It was the magwitching hour
Sun like soft gold on the tips of the reeds
– ‘The Marsh Harrier’, from Tales of the Hollow Shore, ed. Anon
Nostalgia is a poison. It can paralyse those susceptible to its charms, muddy the brain, set your gaze forever backwards; we all have a weakness for it. I carry in my blood nostalgia for the shoreline, the muddy waters of the estuary, looking out over the grey towards Sheppey, then on to Essex. For distant shipping containers and the Mansell forts dotting the horizon. I miss watching storms come in off of the sea. It lies dormant, flaring at at times of weakness or distress. When things get tough, stepping backwards seems so appealing.
I find myself missing a place I couldn’t wait to escape from, somewhere in a version of the 1990s I can no longer be sure I have not just imagined. The banal dreamtime I construct for myself is a grey England of provincial cafes with plastic seating and chipped mugs, tea steam coiling with my father’s blue cigarette smoke, greasy breakfasts as drizzle beats a tattoo against glass, the coughs of old men, gull shrieks on the pavements outside. There are beaten down second-hand stores and a sense of just not much going on, that last lull before all of the hot topics kicked in: gentrification, regeneration, the DFLs, one world ebbing and another nascent, now rising. All change, this service terminates here. We all miss the world of our childhood, even if we know it was shit.
It’s hard to pinpoint what it is I am missing. The tidal waters are amnesiac and uncaring. The sea doesn’t carry the scars of its history like the land does. We may damage desecrate deplete, but the waters will still be there, void of life or not. The surface is as unreadable as it ever was.
So perhaps we have to head inland, into the marshes. I view my own memory as a marshland. Boggy, unreliable, teeming with life often out of sight, treacherous and able to pull down the unwary and the unlucky. There’s a bird that you’ll find in certain parts of the marshlands, the damp spaces of Kent. Head to Stodmarsh at the right time of year, and you will see them, the marsh harriers. Red list, protected, spirit of the reeds.
They have taken on mythic status for me, a genius loci of the places I consider sacred, a bird that is not just a bird but a signifier of everything both appealing and treacherous about these marshes of the mind.
I know little about the existing folk-mythology of this bird; and so I create them myself. It becomes the guardian spirit of a place that does not exist but is drawn from a muddy reality. The Hollow Shore is a place becoming fleshed out, a sketch now inked in but not complete, developing its own folklore and customs, remixed figures from our popular culture, drowned protagonists, second-hand books warning of the ghosts of fishermen and the sons of Cain. Marshes full of black curlew, white herons, birds real and birds that should be.
If I carried a landscape in my head I couldn’t quite escape from , I decided to fill it with own narratives, and in some way, gain control of it and suppress that poison always threatening to show itself. The marsh harrier, soaring and spiralling above the reed-beds, allowed me to do that.