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Woodbine cigarette packet
Holy smoke! God rolls his own
Rattles and Rosettes is the first Ship of Fools print publication in more than two decades. A novel of two halves, it tells the tale of 16-year-old Tom in 1914. War looms but all the young northerner cares about is whether his beloved football team can reach the FA Cup Final in London. It's also the story of another passionate fan, Dan, in 2010, a 60s covers band and some long-lost family secrets. Rattles and Rosettes all began for Ship of Fools co-editor Steve Goddard with his grandfather's life-saving stash of tobacco.

Like most servicemen in World War I, my grandfather kept tobacco in his breast pocket. Just as well, or I wouldn't be here to tell the tale.

I've been told a New Testament was in the same pocket, as well as a love letter from my grandmother. Together, they took the impact of a German bullet, diverting the lead just enough to miss his heart by a quarter of an inch. The bullet made a hole right through the letter. Disappointingly, I've never seen it.

My lasting memory of Grandad is in an armchair at his Sunbury-on-Thames prefab, rolling his own cigarettes. It was just about the only thing I ever saw him do before his death in 1981. He liked watching the Black and White Minstrel Show, and randomly sang snatches of obscure songs – songs I'd never heard before or since. When I asked him where they came from, he would throw another sweet-smelling line of Woodbine into a Rizla wrapper, lick the gum, and misty-eyed, say: "They kept us going in the trenches."

I sensed a curious ambivalence. On the one hand, like most of the men who served king and country in World War I, he would say nothing of the horror he had witnessed on the Western Front. On the other, he seemed almost wistful and nostalgic for a time when, in appalling and degrading conditions, he buddied up with fellow soldiers at an intense level – men who were long since dead or with whom he had sadly lost touch over succeeding years.

For years, Grandad was the only smoker in my immediate family. It was considered a vice by most. Indeed, smoking was a convenient way of dividing righteous from reprobate.

It was intriguing, then, to learn of Father Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy – better known as Woodbine Willie. An army chaplain during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, Kennedy famously doled out packets of cigarettes to nervous troops about to go over the top.

I read about Kennedy when working on a novel newly published by Ship of Fools that compares modern and pre-WWI culture in the UK. Rattles and Rosettes revolves round two fictitious football fans a century apart. Indeed, the plot opens in 1914, with cigarette cards being swopped during a dull sermon.

Northerner Tom, 16, optimistic and hopeful, looks forward to fulfilling his dreams against a backdrop of grinding poverty. He follows Burnley to the FA Cup Final that same year and, months later, finds himself in the trenches. Southerner Dan, 23, educated and cynical in 2010, looks back to an age when life, particularly music and football, must have been so much better. A musician wannabe, he sets out on a one-man mission to expose modern football and music. Eventually, the two stories intertwine.

The discovery of Bob Holman's biography, Woodbine Willie, proved an inspiration. Some of the army top ranks looked down on Father Geoffrey socially, disapproved of the friendships he made with men who were not officers and criticised some of the bawdy language in his sermons. One general, a devout Christian, reported him to a senior officer as a heretic. Kennedy was just the kind of character I needed for the story's denouement.

I've never been into nicotine myself, but when I get a heady whiff of cigarette smoke in the open air, it takes me back to Selhurst Park and my first-ever professional football match, on Wednesday 27 March 1963. For years I had badgered my father to take me to see Crystal Palace.

When he finally relented, I was more relieved than excited. Walking up those concrete steps, smelling the fried onions, clicking through the turnstiles, gawping at green, green grass under brilliant floodlights – it was impossible not to fall in love. At last I could hold my head up in the playground. Palace lost 1-0 to Colchester but no matter: I had been to a professional game. I had witnessed Ronnie Allen taking a corner. Now I could join in football matches at break-time with my chest puffed out.

Going to matches as a teenager became a key social activity. All my friends smoked on the terraces. It's what you were supposed to do at a game. It was the way you acted cool in front of girls, as well. And friends' embellished stories of sexual conquest sometimes included the way they finished the act – cracking open another packet of Players No 6.

It set me thinking of Beggar's Banquet, an album released by the Rolling Stones in 1968. The original cover, depicting a desecrated public toilet, was banned at the time and only emerged with the release of the CD in 1984. Above the pedestal, one of the scrawled lines of graffitti declares, "God rolls his own." It's an image I've always loved – the Almighty reaching for his breast pocket to contemplate creation. It seemed to make sense at a key point in Rattles and Rosettes.

It is the afterwards of love. Just afterwards. No more than twelve short seconds afterwards. Sweet stillness has taken repose after the sensual storm. Limbs lie limp and disentangled. One frantic heart beats smoothly as two again. Twelve seconds after such absurd ecstasy, Dan considers re-working his CV. He needs a good reference from somewhere, too. His former employer is unlikely to be helpful. Then there are tomorrow's rehearsals for Sunday's audition at Lancashire's leading tribute pub – The 4000 Holes in Blackburn, Lancashire. Twelve short seconds and passion has given way to pragmatism, mystical to mundane. He envies smokers who light up afterwards. It must calm the nerves, soothe the troubled breast.

And, for no good reason, he thinks distantly about pro-creation and how it mirrors creation itself: life-force released in one explosive act. And, for no good reason, too, he thinks of God. Not Palace goalkeeper Julian Speroni this time but the old feller up there, somewhere way beyond the red and blue. Perhaps he is still recovering from the shock of his own creation. Never mind the earth, the entire universe must have moved for him. And now, here we are, in the afterwards of it all. A long time afterwards. And maybe the old feller is still distracted. Maybe that is why he shows little concern over the ensuing turmoil. Perhaps, billions of years after the biggest of bangs, he is drawing long and hard on one he's rolled himself, thinking of other things.


I can't help imagining hundreds of thousands of young men at the beginning of the last century, who found themselves at the pearly gates, cut down before their prime. And, far from being distracted, I'd like to imagine the Almighty putting an arm round each one and, with the other, reaching into his breast pocket.

Buy your copy: Kindle edition (£3.56) or paperback (£7.99)

Visit the Rattles and Rosettes website
 
Steve Goddard
Steve Goddard is a freelance PR consultant and co-editor of Ship of Fools. "I hoped author Nick Hornby would write Fever Pitch 2, documenting the effect on fans of post-Premiership football," he said. "He's shown no signs so I decided to have a go myself."
rattles and rosettes book
Rattles and Rosettes is published by Ship of Fools.
Kindle edition (£3.56)
Paperback edition (£7.99)
Visit the Rattles and Rosettes website
   
 
 

 

 
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