I managed to find a quiet spot, in the shade of a little bush that sounded like it was whispering. Leaves that flickered in vertical half-rotations like the royal wave. Lots of people had come to the cliffs to watch the chimney get blown into the ground. There was the polite general hubbub of strangers standing together. A group of school children talked loudly and laughed rudely a little way along, their nascent brusqueness carried by the strange echo power that playgrounds have; the bell jar blare transported for an hour while they watched a great landmark get felled.
The ‘chimney’, which sounds so domestic as to conjure Edwardian images of fireside toast and jam, was the big industrial bugger over on the Isle of Grain that has been part of our skyline for decades. I wasn’t particularly attached to it. It was in Kent for a start. If I was attached to it from the Essex side I’d just be a bridge. I don’t think I could take the pressure. (Though it would be cool to charge a toll.)
So I wasn’t especially sad that it was coming down. Primarily because its presence was mostly symbolic of the damage we do to the world. The arrogant phallocentric pollution by man for his own needs. But I was drawn to its demise because it was a significant change on our horizon. That thing we see and choose to see and live to see things in. I am drawn to change. I fear it less than I used to. I think I wanted to say goodbye to something in which was stored a part of us all. If buildings can absorb our lives to take on an energy of their own that can be read by strangers – sad-happy-eerie houses-castles-asylums – so too can industrial monoliths be totems, gathering places, patches of energy drawn out of every eye that has fallen on it, an upright solid pool of all the thoughts that have been directed its way, of all the stirrings of a million hearts that have been flung out to this tall beast, when people sat here on the cliffs, by the water, looking out. Sad or happy or in love or in need of adventure or solace or change, or simply time to be quiet, and alone, to think.
As a kid I used to gaze across thinking Kent was France, and that therefore that must mean the chimney was the Eiffel Tower. How romantic it seemed, if slightly different to the pictures. Less pointy on top. More concrete. But tall enough for me to believe. How close it was. I always thought that walking there would be entirely possible one day if I picked just the right tide time to navigate the muds across.
Would we all have been drawn to watch this chimney fall if it hadn’t been framed by the vast blues and greys of the estuary, that tandem of water and air? If it had been inland or surrounded by similar structures would we have gone, watched; felt anything? I don’t think we would. The water and the sky are its frame, and in this instance the frame is the artwork.
I’ve been working on a big Festival that is celebrating the Estuary and its wealth of history and stimuli that find their way into our day. Spread across three weekends, the programme is staggering. Artists and writers of so many disciplines it’s hard not to feel like you have been wasting your time being utterly dull & fruitless. I have learned so much about the river that I love, that I see everyday but do not take the time to learn about. The estuary is teeming with life and death and secrets and a need to share itself. Just like us. We are life and death and secrets and sharing.
The festival, and the razing of the chimney, have made me realise quite how much of my life runs alongside this river.
My common journeys mostly run in parallel lines with it. I travel along it, not up and away. All my haunts and walks are in the narrow strip about ten streets deep directly up from the seafront. I go between my hometown and London, the train I get on chugs and drags and hurtles along the river. Is that the river that does that? Can a river keep you to it, like magnetised water? The whole flow of the town seems to run a similar current to it, bending not with the sideways sway from bank to bank but the larger push-pull between the sea and the source.
Could I leave it? Would I ever want to?
Towns change, rivers change, people change. Life has its own tides. Some we can fight, some submerge us, some we drift and float and spin with. Once it’s part of your life the river runs through you.