There is something keeping the south afloat — financially speaking; unnaturally speaking. I am sure of it.
Recent trips to the coastal settlements that dot the seaward edges of Kent and East Sussex have given me a glimpse into an alternate timeline where the all-too-familiar hardships of the north have been kept at bay.
Nowhere is the North more grim than at its edges and if the Justified Ancients sought to encapsulate all of it with their parochial roll call, the oceanic currents of their jagged trance nevertheless suggest a land that is coastal even at its centre.
Nothing disintegrates quite like the coast.
Nevertheless, here in the south, there are far fewer boats left to rot. Greasy spoons are replaced with novelty eateries. London expats bake pies and make the most of easy-access eels, charging double for authentic East London recipes that have been both displaced and returned to their source. Ramshackled fishing huts are yours for £150 a night on Air B&B.
Even the rain is somehow pleasant here. It doesn’t chill the soul in the same way.
Whereas fairgrounds take up beach-side car parks in the north, locked up as travellers and carnies alike wait for the end of the endless out-of-season season, here there are no rides to be seen anywhere. It is as if the heart of a coastal culture of the mildest hedonisms has been removed to stop the gangrenous spread of class strife.
Penny slots remain, of course – there is no accounting for that plague – but they seem to ensnare far fewer drunks and minors.
There are no tanning salons. Even though the south still shares the British weather, they seem to have lost the need to make up for the sun’s abandonment of these isles. Fortunes continue to proliferate here, bringing smiles and strength to the local economy.
The north, in short, is mournful. It struggles.
The south sells itself as the prosperous vision the north forgot.
As I continue to wander and explore, I grow suspicious. There is surely something else at play here – some deal with the devil.
In Whitstable, recently, I could have sworn I felt it.
I find myself in Whitstable for a particularly dreary February afternoon. Rain threatened and gives way at intervals.
My travel companion, forever enthralled by the hunt for bargains, dives into the town’s endless succession of charity shops – here a sign of cash to spare rather than the necessity for charity close to home. I find Issue #01 of Prince Namor The Sub-Mariner in a cavernous comic shop, but not for a price I am tempted by.
A prescient find, perhaps.
After working our way down the winding high street, we reach the beach.
The estuary is grey, making the pebble beach feel resplendent with colour. It was here I first notice the red stones amongst the more familiar browns, yellows and shades of grey. Like diamonds in the rough, how could such colour survive in an otherwise dulled landscape? It is as if the Turneresque sunsets this stretch of coast is famed for have left shards of themselves in the water, to be washed ashore by the reliant tide.
Battling against the wind, we stumble – quite literally – onto a more macabre sight: a tourist attraction signifying the grey plenty that seemed to be the town’s main export.
A mound of discarded oyster shells sits at the apex of the sloping beach. It is not a uniform mound. It sprawls outwards, dishevelled, threatening to take over all that surrounds it.
Whitstable welcomes the onslaught, protecting it. “Do not remove shells”, reads a rain-faded chalk sign. I’m left wondering why. Even if every passerby took one, it would surely take years to diminish this mountain and overtake the rate of consumption.
When we reach the harbour I am captivated by a tall structure emanating a low-level hum.
For some reason, I’m reminded of the marble runs of my childhood: the thrill of wondering where something fed to this machine might pop out. However, this machine does not eat marbles. It runs on something else.
Looking out to sea, there is little movement to be seen. There is no sign of any productive activity.
“What are you eating?”, I absentmindedly say aloud.
Feeling hungry we walk back along the beach to peruse what Whitstable’s innumerable restaurants, pubs and cafes have to offer the peckish daytripper but every sight of the word “cockles” gives me flashbacks to a bathroom floor in Margate and my appetite quickly ebbs.
Despite its grey colouring and the unattractively low tide, we are drawn back to the sea.
“Let’s go looking for sea glass”, I say.
We meander through back streets, always fighting against the weather, taking the push-back of the wind as a sign that we are heading in the right direction, back to the open shore.
On the way we pass a symbol on a back gate. I don’t know what it means but I’m reminded of the red stones seen previously. It is the most vivid colour we have seen on this most grey of days and it burns itself into our retinas.
Is it some sort of sigil? An emblem of good luck for superstitious seafarers? It seems to resemble some sort of creature – a sea creature most certainly.
I am overcome with an even more insatiable urge to comb the beach.
We confront the sea and the peppered beach. The red stones seem brighter than before.
It is as if the sigil has recalibrated my sight, making these aberrations light up like stars against the night’s sky.
I take a picture, astounded by how beautiful the beach now looks, but my camera utterly fails to capture their new vibrancy.
I pick up the stones, inspecting each one before putting it into my backpack. The more closely I inspected them, the more disturbed I was by their appearance.
The colouring and patterning of each stone highly resembles flesh, calcified and discarded like the oyster shells further down the beach.
How can flesh take on such a form? Harder than petrified wood, otherwise fragile capillaries become intricate markers of impossible time.
Chunks of liver and bone seemed to correlate, each as hard as the other. The whites of bone and muscle are made indistinguishable but the textures of gore, even in this new state, somehow remain.
Much like the sea glass we had originally sought, I sense that to melt down this collection would occasion the remoulding of an organism — some pulsing hybrid of disparate flesh that has lost its shape within a larger whole.
Is this what has been returned to the sea by the machines of Whitstable harbour?
Like the shells of crustaceans served up in the town’s restaurants, discarded in piles on the beach so that the sated tourists can marvel at the scale of the consumption they themselves have participated in, the beach itself becomes a monument to the appetite of some ocean Moloch.
Is this how the south stays afloat?
The wounds of the northern economies are painfully visible, existing on the surface with peoples entangled in their collective exposure to the elements like wildflowers. Whitstable, instead, is well pruned. What does not fit has been removed and fed into the machinic mechanisms of the economy itself.
The next day we flee, heading nowhere in particular.
It seems that, somehow, we are caught by the pull of the coast. Missing the otherwise violent gravity of London all together, we find ourselves in Hastings.
The sun burns through the previously innocuous weather. Something seems upset with us and we are enchanted by it.
We walk straight to the beach. The tide begins retreating on our arrival and the sea plays the beach to sound like itself.
The rock pools, despite the fury above, are clear and pristine.
There is not a single red rock in sight.
We stay until the sun has descended below the horizon, watching the sea change from blue to black, making its way through every colour in between.
Climbing up London Road, aptly named for our second attempt at returning home, we pass Hastings’ local train station. It has been closed for essential maintenance. Diggers are tearing up its tracks.
I hear a familiar low-level hum emanating from a gaping tunnel that leads to an unknown destination.