WHITLIT TALK: THE DEAD HAVE BEEN SEEN ALIVE


This was the short talk I gave at the Whitstable Literature Festival on 14/05/16, involving a rejigged extract from an essay I wrote a few years ago.


Recently I was watching an episode of the BBC1 show Secret Britain. I’d been told to switch on by a friend who lives in Faversham – mainly to show me how awful it was, and because this week’s focus was the county of Kent.

I switched on to one of the presenters delivering line ‘the North Kent marshes are hard to love’, which wasn’t a great start. 

I found it particularly amusing as the marshes of Kent have featured very heavily in my own recent work, and I would say that I love them very much. But my approach to landscape and the British countryside is, I hope, quite different to the type trotted out on BBC1. I’m much more interested in the hidden histories, the places that are apparently unlovable, the weirdness of the Thames estuary and the odd stories you can find right on your own doorstep. 

For example, my story ‘Saltmarsh’, nominated for the London Short Story Prize last year, is entirely about a man walking the marshes from Faversham to Whitstable, taking part of the coast titled the Hollow Shore. It was an attempt to use the landscape I know well in an interesting way, as well as addressing some of the tensions between London and the rest of the country, and present a lot of the weird shit I’ve found out about Kent in the form of a narrative:

He and John have a plan, of sorts, to find passage to Dead Man’s Island in the estuary, lying just off Sheppey. The difficulty in getting there is becoming part of the point, almost every aspect of it becoming the cliché of some hoary old ghost story. They have to arrange private passage with a local fishermen, who will take them to the island, as well as securing permission from Natural England. It’s a bird sanctuary built on disease and suffering. The place appeals to his curiosity and John’s morbidity. They want to find the diseased bones of the dead Frenchmen rising from the mud. Remnants of the prison hulks (whose inmates he can only ever picture as Ray Winstone in a BBC Dickens adaptation). And so on. He knows his Twitter followers would go nuts for it. Adrianna finds it macabre and is not interested.

Simon passes on the path a group of men and women, six in total, swilling strong lager from cans that bear the image of a European bison (the wisent).

They speak a language that may indeed be Polish but he is hopelessly unsure. He wants to ask them what they’re up to (in a friendly way) but decides against it. Attempts a ‘good morning’ like with the cyclists back near Faversham, but is met with silence. They continue until the saltmarsh swallows them and they disappear from view. A herring gull shrieks.

Simon pauses to lean against the concrete flood defence that borders this part of the path, rolls and lights a cigarette. He looks over the waters of the Swale to Sheppey. The water is choppy, the colour of silt and slate, freezing. He feels the desire to push on, to be back among eating drinking people and out of the stinging wind. The sun is blinding him and he wishes he’d brought sunglasses like Adrianna suggested.

By his feet he notices a few orange-brown mushrooms pushing up through the grass. Another thing to add to his list: mycology. Wouldn’t it be nice to forage the occasional meal, with the added danger of vomiting and stomach cramps.

The curlew cries, like bubbles escaping from a mouth submerged.

He is meeting John in the pub. His oldest friend is also down in Kent visiting family. It’s that time of year.

Though they often see each other in London, this is a good excuse for Simon to do this walk, stretch the legs and mind, and to sit in the warmth of his favourite pub, The Old Neptune, sipping Shepherd Neame ale by a crackling fire, listening to the Irish landlord and looking at the glass containers of pickled whelks sitting behind the bar. No one ever seems to buy them. Often, the hippy ex-road-protester guy, Sedge, can be found propping up the bar. Fen lived in a friend’s shed for a decade and wrote a book (self-published) suggesting the UK is, in fact, a buried giant. Or a cherubic being in flight (if you look hard). Whitstable is the centre of the Gog-Magog axis, Sedge says on his YouTube channel. It sounded good but sadly, Simon realised, probably didn’t mean much. 

So I grew up here in Whitstable, and I’m very familiar with the coast here, the saltmarshes between here and Faversham, the sandstone cliffs up at Reculver, the beautiful bleakness at Oare, the Herne Bay downs, Blean Woods – to name but a few places. I’ve written about all of them and continue to delve deeper into the histories and lore of the county. I feel I owe it to the place somehow. 

I’ve lived in London for 11 years now, and when I first started writing, and publishing, perhaps inevitably a lot of the work I was putting out, and the people and places I was writing about, were London based. London will always be a valid and interesting place to write about, but as I went on I found myself increasingly drawn back to the landscapes in which I grew up – ‘hard to love’ they may be. One of the first attempts at writing about Kent in a genuine way was the story that’s in our anthology Connecting Nothing with Something, a story called ‘The Exhibition’, about a visit to the newly opened Turner Gallery in Margate. Writing that was my first serious attempt to start looking at places other than London. I’d do it differently now, but it was an important first step.

It was through my discovery of psychogeography, made famous largely by the writer Iain Sinclair (though he seems a bit embarrassed about the genre he helped create), that I realised that your own patch, the place that you knew intimately, was worthy of writing about. Growing up here, especially as a teenager, I’ll be honest I found it small and limiting. But clearly something about the place has stayed with me as now the whole area has offered up all manner of ideas for stories and essays. 

I realised that everywhere, however small or boring you may first think it, is brimming with narrative, saturated in history, soaked in folklore and legend. It’s worth exploring and it’s worth writing about. You’ll be surprised what you can find.

I wrote an essay a few years ago for The Journal of Wild Culture called simply ‘In Whitstable’, one of my first successful attempts (I think) to write about the town in which I grew up in a decent way. So I’d like to read part of that to you know, as it seems appropriate seeing where we are:

 

FABULOUS HARBOURS

 The view from the harbour

The view from the harbour

The best walk to the town centre is through the harbour. Brett Aggregates stands firm and ageless, ugly and unwanted by the craftspeople, olive vendors, artists and curry cooks. I like that this place still has function beyond the ritual and symbolic. Boats bob in the murky harbour water and sandpipers dart over piles of wet orange rope. Gulls pick at discarded mackerel buns, slathered in a choice of sweet chilli or garlic sauce. 

Here, on the harbour, is the working fish market, puddles of water on the floor, the day’s catches displayed on ice, polystyrene cups of winkles and mussels, cockles and whelks, dead eyed sole, skate and bass peering out at customers from behind plastic price signs and sprigs of decorative vegetation. The boats – Charlie Boy, Lisa Marie and Our Sarah Jane – bring these whitefish to the market, to the rest of the south east, to northern France. Whether they go to Billingsgate, I’m unsure.

The air here smells of stale sand, scraped shell and eager tourism. If you come, you must, must, try a local oyster. Soak its flesh in Tabasco and lemon, slide it down your throat and imbibe the culture. Chances are it’s an Irish import, following the plague that decimated stocks a few years back. The OsHV-1 virus was found in stocks at the Seasalter Shellfish company, having crossed somehow over the water from France. In 2010 a containment area was declared in The Swale, the Thames and the north Kent coast. There is no known cure for the disease. The plague damages the projected image; if you eat an oyster in Whitstable it is a Whitstable oyster.

I don’t know whether I consumed one of the local varieties or one of the doppelgangers and I wonder if it matters. 

I remember washed up starfish, a fallen constellation drying out in the heat.

Something, though, is luring the starfish back. Vattenfall, the company responsible for installing the wind farms that jostle wirth the derelict Maunsell Forts on the horizon, have been criticised by local fishermen. Underground cabling runs out to the wind farms. The cables warm the water, they attract starfish, the starfish are voracious predators of oyster and other shellfish. One solution creates another problem. Green energy is a must but I don’t want the oysters to die, for people to lose their jobs. So people wait to see if the threat is real as starfish wrap themselves in lovers’ embraces round oyster shells, eating that which we eat.

Boat trips run from the harbour, journeys up the Thames estuary and through Tower Bridge before ejecting the passengers onto London streets to be taken by bus back down to the coast. My mother has done it – a thrilling sight, she says. One day I will do it myself.

 

DEAD HORSE MORRIS

 Image from deadhorse.org.uk

Image from deadhorse.org.uk

On Boxing Day 2012 I took a stroll with my mother alongside the seafront and through the harbour. Grey skies as black headed gulls in winter plumage bobbed in the air. We talked of nothing in particular. The harbour was unusually thronged with people, young children in bright coats, parents, old couples fanned out in a half-moon near where the oyster stalls sit. Men in scruffy white shirts and ill-fitting black waistcoats – white men but faces charcoal black – danced ritualised dances and witchlike women, the Broomdashers, stood watch. These were the Dead Horse Morris men, 30 years on the Kentish folk scene but eluding my awareness until now. Today was their Boxing Day tour of Whitstable, to end up later in The Old Ship Centurion. I watched dancing fleshly folk figures in the twenty-first century.

Dead Horse. I investigated and their website explained:

“…navy slang for work that has been paid for in advance. Sailors would often be paid a month’s wages in advance to buy clothes required for the trip, although often this would be spent on drink or other vices. Working a dead horse, therefore refered (sic) to working for a month with no pay other than food - the infamous ‘salt house and biscuit’.”

The display finished with the Brussels Sprout Dance. Blackfaced morris men wore colanders on their heads and gripped stems of sprouts like swords and began a loosely choreographed fight. One figure wore a harlequin dress, transvestitism added to an already unstable mix. One of the women threw sprouts at him and he began to bat the Christmas food, hard, into the crowd. An audience interaction unexpected, alarming for anxious mothers, close to those older folk traditions of subversion and mischief. A sprout thudded into my chest and I laughed. 

“They could have someone’s eye out.”

The blackface, I’m told, stems from the tradition of Kentish coal mining that the world has forgotten.

 

VAMPIRES

 Illustration by Quinton Winter

Illustration by Quinton Winter

Christopher Lee, of course, never lived in Whitstable. His most famous adversary. Peter Cushing as the vampire hunter Van Helsing, did. He died in 1994. As children, we would see him cycling around the town unaware of his horror pedigree. In 2010 Mark Gatiss would sit sipping tea on Harbour Street discussing the iconic man for his documentary detailing the history of British horror. Whitstable Museum, tiny and endearingly provincial, has a small area dedicated to him.

I wonder what Cushing made of the Dead Horse Morris men.

Now, on the site of the old bingo hall next to the takeaway where we devoured post-pint kebabs, sits The Peter Cushing. A Wetherspoons, busy-looking, and with pints cheaper than the chips you buy on the seafront, opened on the 23rd August 2011.

I was there today with Gareth and Kit.

The dead have been seen alive.