I spent the weekend at an arts festival in an extraordinary venue – the imposing Tilbury Cruise Terminal on the north bank of the Thames, where the Windrush docked in 1948. Shorelines, the two-day offshoot of Estuary 2016, which runs to 2 October, also had one of the most fun approaches to any festival, with many choosing to arrive via the jaunty little ferry across the Thames from Dartford.
I was going to Rachel Lichtenstein’s book launch on the Saturday afternoon but arrived early to catch some other events and installations. The whole thing was so enjoyable that I returned on the Sunday (the ferry was laid on specially). The first thing most visitors came across (apart from the constantly clanging crossing bell, an art installation much enjoyed by kids) was John Akomfrah’s magisterial 2010 film Mnemosyne, playing in the vast, haunted space of the Old Railway Station. An anonymous figure trudges across a snowy landscape, intercut with scenes of the early experiences of the Windrush generation in Britain, and quotes from Milton, Pound and other poets. It’s hard to convey how powerful – and beautiful – this immensely dignified piece is.
In the Departures Hall, with its brick pillars and vaulted ceilings like an Renaissance exercise in perspective, Rachel chaired a talk about the bizarre-looking sea forts which dot the estuary. On the panel were Dartford artist Stephen Turner, who lived alone on one of the rusting structures for six weeks, Chloe Dewe Mathews, who makes art films about them, and the hugely entertaining Prince Michael of Sealand, with his ruffianly tales of being armed to the teeth, repelling boarders to his family’s pirate radio station. He needs to design himself an official uniform though, with gold braid and a bicorne hat.
Professor Patrick Wright gave a virtuoso talk on the East German writer Uwe Johnson who settled on the Isle of Sheppey and became obsessed with the wreck of the Richard Montgomery, a wartime ship stuffed with bombs which would obliterate Sheerness if it ever went up. The tale of the Estuary is filled with mystics, eccentrics and artists. Then Rachel read from her new book Estuary, many of whose interviewees formed part of the festival programme, and the evening ended with rousing sea shanties to the accompaniment of a glass of Prosecco.
I would have loved hear Syd Moore’s talk on ‘Seawitches and Sirens’, about Estuary myths, but didn’t arrive in time on the Sunday morning. But I did catch Travis Elborough’s talk about the history of the Garden City – Gravesend was apparently once going to be developed into an elegant resort town and he had the slides to prove it. I bumped into Rachel who told me Deborah Levy had cancelled (she had been going to give a talk on To The Lighthouse). Normally this would be a disappointment but my immediate response was, ‘Great, I can go on a boat trip then.’ (Free Thames Clipper tours were a terrific feature of the festival.)
Poet Philip Terry read from his unnervingly stripped down Estuary ‘Quennets’, a conceptual ‘join-the-dots’ form eschewing simile and metaphor, moving on to evoke the Berlin Wall in more of these curious list poems. His upbeat delivery helped a lot. I popped into Anne Lydiat’s barge Rock moored on the lower landing stage to find myself right in the friendly artist’s living room.
An absolute stand-out was the talk by Horatio Clare and Rose George on ‘Inside the Invisible World of Shipping’. Maersk, the company which hosted both of them (separately) on epic journeys, is apparently as big as Microsoft but nowhere near as well known. They read enthrallingly from their books, George about sailing through the piracy zone near Somalia, Clare more poetically about the enigmatic character of the sea. Intriguingly they had very different experiences due to gender; while Clare felt his boat had a professional cameraderie where sexuality was put on hold for the duration, George evidently felt more tension and ambiguity aboard.
Despite the cramped quarters, the loneliness and the boredom, it was clear neither would have missed the experience for the world. ‘If you have a couple of grand to spare and a couple of weeks, go to Panama on a container ship,’ enthused Clare – with George pointing out that the famous canal is just ‘a ditch in the desert’.
Novelists Roma Tearne and Alison MacLeod read brilliantly from their novels, Tearne’s The Last Pier being set in a fictional seaside town, and MacLeod’s Unexploded in wartime Brighton. Tearne’s novel was prompted by the freakish coincidence of finding old photographs of the same family in two junk shops in different towns, and wondering what had happened to them in between. An informative Thames Clipper ride around the Port of Tilbury meant I had to miss Lavinia Greenlaw’s talk, but that’s just as it should be – a good festival has far too many gems for one person to take in. I haven’t even mentioned the various films, artworks, walks, boats and kids’ activities.
A final ferry trip took me back to Dartford where I just had time to pop into the bright scarlet Lightship LV21 temporarily moored there. It’s a fascinating vessel to explore, with a film about Pocahontas (who had links with Dartford) showing in the very bowels.
I only had one criticism of the festival overall – it needs more CAKE. Lots more cake. Just what you want after a heavy afternoon of artistic saturation. At least there was a beer stall…