I missed my last column. You may have noticed the words “Tracey Thorn is away” sitting in the place where I should have been, and you may have pictured me on a beach. Truth is, I was actually in the dreaded state of being bereft of ideas and lost for words. It’s all got me down a bit the past few months: the isolation, the anxiety, the endless cancelling. Everything I wrote sounded, even to me, like a self-pitying whine. So I offered my feeble excuses to my lovely editor and hung my head in shame. And then I ran away to Whitstable with my sister.
My God, it did me the power of good. The weather finally settled for our few days at the seaside, and clear blue skies and temperatures in the low twenties made it feel like the south of France. We watched sunrises and sunsets, and saw the full moon hanging over the sea, in a sky more full of stars than I have seen in a long time.
On a bus to Canterbury, we sat on the top deck rocking our way over the gentle hills, before wandering round a town that has named everything it can after Chaucer, as though someone has gone mad with a Dymo label-maker. So there’s Chaucer Hospital, Chaucer Bookshop, Chaucer House hotel, a Chaucer Travelodge, a care home, a college – ENOUGH CHAUCER we were thinking after a while.
We’d come here in order to walk back to Whitstable along the Crab and Winkle Way, a cycle path made largely from a disused railway line. Climbing the steep hill to the University of Kent, we looked back and saw the cathedral shimmering in the morning heat haze. I thought of pilgrims, and journeys, and the culmination of Powell and Pressburger’s extraordinary film, A Canterbury Tale, which ends with the main characters arriving in Canterbury, and receiving some kind of blessing. I could do with a blessing, I thought.
Beyond the university the path, dusty and soft underfoot, passed through fields of stubble, which were neatly lined, rising away to the horizon and looking exactly like those beautiful prints by Eric Ravilious. We arrived at Blean church – “the church in the fields” – and pushed open the door. Inside was a musty silence, and shafts of sun through the stained glass windows, which lit up the dust in the air. I thought of Philip Larkin’s “Church Going”, and that line about even non-believers finding meaning in such a space, “if only that so many dead lie round”. It’s a poem that has always resonated with me. I often find myself close to tears inside a silent church.
The next day we got the train to Broadstairs, and found that everything there was named after Dickens: the Charles Dickens gastro pub, the Charles Dickens School, Copperfields B&B, The Old Curiosity Shop, the Barnaby Rudge pub – you get the picture.
Our grandparents moved to Broadstairs in the 1960s, so my sister and I visited quite a lot, walking along the sands of Viking Bay and Joss Bay, playing in rock pools with shrimping nets, eating an ice cream at Morelli’s, which is still here and still looks the same. We got a sundae in a tall glass with a long silver spoon, and briefly felt ten years old again – which was a good thing as we were each about to celebrate a birthday, and mine had me turning 59.
Which brings me back to the mood in which I began this column. I’m reflecting a lot at the moment on how Covid seems to have exacerbated the ageing process. I feel more than the 18 months older I have become since the pandemic started. We’ve been forced into a kind of early retirement, and though it might not be permanent, I am realising that it will take an effort to regain the momentum and energy that has dissipated during these quiet months at home.
Back in Whitstable later that day, I spotted yet another literary reference – this time a Somerset Maugham mural on a wall. The chosen quote – “Writing is the supreme solace” – seemed suitably positive for such a tribute, but when I googled to find out how long it had been there, I discovered that the artist had almost gone with another quote entirely: “It was such a lovely day I thought it a pity to get up.” Mmm, I know.
This article appears in the 06 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Unsafe Places