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 appears in the 14 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation