Reading the Essex Coast (i)

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29th Jan 2013

Fresh out of the snowfall,  with the tentative onset of lengthening afternoons, milder weather and the promise of snowdrops, the time of year, coupled with the anticipation of  Jonathan Meades’ ‘The Joy of Essex’ on Beeb4 tonight and the official launch of John Muckle’s My Pale Tulip on Friday 1st Feb at the Wivenhoe Bookshop, not to mention the forthcoming Essex book festival throughout March, causes The Essex Coast to feel its digital sap rising as though it were tripping the light fantastic of a wonderful zeitgeist, and the urge to spread pixels throughout the blogosphere is irresistible.  ‘Zeitgeist’ is of course, the kind of term that we wouldn’t normally have any truck with on these pages, nonetheless The Essex Coast will maintain a critical eye on all of these events. So, by way of preparation for these cultural extravaganzas, this is the first in a long-intended, and possibly long-winded, series of posts about the books that over the past year or so, have had pride of place on the Ercol coffee table that graces the Silvermud hacienda and which have brightened our journeys and peregrinations along the Essex coast.

Robert Macfarlane has, inevitably, loomed large and illuminatingly over the past few months and one of my favourite passages from The Old Ways is one in which he inverts the traditional map of Europe, making the coastlines the cultural centre, linked by a network of ‘sea roads’. He proposes a ‘radical reimagining’;

Try it yourself, now. Invert the mental map you hold of Britain, Ireland and Western Europe. Turn it inside out. Blank out the land interiors…consider them featureless, as you might previously have considered the sea. Instead populate the waters with paths and tracks….the sea has become the land…now the usual medium of transit: not barrier but corridor….national boundaries shiver and collapse…these outward facing coastal settlements…become a continuous territory of their own…sharing culture, technolgies, crafts and languages …(having) more in common with one another than with their  ‘inland kin’.

We have become accustomed to considering the impact which we have upon landscape, and perhaps are more sensitive to our own relationship with it, and one of Macfarlanes recurring themes is a concern with the dialogic aspect of this relation; with that of our own perviousness to our physical surroundings and of the many levelled impacts and  incursions they make upon us.

‘ Landscape scapes, it is dynamic and commotion causing, it sculpts and shapes us not only over the courses of our lives but also instant by instant, incident by incident. I prefer to take ‘landscape’ as a collective term for the temperature and pressure of the air, the fall of light and its rebounds, the textures and surfaces of rock, soil and building, the sounds (cricket screech, bird cry, wind through trees), the scents (pine resin, hot stone, crushed thyme), and the uncountable other transitory phenomena and atmospheres that together comprise the bristling presence of a particular place at a particular moment”.

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I wonder what Robert Macfarlane would have made of the bristling presence of Jaywick Sands in the 1990s.  John Muckle’s My Pale Tulip is the only novel I have come across that places Jaywick centre stage, and I would be interested to hear of any others.

Jaywick : ‘’The big toe end of the sock of nowhere’’, a town terrorised by a spate of mysterious arson attacks, pensioners burned to death in their chalets ‘like bundles of driftwood on a beach fire ’; a town slivered between the snobs of Brightlingsea and West Clacton,  the rich wedge from Manningtree, and prey to the vindictive attentions of a Tendring Council made up of rapacious hotel owners. Lee Hookaway and his cohorts feel like white trash; ‘’the lowest of the low, at best a useful early flood warning system.’’ The same North Sea wind that fans the flames of the razed chalets extinguishes Lee’s storm lighter as he huddles in a shelter on the sea shore talking bollocks with Spanish Will Woody-Gomez and watching flying saucers over the night water. They formulate their own radical reimagining utilising Will’s Spanish passport;

 ‘’We nick a Spaniard car and you drive it on the ferry. You just flash this passport and pretend that you speaka no English.’’

‘’That might work’’

‘’Course it’ll fucking work, it’s bound to work’’

Stealing a Peugot with Spanish plates, they take the sea road from Harwich via Parkestone Quay to the Hook and on to Delft. A low country road book and love story, with Lee, Charley and Will latter-day Essex beats, shaking loose in the cause of reinvention.

I found it quite hard to place this story in time because of the diversity of the music Lee and Will listen to; they have unusually broad retro taste – the Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Mike Sarne(!). The existence of rave music  puts it at least after the late ‘80s, and mention of David Beckham as a footballer with an international reputation would seem to indicate the mid 90’s. However, Charley, at one point, refers to her pudenda as ‘minge’, a word I haven’t heard since I was a young teenager  considerably before the mid-1990s(and not to be confused, I think, with the more recent ‘minger’). I’m not sure that it matters,it’s a great book and I am probably being a pedant. Please let me know.

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Last night, BBC Look East ran a feature on ‘’The worst peacetime disaster we have ever seen’’; 39 people died at Felixstowe, 37 at Jaywick and 58 on CanveyIsland. ‘’Could it happen again?’’ the programme asked, and as we approach the 60th anniversary of the flood which hit the East coast on 31st January 1953, the question invokes a darker example of the pervious relationship between land, sea and society in these lowlands as well as provoking an answer. It is interesting to note that most of the headline floods that have occurred recently and which continue to occur in Britain have happened in western and northern parts of the country. Essex, with significant portions of its coast lying permanently below sea level, seems, in recent years, to have escaped relatively lightly and in part, this is due to the strengthening of defences after the 1953 inundation. It doesn’t require more than a cursory glance of any of the local flood prevention and contingency plans however, to realise that if this coast does go, it will go in a big way. In This Luminous Coast Jules Pretty notes that on 9th November 2007 the sea rose to levels surpassing those of 1953, and in places the water came within centimetres of the higher sea walls. Going back to ’53, he gives a blow-by-blow summary of the impact as the high waters moved down the coast. Of the farmer watching the river Blackwater rise, and then turning inland to see what he at first thinks is snow over the fields behind him, then realising it is water ‘’…not just water…the full blown sea with waves and currents and now four to five feet deep’’; of Jaywick being struck ‘in the back’ the flood waters approaching from the landward side and people dying in their beds without moving. Of people hacking their way onto roofs and surveying a seascape with the tops of bungalows jutting out, whilst they awaited rescue with no certainty that it was coming.

High tide at West Mersea in 50 minutes. 5.10 metres forecast. Pervious. I wonder whether Jonathan Meades will make anything of it.

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