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Mudlarkers, cocklers, and artists: discover the Thames Estuary with Rachel Lichtenstein

Estuary: Out from London to the Sea takes the reader on a journey through a space that can be lethal – or beautifully free.

It is not for nothing that Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s bleak tale of colonial violence and reach, begins in the Thames Estuary. Even now, “the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the Earth” remains a prime artery of capital, a place of lucrative transactions and liquid transformations. Passing between the city and the sea, industrial and wild, densely trafficked and absolutely abandoned, the river holds the silted wreckage of the past, occasionally disgorging enigmatic fragments. As such, it is a dream location for a psychogeographic survey, a mode of exploration that fetishises locations where the human and natural worlds uneasily coexist.

Rachel Lichtenstein begins and ends her estuarine adventure by sail, but hers is not a nostalgic journey. Unlike many place writers, she is keen on people, particularly those engaged in labour. Her previous books include histories of densely populated urban areas such as Brick Lane and Hatton Garden, sites of closed communities and specialist industries. This time, armed with a tape ­recorder and seasickness tablets, she sets out to find the men and women who make their living from the outer Thames: the cocklers and tugboat captains, the ferrymen, divers, mudlarkers and artists.

There is an infectious freedom to littoral regions, where land is periodically inundated with water and lives must be flexible and enterprising, if not piratical. The burly Prince Michael of Sealand rules over what is perhaps the world’s smallest micronation, founded by his father on the naval sea fort Roughs Tower. Making the six-mile crossing to Sealand is the easy part; it is far harder to defend it from the gun-wielding mercenaries who periodically descend by helicopter, attracted by the possibilities of a barricaded haven in ­international waters.

The estuary is a lethally unsteady place, where the weather can turn on a sixpence and even the most experienced sailors can lose their way amid the perpetually shifting sandbanks, as Lichtenstein discovers when the yacht on which she is sailing runs aground on a sandbar, coming terrifyingly close to a steely forest of wind turbines.

The Thames’s capacity for causing and storing up trouble is neatly encapsulated in the ruined form of the American Liberty ship SS Richard Montgomery, which sank off the Isle of Sheppey in 1944, laden with 1,400 tonnes of explosives. Three masts protruding from the water betray the location of this barnacled time bomb, which, if it ever explodes, could bring fireballs and tidal waves on London.

Yet it is Southend Pier that Lichtenstein finds most haunting. Below sea level at the pier’s end is a curious room, like “an abandoned Egyptian temple”, full of rusting ­machinery and flooded twice daily by the tide. Climbing through on a stormy night to reach her boat, she uses her phone as a torch, lighting up “huge clusters of oysters, mussels, sea anemones, crabs and all sorts of other creatures, covered in wet dripping seaweed, clinging to the pillars”. She hears the sound of hundreds of people sobbing and screaming; later, she discovers that it was a mooring for prison ships in the First World War and imagines the trapped men cowering during bombing raids.

It’s just the sort of location that W G Sebald would have been drawn to: an abandoned place through which the great tides of history have passed. But although Lichtenstein writes emphatically of her kinship to Sebald, her writing slips far too often into language more like a grant proposal than his melancholy, disenchanting cadences.

It’s not impossible to flash the underpin­nings of what Lichtenstein persistently calls a “book project”, or to muse on the fact of its making. Geoff Dyer makes a witty business of it in Out of Sheer Rage, his not-quite-biography of D H Lawrence, and in Threads Julia Blackburn frets continually over her inability to compose a biography of the artist John Craske, her small, painful statements of disclosure tangling together to form a profound meditation on composition and discomposure. But Lichtenstein is continually drawing attention to the fact of her writing a book, for no purpose.

A curator and artist, she records the fertile art that the estuary has inspired. For the Graveyard of Lost Species project, a wrecked boat was dug from a sandbar off Leigh-on-Sea and the hull inscribed with local legends and memories, before being resubmerged – a fragile “anti-monument” to estuarine erosions. In 2005, the artist Stephen Turner spent six weeks alone at a former military fort on Shivering Sands, eight miles from shore. Slowly he gathered up relics abandoned by the soldiers who were once billeted there: curling postwar pin-ups, fragments of pottery, even toenail clippings.

The estuary by its nature is an ­ephemeral landscape, but in recent years change has come at a faster pace. To construct the London Gateway mega-port, the owners have deep-dredged the river to make it navigable for vast container ships. Many fear that this has altered the nature of the Thames, tilting the balance from wild to industrial. A guard at the nearby Tilbury Fort complains of the mega-port’s constantly throbbing engines, its automated labour and floodlit glare. Iain Sinclair titled his 1997 account of his London peregrinations Lights Out for the Territory – but these days the territory is in private ownership, the gates are padlocked, and the lights are forever blazing.

Olivia Laing is the author of “The Lonely City” (Canongate)

Estuary: Out from London to the Sea by Rachel Litchtenstein is published by Hamish Hamilton, 336pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation

Photo: Warner Bros
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Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated

Judging the actual speaking and acting the from teen icon.

When it was announced that Harry Styles had been cast in Dunkirk, most people assumed it was a Drew Barrymore in Scream sort of deal. A big name, who would be plastered over the posters, front and centre at promotional interviews, but given a barely-speaking part and probably killed off in the first five minutes. Not so! Not only does he not die early on, Harry has a very significant amount of time on screen in Dunkirk, and even more surprisingly, a lot of that time involves actual speaking and acting from the teen icon. In this action-heavy, dialogue-sparse film, he has more lines than most.

Of course, the most normal human response to this revelation is to list every single time he speaks in the film and evaluate every moment on a line-by-line basis. So here it is. Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated by a very impartial Harry Styles fan. Let’s go.

Obviously, this contains spoilers for Dunkirk.

“What’s wrong with your friend?”

It’s the first line, but it’s a goody. So nonchalant; so effortless; breezily accompanied by a mouthful of toast and jam. Curious, friendly – but with dangerous edge. A lurking threat. A shiver of accusation. This sets up Alex as a normal, if self-assured, bloke who also wants to be sure you’re not about to get him killed. A very strong debut – the kind of line that, if you didn’t know better, would make you think, “Hm, who’s this charismatic young guy”?

A cheer.

Solid 8/10 cheer, believe this guy has cheered before.

“You can’t leave us! Make some room!”

It’s only been ten minutes, but things have really kicked up a notch. Raspy, panicked, desperate, this line left my heart jumping for my poor sodden son. A triumph, and certainly one of Harry’s best lines.


Here, Alex yells “Hey!” to get the attention of other soldiers, which turns into louder, repeated cries for their attention. I can find little wrong with this “Hey”, and indeed later “Hey”s, but I would not nominate it for an Oscar. This “Hey” is just fine.

“What’s that way?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know what is that way. (It’s a boat.) 7/10.


Alex has delivered the last three shouts with exactly the same intonation. This is good because normal people do not opt for variance in tone when desperately yelling at each other across the beach. I also appreciate the lack of enunciation here. Great work, Harry.

“’ow long’s that?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know how long it will take for the tide to come in. (It’s about three hours.) 7/10.

“Poke yer head out, see if the water’s come in”

Alex is ramping things up a notch – this is authoritative, even challenging. Excellent pronunciation of “aht”, more great slurring.

“Talkative sod, aren’t ya?”

A big line, important for the growing hints that Alex is mistrustful of the silent soldier in their group. And yet not Harry’s absolute best. A little too much forced vowel for me.

“For fuck’s sake!”

Oh my God, we’re here now boys. It’s begun. The water’s not come in. Forget the high-explosive, Alex has only gone and dropped a bloody F-bomb, and Harry’s performance is actually stressful. What an about-turn. Delivered with spitting fury; the “for”, if there at all, almost inaudible; a dropped box clanging to the ground for extra impact. We know that Harry ad-libbed this (and a later) F-word, and this spontaneous approach is working. A truly superb go at doing some swearing. 10/10.

“Yeah but ’ow long?”

I would describe this delivery as “pained”. A little groan of fear hangs in the back. This is, as they say, the good shit.

“Why’d you leave your boat?”

This whispered anger suits Harry.

Some extreme shushing.

Definitely would shush.

“We have to plug it!”

Alex’s heart doesn’t seem really in plugging the bullet holes in the boat, despite the surface-level urgency of this delivery, probably because he doesn’t want to get shot. Nuance. I like it.

“Somebody needs to get off.”

A mic drop of a line, delivered with determined focus.

“I don’t need a volunteer. I know someone who ough’a get off.”

The way his cadence falls and his voice falters when as he reaches the word volunteer. It’s a sad, resigned, type of fear, the type of fear we expect from Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley. Harry’s dropping clues that Alex doesn’t really want to be shoving anyone off a boat to their deaths. But then Alex steels himself, really packing a punch over that “ough’a”.

“This one. He’s a German spy.”

The momentum is building, Alex’s voice is getting breathier and breathier, panic is fluttering in his voice now. I’m living for each and every second of this, like a proud mother with a camcorder. You’re doing amazing, sweetie.

“He’s a focking Jerry!”

Go on my son! Harry’s voice is so high only dogs can hear him now. The mix of fear and aggression is genuinely convincing here, and more than ever it feels clear that you’re practically watching a group of schoolboys with guns scared out of their minds, desperate to go home, who might shoot each other dead at any second. This is undoubtedly the pinnacle of Harry’s performance.

“Have you noticed he hasn’t said a word? ’Cause I ’ave. Won’t speak English: if he does it’s in an accent’s thicker than sauerkraut sauce.”

This is, objectively, the silliest line in this film and maybe any film, ever, and I love it. Never before have the words “sauerkraut sauce” been uttered as a simile, or as a threat, and here, they are both. Inexplicably, it sort of works through Harry’s high-pitched voice and gritted teeth. My personal highlight of the entire movie.

“Tell me.”

Alex is going full antagonist. Whispered, aggressive, threatening. It is safe to say I am dead and deceased.

“Tell me, ‘Gibson’”.

Ugh, now with an added layer of mockery. I am dead, but also please kill me.

“A frog! A bloody frog! A cowardly, little queue-jumping frog. Who’s Gibson, eh? Some naked, dead Englishman lying out in that sand?”

Brexit Harry Styles is furious, and his accent is going a bit all over the place as a result.

“Maybe he killed him.”

Just-about-believably paranoid.

“How do we know?”

This is too close to the delivery Harry uses in this vine for me to take seriously, I’m deeply sorry about that.

“Well, we know who’s getting off.”

I believe that Alex does, in fact, know who is getting off. (It’s the French guy.) 7/10.

“Better ’im than me.”

I agree!!!!!

“Somebody’s gotta get off, so the rest of us can live.”

Empassioned, persuasive, fervent. When glimpsed in trailers, this moment made me think Alex would be sacrificing himself to save others. Not so! He just really, really wants to live. A stellar line, executed very well.

“Do you wanna volunteer?”

Good emoting. I believe the emotion used here is “disbelief”.

“Then this is the price!”

I believe the emotion used here is “desperation”.

“He’s dead, mate.”

So blunt, delivered with an awkward pity. A stand-out moment thanks to my high quality son Harold.

“We let you all down, didn’t we.”

Dahhn. Harry lets us know this is not even a question in Alex’s mind, its a fact. Poor depressed little Alex.

“That old bloke wouldn’t even look us in the eye.”

The weird thing (irony? joke?) here is that the old bloke is actually blind, not refusing to look them in the eye. Slightly bizarre, but Harry rolls with it with this relaxed approach to the word “bloke”.

“Hey! Where are we!”

Good God I love this rousing line. The bell chiming in the background, the violins stirring. There is something curiously British about this line. Something so, “‘What’s to-day?’ cried Scrooge”. Here, Harry is doing what he did best in the early one direction days - being a normal lad from a normal town whose life was made extraordinary even though he’s just, like, so totally normal.

“What station!”

I take it back, THIS is probably my favourite line of the whole movie. Purely because it sounds exactly like Harry Edward Styles on an average day, going about his business, asking what station he’s at. Alex who?

“Grab me one o’ them papers! Go on!”

Now, this, I love. Newcastle brown in hand, f’s dropped, a “go on” barely lacking a “my son”. Put a flat cap on the lad and hand him a chimney sweeping broom - we are in deliciously caricatured Brit territory.

“I can’t bear it. They’ll be spitting at us in the streets, if they’re not locked up waiting for the invasion.”

How rapidly joy turns to ashes in our mouths. One second so elated, with the nostalgic scent of home quivering in his nostrils, Alex is now feeling extremely sorry for himself (fair enough, to be honest). A fine “sad voice” here.

“I can’t look.”

The “sad voice” continues.


Hahahahahaha. Yes.

And with this very confused noise Harry Styles closes his debut film performance, which I would describe as extremely solid. Even if I am fuming that he didn’t get to die, beautifully, and at length. Well done Harold.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.