Tales from the Marshes by Julia Jones

A friend who is a professor at Ankara University mentions that she's reading Daniel Defoe as part of her current research into the relationship between Place and Fiction: James Canton, a lecturer at Essex University runs an MA course in 'Wild Writing'. I'm reading his book Out of Essex: Re-Imagining a Literary Landscape and realise that the next chapter is entitled 'Finding Defoe. Mmmm, yes, I like this minor coincidence and I like Defoe as well. His A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724) is an impressive early example of travel journalism and Robinson Crusoe (1719) is the great-grand-daddy of all adventure stories. One presents itself as fact and the other as fiction, yet they're not so far apart: Crusoe was based on a genuine piece of experience -- Alexander Selkirk's solitary survival on a Pacific Island -- and the Tour is by no means all sober reportage.

James Canton carries out a simple piece of fact-checking into one of its best-known episodes. Defoe is across the river from the Canvey Island marshes in Essex and has heard of a farmer who is living with his 25th wife and whose son, aged 35, is on his 14th.
The reason is […] that they being bred in the marshes themselves and season'd to the place, did pretty well with it but that they always went up into the hilly country […] for a wife. That when they took the young lasses out of the wholesome and fresh air, they were healthy, fresh and clear, and well: but when they came out of their native air into the marshes among the fogs and damps, there they presently changed their complexion, got and ague or two and seldom held it above half a year or a year at most and then, said he, we go to the uplands and fetch another.
Canton sets out to check the graveyards of the Essex marsh churches for the serried ranks of dead 'upland' wives. But they're not there. This most famous passage in the Tour is … a traveller's tale.

Out of Essex: Re-Imagining a Literary Landscape, takes ten writers and investigates their links with the county, often checking some small specific point and allowing the process of investigation to throw up intriguing encounters, serendipities, blind alleys. It works especially well when Canton is indulging his own love of marshes and mudflats. He's a keen and knowledgeable bird watcher and the chapter in which he focuses on J. A. Baker, author of The Peregrine (1967) is possibly my favourite. Baker was intensely reclusive, not a lover of his fellow humans but someone who managed to become acceptable to the hawks. The Times reviewer wondered whether Mr Baker “was a tiercel in a previous incarnation.” Canton searches for Baker through the lanes and villages of the Essex countryside and finally discovers that his address was a house in the middle of Chelmsford.

It's a shock but a constructive, stimulating shock which forces one to think again about the dangerousness of judging by appearances, even literary appearances. Admiration for Baker's extraordinary elegiac writing led readers to mythologise his life, to assume he had achieved his ambition to be “out there at the edge of things, to let the human taint wash away in emptiness and sorrow as the fox sloughs his smell away in the cold unworldiness of water”. In fact he worked for Chelmsford's soft drinks manufacturer, Britvic. I was given The Peregrine in 1967 for my 13th birthday and was mainly shocked by Baker's insight into humans as predators “We are the killers. We stink of death.We carry it with us. It sticks to us like frost. We cannot tear it away.” Now I look at it again and see astonishing writing on every page but none more so that the simple opening of the second part: “The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there.”

Out of Essex has chapters on other favourite authors. There's Margery Allingham, who so often used marshes as a location “at the edge of things”, where a villain might flee and go no further, where a body, might vanish deep into the greedy mud. Allingham's first novel was inspired by the history and mystery of Mersea Island on the River Blackwater and Canton also includes a chapter on the hapless Sabine Baring-Gould, miserable as Rector of East Mersea, producing Mehalah, a novel of ebb tides, twisting channels and morality to match. He quotes John Fowles's introduction to the 1969 edition. “The vast, god-denying skies, the endless grey horizon, the icy north-easterlies […] the whole area is set to the key of winter – it is for the dour the taciturn the solitary mussel-picker, the wildfowler, the anachronisms in our age. And it is this bleak waste-land, not Elijah Rebow, that is the real villain of Sabine Baring-Gould's remarkable novel.” Fowles knew whereof he wrote – he was born in Leigh on Sea, immortalised by Betjemen for its “level wastes of sucking mud.”

I went walking by the River Blackwater on Sunday, setting out from Tollesbury to skirt the edge of the Old Hall marshes. I watched the tide come up and fill the twisting channels that may lead nowhere. I saw it cover the whole area with a blank deceptive sheet that offered little hint of the depths and shallows underneath – except perhaps through the ripple patterns, so difficult to decipher. The afternoon began to fade and the Brent geese came flying over me to feed on the fields inland. I left before the ebb could pull the water off again and remind me of the complexity that lay beneath. When I got home and looked at a map of the place that I'd been I couldn't help thinking that it looked like some mysterious region of the body. Perhaps even my brain.http://www.streetmap.co.uk/map.srf?x=597500&y=212500&z=120&sv=old+hall&st=3&tl=Map+of+Old+Hall+Marshes,+Essex+&searchp=ids.srf  try the 1:25000 scale

These marshy places, that are neither sea nor land, that change so utterly and so inexorably, where the relationship of the surface and the depth is never constant – they seem to say something about the difficulty of knowing. Another of Canton's chapters focussed on Arthur Ransome's Secret Water – set in Essex's Walton Backwaters and a lifelong favourite. I felt faintly irritated by Canton's repeated use of the word 'imperial' to describe the Walker children's determination to map this strange new area, so different from the Lakes. 'Imperial' has connotations of arrogance and exploitation and it's also become the teensiest bit of an academic cliché. Yes there are 'natives' in Secret Water and totems and references back to Robinson Crusoe but these are all part of a game. Secret Water is a story of exploration, not conquest. “Real exploration … Islands, and islands of a kind they had never seen … an empty map to be filled with discoveries that they would make themselves.” 

Maps are a means to understand places: most civilisations make maps, though many are constructed on quite different principles to the Western cartography used by Ransome's Swallows  – read Hugh Brody's description of Native American mapping in Maps and Dreams or the stick-and-shell maps of the Marshall Islanders in Micronesia as described by John Mack in The Sea, a Cultural History. Canton set out to explore the Walton Backwaters accompanied by a nine-year-old nephew who entered willingly into the spirit of adventure. "The story had caught Jake's imagination. Instead of playing Ashes '09 on the Wii, he was ardently finishing off his beautifully constructed map to an island landscape that was both real and imagined." Jake's urge to find his own names for this unfamiliar place is a serious attempt to make a story from his experience "You know," began Jake [...] 'I think we should call the place where my boot came off Sticky End.'" Without making the obvious connection to 'mind-mapping' this attempt to fix as well as to explore experience is surely what we do when writing? Ransome's Secret Water maps are still used by yachtsmen visiting the Walton Backwaters, young Jake's, with all due respect, probably won't be. I return to J.A. Baker's insight, “The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there.”

Tollesbury Saltings in November 2013,
looking across to Mersea Island


cally phillips said…
I done never knew that Essex was so interesting!! And BTW, have you read Stuart Ayris 'Tollesbury Time Forever' (and the other 2 parts of the Frugality Trilogy) if you haven't you really should. The opening prologue grips and it carrys on going... 'What I saw that evening will stay with me forever. On the walls of the lounge, in tiny neat black writing were thousands and thousands of words.'
I have to say, the idea of writing a novel all over the walls deeply appeals to me and if only I had neat handwriting I might start on my grey office walls... anyway, nice to know there's such variety of writers in Essex - more reading to be done! Thanks
julia jones said…
Yes - have read Tollesbury Time Forever after reading your IEBR review some time ago. Love its opening and the utterly recognisable picture of the village, was possibly less convinced by the later developments (that sainted wife!). Tell me, do the later volumes have much landscape writing? (Physical landscape / marshscape not internal.)
julia jones said…
PS, Cally - if you read any of these books, make it The Peregrine - it really is extraordinary.
Jan Needle said…
don't know about imperialism, but the derelict barge with the coal stove in the cuddy haunted my dreams throughout my early life. i WANTED ONE. when i finally got to visit the secret water a few short years ago the march of time seemed to have demystified it completely. bring back ransome's children!
Jan Needle said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jan Needle said…
bloody modernism. i deleted the comment because it was a duplicate of the one above. now it looks as though i'm censoring myself, rather than trying not to repeat myself. now i need a lie-down
cally phillips said…
Julia, certainly for me the most memorable thing about TTF/Frugality is the internal 'landscape' more a journey through a mind than through a place, but Stuart loves Tollesbury (and cricket) The books get 'weirder' and 'weirder' but all is tied together at the end (ish)
I've just reserved Peregrine from the library. When I'll get a chance to read it no idea as I'm deep in proofing and lost in the Galloway Landscape (which is my favourite place to be in the world) but thanks for the alert - always good to get new writers - oh, and your 'linking' of things got me thinking and resolved another thing about SRC... and why I love his work so much. As a chiid I read (and met the author!!) work of Allan Campbell McLean and wished he had written MORE and more grown up tales. Now I realise Crockett is really in the same vein (or McLean was in the SRC vein) Surely that's enough enlightenment for one day. Back to work. And Jan, McLean also wrote about a military prison The Glass House, for adults - I've not read it, but just ordered it too. This is becoming like a chinese whispers game. Pass it on.
Susan Price said…
Julia, I tried to leave a comment in the early hours, but it wasn't accepted. I just wanted to say that this is a beautiful essay, and thank you!
julia jones said…
Thank you so much Susan - the good words in here are from other writers but I did have a lovely lovely walk on my own beside the marshes last Sunday when I really rather needed it.
Lydia Bennet said…
beautifully written, haunting as marshes. liminal spaces between land and water are special and magical. our lighthouse is on a tidal island as is Lindisfarne, there's something enticing about being under the control of the sea. I remember in Swallows and Amazons, Robinson Crusoe is Titty's favourite book and she asks to be stranded on their island when the others sail off on a mission.

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