Grays – Purfleet
10th October 2012
In the late 1980s, there was a spectacular re-opening of the State cinema in Grays, bankrolled, I believe, by a film-loving, Canadian millionaire philanthropist. Tickets were on sale for £1, the foyer restored to its art-deco glory, and the cinema organ arose from below the stage for a pre-film performance (Blackpool Tower, apparently, having the only other remaining organ in the country that did this). A carnival atmosphere pervaded the cinema, with a welcoming master of ceremonies who conducted a ‘lucky ticket’ raffle from the stage. I recall the first film as Who Framed Roger Rabbit ( a scene was filmed at the State) or possibly Back to the Future. Despite the cheap tickets, the revival didn’t last and the cinema closed a couple of years later.
The State has aquired a large Morrison’s as a neighbour, it has competition from the new(ish) unitary authority civic offices nearby, but is still prominent over Grays town centre as you emerge from the station. Nearby, the Pullman pub has a frayed and weathered England banner fluttering from an upstairs window, which looks as if it might have been there since the 1998 world cup. I recall a time when this pub was run by a landlord who used to squirt his regulars with a stirrup pump full of water, but my memory being an uncertain tool, I would be grateful if anyone could verify this. Cement was traditionally manufactured in Grays and a long-time resident once told me that a regular hazard was leaving your washing out when the wind was in the wrong direction and the cement dust would set it rigid. This sounds too good an urban myth to be true, and again, confirmation would be welcome.
Master F., Ebb Tide and myself are honoured to be joined today by Claire Balding; artist, ballroom dancer, tennis player and baker of distinction. I had last been here in 1994 and I’m able to pinpoint this because he reminds me of the occasion when we attended a wedding at the church next to Grays station.
Grays gets a bad press. Jules Pretty skips it in a few pages in This Luminous Coast, but this may be because it has been covered so comprehensively and witheringly by Iain Sinclair in London Orbital. “The crossing to Essex feels like a mistake” says Sinclair, forced off-route to the Gravesend -Tilbury ferry by the lack of a pedestrian crossing at Dartford. “There must have been a reason once for Grays,” he snipes, ” but it’s been forgotten”. In fairness, if you don’t know Iain Sinclair’s writing, withering criticism of a locale can, and often does, go hand in hand with a deep affection for it.
There is a magic portal at the bottom of the High Street, a transformative arch proclaiming ‘Grays Town Wharf’ and framing a container ship passing down the Thames, both boat and river glistening in the bright sunshine. Sailing boats are moored near the foreshore, bobbing in its wake. Passing through optimistically, we are onto the Thames path, previously a derelict strip of post-industrial landscape, now a well-manicured and almost deserted park lined with densely-packed riverside flats and protected by brand-new floodgates. The grain terminal at Tilbury stands silhouetted and unchanged-looking from the days when the atmosphere of the whole town could be pervaded with the heavy odour of malt. There is still a derelict cement works up ahead, and the riverside walk gives way to an unmade, narrow path flanked by security fencing and abundant with buddleia. The path takes us over metal stairways that straddle the sea wall and through narrow tunnels under redundant jetties. The cement works fence is sporadically adorned with lethal iron adornments that wouldn’t be out of place on a medieval battlefield.
We next pass the very-much-still-operating London service centre for Proctor and Gamble, the starting point for a million brands of toiletry and detergent and, a sign informs us, celebrating its 75th year of operation. Famous for being a sponsor of American radio programmes in the 20th century (‘soap operas’), for controversies over products such as Pampers (huge increase in landfill) and tampons (toxic shock), more recently, in 1994, presciently, in terms of later corporate practice, the company, according to Wikipedia;
“made headlines for big losses resulting from leveraged positions in interest rate derivatives, and subsequently sued Bankers Trust for fraud; this placed their management in the unusual position of testifying in court that they had entered into transactions that they were not capable of understanding”.
I too am not sure what a ‘leveraged position in interest rate derivatives’ is (anyone help?); it’s the kind of financial language with which we have been systematically confused over the past several years. However, a large banner proclaims the company motto to be “Live, Learn, Thrive”, so I am sure that P&G are now confident in their transactions.