Graphic novelist Warren Ellis, of Transmetropolitan and Planetary fame, has a chapter in the new book Spirits of Place dedicated to the place where he lives: the Thames Estuary. It’s home to the Maunsell Sea Forts and the S.S. Richard Montgomery, a ship that sank in 1944 with cargo of thousands of pounds of undetonated ordinance; home to areas with Harry Potter-esque names like “Mucking Marshes” and “Foulness”; home to Viking settlements and pirate radio stations. Once described by 8th century Mercian King Offa as “a terrible place,” it’s an odd, out-of-the-way part of the world.
Even in the Eighties, R&B bands ruled Southend. I’d go some nights to an underground space between a bar, which would be rammed with bodies dancing to standards – this was the decadent point in the period, where a lot of bands were just playing stuff you knew from the Blues Brothers soundtrack album. And I’d stagger outside at some point for air or a cigarette or whatever, and the side door to the steps would open, and a plume of steam would belch out and rise up into the night, and I could pretend that I was in a real place, a real city with real history and culture where that happened a thousand times a night, every night.
Some nights, people would just stand around and watch that pillar of air and heat and sweat and kisses rise into the sky.
For a space that’s been close to a blank slate for as long as it’s been here – nothing but forest, settlements stuck to coasts and creeks – even an appropriated identity is an improvement. And not unsuitable for an island that’s barely even there and a delta that probably isn’t.
It’s his part of the world, though.
I live out here on the Thames Delta, still, a ten-minute walk from the shore. It’s a placeless place that tells stories about itself because it’s rarely existed in a dense enough form to generate its own history. It’s nothing but time and tides and salt and mud, and sometimes the mud reflects the sky and you just can’t see anything.
I tell stories for a living. I sit by the rivers and creeks with the ghosts of my ancestors, the Viking priests and dead writers and cunning folk, and I see the water run by and count the tides. We launch futures from here, but here we stay, as time flows by and the sea becomes the sky and a ship full of bombs ticks away.