that telling the story of five very different men in such an unusual situation would allow the opportunity to explore five unique stories of addiction and to underline what a nuanced illness it can be in the process. Although I was not directly inspired by any particular works, my writing style is inspired by authors such as Mark Haddon, Nick Hornby, and Oyinkan Braithwate.

Simone is a writer, musician and primary school teacher living and studying in West London. She received a PGCE and a first class degree in Music from University of Chichester and is currently studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at Brunel University, London. She is currently working on a speculative fiction novel about a new drug which cures death and has just finished the challenge of writing and recording an album in a week called ‘Escapism‘ with her husband. You can find Simone on Facebook and Instagram where she is always keen to chat about new ideas.

Of A Bricklayer, And His Son by Alex Ayling

One of a series of blog posts written by Brunel’s creative writing students, inspired by the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies.

Nestled in Mum’s womb, the hammering of piano chords bled into my dark little world. The instrument was out of tune, but no one cared. They heard the sound of it without a wince or a complaint. It was their sound. Soon to be mine too.

‘Equal Temperament’ the academics call it. The notes stretched and pulled into an imperfect alignment so they all have a chance to be to the tonic, the key, the root of something. Ha!

George never bothered to tune that dusty antique to ‘Equal Temperament’. Never ever. They sung to its dissonance. It became their consonance, their harmony, their music. They’d gift it to me.

We howled with the old thing, joined its beautiful whine, bashing out those clunky clusters of colour that seemed to make the dirt around us shimmer, not expensive: poetic.

‘Equal Temperament’. You wouldn’t find much equality down in those parts. Not back then, not even now.

That piano was the first sound I heard with my new found cries. Born in that pub, they celebrated my entrance to those cold surroundings in a warmth that would never be found in the crackles of fire, nor even the hummings of a well serviced central heating unit.

In that moment, the first of my foundations were laid:

… one day I’d have to learn to lay them myself.


We never spoke about Dad’s death.

And so there I was acting like Copperfield, rebelling against the evil step-father. It didn’t help that he was a policeman too.

‘Oink. Oink.’ I would snort under my breath. I prodded. I provoked. He never reacted. We’d moved out of the pub. We moved to the city. Nan followed.

I would hide in the cinemas. The fleas would keep me company in the darkness, basking hungry before the silver light and its simple stories that made the world make sense. I always liked actors and how they got to pretend to be somebody else.

I would walk the streetways, kick stones, look at the places my Dad helped build. They didn’t stand tall. But they stood strong. He was a bricklayer:

I would try to guess which bricks he’d laid, place my fingertips against their harshness as I could feel a semblance, a ghost of my father. I always felt nothing. One memory would haunt me. A vision of him I’d replay over and over again. He taught me how to lay a brick.

‘Each one…’ He said. ‘Rests atop the other, and makes something more than itself.’

One day I met Thomas. I’d found a friend.

Friday nights they’d send me to Nan’s. She liked Jane Austen and read passages out loud. ‘Not, I should hope, of the proportion of virtue to vice throughout the kingdom. We do not look in great cities for best morality. It is not there that respectable people of any denomination can do most good…’

‘But you live in the city too…’ I would say.

‘Only for you.’ She replied. ‘I’m here because I have to be.’

I felt guilty. I thought of the cinema.


The day Thomas kissed me was both hot and cold. A cool breeze under the baking sun. I didn’t know how to feel. He was older, smarter, and richer, than me and had read the classics too (Nan loved that). If I’d told her young Thomas was a faggot she wouldn’t’ve. I never did. I just stopped seeing him. That didn’t stop Nan asking after him though…

I hated the way he would talk down to me. He’d ask me questions he knew I didn’t know the answer to just so he could lecture me. He liked the fact my Dad was dead. He liked the fact I was poor. It made him feel like he was helping. That day when he kissed me, he held me down, pushed himself against me and traced my body with his hands over clothes, over skin. I remember him tugging against my ear lobe. I cried on the way home.

And so I retreated back to loneliness, back to the pavements to find things that weren’t there: directionless. I can remember the clutter in my head. The litter of my wanderings. Those cityscapes, whole geographies of memory and feeling sung within me, and there was nowhere to get it out:


I signed up to train in the police force because it was the easiest thing to do. Since I had ‘family’ inside the network, there was a simplicity to the whole affair. When you’re not sure what to do with your life, it’s nice to leave the effort of figuring that out to someone else. I wasn’t looking to impress the man, that evil step-father of mine, I was looking for something cushy.

Graduation came too quickly.

‘We’re so proud of you.’ I wasn’t. ‘We’re so proud of you.’ They were proud of what I’d become, the power I’d been rewarded. I was now an agent of the state. My Mum always respected a man in uniform.

That night I slept at their house. Nan was living with them by that time. I read Sense and Sensibility to her while she’d laid in bed, just like she used to do for me. We never got past the first page. She kept on forgetting what had happened. I’d never seen anything so terrifying in my whole life. She soon fell asleep.

I couldn’t sleep though, so I slipped out into darkness and solitude. My footsteps led me to the brick ways Dad had built. They were now broken. Demolishment had started. They were paving the way for a brighter future:

A piece of chalk at my feet, I bent down and picked it up. ‘Sorry’ I wrote on the wall, hoping that Dad would hear it. And forgive me.


The 10th anniversary of Dad’s death, and I was working.

We’d been there for hours. Small, pointless skirmishes had broken up the time. But the miners were still angry, impatient. They threw bricks at us. I wondered if they were my Dad’s bricks. Chants and roars scored the air, colouring it with a music from my past. I almost sang along. And that’s when the guilt began to rise. What was I doing there?

I was an apostle for the unholy trinity: Police. Press. Government.

I gritted my teeth. A bad taste ruminated, a discomfort upon the roof of my mouth. It echoed around me. A twitch in my fingers, a tension in my spine, it swirled like black oil in my stomach. I felt an inner itch, a sickness that ached. The uniform suffocated me under an absolute blackness in which no light could grow. Everything that had made – who I was… who I had been – was lost, covered, pushed in a shape and hidden away. It had enveloped me. The architecture of my memories had been buried. I was boxed in:

What was I doing there?

I wasn’t me anymore.

So I almost turned from the pack, my fellow Spartans and fled. Almost. I would’ve if I hadn’t noticed him.


It had been over a decade since I’d seen that maligner and there he was amongst my kind. A wolf amongst sheep. A sophist. A phony. Hiding amongst my Dad’s people as if he were one of them. Liar.

I charged right for him. I snagged that queer by the scruffs of his hair and pulled him back.

‘Look at me.’ I gritted through my teeth. ‘Look at me faggot. Look at me.’ The whip of the baton cracked through the air and I hit him over and over and over again. The first strike cracked his nose, blood oozing out down onto his lips, into his mouth and down his throat. He soon covered himself, cowering like a motherless child. I didn’t stop. I had no pity to give.

‘You think you’re one of them now, do you?’ I growled. ‘You think you’re a man of the people, do you?’ I dropped the baton, grasped his shirt and pulled him up his eyes dizzy, his face covered red. ‘If they knew what you really are… they’d kill you.’ He started crying. I spat in his face. ‘Pathetic.’ I said, cuffing him, marching him toward one of the ambulance’s like I’d saved him.



The day after Mum’s funeral, I quit the force.

By that time she and the evil step-father had been living in the South of France. They buried her far from home deep under foreign soil, away from Dad, and Nan, and me. It was at this point that life had stopped making sense. I needed to return to a time when it did. So I moved back home.

Within a year I was calling myself a bricklayer. I was beginning to remember where it had all began:

And that was enough.

The jobs trickled in over time. A month here. A week there. It wasn’t long before it had become a consistent income, a profession.

I made friends. And kept them by keeping quiet about my previous employment. I almost lost all of that one day though.

I’d been asked to help on a big earner: big home; gates; paved driveway; tall bushes (well trimmed), two cars in the driveway and a garage hiding more inside. We were working there in the Summer. It was the beginning of August when I met the boy. He was a young lad, no older than eleven or twelve. He liked to ask us all questions, although he took an interest especially in me. I think it was because his father was never around. We’d work long days and the whole time we were there I’d never met the man of the house.

And so this one day, the boy comes up to me and starts asking his questions, and I answer them out of pity because the poor kid’s already annoyed the rest of the guys with his incessant quizzing.

Time passed, and by then he’d grown curious about how to lay a brick. I was showing him how to, just how my father had shown me.

It was then that a low voice called out to him.

‘Stuart.’ The voice coldly, sternly, like an order. It was like how my step-dad talked to me. ‘Go inside.’

‘But dad…’

I looked up.


It was fucking Thomas.

The boy did as he was told. Thomas looked at me. I looked him. We both felt the anger, the sadness, the confusion. He didn’t say a thing. Not until we finished up for the day.

‘You shouldn’t be doing this Thomas.’ I said. ‘This isn’t you. You’re…’

‘I’m a father now.’ His eyes were fixed, practiced. They masked surety. And convincingly too. ‘A husband too.’

‘You’re living a lie.’

‘And what are you doing here?’

‘How’d you mean?’

‘Pretending to be a bricklayer.’

‘I am a bricklayer. I’m-’

‘Pretending to be your father.’

‘I’m a brick-’

‘He’s dead. He’s been dead a long, long time. Living in his shadow won’t bring him back.’ Thomas turned and began to walk back into his home. ‘We all play parts in life. It’s necessary. Some of us are brave enough to respect it… even if we’ll never have the safety to admit it. Now get off my property before I call the police.’

I’d never see him again.


How a life passes so quickly by.

The air leaves my nose, and I sink into myself. My hands are shaking. Finally, I let them drop, and a chord rings out. It sounds awful.

Beautifully out of tune.

I never made it to George’s funeral. In these Winter years of life I’ve spent my time staring at his epitaph hoping that it will not only make up for my absence, but make sense of my beginnings too, so I can make sense of my end.

I whistle one of those old melodies, half-remembered. The piano is so old, so broken that whatever note I press rings just as discordantly as any of its companions. I can’t believe I tracked it down. It never left home, the pub where I was born.

This place I was born now sells pastries and paninis, coffee and Japanese tea, and even something called ‘gluten-free’. It peaked their interest when I told them I was born here, even more when I asked about the piano. They’re keeping it in the back, away from prying customers.

‘We’ll get it tuned one day.’ One of the young ladies said.

I told them not to. For me.

They took a picture of me with one of their phones, and said they were going to upload me onto one of their Insta-Faces or Tweeter-Space or whatever. And then they left me alone in here so I could have a moment with this piano.

Wait. Is this George’s piano?

I put one finger down upon it and… yes! By God it is!

How did I find this then?

Where exactly am I? I don’t recognise any of this. Looks like a storeroom or an office or-

It’s ok. Calm down. You’ll figure it out. Memory isn’t what it used to be. There are gaps forming in the past that is built in my head:

My hand rests on the keyboard and my fingers clumsily climb upwards, ringing out a scale, each note I play droning above the ones before it like a chorus of broken angels singing a disordered chord: an architecture, a harmony of bricks.

‘Each one…’ Dad had said. ‘Rests atop the other, and makes something more than itself.’

I just wished I could remember where I had fit.

© Alex Ayling, 2020. All rights reserved.

Of A Bricklayer, And His Son was inspired by ‘Memoirs of A Bricklayer, The life of Charles Lewis Hansford’ recorded by R. J Hansford, (2-360), in the Burnett Archives of Working Class Autobiography, Special Collections, Brunel University London.

Author’s Note:

I was initially touched by ‘Memoirs Of A Bricklayer’ since a vast majority of the author’s experiences occur around Hampshire (in particular places such as Southampton, Hythe etc.), a familiar territory for me as I grew up there. Upon reading extracts through the vast record of Charles Lewis’ life, I found a strong bond with the text that fired a verve to create fiction from its source material. My process was instinctive and organic, referring to the text for inspiration to conjure more of a feeling or an atmosphere to fire an emotional response to work with. From there I allowed my imagination to craft characters and scenarios adapted from the archive to drawn upon a central theme that spoke to me. Modernist writers such as John Dos Passos, James Joyce, D. H Lawrence and Ryūnosuke Akutagawa were a useful reference in my writing for this. I also drew heavily from authors such as Max Porter and Mark Z. Danielewski who both employ the tool of shaping their texts in imagery. Alongside this the craft of Concrete Poetry was a strong influence too, particularly the works of Marilyn Nelson, Lorna Dee Cervantes and George Starbuck.

Alex Ayling is a musician/composer studying an MA in Creative Writing at Brunel University, London. He lives in Chiswick with his wife, and two guinea pigs. Lecturing at the University of Chichester, The Academy of Music and Sound, The Winchester School of Art, and the Cardenal Herrera Universidad, Valencia, Alex has two EPs and features on a variety of compilation albums, all available on Spotify.
He recently wrote, recorded and released an album in a week with his wife, which is available for download here.
You can keep up with Alex’s shenanigans on Instagram @alextellstalltales or Twitter @alexaylingmusic

A Letter Back Home by Kashmira Shirwadkar

One of a series of blog posts written by Brunel’s creative writing students, inspired by the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies.

Dear Ma,

I am extremely sorry for runnin away like that. I hope you forgive me. I wasn’t happy working in that shoe shop. The only option for me was to leave home. I am very happy now here in London, England. I must tell you that it was a very very long, scary and tedious journey. I learnd a lot of new things on my way and made many new friends too. After leavin home, I first went to Delhi with all the extra money I had saved from the shop. It wasn’t a lot but enough for me to leave the town. You know ma, I even shared a roof and a few meals with a Brahmin priest in Delhi. He was a very kind man and I felt terrible for lying to him. But I had no money and desperetly needed food and shelter.

Two days leter, I sumehow managed to reach Bombay with only 30 rupees in my pocket. I saw a huge red and black ship with the words S. S Rawalpindi docked in the harbour. I didn’t even know where it was going. I only knew that it was leaving soon and so I got on without a ticket. Once the ship left, I met a madam on the deck, whose name I now forget. She told me that she was workin as a maid for a rich sahib and that this was her seventh or something time goin to England. ‘It will all be ok’ she sayd. I no longer felt alone. I stood on the deck looking at the deep ocean when I realized that I was leaving the Indian soil. I was headin out for a journey into the outside world.

For the next few days, I slept outside on the cold, freezing deck with the other servants. I even ate with them in the kitchen where they served hot rice with curry. Thank god I didn’t suffer from seasickness, one less problem to worry about. However, I soon found out from Rahul, my friend, another servant that I also needed a passport. It was a small, rectangular blue coloured book which has your name and photo. He then helped me with the problem and warnd me not to get off the ship on any of the other ports. So, I listened to him and stayed on the ship. Once, the ship docked into the Thames Estuary, in London he managed to get me off the ship by saying I too was a servant of his master. He also wrote down his address on a piece of paper before we parted.

The air in London is so fresh and sweet like that purple flower what’s it called… Aah! Yes, lavender. The roads here are so clean, if it wasn’t for the cold, I would have even walked barefoot. Also, Ma, the people here don’t directly walk on the road like us, they walk on a small platform it’s called a pavement. It’s so strange, I can see the sun high up in the sky, yet it doesn’t burn on my skin as it does back in Bengal. Right now, I am workin in a cafe – a small coffee shop. It is in Woking. I am learnin somethin new in English every day. I dream to one day open a cafe of my own. I miss you Ma. I love you all very much.

Your loving son,

Faizur Rasul

© Kashmira Shirwadkar, 2020. All rights reserved.

‘A letter back home’ was inspired by Faizur Rasul, Bengal to Birmingham (2:619) in the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiography, special collections, Brunel Library, Brunel University London. It was also partially inspired by my own experiences, as I too once was an immigrant from India.

Author’s Note:

I was specifically searching the Burnett Archive for a piece that I could personally relate to, and that’s when I found Faizur Rasul’s memoir Bengal to Birmingham. I chose to write in the form of a letter by imagining myself in the shoes of the writer. If he ever thought of writing a letter home what would it be like? Having known that he was an Indian immigrant who was still improving his English, I looked for words in Rasul’s autobiography that were presented in broken English or non-standard English. This autobiography also reminded me of a short play called Sammy! the word that broke an empire by Pratap Sharma that I had studied as an undergraduate. Both works are from a similar period, India during British rule, and tell of the tedious journey of a middle-class Indian immigrant to a foreign country. That is what piqued my interest and urged me to write this piece.

Kashmira Sameer Shirwadkar was born in Mumbai in 1997. She is an avid reader and keen writer who has completed her undergraduate degree in English Literature and History from the University of Mumbai. Kashmira’s article ‘Mumbai, a melting pot of cultures’ was published on EvoNews on 28th July 2017. She has completed a short course in creative writing for adults from the city academy, and is currently studying for a master’s degree in creative writing at Brunel University London. You can find her stories @Kash2509, #untold fiction stories or by simply following her page K_ashmira_shirwadkar on Facebook and Instagram.

Creative writing inspired by the Burnett Archive

Led by author Tony White, Creative Writing MA students at Brunel University London were introduced to the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. From tomorrow, we will be posting new works inspired by the archive for the next eight weeks.

As students on the Creative Writing Master’s Degree at Brunel University this year, we have taken part in an MA module called ‘Writers at Work’ which explores creative writing projects in education and in the community, and has given us the skills and tools needed to design, run and evaluate writing workshops and other activities, including residencies and live literature events. This fascinating module also gave us the chance to undertake archival research in the Special Collections section of Brunel Library, and to produce creative writing inspired by something we had found there.

Students taking part in one of the ‘Writers at work’ module workshops using the Burnett Archive in Special Collections

Brunel Library’s Special Collections is located on Level 3 of the library, and is home to a varied range of collections, used by students and visiting researchers, and to support teaching. The collections cover a wide range of subject areas, including transport history, the Channel Tunnel, poetry and dialect, equality and advocacy. You can read descriptions of them on the Collections page.

For our ‘Writers at Work’ module, we focused on the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, which contains more than 230 memoirs of working class life, some dating back to the late 18th century.

The Burnett Archive is a fascinating resource, and the texts are rich in day-to-day detail of family lives and relationships, politics and work, expressive language and dialects, and the realities of poverty and working class life in the UK during the 19th and 20th centuries. These memoirs make for fascinating reading. There are stories of orphanage and school life, migration, of running away to the circus or to sea, of town and country, and of forgotten customs and folklore. There are wounding encounters with two world wars and a merciless class system, as well as truly heartbreaking stories of extreme poverty, homelessness and domestic violence.

For us as students, it was truly inspiring to be able to access such insights into a world which seems so far away and yet so close. Being able to use this as inspiration for our creative writing then led to some truly emotional and beautiful pieces which we hope are a credit to the original writers who inspired us.

“The Burnett Archive is not only an enriching collection of Working Class writing spanning generations, but an insightful treasure trove to the deepest personal experiences, both humbling and fascinating. Each work has a wealth more relevance in our times than the period it was written.”

Brunel postgraduate student Alex Ayling

For the next 8 weeks, as part of the ‘Writers at Work’ module, we’ll be sharing a selection of these new works here on the Special Collections blog, by Brunel postgraduates Becca Arlington, Alex Ayling, Simone Ayling Moores, Claudette Dunkley, Mark Jobanputra, Emma Mitchell, Kasparas Pakalnis, and Kashmira Shirwadkar.

Hillingdon Literary Festival 2019 workshop

Hillingdon Literary Festival takes place on Friday 4 – Sunday 6 October 2019. Now in its fifth year, this free weekend of literary festivities hosted by Brunel University London, offers a plethora of literary events from internationally renowned authors, creative writing workshops, lively debates, industry masterclasses, arts performances, a local creative writing anthology and so much more!

Special Collections will be playing a part on Saturday 6 October at 2pm with a workshop on transcription poetry.

We’ll be exploring transcription poetry using our Neglected Voices collection of poems inspired by the accounts of disabled people, They were composed by Allan Sutherland whilst he was poet-in-residence at the Centre for Citizen Participation at Brunel University.

Allan Sutherland:

‘Neglected Voices’ is a work about disabled people’s experience, consisting of four cycles of transcription poems. 

We get looked at a lot, and talked about a great deal, but we don’t get listened to very much.  This does not mean that we have nothing to say.  Any number of stories are told about us, as poison dwarves, wicked hunchbacks, pathetic cripples, brave survivors or benefits scroungers.  What the story is depends on who’s doing the telling.  That’s why it matters that the stories about us are so rarely told by us.

‘Neglected Voices’ was created during Sutherland’s year-long residency at the Centre for Citizen Participation at Brunel University, a centre which had ‘a particular commitment to user-led and emancipatory approaches to research and to the involvement of service users and the subjects of social and public policy in research and policy development’ . 

The project uses the same transcription poetry technique as in his work with Paddy Masefield and Nancy Willis. (More information about this technique is in Sutherland’s paper [opens as Word document] presented at the 2010 Disability Studies Conference at Lancaster University.)

That previous work was about important figures in the Disability Arts world.  These cycles of poems tell the life stories of a wider group of disabled people, drawn from the range of people involved, to a greater or lesser extent, in the Centre for Citizen Participation. 

You can book your place here on any of the weekend’s workshops and read other blog posts about the Neglected Voices collection.

Working class stories

Author Tony White introduces a series of new works by Brunel creative writing students inspired by the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. We’ll be posting a story or poem per week for the next 8 weeks.

This spring I’ve once again been a visiting lecturer at Brunel University London, where I’ve been privileged to teach two groups of postgraduate students from Brunel’s Creative Writing masters courses on an MA module called ‘Writers at Work’ that explores creative writing projects in education and in the community, giving postgraduates the skills and tools needed to design, run and evaluate writing workshops and other activities, including residencies and live literature events. Part of the module has involved the students undertaking archival research in the Special Collections section of Brunel Library.

Students taking part in one of the ‘Writers at work’ module workshops using the Burnett Archive in Special Collections

Brunel Library’s Special Collections is located on Level 3 of the library, and is home to a varied range of collections, used by students and visiting researchers, and to support teaching. The collections cover a wide range of subject areas, including transport history, the Channel Tunnel, poetry and dialect, equality and advocacy. You can read descriptions of them on the Collections page.

For ‘Writers at Work’, the creative writing postgraduates focused on the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, which contains more than 230 memoirs of working class life, some dating back to the late 18th century.

The Burnett Archive is a fascinating resource, and the texts are rich in day-to-day detail of family lives and relationships, politics and work, expressive language and dialects, and the realities of poverty and working class life in the UK during the 19th and 20th centuries. These memoirs make for fascinating reading. There are stories of orphanage and school life, migration, of running away to the circus or to sea, of town and country, and of forgotten customs and folklore. There are wounding encounters with two world wars and a merciless class system, as well as truly heartbreaking stories of extreme poverty, homelessness and domestic violence.

Dr Nick Hubble of Brunel’s English Department – and author of the recent The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question (Edinburgh University Press, 2017) – has been undertaking British Academy-funded research on the Burnett Archive, exploring the relationship between working-class autobiography, proletarian autobiografiction and social change. For Hubble the Burnett Archive is:

a window on to the relationship between self and the world as understood by ordinary people in often extraordinary times, which sheds light on how structures of feeling evolve and new socio-cultural values emerge.

For me, it has been really heartening to see a new generation of emerging writers responding to, and gaining confidence from these rare documents from the past: voices that but for the work in the early 1970s of John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall, might otherwise have been lost. Working with the Burnett Archive gives the creative writing students a working introduction to archival research, learning transferable skills and protocols that they may take up in their own professional lives as writers, but it is primarily an invaluable reminder that working class and other marginalised voices are often excluded from literature and mainstream culture; and an opportunity to address and counter such exclusions.

Brunel creative writing postgraduates have used the historical texts as the inspiration for new pieces of writing, which in turn may create new kinds of insights and focus into the worlds held within the Burnett Archive, as well as finding new ways to relate these historical accounts to contemporary life. For the next 8 weeks, as part of the ‘Writers at Work’ module, we’ll be sharing a selection of these new works here on the Special Collections blog: stories, autobiographical accounts, and poetry by Brunel postgraduates Caren Duhig, Kathryn Gynn, Marie-Teresa Hanna, Katie Higgins, Ella Jukwey, Josa Keyes, Iris Mauricio, Alisha Mor, and Anna Tan.

Tony White’s latest novel The Fountain in the Forest is published by Faber and Faber. He is the author of five previous novels including Foxy-T and Shackleton’s Man Goes South, several novellas and numerous short stories. White has been creative entrepreneur in residence in the French department at King’s College London, and writer in residence at London’s Science Museum and at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. White has worked in the national office of Arts Council England, and in 1994 he founded the artists’ book series Piece of Paper Press. From 2010–2018 Tony White chaired the board of London’s award-winning arts radio station Resonance 104.4fm.

Looking for inspiration?

for Hillingdon Literary Festival’s creative writing competition? This year’s theme is Outer limits: hidden lives and in Special Collections you’ll find some collections that mark the perfect jumping off point for your creative writing on this topic.

Bill Griffiths would probably have identified himself chiefly as a poet, but he was also an academic, small press publisher, local historian, linguist and scholar of English dialect. For some of his life he lived locally, on a houseboat not far from the campus here at Brunel. After a fire he relocated north where he became an advocate for prisoners, an organiser against council schemes and an unearther of things on the edge of mainstream culture. His archive, housed here in Special Collections, showcases this diversity, containing hundreds of examples of his work and correspondence, along with the sources, research notes and labour behind them.


Read an earlier blog post about Griffiths’ research into dragons.

Another series of hidden lives well worth investigating is our Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. These highlight the lives of ordinary people, for example Alice Collis’ account of a strike in a printing firm in 1911 or the lives of servants.