Estuary mudflats, Chalkwell Oaze, Two-Tree Island: The geography of the East Essex coastline tends to choose onomatopoeia and literalism over floridity. Even ‘Southend-on-Sea,’ where I’m currently living, has a utilitarian origin worthy of West Virginia (state of the ‘New River’), being simply the South end of the village of Prittlewell.
Constable painted these parts, but it’s certainly not Constable Country; Turner would’ve loved the twilight light – a baroque sheen that the master did, indeed, discover in Kent, the county I see from my window. But the great British artist who would most like the Southend we see before us is Ballard: a borough ruled by the auto and the airplane; a liminal landscape dominated by oil and gas storage tanks astride painterly maritime coastlines, where the hairdressers and fry cooks seem, to the naked eye, unchallenged in their economic dominance.
In fact, if certain elements of the current government get their way, this area could become a Ballardian theme park with the addition of a new floating airport in the middle of the mouth of the Thames. The Thames Estuary Airport – despised, as far as I can tell, by swathes of Southend, and with good reason – would mean two international airports within a few miles of one another, along with London’s other runways, all skittering between Anglo-Saxon churches and acres of petrol storage. All the world’s a suburb, the men and women merely players.
I’ve now spent over a week in Southend, living at artspace Metal’s residencies in Chalkwell Hall, peering out over the water. (“It’s hard to keep in mind that it’s not the ocean; that it’s just a river,” I said the other night sitting at its edge near a pub. Local raconteur-turned-author Syd Moore looked at me like an idiot: “Yeah? See – there’s the other side.”) I’m working on the aforementioned Public Record: Southend project – an idea that’s morphing constantly and yet not quite enough; one that needs to be reassessed in light of a fragment of understanding about this town, its history and identity, its Oaze. I’ve gotten a bit stuck in the mudflats; tricked by the starlight so prevalent here, just 40 miles along the Thames from London’s flooding light pollution; confused by the local accent, in which “Restaurant” is pronounced “Fish ‘n’ Chips.”
I’d meant to blog-the-hell outta this time in Essex, and yet here I am, halfway through, and loading up WordPress for the first time since Pittsburgh. When last I blogged, Maurice Sendak, Duck Dunn, and MCA were all still alive. Excuse the absence, and also the chrono-confusion to come, as I catch up with a few bits ‘n’ pieces that I’ll let land as they fall.