On a Seaside Bench

Since the start of the pandemic, the seaside bench has temporarily replaced the pub as a location for all kinds of social intercourse. Old friends sit at opposite corners of a bench conversing with each other. They bring a bottle of wine each, together with their own glass. If a third person joins them, they stand at a social distance but close enough for the three of them to feel like they’re buddies. The scene is reminiscent of Moscow alcoholics congregating around a park bench to share a bottle of vodka.

No wonder coastal Kent is nicknamed Brexitland

Image via Flickr.

This spring, when the lockdown was declared, my asthmatic lungs prompted me to seek self-isolation in my “second home” in Deal, a little seaside town on the coast of Kent, a few miles away from the white cliffs of Dover, away from the satanic mills of my London place in Hampstead.

When out for a daily stroll along the beach round the corner from my cottage, I usually choose a bench at the seafront to have a long look at the horizon. After a few months without pollution—no Dover ferries, no heavy road traffic, no planes in the sky—the air has become so transparent and lucid that the shore of France can be clearly seen across the English Channel every day. The miraculous effect of the coronavirus has been the return of this seascape to its prehistoric pristine looks.

The decadent Deal has been transformed. During the summer months, birds and butterflies have gone enchantingly mad in this blissful air. My neighbor Konrad, one of the best sound engineers in Deal and also an amateur lepidopterist, told me in August how a gorgeous Red Admiral had enjoyed playing peek-a-boo with him. “With binaural microphones in my ears,” Konrad said, “I even captured the flapping of the butterfly’s wings over my face.” I can’t say whether this butterfly’s flapping eventually led to a typhoon in another part of the world but it is clear that calamitous, catastrophic events bring us back to nature. Local seals, clumsy and playful, have again started to get closer to the shore, even flirting with humans. They have their colony a few miles from the coastline, on the legendary Goodwin Sands. Covered by only three feet of seawater at high tide, these sandbanks are an imminent threat to ships coming from the North Sea and guided by lighthouses into the Strait of Dover. It is this treacherous stretch that besmirched the reputation of the old Deal, whose criminal gangs marauded the wrecked ships, leaving the crews to drown in the open sea.

An essential aspect of life in such coastal regions is the navigation between different kinds of borders—visible and invisible, social and topographical landmarks. The sea itself is busy changing the shoreline, moving back and forth with the tide, eating away at the coast: but it is this borderline that gives the sea its shape, its outline. The sea, then, is engaged, as it were, in daily self-destruction. Having conquered one part of the shore, the sea, however, retreats in other parts, as if restoring its identity. A few yards from the shoreline, strange poles rise from the sea, their peculiar tops resembling upturned buckets with vertical slits. They remind me of Brion Gysin’s Dreammachines, but the poles are there to mark the underwater endings of groynes (not to be confused with groins)—beach partitions made to break tidal waves and keep the beach shingle in place. They are now buried under the tons of new shingle spread over the beach to shore up the seafront against the threat of flooding. But the poles—groyne markers—are still intact, standing a safe distance from each other. I add snapshots of them to my private iPhone gallery of different types of self-isolation.

Who would have thought that so late in life I would learn all the ebbs and flows of the seaside topography, its tidal transformations? I doubt very much that I was guided by my childhood dream of becoming a sailor when I landed in Dover forty-five years ago as a Soviet migrant. I fell in love with Deal almost accidentally twenty years later, when I stayed for a few days here with a friend, a scriptwriter who had adapted one of my novels for British television. Among my fellow drinkers in Deal pubs I am still known as “our Russian,” the man who taught them how to drink vodka by shots.

All kinds are well mixed in here. The shores of Kent have always attracted characters of fluid identities, birds of changing plumages. Van Gogh spent two years as a schoolteacher in the nearby Ramsgate. Joseph Conrad (born Józef Korzeniowski), a long-term resident of Kent, stayed for a while in Ford Madox Ford’s house not very far from Deal. “I write with such difficulty,” Conrad complained to Ford. “My intimate, automatic, less expressed thoughts are in Polish; when I express myself with care I do it in French. When I write I think in French and then translate the words of my thoughts into English.” Somerset W. Maugham faced a similar problem as a 10-year-old, French-speaking orphan who had been brought from Paris to Whitstable (north of Deal) to live with his English uncle. And there were those authors who had given up their American heritage in order to become proper English gentlemen, such as Henry James in Rye (south of Dover) and T. S. Eliot, who wrote part of his Waste Land in a seaside shelter in Margate, north of Deal: “On Margate Sands I connect nothing with nothing . . . .”

Deal was once part of the network of seaside towns on the coastal Kent known as Cinque Ports, which was granted the status of a free-trade zone in exchange for military duties defending of the realm. That status attracted a variety of smugglers, thieves, riffraff, and dealers in contraband. The lofts of some terraced cottages, similar to mine, were interconnected—to move stolen goods from one place to another at a moment’s notice in case of a police raid.

Perhaps, the long tradition of smuggling made the natives of Deal rather indifferent to the current trickle of illegal migrants from the Continent, crossing the English Channel in dinghies and cheap inflatables. As a rule, migrants are disoriented and confused in their blind search for happiness, not unlike the enigmatic virus that had run away from totalitarian China in search of asylum in the West, resembling a flock of birds guided across borders and frontiers by a mysterious navigator. The locals are more suspicious of a different kind of migrant—invaders from London who buy holiday cottages in Deal. But old pubs, markets, and new restaurants used to make a good, regular profit from these “weekenders,” known locally as DFLs (Down From London). Quite a few of these establishments are still open, trading cautiously, resorting to all kinds of ruses to create a feel-good atmosphere.

Any catastrophic event or rupture in our life routine forces us to search our memory for similar incidents, parallels and analogies from the past. Elderly men on the promenade recollect deprivations, shortages, and ration books during World War II. For me the period of self-isolation in a little seaside town is reminiscent of the time, four decades ago, when I had been walled off from my friends and relatives in the Soviet Union. The invisible borders created by the lockdown have brought back memories of the iron curtain divisions. For a number of months I have been able to communicate from Deal with my friends and relatives only by phone, like in good old Soviet times when group telephone calls were the only way to remain in touch. And like in Soviet days, people are suspicious of each other. Don’t invite a person for dinner unless you know the person’s past: he might have been an informer. We kept away from strangers, just in case. In Deal, I also keep my distance from those I do not know. I’m suspicious of those who get too near me without a face mask. Here is a jogger in shiny Lycra shorts who runs every day huffing and puffing like a mighty steam engine past my bench, trailing a whiff of aftershave behind him. What else is trailing behind him in the invisible cloud left by his heavy breathing? Bicyclists are the most dangerous creatures in this respect. I also wish a guy in shorts, naked to his belly button and with the label ENGLAND embellished in capital letters on his tote bag, would have kept a safe distance from me on the promenade.

The promenade stretches for half a mile from the Royal Hotel (“visited by Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton”) near the pier down to my local pub, the Forester, which was named after a military ship that took part in the British Arctic convoys of World War II, delivering via Archangel much needed supplies to the Soviet Union. The promenade is densely dotted with big wooden benches that face the sea. All the seaside benches have plaques with endearing inscriptions, put up by bereaved relatives. “In loving memory of Barry Croxton. Gone to god’s bar in the sky’s happy hour—all welcome,” the plaque on one of my favorite benches says. Among such sweet endearments there are deliberately ambiguous tributes, too, such as the one on a bench built during the millennium celebrations: “In loving memory of Jesus Christ. Greatly missed.” I didn’t find any names of famous authors mentioned on the memorial benches. Which doesn’t mean, of course, the locals are lacking for avid readers. One much quoted memorial plaque in Deal can be found on the bench outside our library; it is dedicated to a local lady by the name of Anne Woods Davies: “She read and read and read . . . and then she was dead.”

A couple of years ago, a new fad spread among the bereaved. They started to decorate the benches dedicated to the memory of their departed relatives with all kinds of improvised tokens of their love: a bunch of artificial flowers, a cross or a wreath, a sentimental trinket or toy. Gradually, these memorial decorations transformed the seaside benches into improvised tombstones. The Deal Council tried to ban this practice, but bereaved locals got organized and fought back. A compromise was eventually found. Vestiges of kitschy funeral paraphernalia suitable for a cemetery are still present here and there, but most of the benches are now fit for sitting. I have a chronic back problem, so I’m particular about my choice of bench. Instinctively, I’m inclined to pick the newish ones—they are better made, cleaner, and more comfortable. Eventually it dawned on me that my preference for the newer benches means that I am choosing to sit on the memories of those who have recently died. Deal is a small town. Some of the deceased I knew well.

One of them was Alfi, a fellow drinker from my local, “who walked on the bright side of the road,” as the plaque on his memorial bench informs me. Doctors urged him to do breathing exercises by walking, instead of watching the sea’s waves perform their own gymnastics routine. Before his lungs failed him, Alfi was one of the local enthusiasts who meandered along the beach with a metal detector in search of antique metal bits. He would regularly travel to Dover beach to look for Roman coins. And he found them plenty. Why Roman legionnaires had thrown so many Roman pennies all over the Dover coast, nobody can fathom. I am not sure how reckless the Vikings or William the Conqueror’s soldiers had been with their coins while conquering Kent.

The combative spirit of coastal Kent can be detected in unexpected places. Beyond the white cliffs of Dover, down the coastline, is Dungeness, where Derek Jarman had a cottage in the shadow of the nuclear station. You can also see here bizarre constructions shaped like a soap dish made of concrete: they were listening devices created by the military for interception of the approaching enemy planes during World War I. On the barren, shingly beach Derek Jarman created his legendary garden decorated with flotsam and jetsam thrown up by the sea, the remains of shipwrecks. Jarman’s father was an RAF pilot, and the skeletons of German planes had been strewn over Goodwin Sands since the Battle of Britain.

This time round the foreign invader is called the coronavirus. Since the start of the pandemic, the seaside bench has temporarily replaced the pub as a location for all kinds of social intercourse. Old friends sit at opposite corners of a bench conversing with each other. They bring a bottle of wine each, together with their own glass. If a third person joins them, they stand at a social distance but close enough for the three of them to feel like they’re buddies. The scene is reminiscent of Moscow alcoholics congregating around a park bench to share a bottle of vodka. Polish builders, avoiding bars to save money, have reinvented this routine in English towns.

During the administrative chaos of the first month of lockdown, partly caused by incompetent cabinet ministers, there were shortages of face masks, antiseptic gels, and wipes. There was mass hysteria as people tried to buy rolls of toilet paper in quantities enough to last for a century. Groceries were hard to get hold of too since supermarkets had been overwhelmed with home-delivery orders. My memories of the Soviet epoch were triggered by the long queues in the shops and by the word deficit. The inept government had appealed to the admirable aspects of the British national character and urged us to be stoically patient, to revive the spirit of self-help, mutual aid, and the do-it-yourself tradition, recalling the days of Dunkerque. My friend from the local poetry club quoted an example of one such do-it-yourself initiative from the satirical poem by William S. Gilbert (of the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas) about a mad cannibal sailor from Deal, who confessed to having eaten, following a shipwreck somewhere, all his crew mates, one after the other, which triggered in him an identity problem. In my case as a marooned Londoner, the help, eventually, came from friends, some of them local shop owners: Lizzie, an artist and in her spare time a butcher; Benoit provided us with wine from his bistro and my neighbor Ralph with delicious homemade chicken pies. Mr. Jenkins, a fishmonger, was good for fresh cod straight from the sea.

Not many fishermen can be found in Deal these days. You can still buy good whelks, cockles, and mussels from seaside kiosks near the pier. But local traders blame the European Union regulations for fishing quotas, as there hasn’t been enough cod to supply even the local fish-and-chip shops, and in some cases they have it sent from Scotland to be defrosted before cooking. No wonder coastal Kent is nicknamed Brexitland. The fish-and-chip shops were shut for four months and only mid-summer were they allowed to open for reduced hours. The queues afterward were long—only one person at a time was allowed to order. But people waited patiently; to come to the seaside and not eat fish and chips is a crime. They usually consumed their meals on one of the promenade benches, while seagulls waited patiently for their bit of chip.

The locals whose ancestors were ancient mariners insist they can tell English seagulls from French or Dutch ones—those who cross the channel illegally to steal our chips. “The English seagull has pink feet while the Continental’s feet are yellow. And what about their hooked beaks and the French rolling R in their shrieks—do they not point to the gulls’ foreign origins?” In fact, seagulls are notoriously difficult to identify. Their plumage changes as they age and there’s a great deal of variation within species. A considerable number of seaside gulls have migrated into town, building their nests on rooftops. Feeding is much easier in towns than in the open sea.

In London, the seagulls have to compete with other denizens of the animal world. After a couple of months of dire shortages, the local councils eventually rose to the challenge and began supplying their most vulnerable with various kinds of necessary care, including a monthly food delivery, free of charge. To my surprise, I was registered, at my London address, as one of those entitled to such a gift, because of my weak lungs. Being a hundred miles away in Deal, I couldn’t receive the delivery personally, and the first box was left by a delivery man on the steps of the front porch. The following morning, my downstairs neighbor, herself a lady of advanced age and vulnerability, sent me an email containing the following report:

I noticed in the morning that various food bags were scattered and burst over our front lawn. On investigation, it appeared that they had been liberated from a food box. There was a “Sorry you were out” card attached to it from a delivery firm, addressed to your name. So far, the only beneficiary of the delivery has been a very large raven, which I observed making a handsome and lengthy meal from cooked spaghetti rings, scattered across the lawn. Between each beakful, the raven was clearly thinking “More! More!” as opposed to “Nevermore.” As you aren’t going to get to it, I decided to impound the remaining contents of the box, and corner a few items for myself. When I got everything inside, I found that other locals, almost certainly foxes, had got their dirty little teeth—carrying heaven knows what diseases—into several of the tins. Their greatest success was a tin of tomato soup, which was about half empty. But imagine my anguish, when I found that there were tooth holes in both tins of baked beans and the sauce was dripping out. And I had been thinking, “Ooh I’ll have baked beans on toast as a surprise special lunch.” The only slight compensation was the vindictive thought that the foxes made all that effort but failed to bite big enough holes to get any baked beans out. In the end it appeared that the foxes not only tore and spilled rice, coffee, pasta twirls and tea bags, but also got their little teeth into at least two tomato soups. There are another couple of tins in the “doubtful” category. The paper labels have tiny tears, but I will have to remove them and have a good look at the tins with a magnifying glass, to see if there are any signs of penetration. I have heard from a local council rep that once a governmental order has been given, it is very difficult to stop repeats. If, in spite of our efforts to cancel, more boxes for you turn up while I am still imprisoned in solitary confinement, I shall gobble everything I like and give an extra donation to the Food Bank, thus easing the burden so many people who fall between the cracks of the special schemes or have to wait for ages for benefits. So far the beneficiaries included a pair of pigeons who came back every day for three days, looking for extra grains of rice and taking a few less enthusiastic pecks at the pasta twirls. I can recognise them, as they appear to be a mixed race couple, with one having slightly modified standard wood pigeon plumage, while the other is plain grey all over.

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