Sunday, April 22, 2018

Book Review: Estuary by Rachel Lichtenstein

I mostly liked this book a lot, but there was a definite qualification involved.

Estuary by Rachel Lichtenstein, describes the Thames Estuary and has sub-title "Out from London to the Sea" and that is indeed the scope. It's well written and often captures the edge-land mood of these flat landscapes.

There is of course some debate about what exactly is meant by the Thames Estuary. Wikipedia gives a range of start points, some as far inland as Teddington (which seems unlikely), but Gravesend sounds plausible (though not definitive). There is a similar confusion about the end point, but maybe that is appropriate as this is where land meets sea under a sky that reaches from horizon to horizon.

The writer covers a lot of ground - including literally - from Southend Pier to pirate radio stations to Sealand to fishing folk to their families to musicians, artists, poets, writers, sailors, divers, historians....

Some of it seemed familiar and it turned out for good reason. Lichtenstein was one of the organisers of the Estuary Festival I went to back in 2016 - indeed some of the installations I saw were described in this book. Plus I've explored places she describes when searching for the London Stones.

There was also this short film which I described as "very arty" and that is both the strength and weakness of this book. It's a strength because she clearly knows about this field and has lots of interesting ideas. It's a weakness as sometimes you have to get the facts right.

Take the case of her describing the estuary during World War 2: on the 22nd November 1939 German's machine-gunned Southend Pier and after that "doodlebugs roared constantly overhead". Err... no, there were no doodblebugs aka V1s until 1944.

Or towards the end of the war when she says that commanders were told "where they would land at Normandy during the Battle of Dunkirk". Again, these are two completely different events: the Little Ships and D-Day might both involve boats but there are separate in many ways, not the least years apart and different direction of forces.

I suppose if you're an artist with an interest in oral history then what matters is narrative (not necessarily non-fiction), emotion and feelings. But it means that readers can disconnect from the text a bit as it forces you to keep asking if something really happened.

It didn't help that she doesn't seem at ease at sea, partly because of a sailing accident, but her fancies are too quick to turn wind howling through the rigging and the squeak of the timbers of an old sailing barge into ghosts hearing in those sounds "a woman's scream and the dreadful noise of children sobbing".

She is more at home on land than on water, and her sympathies are for the women of the fishing community rather than the men who die all too regularly doing their job. She reminds us of her local connections but to the sailors on the estuary itself she is a stranger.

There are plenty of photos but badly reproduced and without any titles so it is often hard to tell what they are and when they were taken.

It would have been better to call this book not "Estuary" but "The people of the Estuary" for that is what interests the author and on that level it could be considered a success.

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