On the Thames estuary

"The estuary doesn’t yield all its secrets on first glance. An hour or so out from the Isle of Sheppey, we arrive at seven bizarre constructions that look as if they belong in War of the Worlds..."

The smell comes first. The sea salts the air, and the mud over which it ebbs and flows adds a rotting, brackish note. Newcomers glance around, wafting their hands suggestively before their noses, keeping it out. To savour a proper lungful of this air is to admit something difficult - that this unarguably ugly landscape, where the grey sea meets the grey sky with barely a smudge of mud in between, is beautiful.

There is more sky here, where the Thames and the Medway meet the North Sea, somehow. The great man-made structures that thrust upwards into it, like the power stations on the Isle of Grain or the cranes at the port of Sheerness, only serve to emphasise how much more there is. What would be an eyesore elsewhere is accepted by the people who sail these waters without comment, as they accept the smell or the mud.

The estuary doesn’t yield all its secrets on first glance. An hour or so out from the Isle of Sheppey, we arrive at seven bizarre constructions that look as if they belong in War of the Worlds - the Maunsell Red Sands forts. Built in 1943, these now-rusty steel boxes-on-legs housed hundreds of men during WWII who used anti-aircraft guns to bring down planes on their way to bomb London. Planting these forts miles out to sea was no mean feat of engineering, and they are a reminder of how desperate, and improbable, some of our war-time defences were. Since being decommissioned in the 1950s, the forts have housed pirate radio stations, trespassers, film crews, scientists and conservationists, but no fixed plan has ever been made for their future. Decades later, the sea is wearing them down - it’s not clear how much longer they can stand and wait for us.

William Raban’s 1987 work Thames Film uses a clever technique of sliding contemporary and historical footage of the estuary together so that different moments in time appear to co-exist. Watching the forts recede over the horizon again, it seems to me as if the whole estuary is made up of such layers. As a child, I spent my weekends and school holidays staring at the horizon from the rolling deck of my parents' boat, curious as to why, if you could sail anywhere, it would be on this smelly, featureless stretch of water. Once a teenager, dragged unwillingly on night-time excursions to the Netherlands, I would sulk on the foredeck, dropping angry tears into the miraculous phosphorescence that bloomed under the boat's bow. Returning now after an absence of years, I want to be able to recapture that grim fury, but it won't come. I can only stare at the sky.

Estuary opens at the Museum of London this evening, 17 May, and runs until 27 October

An image of the Maunsell Red Sands forts from William Raban’s "Thames Film".

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.