No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, July 07, 2001

The Martians are Coming

This article originally appeared in Banana Wings #16, 2000 (eds Brialey and Plummer)

The Martians are Coming
Here's something you'll catch several glimpses of if you search for 'Shoebury' on the Web:

Some of the passengers were of the opinion that this firing came from Shoeburyness, until it was noticed that it was growing louder. At the same time, far away in the southeast, the masts and upperworks of three ironclads rose one after the other out of the sea ... a Martian appeared ... then yet another, still farther off, wading deeply through a shiny mudflat that seemed to hang halfway up between sea and sky.

H G Wells had been to Shoebury, all right, or at least to that part of the Essex coast: he knew about the surreal light and the drifting horizon, and the mudflats stretching out like leaden mirrors towards (I imagine) Holland.

It's easy to imagine a Martian out there, between the shallow sea and the narrow sandy beach, striding along at low tide with a tripod gait that couldn't be mistaken from any distance for any of the water birds that flock to this part of the coast. Foulness Island, now mainly owned by the Ministry of Defence, takes its name from the olden spelling of 'fowl', rather than any inherent Donaldsonian miasma.

Incidentally, Wells’ Martians started a trend for interplanetary vacations: in Green Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson has Nirgal visit a drowned Southend, and dive off Shoebury: from a boat moored, quite literally, above the beach, he watches the Cutty Sark go racing past, liberated from dry dock at Greenwich. But there’s no true sense of place; surely no writer so enthralled by light and colour could resist the temptation to rhapsodise, at length, about the light.

... an acre of land
Between the salt water and the sea sand

Stuff gets left here for the tide to cover, discover, rust and rot. Part of a prototype for the aborted fourth London airport, Maplin, still hulks impenetrably out on the sands, just beyond the remains of the kilometre-long defensive boom. Further out, and not often visible, there’s a line of sea forts stretching north, including the Independent Republic of Sealand, once home to Radio Caroline. Around to the west, part of the Mulberry Harbour - a vast array of concrete barges destined for Normandy - lies broken-backed where it grounded. You can walk most of the way out to it at low tide, wading like a Martian half a mile from the shore, as long as you don’t mind the risk of drowning. My father says that if you follow the tide out, it will have turned before you reach the edge of deep water. Don't flee for the shore, he says, don’t run: the mud sucks at your feet if you run, or trips you suddenly, knee-deep in a hidden hole.

The mud is thick and black. My father told me of a man he knew back in the 1960s, who shovelled mud into crates and loaded them onto the ‘up’ train for collection by some London beauty salon. Since then, most of the cockle beds have been closed, the shellfish too poisoned for human consumption.

Life below the mud oozes merrily along, though. Ankles lapped by little cats-paw waves, I bend to watch shrimps and baby flatfish dart and hide. Once the mud is exposed, periwinkles make Odyssean voyages from one patch of weed to another, leaving a single broad track behind them. Sudden knee-high jets of water mark the presence of hidden subterranean creatures. Subterranean? This doesn’t feel like land (too liquid), and isn’t – between tides – the sea. Imagine a planet with no moon. This shifting, liminal zone wouldn’t exist.

Let Slip the Dogs of War

Beyond the boom, out of mere mortals' ken, there's a DERA (Defence Evaluation and Research Agency) site, which tests all sorts of armaments - including, allegedly, parts of obsolete Polaris missiles - out on the sands where Wells' Martians stalked. There's been a military presence there for centuries, possibly for millennia: the Saxons weren't the first to build a fort on this peninsula of grass-knotted sand, far out at the mouth of England's greatest river. The Nore lightship is moored four miles out: the anchorage around it was the site of the great naval mutiny of 1797.

In the first world war, Shoebury was home to the War Dog Training School, which trained sentry, patrol and message dogs and sent them out to Flanders. There was more of a military presence than that, though. When I mention Shoebury to my father, and show him my photographs of the unforgettable light, he rouses briefly to say 'Your grandfather was there in 1915. He used to exercise the officers' horses out on the sands every morning.'

My grandfather was a French national, though he may also have had British nationality from his Scottish grandfather (hence 'Brown'). He'd have been 30 years old by then, with a child due to be born in November to his wife back in France. What was he doing at a British army camp in 1915? Was it an army camp? Was it British?

I try to ask all this: but I have to sit back and swallow my frustration as my father fights to recapture his train of thought, but loses it anyway. He mutters something, but lack of teeth, and the slurring left by four separate strokes, conspire to make him unintelligible. It is all locked inside, behind misaligned teeth that a dentist should fix (if any dentist in the area was taking on NHS patients). And if he will not rage against the dying of the light, I shall do it on his behalf.

If you ever have to go to Shoeburyness
Take the A road, the OK road, that's the best

This assemblage of Shoebury-lore was seeded by a short story, 'Settling the World', in Mike Harrison's anthology The Ice Monkey. He mentions the Shoebury Road, which runs east from Southend to the faded grandeur of what the Sunday papers (being alarmist about the use of old Polaris missiles at the DERA range) are pleased to call a 'popular seaside resort'. (Popular with Martians, at any rate). In need of a venture beyond the M25, and reminded of the existence of a place I'd visited as a child, I took the train to Shoebury: at least, that was my intention, but on a whim I got out at Thorpe Bay instead.

My family were creatures of habit, and we visited the same section of beach almost every summer weekend for over a decade. The beach at Thorpe Bay is pebble, with patches of sand. Driftglass emeralds and sapphires sparkle exotically as the waves break over them. Because estuarine tides are strong, a series of wooden breakwaters was constructed to prevent the sand washing away. Some of the wood is new, and not yet weathered grey. I’ve read that the sea level on this part of the coast is rising by 10 centimetres a year: am I imagining that the high-water mark is further up the beach?

At the back of the beach there's a row of beach huts, some of them Edwardian, painted in faded weather-proof paint. We used to sit in front of a particularly pink one, 'Clif's Own': in windy weather, or when it was raining, we sheltered (or scrambled out of wet costumes) in its porch. It terrifies me that I remember the names of the ten or so huts on either side. If you'd asked me a week ago to describe ‘Cygnets’ I would have stared at you blankly. Now I can say: narrower than the huts on either side; white weathered to grey; a steeply-pitched tar-papered roof; an open porch at the front, with three steps leading in, and a shiny new padlock – this year’s – on the door.

This particular spot on the beach is probably the place where I have been happiest in my life. The sound of these gentle waves, on this mixture of shingle and sand, is like coming home: the silhouette of the broken Mulberry Harbour barge, uncovered minute by minute as the tide goes out, is too familiar for me to wonder even for a moment what it is. The chimney on Sheerness rises out of the haze, almost in line with the pole that marks the end of the breakwater. As the tide recedes, there is a distinct line of still water marking the submerged part of the breakwater. I haven't been here for at least fifteen years, yet it is all instantly eternal; as though I have never been anywhere else. This (with apologies to Douglas Adams) is the furniture of my mind.

Dawn in the Afternoon

The light here is unlike anywhere else. It's difficult to photograph the exact effect, but sea and sky - while quite distinct - seem far more closely allied than usual. To the east of here lies the shallow, relatively calm North Sea, like a huge mirror. The land is pancake-flat and marshy, and goes on for miles, held in by a sea wall which is constantly being raised. (The Dutch came to this bit of Essex in the seventeenth century, felt right at home, and drained some of it, though malaria was rife until the nineteenth century.)

There's a definite glow on the eastern horizon in the late afternoon: a cool, pale blue light that seems to have nothing in common with the warm, hazy, smog-pinkened sunshine (refracted in London air) to the west. I grew up not ten miles north of here. That light, more than anything else, is a Proustian madeleine for me.

I remember asking my parents, one summer Sunday afternoon at home, if the light in the east was the dawn. Naturally, they found this incredibly amusing, and it's to their credit that they took the time to explain to me that 'dawn' meant the sun rising, and how could the sun be rising in the east if it was still in the sky to the west? I remember finding this rather confusing for a while: I must have been very young.

But it's the light, I tell you: it promises vast celestial things to the east. It brings back memories. (What is blue and is like amber?) I walked from Thorpe Bay eastwards along the empty promenade, past retired couples packing up their Thermos flasks and tartan blankets (we had one, with tar marks on it). My eyes were fixed on the east: I wanted to be able to drink up the light like water. A limitless blue, reflected in water a shade darker and on silvery mud flats strewn with grounded pleasure-boats, with the horizon a simple, distinct line of light.

In Memoriam for the Living

Sitting on that beach, I felt at first as though I was creating a memorial weekend to my parents: gradually, that feeling mellowed into a sense of visiting instead. My mother's long dead: my father is still alive, though now he lives far from that beach and will never visit it again. I 'phoned him, sitting there on the breakwater, and told him that the light was just the same and there were trains again along the pier. He was having a good day: he remembered enough to remind me to look out for the masts of the Richard Montgomery, a bomb-laden wreck over in the mouth of the Medway. I couldn't see it. My eyes aren't as good as they were.

My father walks slowly these days, with difficulty, as though he is walking in the mud out past the breakwaters. It takes him fifteen minutes to walk from my sister's house to her car. He tells me it is safer if he doesn't hurry.

I could wax poetic – or pathetic - and say that the metaphoric tide is coming in, ready to lap at his ankles. I don't say anything. I have to remind myself that the golden afternoons I remember are a quarter of a century away. He looks back, on lucid days, so much further: to a sand dune he ran up one summer's afternoon, outpacing the steam train that carried the rest of his family. Where was that? He can't say.

It's too late now for me to write down everything he has done, the tales told over, and I curse myself for not concentrating. The light at Shoebury brings tears to my eyes, too: but it remains, and is always there when I visit it, and will be there when I am dead.

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