The Bronx Jewish Blues singer and Rev Gary Davies acolyte Stefan Grossman (1) – who I saw at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1970 (the first and last time I have ever seen anyone choosing to eat cold baked beans) – had a voice like sandpaper. It was in tune, but so dry and rasping as to be the antagonist of anything so settled, complacent and smug as melody; the sworn enemy of the lullaby harmonies exemplified by the BBC’s acapella Sing Something Simple programme. These were not songs for people wanting to be reassured that life was harmonious, if you kept your head down, prioritised cosiness and put away all thoughts of life beyond the privet hedge, or your pink half of the drainpipe (2). This was a voice sung over broken pavements and burnt out car lots. He was nevertheless something of a smartarse; with a such a good joke about the “Surrey White trash blues revival” and how he picked up a track while staying in “a Delta in Basingstoke”, that he told it every time he performed. He got away with it because so many of us listening felt complicit. Not so much a joke as a catch phrase.
I grew up on a Delta without realising it. Travel out of London on the C2C line towards Southend and Shoeburyness, and once you pass Barking the river broadens and the land on either side becomes flatter, waterlogged, marshy, indistinct. A jumble of factories – some derelict, lots of extraordinarily ill advised new housing developments built by Planning Departments which have seen the news about the rapidly collapsing ice shelves in Greenland and Antarctica and concluded that building on land barely above current sea level, and down river of the Thames barrier, is a really good idea – punctuate wide stretches of half flooded flood plain, grazed slowly by somnolent horses, criss-crossed by the A13 and the HS1 line slicing overhead on stilts and the spectacular QE2 bridge, an Estuarine Golden Gate. Random wind turbines rotate gently. At a time when there were fewer housing developments but far more factories, cement works with immense chimneys belching smoke, and chemical storage sites, vast drums of oil and warehouses stretching for miles, this journey was described by a friend who came to see me from up North as “ a bit like visiting Mordor”; but it feels like home to me.
An attachment to bucolic landscapes is a much played upon trope of lazy nationalists, whose eyes well up at scenes that are green and pleasant. Film of marshland, mud flats scattered with dark green seaweed, a river khaki with silt and sludge and sewer runoffs, discharge from shipping and everything that flows from having been London’s cloaca for centuries, is never played as an accompaniment to Jerusalem. Those feet in ancient time didn’t walk upon Rainham marshes. The aesthetic doesn’t fit with the upper class self pretence that their beautifully preserved landscapes and comfortable way of life – which everything else must be sacrificed to preserve -are somehow an organic natural order and didn’t and don’t require the blood, sweat and tears of the working class black dwarves (3) (at home and abroad in the Empire) to sustain it. The Britain (or, more often England) we are set up to worship, turns its back on us as a dirty embarrassing secret that spoils the view; only sometimes half acknowledged so long as it is posed as a conspicuous demonstration that we know our place; especially in armed service. “Ours not to reason why, ours but to do or die”(4).
And we are meant to play – and sing – along, celebrate “our successes”, as Jacob Rees Mogg puts it, and never count the cost; neither to ourselves, nor those we have imposed on others.
The character of this part of the river is determined by the tide. All the freshwater flowing down towards the sea meets the sea pushing back twice a day. The combination of the two creates a tidal range that makes the river level as far West as Westminster rise and fall by as much as 2 to 4 meters between low and high tides. In the context of rising sea levels brought on by climate breakdown, this is an increasing threat. The last time there was our current level of CO2 in the atmosphere, sea levels were 23 metres above what they are now (5). Unless we get that level down, it’s just a matter of time before the estuary starts at Windsor, the solid looking river walls and gates notwithstanding.
These photographs are a study in Essex estuary bleak. The odd enclosed crows nest on the mast on two of them was from a lightship that was built in the late nineteenth century and anchored around various treacherous sandbanks in the North Sea to keep other ships at a safe distance; with mixed success. It was sank twice by freighters that obliviously ploughed into it without noticing its light and had to be resurrected from the shallow depths as salvage for a second lease on life. After being strafed by the Luftwaffe in the Second World War and put out of action, it was salvaged again and bought by the Grays Yacht Club to be used as their clubhouse until 2002. What is disturbing about it to me is the angle it is at, and the way it stands bolt upright and alone on the jetty. All through my childhood it loomed above the rest of the boat, drawn up and beached on dry land, but still recognisably a boat and at a jaunty angle, the boat having been fixed with a definite list to port and pointing vaguely towards London. It also looks clean. It never used to. There was always something mysterious about it. On the other side of the sea wall; beyond a boundary. Private property. The sort of place you’d have been in danger or trouble if you’d climbed over to explore. Taboo. The plaque that lists all this information also notes that many of the people who joined the yacht club weren’t very interested in yachts; which begs the question of what they got up to in there. The body of the boat was destroyed by an arson attack in 2002. This is attributed to “vandals” on the plaque; but suggests a plot line for a story of rivalry and murder in the small, enclosed world of a yacht club with fewer yachts than passions. Today there are yachts, calmly resting at anchor close in shore out of the shipping lanes, like sleeping gulls bobbing gently.
If you look east towards Tilbury Docks, the twin grain terminals rise indistinctly in the mist like two skeletal ships of the line locked together and about to fire broadsides. “For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly grateful”. Gratitude for the grain brought in from elsewhere is maybe something we should feel more than we do. When it rains, the distinction between the air and the water and the water and the mud blurs in the same way as the visibility does. The occasional passing freighter looms spray misted and indistinct high above the river wall and the buildings alongside it.
The dead boat, beached and abandoned, sinking and rotting into the mud, looks like the fossil of a trilobite. A relic of a time when Grays was a centre for Thames barges and Seabrooks Brewery was still making beer. In the early 1970’s there was an edition of the long lost Radio 4 – indeed Home Service – programme Down Your Way in which the presenter, Franklin Engleman, painted a picture of Grays that was almost completely nostalgic and time expired. Anyone listening would have gained a vivid impression of a place of small wharves, red sailed barges and riverside inns; a picture that might have been partly true fifty to a hundred years previously, but a long, long time dead; and completely missing the industry, the council estates, the docks. In some ways it was a lovely picture; but a fiction. Lovelier than the reality. Perhaps that was the point. Why the BBC put effort into projecting that kind of image of the country, while eliding the reality, implies that it was a necessary fiction for the national self-image at the time. I’m not sure much has changed there.
As the river turns past Tilbury, the Estuary broadens, with the Essex bank curving North and the Kent side easing South. At this point the estuary is more sea than river. Parts of the land are actually below sea level; like New Orleans. New Orleans gave the world Jazz. Canvey Island gave it Dr Feelgood. (6)
The River is shallow. The mud flats stretch for miles, sometimes submerged, sometimes not. The mud is full of river and the river is full of mud. All that is solid melts to air, via a misty, sludgy no man’s ground and silt –laden waters laying down barely submerged islands that make the waters treacherous and impel commercial interests to dredge navigable channels for the big ships on their way up to the Thames Gateway.
This colossal development is on the site of the old Shell Haven refinery and storage where my old friend Nick used to live in a small row of company houses. He built himself a car using the chassis and engine of a BMW bubble car and scrap bits of metal from storage tanks. It looked like a home made Bugatti and he more or less taught himself to drive on the deserted company roads that weren’t subject to the Highway Code – or any Police supervision. All these spaces are being filled in in the last spasm of hyper capitalist expansion before the ecological reckoning comes in and the rising floodwaters break the banks – in more ways than one (and not in a good way for either).
1 b.1945. In this relatively recent film of how to play Candyman he seems to have mellowed, as you do, but the voice is the same, as is the jaunty guitar style. It’s worth listening to the end to hear a recording of Rev Gary Davies himself playing a version. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EOQZEQAgcA0&t=67s
2. From the song by the Bonzo Dog Do-Da Band.
3. The Black Dwarf was the name of a satirical radical newspaper published 1817-24; named as a screw you re-appropriation of a description of the emergent industrial working class as Black Dwarves, because their work covered them in filth and their poverty stunted their growth. 150 years later, it was adopted by Tariq Ali and others to name one of the iconic revolutionary newspapers of the late 1960’s. https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3816-we-shall-fight-we-will-win-on-the-black-dwarf-and-1968
4. Tennyson. Charge of the Light Brigade.
6. Dartford of course, produced half of the Rolling Stones. But this is higher ground – and definitely the wrong side of the river.