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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder