Illustration: Jackson Rees.
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To the Hoo Peninsula, where Marlow and Magwitch met – but no modern folk ever tread

It may be because London’s docks have migrated downriver that the city has so little psychic involvement with its own far-eastern hinterland. . . or not.

There are many ways of going for a walk; my friend Antony and I have been walking the length of the Hoo Peninsula for over a decade now. Obviously we haven’t been promenading non-stop – from Gravesend in the west to Grain in the east is only about 20 miles’ comfortable strolling – but doing it in instalments. We did the first leg around 2005: out along the Thames’s south bank to the weird Second World War ruins at Lower Hope Point; then inland, skirting Cliffe marshes to the village itself. While we were waiting for the minicab to come and take us back to Gravesend we committed to completing the walk, but what with one monumental artwork on Antony’s part and another modernist novel on mine, it was only a fortnight ago that we finally returned.

This is a reversal in the ordinary order of things: normally our traverse of space and time is correlated well enough to convince us at the subjective level of their absolute character; but if you take ten years to walk approximately 14 miles, relativity becomes only too apparent: space-time begins to warp and buckle, as if it were a squeeze-box manipulated by a sozzled busker, bringing disparate events into close proximity and ­simultaneously separating once-contiguous locations. Needless to say, such effects become still more noticeable when you stomp around somewhere like the Hoo Peninsula, which is a landscape at once over-imagined and under-imagined.

What do I mean by that? Well, it is on a yacht moored downstream from Gravesend that Marlow tells his tale of the heart of darkness – and it’s in a churchyard a short distance away that Pip first encounters Magwitch. Looked at this way, the Thames Estuary’s littoral is at the very heart of Englishness, while the river mouth remains the key entry point to the physical reality of the country. Yet hardly anyone comes here; and unless I’ve missed it, I can’t think of a single depiction of the Hoo Peninsula in contemporary popular culture. From Cliffe, where the austere medieval church is rendered with unusual bands of knapped flint, Antony and I walked through housing estate outskirts, then across fields and past the bramble-entangled towers of Cooling Castle to St James’s Church.

I’ve no doubt if we’d been on a deliberately “Dickensian” tour, accompanied by the pathetic fallacy of a “raw afternoon”, with the wind rushing from the “distant savage lair” of the sea, we probably would have felt nothing when we came upon “Pip’s Graves” in the churchyard. As it was, in bright late-May sunlight, we looked upon the ten ­little cylindrical tombs, the two gravestones and the three larger tombs that Dickens appropriated for the family of his orphaned protagonist, and we were visited with a profound sense of the uncanny. In front of us – as for Pip – the land fell away, yet this was no “dark, flat wilderness” but a bright green strip of land, beyond which a giant oil tanker, blazoned with another place name, HAMBURG, was coming in to dock by Coryton Wharves on the Essex bank.

It may be because London’s docks have migrated downriver that the city has so little psychic involvement with its own far-eastern hinterland – or it could be because the Isle of Grain (an alternative name for the peninsula) has ceased to live up to its name, and instead of remaining a rustic breadbasket, transmogrified throughout the 20th century into lodgement for the vast and sooty hulks of carbon-based technology: the power stations at Grain itself and Kingsnorth, together with acres of storage tanks and gasometers. Or possibly it is the anatomical queasiness of the place that dooms it to obscurity; because if we view the British Isles as a seated figure, then the Thames ­becomes its anus, the Medway its vagina and the Hoo Peninsula its green and pleasant perineum.

From Cooling we went on to Northward Hill, which at a towering 65 metres is the highest eminence hereabouts; and next, we descended towards Kingsnorth, with the Medway mudflats glinting in the late-afternoon sun. Yes, late afternoon – because in this relativistic landscape, the ordinary measures no longer seemed to apply: it had taken us hours to travel a scant eight miles. Across a railway line, at the river’s edge, we found a group of travellers squatting. They had a pickup, a caravan and a pair of fine-looking bay horses cropping the ferny floor. We went on, and found a deep creek full of boats, some obviously utilitarian – dredgers, tugs, fishing smacks – the others narrowboats and Thames barges converted into dwellings by water gypsies. It was a peaceful scene: rigging tink-tinking in the breeze, while in the mid-distance a freighter inched its way towards the port at Sheerness.

We turned our backs on the estuary and, munching on salty sea kale leaves Antony had gathered from the mudflats, we walked up towards Upper Stoke. On the outskirts we passed a neat little cul-de-sac lined with newly built Tudorbethan houses. A sign on the verdant verge read “DICKENSIAN CLOSE”. Yup, you read me right: “Dickensian”, not “Dickens” – which might imply that its inhabitants are raising their children “by hand”, as Pip’s sister did with him; or that they’re all rather jocose and exaggerated, like the characters in a Dickens novel. I chose to interpret the sign differently: for with my queered space-time perception the Dickensian was indeed . . . close.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.