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13 February 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:39am

Nightmare on sea: a strange, once-forgotten history of the Kent coast is a cult favourite

David Seabrook’s All the Devils are Here was first published in 2002 to relative indifference – but is beloved by a select few.

By Ben Myers

Has a theoretical practice been more watered down and lazily deferred to in recent years than psychogeography? The merest whiff of the word summons images of the lone meaning-seeker sallying forth with Kendal mint cake and PhD in pocket to divine the spirits.

Though tagged as psychogeography, David Seabrook’s strange and hypnotic study of the declining Kentish coastal districts of Medway and Thanet is more akin to its theoretical step-sibling of hauntology, the term spawned by Jacques Derrida to refer to a temporal disjunction in time and place, where a ghost can be perceived as “that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive”. Neither word features in All the Devils Are Here, but plenty of ghosts do. First published in 2002, the book’s rediscovery will hopefully install it as an urtext for the hordes of drifters following in its slipstream. Seabrook did not get hung up on analysis. While there are shadows of WG Sebald and Iain Sinclair here – the latter called Seabrook “the dole-queue De Quincey” and helped him find a publisher – this is less an enlightened perambulation than a fevered nightmare.

Initially met with relative indifference but beloved by a select few – including the Backlisted Podcast, which is responsible for its reanimation – All the Devils Are Here outshines most work of a similar ilk by being utterly committed to its subject: the portrait of a living hell inhabited by Kent residents past and present, including Charles Dickens, Carry On… film stars, TS Eliot, blackface boardwalk entertainers, John Buchan and retired rent boys. It is an archaeological dig, an exorcism, an occultist reading of wrongdoings in Rochester, Chatham, Ramsgate, Deal and Margate. It’s neither crime study, travel guide nor history text, yet somehow a bricolage of all – a Broadstairs Babylon.

That the author’s back-story is vague makes All the Devils Are Here all the more intriguing; the book feels like one of its own characters, dug up from a near past already fading from view. Seabrook studied Proust and later taught English abroad but biographical details remain scant – most of his writings were done by hand, largely unpublished and now believed lost.

Meanwhile the faded South East of the turn of the millennium – a place of dingy flats above cafes where hammer attacks took place, and clifftop houses where secret fascist networks formed – is the same one that recently turned away from Europe, to instead look inwards and backwards.

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If Brexit is partly about returning to the pre-EU days described in the book – when, ensconced in the Albemarle hotel in Margate, an ailing Eliot envisioned The Waste Land (seeking a commemorative plaque, Seabrook instead sees a sign that reads “Toilets” and mistakenly takes it for the poetry titan’s name”), or when the 19th century artist Richard Dadd saw his father as the devil and stabbed him to death during a walk near Rochester – then God help us all, frankly. Thanet, so symbolically significant in the referendum, is now imbued with meaning the author could only have dreamed of. Nigel Farage would have been a great subject for Seabrook, had the author not been found dead, aged 48, in his Canterbury flat by police in 2009, after an apparent heart attack. He was two books into a promising career that, as in the work of Gordon Burn, merged fact and fiction with forensic flair. Forging links and detecting echoes is what Seabrook does best, his opening chapter segueing from the mental decline of Dadd to Dickens’s half-finished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), the subject of much speculation from the “Droodists” who have dissected the unsolved murder within:

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Reality, with razor and knife, is about to gatecrash this fiction in a storm of arterial blood. In August 1843 Cloisterham/Rochester was to be shaken by news of a patricide just a few miles out of town. We’re talking convergence, convulsions. Call it palimpsestuous, this dark upon dark.

Further darkness follows, as Seabrook documents the area’s links with Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, a mob best represented by William Joyce, who ran an electrical shop in Whitstable and, as Lord Haw-Haw, broadcast rambling war-time missives to millions of listeners urging them to surrender to Germany.

Seabrook’s presence is ghost-like, a fleeting semi-cynical apparition who surfaces from his deep historical dérives to bemoan having to pay £3.60 to visit the relaunched Charles Dickens Centre. (“Harry Secombe as Mr Pickwick cut the ribbon… five hundred thousand pounds invested in sensor pads, soundtracks, video footage, laser-disc projections and full-size dummies. A new dawn.”) After fascism, patricide and mental breakdowns, the book’s remarkable final third is a grim portrait of a postwar homosexual milieu centred around one “Gordon Meadows”, a Deal-based septuagenarian and former rent boy, whose recollections are the key to unlocking another secret history.

In these catacombs of memory we find a dipsomaniac Charles Hawtrey, banned from every pub in Deal and rescued from a house fire “sitting naked on his bed clutching a melting telephone”; the writer Robin Maugham (“hung like an incubus, drunk as a lord”) who inherited wealth from his uncle Somerset and whose nine inch cock sends a young Gordon fleeing in fright; actor Peter Arne, battered to death by a homeless man he picked up; and famed boxer Freddie Mills, with whom Gordon has an unsatisfactory sexual encounter and was later rumoured to be the perpetrator of the unsolved “Jack The Stripper” murders of the mid-1960s. There are wealthy men of power, exotic Egyptian locations, acts of blackmail and underage boys. It’s semi-closeted life at its grubbiest, and all connected back to Deal.

As a conclusion broods on the horizon we’re left wondering who exactly Seabrook is. We take one step closer to finding out when our narrator, broke and possibly widowed, addresses the reader about “things I haven’t mentioned” as he enters a pub to pursue “a question of rent”. Here he encounters a man who relates an unnerving story, before the two depart, leaving the reader voyeuristically complicit in a dire sexual transaction. Such is the power of the prose, All the Devils Are Here is a matter of survival rather than enjoyment. Yet, like a Stockholm Syndrome victim, you may find yourself not wanting to leave the clutches of your captor. 

All the Devils Are Here
David Seabrook
Granta Books, 192pp, £10

This article appears in the 07 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry