Adventures at the End of the World: A Review of The Stone Tide by Gareth E. Rees

I have to confess that when I first heard that Gareth Rees was moving from his home in East London to the Sussex coastal resort of Hastings it seemed to me odd for a relatively young writer to be forsaking the vibrant metropolitan cultural hub in order to settle in a quiet provincial backwater.  Particularly so when Rees had just spent several years developing Hackney Marshes and the River Lea as his personal genius loci and the setting for his first novel, Marshland.  However, while Hastings is very much part of England’s provincial outlands, one thing we learn from The Stone Tide is that it is a decidedly unquiet place.

The Hastings of this, Gareth Rees’s second book, is haunted by ghosts: emanations of the town’s past, present and, indeed, its precognitive future.  Perhaps this is hardly surprising given that Aleister Crowley, the so-called Great Beast, spent his final days in Hastings and ever since the place has attracted a variety of mystics, occultists, visionaries and shysters.  But Rees is also haunted by the ghosts that he brings with him, memories and presences that take root and grow in the fertile loam of Hastings’ psychic vortex.





The Stone Tide is peopled with a cast of strange and compelling characters, past and present.  Charles Dawson of the infamous Piltdown Man hoax rubs shoulders with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest who predicted the World Wide Web.  Robert Tressell, one-time Hastings resident and author of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists gets a mention, as does Rod Hull and Emu. John Logie Baird lived here for a time, arriving in 1923 to recover from a period of ill health. Whilst in the town he continued to experiment with the transmission of moving images.  There is little evidence that Baird and Aleister Crowley ever met, but in Gareth Rees’s alternative history they do.  Crowley confronts Baird on Hastings seafront accusing him of stealing his transmission idea, corrupting it from a medium to accumulate and raise human consciousness to another level into a device for mere entertainment:

Unbeknown to you, this technology was being developed in secret by adepts, like Promethean fire, for the liberation of mankind….if only your greedy little mind could imagine such a thing – to see across dimensions, to commune with the spirits, to wield influence in the universe!

The Stone Tide starts off in conventional enough fashion.  Burdened by debts Rees, his wife Emily and their two young daughters move from London to a large, end-of-terrace Victorian house on the south coast.  The house has potential but is badly in need of renovation, so the couple have the idea of gradually doing it up into their idyllic family home at the same time as Emily pursues her burgeoning career in digital marketing and Rees works on his second novel.

In a parallel universe this book could be the simple tale of a shiny, happy couple transforming a wreck of an old house into their shiny, happy new home: the dross of dereliction transmuted into designer chic, no doubt with numerous asides about local characters and colour.  But from their first evening in Hastings we realise this is not going to be the case.  It is even more run down and unloved than they remember it from their first viewing:

Above the front door, a cracked stone lintel was the house’s broken heart.  Its subsiding interior had the wonk of an eighteenth-century galleon.  There was an oppressive gravity to the place, as if it could no longer bear the weight of its own existence.

The house is peopled with odd noises and distant voices.  It seems to be alive with creatures revelling in its decay: swarms of flies and rats and one particularly evil-seeming herring gull. Everywhere there is dust: the accumulated residue of decades, a shedding of generations of human skin.  They clean up one lot of dust and more appears by the next day.

I enjoyed Marshland, Gareth Rees’s previous book, but this is something entirely different.  Whereas his earlier novel sat comfortably in the oeuvre of London psychogeographic writing that has become so ubiquitous in the last decade or so, The Stone Tide, although clearly from the same writer, is instead a work of breathtaking originality.  If Marshland was Gareth Rees’s With the Beatles novel, then The Stone Tide is definitely his Rubber Soul project.  In other words, he has progressed from the competently entertaining to something strikingly new and exciting.  I look forward to his Sergeant Pepper moment in the not too distant future.

Nothing is solid in The Stone Tide: everything is permeable and subject to the ravages of time and nature.  Rees’s grip on reality begins to falter, his marriage shows cracks and their new home continues to crumble and decay.  Even the very rock upon which Hastings is built proves to be neither solid nor permanent; the actions of tide and river cause whole chunks to fall into the sea.  Indeed, the sea is ever present; it is vast, brooding and threatening and is a constant reminder to Rees that it was beside this same sea, in another part of this island, that his best friend died two decades earlier.

The only place to go was the sea.  The indifferent, angry, calm, fucked-up sea. The sea that began life on earth.  The sea that would finish us all off.  The sea that took Mike then brought him back again.

But it is not just the crumbling cliffs of Hastings where a rift is opened up, the linear flow of time itself seems to have been disturbed.  When he arrives in Hastings Gareth Rees seems to be secure on the rock upon which his life is built: his sense of himself, his marriage, family and his career, all of which seem to be going well.  Even the greatest sadness of his life, the tragic loss of his best friend, Mike, some twenty years before, seems to be something that Rees has now dealt with, something with which he has come to terms.  But in Hastings he assailed by forces which open-up the crusted wound of his grief.

Rees writes with painful honesty:

Our family was falling apart and I had failed to see it.  I’d let it happen.  I’d walked away from the truth.

There is much sorrow in this book, but its overall effect is not entirely bleak or self-indulgent; the sadness at the heart of The Stone Tide is leavened by the verve of Rees’s prose and his self-deprecating humour.  Amid the despair and aching loss in this book there is hope and a determination to carry on:

Humankind is not locked into some ordained destiny.  Consciousness is a force as powerful as time, strong as gravity.  It moves through the universe, through the earth, through animals, vegetation and rocks.  It mutates and evolves.  It creates its own reality.  The human mind, with its extraordinary imagination and capacity for invention, has unlimited potential, both to create catastrophe and avert it.

Rees worries throughout the time covered by this book if he will ever complete his current writing project and, if he does, whether it will be any good.  Clearly, he does finish it and, equally clearly, it is indeed very good.


The Stone Tide: Adventures at the End of the World is available to pre-order from the publishers, Influx Press

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Winter 2017/18 Reviews

A collection of seasonal reading loosely connected by the themes of landscape, time and memory…

The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City – Iain Sinclair

This is the eighteenth and supposedly final chapter of Iain Sinclair’s London novel. Or it is if, like me, you view Sinclair’s London writings as a single body of work.  From the moment Sinclair arrived in London in the late-1960s he walked.  He traversed the city’s streets, footpaths and forgotten spaces creating in his mind an ever-evolving map of the place London occupied in time and space.  Sinclair has explored the occult significance of the alignment of Hawksmoor’s churches in Lud Heat, circled the city’s outer cordon in London Orbital and traced John Clare’s escape route from the city in Edge of the Orison.  In these and his other London writings he has created a body of work that has altered the way we look at and write about London and, indeed, cities in general.  With a heavily-weighted allusion to Eliot, London is presented as an ‘unreal city’. The Last London is a collection of essays each of which has its conception in a series of walks through the city but most of which then branch out into a host of other reflections and speculations.  The collection has the tone of an elegy: a marking of something coming to an end.  Indeed, Sinclair has already returned to his South Wales roots with 2015’s Black Apples of Gower and has placed one foot outside of London by buying a flat in Hastings.  But for now he remains a resident of Hackney and, I suspect, The Last London will not be his final word on the capital.


Devil’s Day – Andrew Michael Hurley

Andrew Michael Hurley is the author of The Loney, a surprise best-seller from 2014 and winner of the Costa first novel award.  As with his previous book, Devil’s Day risks being saddled with the genre fiction label ‘British folk-horror’, which is a little unfair to a writer of Hurley’s originality.  The Endlands is a remote corner of upland Lancashire.  Farming families struggle for generation after generation, trying to eke out a living from the unforgiving land.  Yet somehow it all works: the land always provides and its inhabitants live in balance with it and with each other.  But something else lurks beneath the surface.  It is to this wind-blasted corner of the north that John Pentecost, having given up a teaching job in the south, brings his reluctant, pregnant wife.  They encounter suspicion and have to come to terms with loyalties based on blood ties and tradition, all set within a landscape mediated by ageless ritual.  Throughout it all Hurley successfully nurtures a growing sense of unease and deep-rooted evil.


Linescapes: Remapping and Reconnecting Britain’s Fragmented Wildlife – Hugh Warwick

Since these islands were first inhabited, human beings have traced lines across the landscape: hedgerows, dry stone walls, green lanes, drovers’ tracks, corpse roads, canals, railways and ley lines, all have placed their mark upon the land.  For thousands of years humans have drawn lines across the landscape, destroying wildlife habitats in some cases but offering new opportunities to some species in others.  Britain’s lines upon the landscape were comprehensively surveyed by Alfred Watkins as long ago as the 1920s with his seminal The Old Straight Track and again by others on many occasions since, including Robert Macfarlane’s recent The Old Ways.  But along with the romance of the ancient trackway there was the warning of humankind’s damage to the land.  Henry Williamson’s The Vanishing Hedgerows, a BBC film in 1972, documented the devastating effect mechanised farming, which required ancient hedges to be grubbed up to create giant fields, was having on the habitat of countless species of flora and fauna.  Warwick provides a first-hand survey of Britain’s linescapes.  Whilst the human-made marks on our landscape cannot be erased, he argues, opportunities to rewild and reconnect the countryside using these lines abound.  He gives examples, both planned and accidental, of places where nature has been able to reassert herself and makes compelling proposals for how we might encourage this process.


Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and Its Ever-Present Past – John Higgs

One of the most ancient of Britain’s trackways was worn into being by the passage of human feet travelling back and forth from the cliffs of Dover across country to Anglesey.  Dover has long been Britain’s point of contact with continental Europe and, since the Bronze age, Anglesey has been the site of mining for its rich copper and lead deposits as well as a sacred place in the Druidic tradition.  The track was straightened by the Roman legions who also extended a branch eastwards from Chester to York.  During the Roman occupation it became known as Watling Street.  We can still trace Watling Street today: it is shadowed by the A2, A5 and M6 toll road.  But its presence is not just physical, argues Higgs.  Watling Street, he suggests, has its own noosphere: a presence that is unique and palpable.  The term noosphere was first coined by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in 1922 to describe the realm of myth and tradition and its influence on the human mind.  Higgs meets contemporary shamans, sages and other outcasts along the route of Watling Street and reminds us that the past, in both a physical and mythical sense, is always only just below the surface.  Watling Street is part of the story of these islands and, Higgs argues, has the potential to inform our future.

Elmet – Fiona Mozley

Elmet is a Gothic-tinged slice of folk noir rooted in the landscape of the North of England, a land that, seen through Mozley’s eyes, is at once contemporary and mythical.  The story is told from the point of view of 14-year old Daniel who lives with his older sister, Cathy, and their father, John, in a remote cottage in a wooded area of West Yorkshire, an area steeped in the myths of the ancient Brittonic kingdom of Elmet.  John, known simply as Daddy, is a great brute of a man who makes his living with his fists.  Cathy has been taught how to hunt and forage by her father while the gentler Daniel stays at home to look after their meagre, impoverished household. Elmet is a meditation on family, poverty, intolerance and the all-pervading power of memory. Above all it is a book that draws the reader into the brooding presence of an ancient landscape.  Mozley’s prose is full of lyrical beauty and this, her first novel, rightly made it onto this year’s Man Booker shortlist.


You Are Here: The Biography of a Moment – Matthew Watkins

In the first and final second of forever, I thought of the long past that had led to now and never… never… never… never…

Robert Calvert: Ten Seconds of Forever

Matthew Watkins uses this quote as an epigraph to his You Are Here: The Biography of a Moment.  On 30th December 1972 I see Bob Calvert and Hawkwind take to the stage at the Liverpool Stadium and perform their Space Ritual.  I bare my chest and dance.  Almost at the same moment, in Cambridge Massachusetts, Edward Lorenz delivers his Butterfly Effect paper to the 139th meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  On the following day two leap seconds are added to the year, making 1972 the longest in human history.  This may have very little to do with Watkins’ book, but it does help me to find a personal starting point for reviewing this satisfyingly strange volume.  He describes You Are Here as ‘an accelerating history of Canterbury from the Big Bang to noon August 15th 2014’. It is, indeed, a book about time and place. The place is very small and specific: Canterbury in the county of Kent where Watkins currently lives and works. His temporal scope, however, is infinite: he encompasses the dawn of time right through to the (almost) present day. But what happens on 14th August 2014? The answer is small, specific and infinite, not to mention genuinely unsettling. Time is strange, we learn. It does not progress in a strictly linear fashion. Watkins is a mathematician and an exponent of the concept of retrocausality. And in his incessant patrolling of Canterbury’s streets he has seemingly joined the psychogeographic club too.  In You Are Here, with barely an equation in sight, Watkins succeeds in conjuring up the poetry of mathematics.


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A Bridge That Divides

A bridge that links and divides.

Two nations, border country, and in my mind

I’m so close to the edge.

But fly-strewn water fills my mouth,

and drowns all possible words.

The water is warm and viscous, its whole surface dotted with a generous sprinkling of flies.  Flies so well-fed and lazy that they don’t even bother to move as she glides through the water, arms pulling forward slowly and head and shoulders bobbing gently up and down.

A medieval bridge with four squat arches, its sandstone blocks glowing pinkly in the early evening sunshine.  She sees two children standing on the parapet of the bridge and between them a man with an arm around the shoulder of each.  She hears the voice of another, hidden from view but nearby, seeming to remonstrate with the three on the parapet, perhaps pointing out the danger of their position.  Julie feels a jolt of alarm and opens her mouth to cry out but river water, warm and fly-strewn, pours into her mouth stifling her voice.

Farndon Bridge from English bank

Just then she passes into the shelter of an arch and immediately feels a sensation of cool air on the top of her head.  Under here the sound of the rhythmic movement of her arms and legs through the water suddenly becomes louder, its reverberations bouncing off the stone arch and filling the air beneath with a force that is almost physical.

Farndon Bridge from Welsh bank

The air is warm and still as she passes out on the other side of the arch.  An instant later the silence is shattered by a loud splash somewhere behind her, and then another.  Voices calling out.  Julie turns and kicks out, propelling herself back to the other side of the arch with a frantic crawl.  She is there in three strokes.  But she sees no figures in the water, no one on either bank, nor anyone on the bridge above.

Richard Holland

She knew she had seen them, she had heard them.  Julie was in no doubt that she hadn’t imagined the children and the men on the bridge, nor that she really had heard the two splashes.  All of her senses are real: she feels the water on her skin, the sunshine on her head and the scent of newly-mown grass in the air.  In desperation she ducks her head beneath the surface of the water and kicks out to propel herself downwards.  Darkness.  Silence.  She swims in a circle, first one way and then the other, not seeing but searching with outstretched arms.  Lungs bursting she surfaces, takes a deep breath, and then submerges once more; and again and yet again.  But still no sign.

Treading water, she tilts her back and lifts her head crying out:

‘Help!  Help!  Please, somebody!’

There is no answer, the riverbank, the village, maybe even the whole world are empty, bereft of life.  Total silence, except for the cries of the children that still echo in her head.

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The X-Site: Mendelssohn, Mustard Gas and Memory

The most wonderful and the strongest things in the world, you know, are just the things which no one can see.

Charles Kingsley – The Water-Babies


We follow the river upstream, pressing on further than we’d ever walked before.  We are a group of four boys, all aged eleven.  We walk past the wide pool where, on previous occasions, we swam.  Beyond that we pass the narrower stretches of river where, sometimes, we had lain on our bellies and reached under the side of the river bank to ‘tickle’ for trout.  Not that we had ever caught any; but we had it on good authority that friends of friends, older boys usually, had successfully done so.


We walk on, enjoying the way the sunlight flickered through the trees which overhung the water.  This part of the river is unfamiliar to us and the grass underfoot, lush and untrodden, suggests that few others ever walked this way.  As we move along the riverbank the valley gradually narrows, the sides rising more steeply and the trees closing in; a twilight of shade.  I feel uneasy, perhaps we all do, though none of us will admit it.  We laugh and joke trying to lighten the oppressive mood that has crept up on us, but our efforts are laboured and soon we fall silent.

We walk on, perhaps two, maybe three miles, hearing only our own footsteps and the sounds of our breathing.  Even the birds have ceased their singing.  Then, rounding a bend in the river, we reach the end of the valley, or at least the end of all possibility of moving any further upriver.


Before us, like the massive rampart of some ancient fortress, is a high concrete wall.  The wall stretches across the narrow neck of the valley, as if to pull both wooded sides together.  We edge closer, wary of our proximity to the river which is now a narrow concrete channel.  Dark and slow-moving, its waters hint at unspeakable depths.  The wall rises before us, high and grey.  Water trickles down its surface, and along its crest glower metal railings topped with barbed-wire.

We can walk forward no further, and with an unspoken agreement that we no longer wish to linger in this gloomy spot, we turn and retrace our footsteps.  A brisk walk later we emerge once more into the world of warmth and light, and are able to enjoy again the sound of running water, bird song and the fragrance of the summer meadows which stretch out on both banks of the river.


Several days later I told my dad about our walk and asked him if he knew anything about the strange dam further up the valley from where we kids normally played by the river.  He told me that we’d clearly walked a long way, almost as far as the next village, and that the dam was part of the perimeter of an old factory.  The factory was dangerous, he told me, and we should keep well clear of it.

My friends and I did keep away and never walked as far as the dam again.  In fact, it wasn’t long afterwards that we stopped playing by the river altogether.  A boy called John, a friend of my older brother’s, got into an argument with another boy on the riverbank and stabbed him.  The place seemed to lose its attraction to us after that.

But that wasn’t quite the end of it.  Through my childhood, and later into my teenage years, I picked up snippets of talk from listening-in on adult conversations.  One thing that had really piqued my interest was hearing occasional references to the ‘bomb factory’.   Was it a real place or just part of local folklore?  I wasn’t sure, but people my parents knew seemed to be saying that they had once worked there.


A little later, when studying O Level Art at school, I developed an interest in architecture.  I had a particular fascination at that time for a group of large art-deco houses on a road near our council estate.  I loved the curved windows, the clean lines and the bold use of concrete.   They were known as ‘the ICI houses’.



Much later, when I was a student, I discovered that ICI ran a weapons research facility near my home town during World War Two.  The ‘ICI houses’ were built for the senior managers and scientists from that facility.  It was known in its planning phase as the X-Site and then, once constructed, as the Valley Works.  But to the locals, in the spirit of calling a spade a bleeding shovel, it was the Bomb Factory.

*           *           *

 But the hills around here are hollow.  Way back, even before the Romans came, the hills of Flintshire were mined for lead.  The Romans expanded the workings and used Flintshire lead for their settlement at Deva (Chester).  Later, during the time of Edward I, local lead was used for the construction of Builth Castle.

The industry was centred on the high ground of Halkyn Mountain, but over the centuries, it expanded north and south along the valley of the River Alyn (Welsh: Afon Alun).  The section of the river valley around the village of Rhydymwyn is carved out of the underlying limestone and is pitted with underground caverns and chambers.  And it is here, above ground and below, that the Valley Works was built in 1939.


But before that, in the nineteenth century, this stretch of the valley was already being developed by the Taylor family of nearby Coed Du Hall.  Originally from Norwich, John Taylor was a landowner and mining engineer.  He oversaw the expansion of lead mining along the Alyn Valley at Rhydymwyn and had a foundry built on the edge of the village.

In 1829 the German composer Felix Mendelssohn made one of several visits to Britain and stayed with the Taylor family at Coed Du Hall.  He had just completed some travels around Scotland planned to sail to Ireland from Holyhead, but the weather forced him to change his plans and stay with John Taylor, whom he had met in London.

While at Coed Du he composed his Three Piano Caprices for Taylor’s three daughters, Anne, Susan and Honora.  The third of the caprices, The Rivulet, is said to have been inspired by his walks with the sisters along the Alyn near Rhydymwyn.  Mendelssohn’s time at Coed Du is marked by a plaque in the village.


Despite the legacy of almost two millennia of lead mining, the beauty that inspired Mendelssohn is still evident when one walks along the Alyn Valley today.  Perhaps the odd industrial scar on the landscape, coupled with nature’s gradual but irresistible process of reabsorbing such aberrations, has its own kind of attraction.  Gerard Manley Hopkins might have been referring to such places when he wrote about the idea of ‘dappled beauty’, whereas we use terms such as ‘liminal spaces’ or ‘marginal landscapes’ to describe such areas.

Some forty years after Mendelssohn’s time at Coed Du the writer and Christian Socialist, Charles Kingsley, was also a regular visitor to Rhydymwyn during the time when he was Canon of Chester Cathedral.  It is believed that he enjoyed walking along the stretch of the Alyn known locally as the Leete and it is mentioned in passing in some of his nature writings.  Some commentators have suggested that Kingsley river walks in the Rhydymwyn area inspired his most famous work, The Water-Babies, but this was in fact written some ten years before his time in Chester.

The lead mining industry in Flintshire went into a steady decline after the First World War due to difficulties in extracting the ore and the availability of cheaper imports.  Mining in the Alyn Valley all but ceased during this period.  By the eve of the Second World War, however, the Ministry of Supply came up with a new use for the site at Rhydymwyn; a use for which its flat valley floor, steep sides and extensive tunnels seemed to make it the perfect location.  So in 1939 the Valley Works was established.


*           *           *


The Valley Works is now open to the public, though unless you are attending an organised open day you have to make contact first and set up your visit.  It took several emails and a couple of phone calls before my visit was finally agreed.  The site is now run by Defra, the government’s Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs. The site manager’s biggest concern was whether or not I was a journalist: if I was from the press they’d have to get clearance from head office first.

Finally, on a weekday morning in September 2014, I arrived at the Valley Works for my scheduled visit.  I introduced myself to the site manager, who didn’t seem to be particularly thrilled to see me.  But I was handed over to one of his staff, who couldn’t have been more helpful.  We chatted about the site and then he took me outside to help me get my bearings before he sent me on my way to wander around on my own for as long as I wished.

Away from the office my guide was able to apologise for the hassle I’d had trying to set up the visit.   It was worth joining the Rhydymwyn Valley History Society, he advised, because I could then visit any time I wanted.  But he cautioned me against asking too many ‘awkward questions’ as that was what had got a local Green Party activist excluded from the site.  I don’t know exactly what his awkward questions were but, it seems to me, asking how any toxic residues on the site are dealt with is a pretty legitimate line of enquiry.

Before he left me to wander off on my own, my guide unlocked the thick, steel door to one of the underground storage tunnels to let me have a quick look inside from the entrance area.  I was slightly disappointed as we could not walk very far into the tunnel, for ‘health and safety’ reasons, but I was able to gain a sense of the enormous scale of the underground workings at the site.

The Valley works site covers some 87 acres and, although much of this is taken up by the remains of ICI’s chemical weapons manufacturing and storage plant, it is also home to foxes, badgers, otters and rare plants.  One section of low lying ground has been deliberately flooded to allow wetland plants and creatures to thrive.  Previously lawned areas have been allowed to return to their natural cover of wild grasses and plants and once more provide an ideal habitat for a range of wildlife.

The use of chemical weapons in warfare had been banned by the Geneva Protocol of 1925.  However, all the major powers still had stocks of such weapons and the capacity to produce more.  Once war with Germany seemed inevitable in 1939, the government felt that Britain’s main chemical weapons capability, at the ICI plant in Runcorn on the Mersey, was too vulnerable to attack by enemy aircraft.  The Ministry of Supply’s search for a new site resulted in Rhydymwyn, or X Site as it was referred to at this stage, being offered to ICI.

The advantage of the X Site was that it was situated in a narrow, steep-sided valley which made access for the bombers of the time very difficult.  But, crucially, it was the deep tunnels in the valley sides that made Rhydymwyn such a good choice; even the largest bombs had no hope of penetrating through hundreds of feet of limestone.

The site was never attacked but, my guide told me, one of the defence measures in place was a battery of smoke machines further up the valley.  Should any enemy bombers approach, the smoke machines would be fired up filling the valley and surrounding land with smoke so that the planes could not get an accurate visual fix on the site.

At its height, production at the Valley Works engaged some two thousand workers.  The chief product was mustard gas, both in its Runcol (HT) and Pyro (HS) forms.  Pyro was the original mustard gas used in the First World War in shells and Runcol was a more recent version which could be transported by air as it had a lower freezing point.  Both were capable of debilitating large numbers of troops and civilians:


In the form of gas or liquid, mustard agent attacks the skin, eyes, lungs and gastro-intestinal tract. Internal organs may also be injured, mainly blood-generating organs, as a result of mustard agent being taken up through the skin or lungs and transported into the body. The delayed effect is a characteristic of mustard agent. Mustard agent gives no immediate symptoms upon contact and consequently a delay of between two and twenty-four hours may occur before pain is felt and the victim becomes aware of what has happened. By then cell damage has already been caused.

Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

Rhydymwyn was also involved in some of the early gas diffusion experiments that formed the basis for the Manhattan Project: the Allied nuclear bomb.  Post-war the site played an important role in similar experiments that led to the development of a British nuclear weapon.  Building 45, where these experiments took place, has been given somewhat dubious recognition by being awarded Grade II listed status in 2006.  There is a strange irony that a building where so destructive a weapon was planned should be given special protection against inappropriate development.


The site is laid out as an elongated rectangle along the floor of the river valley and is pressed up against the limestone hills of the valley’s western side.  During the construction phase of the X Site this section of the River Alyn was culverted to prevent it from flooding the works during winter.  A spur of the Mold to Denbigh railway was also built to give direct rail access into the site.

I should mention that when I was researching the Valley Works, before and after my visit, I found the resources gathered by the Rhydymwyn Valley History Society invaluable. One interesting thing I discovered on their site was an archive of oral history from local people who had worked at the factory.  I was astounded to find that one of the women whose wartime memories were recorded there was the mother of one of my childhood friends; Gerry’s Mum had once worked at the bomb factory and I had no idea!

Left to wander without my guide, I walked around the Valley works site and noticed it was criss-crossed by a network of roads linking the various production buildings.  I read later that a particular type of asphalt was used for these roads, one which was not prone to producing sparks.

Several dozen brick and concrete buildings still exist, some in a better state of repair than others.  Essentially there were two classes of building: those involved in the production of mustard gas and those reserved for charging bombs and shells with the gas, together with explosives.

The part of the works reserved for charging the shells comprises several small buildings rather than one large one.  This is normal in arms manufacturing, to avoid one accidental explosion setting off a catastrophic chain reaction.  During the war some of the completed weapons were shipped out to strategic stores in other parts of the country whilst others were stored underground in one or other of the three tunnels bored into the hillside.

Once the Second World War had ended, the production of mustard gas at the Valley Works ceased.  Some stocks of Runcol and Pyro were buried at the site – dumped into pits and covered in bleach, which neutralises the active components in the liquid gas.  I can’t help thinking, however, what toxic ingredients would have found their way into the local water course.  The tunnels are the subject of all manner of conspiracy theories concerning their post-war use.  The only function which has been officially confirmed is that they were the location of one of many strategic food stores in the Fifties and Sixties: high-energy foods to be used in the event of a national emergency.

As I wandered the site exploring the abandoned production buildings I came across other parts of the infrastructure of the works, including the site of a toxic burial pit, a pumping station and a railway platform.  What struck me was that, although the Valley Works had been devoted to producing such nightmarish weapons, the site seemed so oddly normal.  True it was a very pleasant autumn day with warm, still weather.  But, had I not known the history of the site, all I would have seen would be a collection of decaying industrial buildings gradually being swallowed up once more by nature.

One could be forgiven for pointing out the apparent dissonance between Mendelssohn’s sweet, pastoral Three Caprices of the nineteenth century and the later activities of this stretch of the river valley; its caverns piled high with poison gas and the river itself squeezed into a concrete coffin.  But even in Mendelssohn’s time, and mainly at the behest of his host John Taylor, this landscape was already brutally scarred by mining and smelting and the men and women of the local workforce were being driven ever harder to increase productivity and reduce cost.

Only at one point on my exploration of the Valley Works did I sense a change in the atmosphere.  After the last of the buildings, at the far southern end of the site, the valley narrows and the trees close in.  Here it was darker, cooler.  And something else, something uncomfortably familiar.  The site ends in a sturdy fence of metal railings; in fact this fence surrounds the whole site, some seven miles of it.

I stood at the fence, looking through its bars at the other side.  Before me the land fell steeply away and below was a narrow meadow edging a stretch of river held within a concrete channel.  Gazing over to my left I saw that the fence reached a corner and turned back on itself.  Looking more closely I saw that the fence-line followed the culvert of the Alyn back into the site.  I walked to the corner of the fence and looked down.  I was standing to one side of the top of a high concrete dam.  Water trickled down its grey, damp wall and gathered in the concrete channel below.  Then looking up at me, or so I imagined, were four small boys, silent and wide-eyed.


This is a revised version of an essay by Bobby Seal first published at Unofficial Britain in February 2015.  Unofficial Britain is a hub for unusual perspectives on the landscape of the British Isles, exploring the urban, the rural and those spaces in between.  All words and images are produced by Bobby Seal.  With grateful thanks to Rhydymwyn Valley History Society for all their assistance. 

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Terence Davies’s Liverpool

Cinema creates a loop that preserves memory, and through the artful use of music and unexpected juxtaposition, Davies communicates the intensity that belongs to those memories. The re-enactments of Children are transcended. Death And Transfiguration is a powerful and deeply moving experience for the audience as well as for its creator. Robert dies in a crescendo of rasping, heaving rattling breaths, and as death comes, the last memories bubble up; of mother and son walking hand in hand, of two seagulls a-wing over the Liverpool skyline. And for all the Catholic indoctrination, this is a godless death. Redemption lies in cinema.

Matthew De Abaitua


Terence Davies’s Liverpool trilogy comprises three short films: Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980) and Death and Transfiguration (1983).  The most autobiographical of his works, they chart the life of Davies’s alter ego, Robert Tucker, from unhappy childhood through to sexually-repressed adulthood. In the final triptych Davies imagines an elderly Tucker looking back on his life as he lies in bed facing a lonely death.  This was the kind of old age and demise that Davies believed would have been his had he not broken away from that particular trajectory in his late twenties.











The image of the child is central to Davies’s view of life; inside we are all still children.  The first film in the trilogy, Children opens with a soundtrack of schoolboys at play and slow, tracking close-ups framing the faces of Robbie and the three older boys who are tormenting him for being effeminate: “Who’s a fruit then, eh?  It’s Al Capone isn’t it, eh?  Your name’s Al Capone, isn’t it?”

In Davies’s world though, these are not just children, not simple beings who have yet to become fully-formed.  Each, Davies implies, is a complex individual with a rich inner life.  Thus, the child does not grow up and become a man, or a woman, in the sense of being transformed into another being; the adult is still, underneath it all, the same child he or she once was.  We are all, in that sense, still the child we once were.


Terence Davies, the youngest of ten children, was born into a working-class Catholic family in Liverpool.  His father was a violent bully, driving the young Davies even closer to his loving but down-trodden mother.  His father died when Davies was seven, but cast a shadow over the rest of his life.

Davies realised he was gay when quite young and suffered terrible feelings of guilt and confusion because of the dissonance of his sexuality and his faith.  The themes of Catholic guilt, repression, bullying and loneliness are integral to all three films.  But underlying everything, as was the case for Davies himself, is Robert Tucker’s unwavering devotion to his mother.

Terence Davies’s Liverpool trilogy is an exercise in memory.  But memory, Davies insists, is episodic, a kaleidoscope of images which do not follow a conventional narrative arc.  We are shown the world through the eyes of Tucker, but Robbie’s Liverpool is not an objective reality, it is a projection of his memory.  And as is the case with memory, feelings and moods are just as important as narrative.  Narrative, after all, is very fluid: each of us constantly constructs and revises the story we tell about ourselves.

Although the films are set in Liverpool, we see very little of the city.  Robbie’s is essentially an interior world: home, school, office, church, hospital.  Looking at Davies’s work as a whole, there seems to be an association of interior space with the female: safe, warm, comforting.  Exterior space he seems to personify as male, and thereby harsh and threatening.

All the dynamism of Liverpool in this period, the maritime links with America and the joyous musical and artistic creativity, are absent from the trilogy.  Or, more correctly, they do not feature in Robbie’s life.  Snatches of people happily singing and laughing are there in the films, but always at the periphery, rarely directly involving Robbie.

But Davies does use music in his films, often to very powerful effect.  Chamber music, folk songs, children’s hymns and songs from Hollywood musicals are used sparingly but to haunting effect, an aural seasoning to the stew of visual images.  The choice of music is never obvious, which sometimes produces breath-taking juxtapositions.  In the opening of Death and Transfiguration, for instance, the last film in the trilogy, the middle-aged Robbie travels to his mother’s funeral, alone in the back of the funeral car, overlaid with the strains of Doris Day’s It All Depends On You.


Children, Madonna and Child and Death and Transfiguration move relentlessly through the three stages of Robbie’s life.  But Davies consciously breaks the rules of linear time as he moves backwards and forwards exploring the jumble of Robbie’s memories, his youth, adulthood and old age.  Davies does not want us to just look at Robbie’s life, he requires us to witness it, and present each fragment as if part of a body of evidence.

Although at one level we know that these are films set in the Liverpool of the 1970s and 1980s, because that it when they were made, the trilogy is essentially set in a perpetual present.  We all live our lives in that way, never questioning what we mean by ‘now’.  And yet the past is always present and, through memory, we re-enact it again and again.

In one of the most ineffably moving scenes in Children, the 11-year old Robbie and his mother make a journey through Liverpool by bus.  In one’s memory the scenes one plays out operate from just one point of view.  And so it is with this journey, the camera, still and unblinking, observes Robbie and his mother from one side as they sit, mother looking ahead and Robbie writing in the mist of his breath on the window.

Courageously, Davies holds this shot for a full two minutes.  There is no dialogue and no sound, other than a haunting oboe lament.  Then he switches the angle and we are face on to the mother and child.  The sound clicks in, first the labouring engine of the bus and then a sob, and we realise that Robbie’s mother is crying.  She continues to look ahead as the tears stream down her cheeks.  Robbie looks at her, confusion and fear in his face, but neither of them says anything.  The scene switches to Robbie in his early twenties getting off a bus, alone but burdened with his memories.

Davies offers no explanation of the scene on the bus.  How could there be an explanation?  This is a childhood memory and so many of those memories, things one is too young to understand at the time, remain locked in mystery forever.  Mam cried, and that is all Robbie remembers.  It is all he needs to remember.

In Madonna and Child we find a middle-aged Robbie living at home with his mother; his father died many years before and the mother and son live quietly together, each providing the other with companionship and support.  By day he crosses the Mersey and keeps the books in a stultifying shipping agent’s office, just as Davies did for twelve years before he went away to drama school.






By night, Mam safely in bed, Robbie creeps out to find something he hopes will fill his void of loneliness and frustrated desire.  He seeks casual sex with rough, hairy men, just like those in his collection of pictures of wrestlers.  One is left with the thought that these are men who bear an uncomfortable resemblance to his late father.

There is no joy in Robbie’s sexuality; just pain, humiliation and an overwhelming sense of guilt.  A guilt that he carries with him to the confessional box, but even there it is something he cannot face, sublimating it instead for a meticulously kept log of other more acceptable sins.

By the time we reach Death and Transfiguration Robbie’s mother is long-dead and he is an old man alone and dying in his hospital bed.  Memories bubble up and burst in his mind throwing out aoristic juxtapositions: the nurses decorating a Christmas tree in Robbie’s ward become the nuns at his primary school nativity play and the fire consuming his mother’s coffin summons up a cheery blaze in the grate from a childhood Christmas.

Wilfrid Brambell, in his last film role before his own death, gives an outstanding performance as the elderly Robert Tucker.  In a hospital bed, unable to move or speak because of a stroke, his cadaverous face and sunken eyes seem to carry the whole story of a wasted life.



Davies clearly loves faces: in one scene he lights Terry O’Sullivan, playing the middle-aged Robbie, from below and in close-up to give his face an alarming resemblance to Edvard Munch’s The Scream.  Valerie Lilley, painfully sublime as the young Robbie’s mother, might have been chosen just for her face, which seems to carry the beauty of her youth at the same time as the tribulations of her married life.


The whole trilogy is about looking back: in Children Robbie Tucker, now in his early twenties, is tortured by memories of his childhood, in Madonna and Child it is the middle-aged Tucker who looks back to his earlier years, while in Death and Transfiguration an elderly Robert Tucker surveys his whole life.


Davies breaks a number of cinematic conventions in the way he portrays Robbie’s life.  It is likely he would have been taught at film school to avoid empty space and dead time on the screen; such errors are said to interrupt the narrative flow and risk losing the audience’s attention.  In the trilogy, and indeed in his later Liverpool films, Davies ignores this advice; he presents sustained shots of characters saying and doing nothing and even shots with no characters present at all.  This is life and not a performance, he seems to be saying, there is a world beyond the frame and these characters will continue to live their lives when the camera is not rolling.

Because of the restrictions of his budget, Davies had to shoot his trilogy in 16mm black and white. Children was made before he went to film school and Madonna and Child was his graduation piece.  Yet Davies’s vision seems to supersede the technical limits of his medium and his lack of experience as a director.  He seems to coax the monochrome film to the point where it shimmers with the haze of memory.  He makes the maximum use of natural lighting too; many of his indoor shots are lit just by windows.

We have been conditioned to associate black and white film with the forties, fifties and sixties.  Thus, for those of us who were children during that time, our childhood memories have taken on monochrome tones.  For Davies, having to use black and white film, albeit for financial reasons, produced the happy accident of his trilogy seeming to exist outside of time; he makes no attempt to create period settings.  The effect is a remembered life in a perpetual present.

The trilogy ranges back and forth through time but, whatever stage of Robert Tucker’s life we are asked by Davies to bear witness to and whichever of the four actors playing him is on screen, he is still the child we first saw in the opening scene of Children.  Davies eventually lost his Catholic faith, but he still seems to share the Jesuit conviction that the first few years of a child’s life, the early influences and experiences that affect him or her, will determine the course of the rest of that life.

The young Robbie Tucker is cowed into passivity by an abusive father, brutal teachers and bullying school-mates.  His ability to function, to express emotion, is locked into petrification from an early age by the shame of his sexuality; homosexuality was not just forbidden by the Church when Robbie was young, but by the law.

The quiet passivity we see from Robbie as a child when spoken to by his teachers we see again and again throughout his life: with doctors, priests and other authority figures.  He even walks meekly away when refused entry to a gay club, as if accepting that he does not belong even there.


Through the course of the three films we see no friendships in Robbie’s life.  Any sexual encounters he has are completely without any tenderness.  The only love in his life, the thread that runs through all three films, is his love for his mother.  He loves her to the end with childlike faith and sincerity.

In the final part of the trilogy, as Robbie lies in his hospital bed rasping out his last breath, the torch of the patrolling night-nurse playing on his face, the film closes with the voiced-over words:

When the light goes out, God is dead.

Davies was to return to some of the themes covered in his Robert Tucker trilogy in his later Liverpool films Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and Of Time and the City (2008). Distant Voices, Still Lives is another exercise in ‘memory realism’ and continues to mine Davies’s Liverpudlian working-class Catholic background.

Though this is a return to some of the same ground covered in the trilogy, Davies now opens up the story. Memories are played out before us once more, but this time they are the memories of an extended family of characters, not just Davies’s alter ego. Each memory is, seemingly, picked up and dealt out at random, as if from a hand of cards.

Twenty years later, now a critically-respected writer and director, Davies returned his creative attention to the city of his birth. Of Time and the City uses archive footage from the fifties and sixties with a voice-over by Davies.

But this is not the tourist-trail Liverpool of football, Cavern Club, Tate Liverpool and Albert Dock. Davies selects footage to reflect his own reminiscences of Liverpool in that period; memories of a city of dirt, poverty and brutally enforced ideas of gender roles and sexuality. Rather like Eliot’s Four Quartets, from which he quotes liberally, Davies transcends a mere documentary study of a particular place and time into a series of ponderings on the very nature of time, place and memory.


This is a revised version of an essay by Bobby Seal first published in issue 3 of  gorse in March 2015.  gorse is a print journal published in Dublin, featuring longform narrative essays, original fiction, poetry and interviews.  All images used to illustrate this review remain the property of the film-maker and are reproduced with grateful thanks. 

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Straight Lines: Watling Street and Chester

Chester is situated on an elbow of Watling Street, one of Britain’s major Roman roads.  One branch issues south towards London and the other runs east across the Pennines to York.  Chester’s importance to the Romans was determined by its location.  It was at the north-western extremity of the Midland plain and formed the gateway to the highland zones to the north, east and west.  Chester also straddled the coastal route into North Wales and was located at the highest point of the River Dee that was navigable by sea-going vessels.

Map of Watling Street






















The Roman word for Chester, Deva, was adopted from the name the early Britons gave to the River Dee: which directly translates as the River of the Goddess.  In medieval Welsh Chester was called either Deverdaeu or Caerlleon (the fortress city of the legions).  In modern Welsh Chester is known as Caer.

Roman ChesterThe Romans placed their fortress of Deva, as Chester at a defendable narrow point of the River Dee, a location that could also be forded at low-tide.  The fortress was protected by the river to the south and west, while on the other two sides walls were constructed to secure their strong point.  At first the fortifications were made of wood, but in time these were strengthened using local sandstone, as is evident in the older sections of Chester’s walls.



Twentieth Legion

The Roman garrison had their main barracks in the site of present-day Crook Street and Goss Street, just to the north of Chester Cross.  At first Chester was occupied by the Second Legion.  But from approximately 90AD the fortress was garrisoned by the Twentieth Legion, the Valeria Victrix.




Watling Street approaches Chester from the south along the approximate route of the modern Eaton Road.  Having decided to walk the route, I commenced my exploration at the Iron Bridge near Aldford, near the point where Watling Street is thought to have crossed the River Dee.  To the south are the modern-day villages of Churton, Barton and Stretton.  These mark the route to the Roman settlements at Malpas and Whitchurch in Shropshire, and beyond these to Wroxeter, Caerleon and ultimately London.

Iron Bridge at Aldford








I follow the riverside path as far as Heronbridge, as the exact route of Watling Street is lost at this section.  However, at Heronbridge I pick up Eaton Road which means I am able to follow the route of Watling Street more closely from this point onwards.  Eaton Road is long and straight and really does feel like a Roman road.

Watling Street crosses the Dee once more and I enter Chester by means of the medieval Old Dee Bridge, which is built on the site of an earlier Roman bridge.  It then follow the road uphill towards Chester Cross along the present-day Bridge Street.  In Roman times this was known as the Via Praetoria.

At Chester Cross I take a sharp right as Watling Street heads east along what is now Foregate Street before leaving the city through the East Gate.  Sections of the road here were exposed during construction work in the nineteenth century.  The sandstone roach base of Watling Street was revealed at the site of the East Gate and also outside numbers 46 to 50 Foregate Street, approximately six metres south of the modern kerb.  Today the site is marked those modern-day shrines to Mammon: HMV and Game.

Old East Gate Chester

I end my walk at the site of the East Gate, but Watling Street continues from here through Boughton to the village of Vicar’s Cross.  Beyond that the route passes through Eddisbury and Hartford to the forts at Northwich and Manchester and eventually reaches York.

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Washington Irving and the Headless Horseman

Washington Irving was an American writer who spent much of his early literary career living in England.  But I only discovered recently, while doing some research for a piece on the Old Dee Bridge, that he was also a frequent visitor to Chester.  When he first visited the city in 1825 he would have travelled from London by coach; an uncomfortable journey lasting several days.  At least he was able to find some comfort in the inns he stayed at along the way:

…that picture of convenience, neatness and broad honest enjoyment, the kitchen of an English inn.















Irving was impressed by Chester and loved to explore its Roman ruins and medieval streets.  As a student of European folklore, he also found much to pique his interest.  Taking a stroll one day from the centre of Chester across the sandstone arches of the Old Dee Bridge he came across a maypole on the Handbridge side of the river:

I shall never forget the delight I felt on first seeing a May-pole. It was on the banks of the Dee, close by the picturesque old bridge that stretches across the river from the quaint little city of Chester. I had already been carried back into former days by the antiquities of that venerable place… the May-pole on the margin of that poetic stream completed the illusion. My fancy adorned it with wreaths of flowers and peopled the green bank with all the dancing revelry of May-day. The mere sight of this May-pole gave a glow to my feelings and spread a charm over the country for the rest of the day.









Sadly, the maypole, although once a fixture at the Handbridge end of the bridge for many years, is now long gone.

Irving’s interest in folklore and the uncanny manifested itself in many of his short stories; Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow being amongst the best known.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is set in 1790 in a secluded valley called Sleepy Hollow in a predominantly Dutch area of upstate New York.  The area is alive with tales of ghosts and hauntings, the most terrifying of which is the legend of the Headless Horseman.  The horseman, as explained by locals to Ichabod Crane, a newly-arrived schoolmaster from Connecticut, was a soldier who lost his head in battle to a stray cannon-ball.  On dark nights he rides through the valley still, they insist, with his head tucked under his arm.

One night, riding home from the farm of Katrina Van Tassel, the young woman he intends to marry, Crane is chased by the Headless Horseman and, in fear for his life, flees Sleepy Hollow never to be seen in the area again.  The reader is left to ponder whether Crane’s pursuer was really a terrifying spectre, or merely a love-rival in disguise.

Irving’s tale has endured and, indeed, it has been filmed on several occasions, the most recent being Tim Burton’s adaptation in 1999.  But he did not invent the idea of the headless horseman; folk tales of headless earth-bound spirits on horseback abound throughout Europe.  In England Cheshire seems to be particularly cursed by such legends.  No doubt Irving, with his active interest in folklore, would have encountered many of these tales during his visits to Chester.

Wybunbury, some twenty-seven south of Chester, has long been home to a widespread headless horseman myth.  He is said to ride across Wybunbury Moss, a boggy area just outside the village.  The Moss is also home to one of the North of England’s many Ginny Greenteeth legends: the green-skinned, sharp-toothed hag who emerges from ponds and pools and pulls the unwary in to their doom.  Another headless horseman, allegedly the ghost of a slain Royalist from the English Civil War, is said to ride out on a lonely lane near Halton, to the north of Chester.

However, Irving’s interest in headless spirit mythology seems to have been ignited by one particular encounter that occurred when he was travelling by coach from Birmingham to Chester.  The coach stopped at a village called Duddon, eight miles or so east of Chester.  Irving was intrigued as to why the village inn was called The Headless Woman.  The landlord explained to him that it was named after a woman called Grace Trigg, a servant to a local Royalist family, who was beheaded in the attic of the inn by rampaging Parliamentary troops.  She regularly haunts the inn, the landlord warned, and seeing her was a sign of impending disaster for the person concerned.

Against the landlord’s advice, Irving insisted on staying the night at the inn and had a bed made up in the attic room.  He kept a vigil all night, but did not see the headless woman.  He did, however, claim to have heard a woman sobbing in the night and, in the morning, found a patch of blood on the floor of the attic.

Prompted by his experience in Cheshire, Irving spent several months researching headless ghost tales.  He found that that their incidence was ubiquitous throughout the British Isles.  Many of the legends involved headless horsemen, tales of which have persisted right through until the present day.  Irving would be amused, no doubt, to learn that his fictional The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is still the best-known of these stories.

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Hear Her Walk

In a house, in a town lived a man and a woman.  With them lived the woman’s uncle.

The man and woman wanted a child, but no child arrived.

In the attic, the man made a boy from steel and wires.  The woman watched as the steel boy walked down the stairs and stood in the hall.

Together they dressed him in a coat with a hood then took him out to walk.  Uncle came too.

Hear Her Walk 1


But the boy’s battery ran flat and he collapsed into a steely heap.  Lifeless.

The man took the coat with the hood and held it up.  “I give you life,” he said.

The emptiness of the coat filled and it began to walk, its steps resounding on the pavement slabs.

The man walked beside the coat, keeping pace with it.  He pulled back the hood.

A little girl with dark hair smiled up at him.  He took one of the girl’s hands and the woman joined them and took the other.

Together they walked home, the three of them holding hands.  Uncle came too, carrying a tangle of steel and wires.

They lived together in the house: the man, the woman and the little girl in the coat.  And Uncle too.

The little girl did not like the dark.  At bedtime on that first night the man said goodnight and switched off the light.

But the little girl screamed and clung to him tightly, begging for him to bring back the light.  The lights were never switched off again.

Come the next day the little girl in the coat made it clear she did not want the man, the woman or the uncle to leave the house.  Ever.

Uncle said this was too much and got up to go.  The little girl took his hand and he fell to the floor, his body lifeless but his eyes still open and alert.

He watched as the little girl gently took the man’s hand and soothed him to rest on the floor too.  She then did the same with the woman.

She placed the three of them on the sofa: the man, the woman and the uncle sitting side by side.  So still.  With doll-like bodies and life-like eyes they had no choice but to sit and watch.

Hear Her Walk 2


The little girl in the coat walked into the hall, then up the stairs to the landing and from there up to the attic.

She then walked back down again, her footsteps sounding heavy on the stairs.

She entered the living room and smiled at her family on the sofa, then turned and repeated her walk through the house.  Again and again.  Always.


Today I awoke from a dream with tears of sadness in my eyes and my heart racing with fear.  This fable arrived fully formed in that dream.  It conveys an underlying truth.  Can you not hear her walk?

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Waterland: Memories Dissolve

A bridge that divides.

Border country, and in my mind

I’m so close to the edge.

But fly-strewn water fills my mouth,

and drowns all possible words.

Waterland River DeeCold pellets of rain beating a tattoo on the gore-tex fabric of my coat.  I stand on the old sandstone bridge that that links the villages of Holt and Farndon.  The River Dee, her belly swollen with water from the Welsh hills and her surface a soupy brown, flows by almost reaching the top of the stone arches.  Scenes from Graham Swift’s Waterland play out in my mind.

Waterland River DeeWaterland River DeeI had planned to follow the English bank of the Dee north towards Aldford, retracing in reverse a previous walk when I photographed many of Farndon’s plotlander chalets.  But the riverbank is flooded and the footpath is inaccessible, so I cross the bridge and pick up the path on the Welsh side of the river.

Waterland River DeeWaterland River DeeIt was on the other bank that Gwil and his brother told me they’d found an impromptu coffee shop a few weeks before: an empty wooden chalet with a sign telling anyone passing to come inside, help themselves to a drink and leave a donation in the honesty box if they wished.  I wanted to see this for myself.  It sounded like one of Lesley’s ventures and her old chalet, which I think she still owned, was round about where they described finding the coffee shop.

Waterland River DeeThe river glowers and threatens.  Here on the Welsh bank a lower lying meadow over to the left of the footpath is flooded: a newly-formed shallow lake.  Wild fowl sit and bob mindfully upon its surface.  It occurs to me that with one shrug the main flow of the river could breach its banks and link up with this lake.  I shiver as a sudden breeze blows icy droplets of rain into my face.


Beryl’s family had a chalet somewhere along her on the early 1950s; she was just a girl at the time.  The meadow used to flood every winter then too.  But the summers were dry and she remembers rowing upstream to a spring near the riverbank where she could collect fresh water.  Beryl lives in New Zealand now but this place lives on in her memory.

Waterland River DeeWaterland River DeeAfter a mile or so the path comes to end at a bend in the river where the track is engulfed by the pop-up lake.  Two chalets sit marooned on an island between the waters of the lake and those of the Dee.  There are two vehicles outside the further of the two chalets and it appears to be occupied.  But the nearer one is seemingly empty and abandoned, its structure gradually slipping back into the earth from which it sprang.

Waterland River DeeWaterland River DeeWaterland River DeeWhat years, what lives.  Memories dissolve and consciousness is washed clean by ancient waters.

That’s the way it is: life includes a lot of empty space. We are one-tenth living tissue, nine-tenths water; life is one-tenth Here and Now, nine-tenths a history lesson. For most of the time the Here and Now is neither now nor here.

Graham Swift – Waterland



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A Child of the Jago, by Arthur Morrison

The Jago is not only a geographical area but an existential state of desperation

A Child of the Jago is London-born journalist Arthur Morrison’s best known novel. It was first published in November 1896 and is set in a fictional East End slum known as the Jago, which Morrison based a real district called the Old Nichol. The Old Nichol was a rookery of squalid dwellings squeezed into a slice of land between Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green Road in London’s East End. It was demolished in the mid-1890s and replaced by London’s first experiment with council housing, the Boundary Estate.

A Child of the Jago The Old Nichol was built around 1800 and comprised a labyrinth of thirty or so narrow streets and alleyways. Most of the area’s inhabitants were crammed into oppressive one-room flats with no sanitation or running water. The very bricks and mortar oozed with despair. To outsiders the streets of the Old Nichol were mysterious, threatening and laden with the threat of violence, but to the area’s residents its network of narrow streets provided a place of rapid escape and shelter from enemies, particularly the police.

Morrison’s Jago reproduced the street-pattern of the Old Nichol, with only the street names changed. His narrative centres on one family, the Perrotts, who lived in a one-room lodging in a courtyard Morrison called Jago Court. In the original Old Nichol this was known as Orange Court and the writer described it as: ‘the inner hell of this awful place’.
A Child of the Jago explores the influence of a sense of place upon the human psyche. For Morrison the very geography of the streets of the Jago produces a certain mentality: just like the winding passageways of the slum its inhabitants are furtive, guarded, and secretive; they operate by their own rules and not those of the society outside their own narrow confines. Home to the people of the Jago comprises ‘foul rat runs, these alleys, not to be traversed by a stranger’.















The child of the book’s title is Dicky Perrott, a lad of seven or eight when we first meet him. Dicky is presented as a decent boy at heart, but he becomes inexorably corrupted by the conditions in which he lives. There are only three ways out of the Jago one of its elderly residents, Old Beveridge, tells Dicky: the gaol, the gallows or to become one of the East End’s handful of gangster elite, the ‘high mobsmen’.















A Child of the Jago opens on an oppressively hot summer night when many of the residents of the Jago have chosen to sleep outdoors rather than within their airless dwellings. A stranger walking through the area is set upon, robbed and left unconscious in the street. Meanwhile young Dicky Perrott wanders home and finds his mother and baby sister trying to sleep. He finds nothing but a dry crust of bread to eat. Shortly afterwards his father, Josh Perrott, arrives home. Pretending to be asleep, Dicky notices that he is carrying a cosh matted with blood and hair.

The next day Dicky slips into a church mission event hoping to get free tea and cake. An opportunity presents itself for Dicky to steal a bishop’s gold watch and he does so, thinking of the food it will buy for his family. Pleased with himself, he returns home and hands it to his father, who promptly beats Dicky, but keeps the watch for himself.
Thus Dicky learns a harsh lesson about life in the Jago: any hint of sharing and generosity is regarded as weakness and only the cunning and devious will prosper:

Whoever was too young, too old or too weak to fight for it must keep what he had well hidden, in the Jago.

Dicky begins to steal regularly and falls in with the local fence, Aaron Weech, who encourages him to be ever bolder. He also learns to fight, joining in the feuds between the two clans that rule the Jago and on occasion getting involved in the pitched battles with the mob from the neighbouring slum, Dove Lane.

A Child of the Jago charts nine years of Dicky Perrott’s life in his East End slum, from the summer night when we first encounter him to the afternoon when his nemesis from Dove Street, Bobby Roper, pulls a blade on him in a street fight and the book reaches its inevitable conclusion. This is no Oliver Twist, despite there being several superficial similarities between the two books there is no happy ending in A Child of the Jago. Indeed, Morrison seems to suggest that there is no hope of redemption for any of the inhabitants of the Jago, a stance which drew widespread criticism at the time.















Morrison spent several months in the Old Nichol quietly conducting research for his book. He walked the area’s streets and talked to its people in the company of the local parish priest, Reverend Arthur Jay. Jay was the only outsider whose presence was tolerated by the inhabitants of the Old Nichol and he tried to improve the lot of the area’s young people by providing food and schooling.

Father Sturt, one of the few characters with any positive influence in A Child of the Jago, is based on Reverend Jay. Like Jay in real life, Father Sturt is the driving force behind having the slum gradually demolished and replaced by improved social housing. But just like Arthur Jay, Sturt was pessimistic that anything could be done to change the ways of the adults of the area: only with the younger children did he believe there was any hope of deliverance from the malign, corrupting influence of the Jago.

Cleeve Buildings, Boundary Estate


Sturt recognises something positive in Dicky Perrott and secures for him a job with a respectable local shopkeeper, Mr Grinder. Dicky works hard, learns quickly and things go well at first. But then Weech, having lost one of his best young thieves and fearful he will be exposed, feeds Grinder’s ear with poisonous rumours about Dicky and gets him sacked, pushing him back into the clutches of the Jago.

 Most contemporary critics refused to accept that Morrison’s descriptions of the degradation and savagery of the Jago were based on fact. On the other hand, socialist reviewers, such as Robert Blatchford of The Clarion, said that Morrison played down some of the more appalling elements of life in the Jago: the brutal violence, sexual abuse, incest and prostitution.




Modern-day historians accept that Morrison’s account, while it is bolted onto a fictional story, accurately reflects the reality of life in the East End of London at that time. Yet Morrison reserves the worst of his contempt for the high-minded philanthropists who tried to exert their influence on the Jago; only his friend Reverend Arthur Jay escapes this criticism. But Jay, like many at that time who had views that were otherwise socially progressive, also held some fundamentally reactionary ideas about the nature of those at the bottom of the social order.
Well-meaning people, even many who described themselves as socialists, despaired of the seeming unwillingness of the poor to improve themselves, to break free from the corrupting grip of places like the Old Nichol. Max Nordau’s twisting of Darwin’s work on evolution into notions of societal degeneration and coldly mad ideas such as eugenics were widely supported in the fin de siècle era.

Shoreditch 2017, the name Jago appropriated by a pricy artisan clothing shop










Yet in the end it is the Jago that wins. Dicky Perrott embraces it and it breaks him, body and soul. To navigate the Jago’s labyrinthine streets, to have knowledge its ways, Morrison seems to say, is to have knowledge of evil.

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