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Poplar: How London Firefighter tells the story of Stephen Dudeney’s 31-year career

Book by former borough commander for Tower Hamlets and Hackney is available now

Firefighter Stephen Dudeney has published a book about his 31-year career
Firefighter Stephen Dudeney has published a book about his 31-year career

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There’s a circle to this story – it begins and ends with the printed word.

Stephen Dudeney grew up in Poplar, just down the road from its fire station.

As a boy in the 1970s, he was fascinated with the fire engines, even chasing them on his bike when he was old enough to ride.

“I loved them,” he said. “When I was about 12 I started going to the big library in Mile End to look at picture books full of them. 

“Then, one day, I saw a book with a really bright cover – loads of flames and fire engines. I pulled it off the shelf, and it was just full of text.

“I was disappointed, but I started reading it and found I quite liked it.”

It was an encounter that fed what was already a growing passion and Gordon Honeycombe’s Red Watch about firefighers in Paddingtonand Denis Smith’s Report From Engine Co. 82 about a fire crew in New York added further fuel to the flames.

Stephen said: “Gordon, who was then an ITN newsreader, had done a lot of charity work with the London Fire Brigade, and his book was a best-seller.

“It’s known as the book that launched a thousand careers because a lot of people – a bit older than me – had read it and decided to join.” 

While Stephen had always been fascinated by fires, once harassing his dad to take him to see a big blaze in Wapping, his journey to becoming a firefighter really began aged 14 when he and a friend volunteered to help out at Poplar fire station.

“We turned up on bonfire night because we knew it would be busy and offered to make the tea and cook some dinner for them,” he said.

“We both expected them to tell us to go away. I remember them saying ‘Thank you very much’ and we were expecting a ‘but’. 

“Instead, they said: ‘We’d love you to. Come on Thursday night, about six’. So we did.

“It was a different time, that’s not something that could happen now – just imagine, an unaccompanied 14-year-old at the station.

“Looking back, I expect they thought I was a poor kid, which I wasn’t really.

“I don’t think they thought I’d end up as a firefighter – I probably didn’t seem intelligent to them.

“But I’d join in with all the banter and I used to go down the pub with them – fancy being given a pint at that age.

“It was a good time. It changed me at school too – I started using that banter at school and the other kids probably thought I was a bit of a live wire.

“I was probably fairly bright and had been doing well with my studies but I know I was a bit of a disappointment to my parents because, having been put in the advanced classes with good reports, at that time I decided I didn’t need to worry about all that because I was going to be a fireman.”

Stephen joined the brigade in 1987, with his first shift the day after the King’s Cross fire that claimed the lives of 31 people. 

His 31-year career saw him serve at all the fire stations in Tower Hamlets, rising first to training officer and then station officer before going on to become station commander and then borough commander for Hackney in 2013.

Then, as Tower Hamlets had been placed in special measures, he returned to the area where it all began for him, finishing his career as borough commander in 2018, based at the new Millwall Fire Station on the Isle Of Dogs. 

London Firefighter is available from Amazon, priced £11.99

While that completed the circle career-wise for Stephen, he’s since gone one step further, publishing London Firefighter, a book that aims to give readers a sense of the evolution of the London Fire Brigade during his more than three decades of service.

“The changes have been massive over that time,” he said. “When I joined, it was still very much the fire brigade of the post-war era.

“The big changes came through the 1990s and into the 2000s, and it’s now completely unrecognisable. 

“We used to do a lot more of a lot less – it was fires, car crashes and the occasional flood.

“When you look at what’s done now – all sorts of things such as water rescue and animal rescue – the firefighters have got equipment and procedures that are so different.

“If I’d joined in 1957 and left in 1987, I would have recognised everything.

“Leaving in 2018, the only thing that was the same, was the water and the hoses. I hope this book shines a light on the modern brigade and how firefighting is a bit of London history. 

“I want people to come away thinking we’re not a bad bunch.

“I’d always had the idea that I wanted to write a book and I’d kept notes over the years – moving files over from computer to computer.

“Then, when I retired, I thought I would do something about it.”

While the book offers vivid first-hand accounts of what it was like for Stephen to tackle ferocious fires up close, it also offers a wider perspective on the sheer complexity of organising the service and its multitude of functions.

For example, during his career Stephen played his part in the response to such major incidents as the 1996 Docklands bombing by the IRA at South Quay on the Isle Of Dogs and the Buncefield fire – the biggest incident of its kind in peacetime Europe – when an oil storage facility exploded in 2005.

“You expect to see and experience some things as a firefighter,” he said.

“I was called out to Grenfell Tower and it remains the worst thing I’ve ever seen.

“From a mental health point of view, I’ve largely survived the fire brigade in terms of the awful things that I saw over the years, but Grenfell really affected me.

“Since I left the service, I’ve started a company that consults and advises on fire safety and I was recently on my way to do a survey of a building when I passed the tower. 

“I thought I was OK, seeing it again, but later on I couldn’t get it off my mind. 

“Even though I wasn’t there over the night, when it was at its worst, it’s had a tangible effect on me and I think there will be a generation of firefighters who will feel the same, who will never forget it.”

That’s also the point of Stephen’s book.

To set down what happened and who it happened to, so those events and people aren’t forgotten.

  • London Firefighter by Stephen Dudeney is published by Austin Macauley Publishers and is available from Amazon priced £11.99.

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com

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Royal Docks: Momtaz Begum-Hossain offers tips on bringing colour into your life

Docklands-based author’s latest book Hello Rainbow: Finding Happiness In Colour released

Author Momtaz Begum-Hossain – image Alexandre Pichon

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BY MOMTAZ BEGUM-HOSSAIN

Short days, grey skies, and cold weather can make the winter months feel overwhelmingly bleak. But you don’t have to wallow in the winter blues.

I wrote my latest book, Hello Rainbow: Finding Happiness In Colour, because I believe it’s important to immerse yourself in the joy of colour. That’s true during winter, more than any other season. 

Colour is an instant mood-booster. It can lift our spirits, guide decision-making, communicate with our emotions and inspire our creativity, but it doesn’t always get used to its full potential. 

By welcoming colour into different aspects of your life, you’ll experience its full sensory benefits.

We don’t just see colour, we feel it too. Here are my seven suggestions for bringing more vibrancy into your life: 

Dress in a variety of shades and hues

wear it

Whether your job requires a uniform, or you work from home, wearing a pop of colour will have a mood-boosting effect on you. 

An accessory is an easy element to start with. Reach for colourful gloves when you’re outside and cosy, patterned slipper socks indoors. 

Your choice of scarf and even your face covering all involve making decisions about colour, so use them as an opportunity to experience new shades.

Go for vibrant food and drink

consume it

Though we’re in the season of craving warming, comforting soups, stews, and hotpots which typically fall into an autumnal colour palette of oranges and browns, aim to add unexpected shades to your meals. 

Visually enticing food tastes better, so engage all your senses by adding colourful touches. Salad ingredients that are normally associated with summer are ideal. 

Swap green garnish for chopped up beetroot, sliced tomatoes or spinach leaves. These go with all dishes and will complement the flavours and excite your mind. 

Experiment with different lights in your home

light up

Mood lighting and coloured lighting create atmosphere. Hang up fairy lights or, switch to smart bulbs so you can change the colour of a room instantly. 

Notice how you feel under different lights – red, blue, green, purple or white, and experiment with switching between them. 

If you experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – a condition where people feel depressed during the dark days of winter – invest in a SAD lamp.

These simulate natural daylight, boosting serotonin levels making you feel naturally happier, although it’s advisable to check with a doctor before you start using one. 

Fill your workplace with bright colours

bring it to work

As a child having a pencil case filled with novelty erasers, highlighter pens and multi-coloured biros was a high point of going to school but somewhere along the line, this natural instinctive pleasure for getting excited about colour can get lost. 

Get that joy back by swapping out ordinary desk stationery for fun items – opt for a colourful re-usable drinks holder and make sure your notebooks come in a variety of hues.

Find those shades on a walk

 go on a rainbow hunt

Put aside an hour and dedicate it to seeking out and appreciating colour.

Keep an eye out for new colours you’ve not seen before, shades that make your heart sing and tones you’d like to incorporate into your life.

Do this when you’re out and about at lunchtime. 

Time spent appreciating colour by slowing down in a mindful way, is good for your overall wellbeing.

Consider focusing on on a single hue

try a colour meditation

Deep breathing helps the body calm down, relax and think more clearly. 

Meditating on colours will help you harness the energy of particular hues to help you with situations you’re dealing with and is a common practice in colour therapy treatments. 

For example, green is a naturally balancing colour so if you’re looking to become more balanced in your life you could meditate on the colour green by breathing in green light and sending it around your body. 

Blue, on the other hand, is the colour of communication so if you’re preparing for a job interview or giving a talk, meditating on blue light will help open up your communication channels ensuring you give your best performance.

Look around you for colours – image Nick Shasha

embrace nature

In winter it’s hugely beneficial for your mental and emotional health to witness as much natural daylight as you can. 

One way you can channel light energy is by watching sunrises and sunsets as often as you can. If you struggle to find the time, think of it like taking a coffee or screen break – make it part of your routine. 

Winter walks are satisfying for the soul.

Take a weekend trip to the sea to observe grey skies blending into grey seas – it’s just  as beautiful as when the water glistens under summer sunlight. 

After rainfall, look for dewdrops on blades of grass and observe how evergreens command attention when you’re in your local park. 

Whether you have five minutes or a whole day, there is joy to be found in nature by slowing down, observing changes, and taking a moment to absorb its colour-fuelled energy. 

Hello Rainbow: Finding Happiness In Colour by Momtaz Begum-Hossain is out now, published by Leaping Hare Press, priced £14.32.

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Greenwich: Why Sew On The Go is a celebration of making and travel

Made In Greenwich curator Mary Jane Baxter’s is the story of her journey through Europe in a van

Sew On The Go author Mary Jane Baxter
Sew On The Go author Mary Jane Baxter – image Matt Grayson

Sew On The Go is many things. Travelogue, inspiration, maker’s guide, cautionary tale, creative outlet. It’s Mary Jane Baxter’s third book and, while it’s packed with crafting projects just like The Modern Girl’s Guide To Hatmaking and Chic On A Shoestring, it embraces something else in its 250 pages – the adventure of a journey.

Six years ago, its author left her job at the BBC after 14 years working across Europe, bought and converted a small van, rented out her flat in London and set off on a trip with the aim of combining her love of travel and making things. The resulting book is the story of that expedition.

“I spent a lot of time building up to it – I did a trip for Newsnight in 2009, which involved travelling around Britain and doing make do and mend tasks in exchange for bed and breakfast with viewers,” said Mary Jane, who curates craft and art shop Made In Greenwich for the Greenwich Cooperative Development Agency.

“In order to have a comfortable night’s sleep, I would do a task, so I made trousers for a stilt-walker, created a hat for somebody to wear at Ascot and swapped a night in a hotel in Edinburgh for hats.

“It was about frugality in response to the last recession and it went down really well. At the time I had a second-hand Nissan Micra. It was quite clapped-out but I’d had the idea for this trip and thought it would be really interesting if I had this really crazy vehicle to do it in.”

Having inherited a few thousand pounds following the death of her uncle in 2014, she decided to take redundancy from the BBC and test-drove lots of “really gorgeous vans” that were all too expensive. Then, while walking through Greenwich Park she spotted a man with a curious-looking vehicle.

“He said it was a Bedford Bambi and told me I could test drive it, so I took it round the park and thought: ‘Yes, this could work’,” said Mary Jane. “I saw one for sale down in Southampton, took the train, bought it on the spot, drove it back to Deptford and started doing it up.

“At the time I was working pretty much full-time in the newsroom at the BBC and, at the time, I lived in a tiny flat, so the van gave me an extra crafting space. I felt like I was building an escape pod – I spent every day working on Bambi.”

The makeover included covering the van’s exterior with wallpaper samples (rescued from a Brighton skip) and varnishing them to protect them from the weather.

“Then Bambi was ready to go and so was Mary Jane, having put together a plan to visit and stay with various friends, mount pop-ups at markets, sell the things she’d made and, most importantly, experience the untold possibilities of the open road.

“It was: ‘Let’s throw it up in the air and see what freedom feels like after working for so long from eight in the morning until seven at night’,” she said. “Setting off on St Gerorge’s Day in April 2015 felt brilliant – it was amazing. 

“I packed everything I needed to craft on the road into Bambi – hats I’d made to sell, books I could offload to help fund the trip, haberdashery and my trusty hand-cranked sewing machine.

“I also had no electrics in Bambi – no interior lighting, no drainage, no water, no loo – it was basic camping. I did have the hob for a fry-up on the go, however. Bambi looked incredible and she got so much attention – people waved as we went off.

“I got to the ferry and it was just that feeling that there was no agenda, no commitment – nothing on the horizon that I had to do. What person in their mid-40s wouldn’t want that? To lock the front door and just go.”

Multiple adventures followed over the next four months as Mary Jane made her way through Belgium, France, Italy and up to northern Scotland. 

Readers can expect plenty of picturesque escapism as well as moments of drama including an encounter with an ageing campsite Lothario and dicing with the terrifying sheer drops while driving through the Gorge du Verdon. It’s also a tome stuffed with ideas for makers of all levels.

“The book contains 26 upcycled craft projects interwoven in the story,” said Mary Jane. 

“There’s always an element of my work that’s about re-using, recycling and creating beautiful things out of stuff people chuck away – everything from no-sew projects to more complicated ones.

“It’s also a rip-roaring travel read, which is an honest and exciting account of how it felt to be in that position of not being able to stand being at my desk anymore answering emails and deciding to bloody well go off and do something interesting instead. It’s light-hearted but it’s also about the creative process and about those life decisions that come your way – you don’t get married or have kids – things you might have expected, but don’t happen.

“What do you make of a life that’s balanced between being creative and being responsible for yourself and how do you make that work?

“The book is about trying to answer the question: ‘What are you looking for?’. I still don’t know the answer, but I’m glad I took this journey in an attempt to find out. 

“Often people have ideas but they don’t follow them through. A lot of people, especially women, don’t travel on their own – I talked to a lot of women in their 40s and 50s and they said they would never go off on their own like that.

“I have to say that, as the trip went on, it wasn’t all plain-sailing. There were real episodes of loneliness, and wondering what on earth I was doing. But I’d had the idea, bought the van and I did it.”

Published by Unbound on a crowdfunding model, the book came out in May.

Mary Jane said: “It took six years of hard work, fundraising, writing and journeying. Of all the books I’ve written, this one does hit the nail on the head. Bambi happened and I’m really pleased that I produced something out of my imagination and got it out there.” 

Sew On The Go: A Maker’s Journey is available to buy at Made In Greenwich in Creek Road or online for £16.99, published by Unbound.

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Isle Of Dogs: How east London author’s work introduces banking to children

Nithya Sridharan – writing as PecuniArt – has published her first book, titled The Magic Box

Isle Of Dogs author Nithya Sridharan – image Matt Grayson

“My grandparents were exceptionally good storytellers,” said Nithya Sridharan. “I grew up in a joint house in Bangalore, where they lived with me and my parents. Every night me and my sister would be packed off to them for a while and they would tell us stories.

“My grandmother was a mathematician and they would weave complex topics such as algebra and geometry into the stories, which were often about the village where they grew up. As city-bred girls, me and my sister were completely enchanted by them.”

The Isle Of Dogs-based writer recently published her first book – The Magic Box – a story that similarly seeks to educate as well as entertain, although drawing on Nithya’s wealth of experience working in the financial services industry in Canary Wharf, rather than maths.

“The story, which is aimed at children aged seven to 11, came from starting to think about how I could weave some key financial concepts into a fun, magical tale, which is also south Asian, because I wanted to bring that flavour into books,” she said.

“A lot of it comes from living and learning in that part of the world. The story is set in a tropical town called Lokpuram and it follows three children who are trying to solve a problem that involves money. There’s a magical character in the mix as well.

“Within the story there are a lot of concepts that are blended together, which makes it easier for kids intuitively to understand key financial ideas, such as how a bank works, what one is and how it has money.

“There’s one part of the book which I personally enjoyed writing, that is about central reserve banking. I don’t use the words, but the concept is there and it’s woven into the story.

“We start with the idea of a bank and how borrowers and lenders can come to such an institution – a place that connects them – and shows how the basic business of banking works.

“I also talk about interest rates as a fee, which you pay on top of what you borrow. If you think about the origins of banking, the idea has been around a long time, but not in the forms we see today.

“The word ‘bank’ comes from the word ‘panca’ in Italian, which means ‘bench’. It started with people sitting down and trying to put borrowers and lenders together.

“They used to have IOU notes, which later evolved into the money and currency that we know today.

“So these concepts have been around a long time and people intuitively understand them, even if they haven’t heard of the terms before.”

Writing under the name PecuniArt – a portmanteau of the Latin word for money and art – Nithya was driven to write her book to help boost people’s knowledge of the financial world. 

“I wrote the book because financial literacy is key to the world we live in – everybody uses money,” she said. “Recently there was a study which was done by the Pensions Institute, where they found that, if you look at the population of young adults, one third of them did not understand concepts like interest rates and inflation.

“I suspect lots of adults don’t understand either, even though these terms are constantly in the news.

“Research has shown children and young adults who are basically financially literate have an easier time in their lives – they’re better able to access low-cost loans, have better credit scores and less debt delinquency.

“I feel that with the world that we live in, if you know how to interact with money, what these concepts mean and what the economy is, then you’ll engage with it better, not just in terms of borrowing and lending, but also in terms of your own personal wealth and wellbeing. You’ll know what to do and what it means when the interest rates go down – you won’t get caught out by high interest payday lenders.

“The book is meant to be read as an introductory view of what a bank is, rather than as a detailed analysis of what the world is today.

“There is a section in the book – titled the concept check – where I talk about whether what happens in the story is real. I didn’t want to go into greater detail in terms of what you get from banks, or the stock market today, because I think that’s more advanced. 

“The whole point of the book is to introduce these concepts and, obviously, it’s a magical story, so it’s not intended to be taken literally.”

Nithya, who has lived on the Island for six years, said she hoped to foster a sense of inquisitiveness about the financial system in the minds of her young readers.

“I want them to understand the concepts, but also for them to be something kids are curious about,” she said.

“I’ve had some feedback from children who have read the book, and it’s interesting that some hadn’t thought about these ideas previously – they asked a lot of questions about how it all works.

“I also hope the story gives them enough information on what these concepts are, so that they can ask and engage with adults on all those questions, and find out more about them – that it makes them curious. The feedback I’ve had has been that the kids are very engaged with the magical aspects of The Magic Box.

“The very young ones are disappointed that this part isn’t real. What was very encouraging though, was that even young readers were interested in the subject after they had read the book. You might think that banking, economics and finance sound very technical and not easily accessible, but I’m pleasantly surprised people actually find them interesting – I was hoping for that outcome.

“This is definitely an area schools should be focusing more on. An element of financial literacy should be open to all.

“There are a lot of resources out there already – the Bank Of England, for example, has a financial education portal. While some schools are doing good work, I certainly believe there should be greater involvement from them in providing financial education.

“A study by the Organisation For Economic Co-operation And Development looked at financial literacy for kids across the globe in 22 countries and found that, in certain states, policy intervention was needed to increase those levels.”

While The Magic Box – available in paperback via Amazon priced at £9.99 and at selected bookshops in London – is PecuniArt’s first title, Nithya is already thinking about another book.

“For the next one I will think about how to break down a very complex concept, like the economy,” she said.

In the meantime Nithya will continue sharing posts about money and art for both adults and kids via her Instagram account – @pecuniart.

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