At around lunchtime on Sunday 2 April 1916, a fire broke out at a gunpowder mill near the village of Oare, a remote spot in the middle of the open marshes of north Kent. Within an hour, the fire had led to an explosion that destroyed buildings across the Thames Estuary in Essex and killed more than 100 people, scattering their bodies over nearby fields. Tremors were felt as far north as East Anglia. Aside from a few cursory notices in the newspapers the following week, the event went largely unnoticed and was forgotten outside the local community.
The incident is recounted in remarkable detail in The Great Explosion, a new book by the writer and art critic Brian Dillon. At first, Dillon seems an unusual fit: his previous books have included In the Dark Room, a memoir about childhood, family illness and grief, and Tormented Hope, a portrait of nine artists, each of whom suffered from debilitating hypochondria. So how did he come to research the story of an obscure munitions disaster during the First World War?
When we meet, on the site of the explosion, almost exactly 99 years after the event, Dillon connects his personal struggles with the slow process of engaging with the county of Kent, where he moved from his native Dublin in the mid-1990s.
“I probably only write about things falling apart, in some way, whether that’s bodies, or minds, or places,” he says. “This book actually follows on chronologically from my memoir, so it’s partly an aftermath, describing what happened once this shut-in and rather terrified person moved, shifted location.”
Rather than concentrating on the damaged lives caught up in the explosion, Dillon has chosen to focus on materials: mud and gunpowder, the territory and technology.
“It was terrifying to write,” he adds. “I didn’t know anything about industrial history but I simply had to deal with it. I had been wanting to read [Russell Hoban’s Kent-based sci-fi novel] Riddley Walker for 30 years and, once I did, I realised how that book’s metaphorical power could become a model for my own, taking that industrial, concrete history and exploiting its metaphorical side.”
In The Great Explosion, Dillon is a constant, if vague, figure in the landscape. The account is filtered through his discovery of the ruins that linger in his adopted home. Rather like the event of the explosion, the moment of discovery happens not at any one particular moment in the text, but throughout.
“It’s a book that is constantly dispersing,” says Dillon. “I always knew it would have an absent centre. The history of the First and Second World Wars gets so domesticated in English culture. It’s an important part of the story and should be told regardless of the… centenary. I think it’s good to be reminded of the essential strangeness of the liminal parts of this island.
“Maybe there’s a freedom in not being part of a place. It allows you to come in and be viciously aesthetic about it, to say: ‘Here’s a fascinating bit of local history about the First World War – but you know what? Personally I’m really interested in the sonic patterns, the lines of sight through which people experienced the event at the time.’ Maybe that’s the kind of liberty it allows.”