A Dagenham Inquiry
March - July 2008

I thought that to end this project I would have to walk the route
of the buildings that remain, from Barking Abbey via the Cross
Keys pub to end at Dagenham Ford works. Fords the oiled
Mordor of the local economy, symbol of inter and post-war
progress, hope, regeneration - towers turreted above Dagenham
Heathway, the Thames as moat - demanding faith from the people
through the automatic power as provider. That the route would
be formed through what remains from Dagenham's marshland
and village past towards its great modern enterprise - felcher of
Thames water - funneling the hilltop. But to see Dagenham is to
get out of Dagenham, to look back towards the towers. This
happened almost by chance yesterday as the three of us - Sarah,
Pavel and me - left for one of our Summer days out to Rainham
Marshes. We took the 103 bus from outside Dagenham Civic
Centre towards the War Memorial at Rainham. After six years
in Dagenham - leisure options brick-locked between two local
pubs - it was hard to believe that just five minutes beyond
Dagenham East tube (District Line's lush stipe of green) there's
this village, quaintly English - The Albion family pub, Norman
church, gargantuan Tescos Extra - the July sun soldering us silent
to the very fact that this is here. Shoreditch, Liverpool St, has
been our release for when the bricks have pressed down too
much - Romford as a one-mouth pocket of air - but here is English
Essex-London, just a bus-ride from where we live. As usual we
hadn't planned the route, the marshes not signposted, so I went
into a newsagents to ask for directions. The shopkeeper - shaded
and cool amidst reams of white - shook his head & explained that
it is very complicated to get to & despite a left leg in plaster he
reached for a map on the top shelf to show me the route. The
marshes - Rainham, Aveley - spreading over half a page of folds
like an X-ray of lungs against the swallowed toothpicks of the A13.
He advised that we go to Purfleet by taxi or train & walk along the
Thames from there. We opted for train & walked through Rainham
to the station, past the church & graveyard - EDWARD ROBINSON
DIED 1847 AGED 23 - on a bench in the centre of the tombstones
were a couple (the man, from a distance, seemed much older than
the younger gothic girl) both shamelessly aroused, she straddled
across his legs, negative-vampyric in the daylight at eighty degrees.
Iain Sinclair has discussed the Purfleet-Dracula connection
(Jonathan Harker as clerk for a property sale on behalf of the
never-dead) which only occurs to me now that we're making our
way there. Past the all-day drinkers outside The Phoenix & over
the railway lines to the station. Asking for tickets for Purfleet the
man behind the desk asks : Are you sure you don't want to go to
Grays for the same price? I say we're going to Rainham Marshes.
He shrugs & gives us tickets for one stop at eight pounds each.
Sarah and me have a personal mythology with this route to the
coast, the C2C from Fenchurch to the sea (an old Victorian
Sunday leisure route) as after we secretly married at Barking in
2006 we took the train to Shoeburyness & drank champagne by
the sea - a Monday afternoon: a lone man surfing, a woman with
a toddler. The Thames at Purfleet is an intersection as yet unkown,
announced at Fenchurch Street as a sign for someone else's
commute, but then we descend the station hill towards the Thames
and find sprayed by chance our name for each other NESS, on
the gates of SGS Oil & Gas Chemical Services. FOR SALE
posts like frozen powerpoint presentations against the Victorian
cobbles of terraces - colours flash like a kingfisher in a tophat -
a convertible Audi outside, show the work commute has been
struck upon. Bram Stoker, apparently, did Purfleet once. The
hill draws us down to THE ROYAL HOTEL - the only pub in Purfleet -
square white ship moored against the Thames, winking brown
and silver in the sun like the scales of a carp. Locals - a man
reading a paper with an orange pint, two young women sema
phoring talk with pink Bacardi Breezers - looking out over the
Thames to Dartford Power station (dwarfed amputee of Battersea)
and the webbed silver of the QEII bridge. This is the second
time Pavel has seen the sea & as at Southend - as his skin locks the
light - he finds this immense breathlessness hilarious. The brick loops
of Dagenham a memory, for a moment, he looks to us in almost
disbelief at how open a space can be. A bloodblack ladybird specks
Sarah's bra strap, Pavel's multistriped seasuit declares SMILE. To the
left of us the Stoker prophecy as fact : property developers have
raised flats in mock-simulacrum of the Thurrock Council estate,
good-time chalets, leading down towards the marshes. With
Pavel throned across my shoulders aghast at his own weightless
ness, we walk under the trees tracing a shadow of a bird above
that we can't see until we walk past the leaves & then look up -
expecting a hobby, peregrine falcon, kestrel - to see the white
wingspan of a gull. Following the river we come to a long low brick
hut between clusters of housing with a sign that reads PURFLEET
MAGAZINE No. 5. There is a tourist board of information that
tells us that it was created in 1759 and was used to test, store
and supply gunpowder for the army up until the M.O.D. sold it
to Thurrock Councl in the 1960s. As the women at Dagenham
Fords marched on Trafalgar Square to demand equal pay as the
men this place had come to the end of its service for the nation.
I think of its extra 200 years history on Fords & wonder how many
men walked from Dagenham in that time to work against the flash
expanse of the Thames, when just one spark of fire could have set
the whole thing off. As Fords coincided with the creation of the
Becontree Housing Estate - still the largest ever housing project
in Europe - to power the local economy through its titanic turrets
(and they still make one million diesel engines every year, fuelled
using only the wind that blows over terraces) just down the river, here,
the ammunition was being flatpacked & shipped in mail-orders
for the killings of the Second World War. Later, in Rainham Marshes,
we see a brick turret made in 1906 that was used as a look-out post
to spot submarines coming up the Thames. Looking citywards -
Dagenham wind turbines empowering the air - the Ford works
shocked into obsoleteness by the megalithic sim-cards of Canary
Wharf. Fords' productive past absolutely bound to the Thames
for water, for imports & exports, the housing estate latched to
the changes in the workings of global finances like a brick pedometer.
Perspective is only possible with a centre, as power thrives on size:
Fords as a museum that still churns out its engined artefacts. As we
walked towards the marshes, past the council flats, we laughed
at the river-view that the state offered but as we thought it through
Sarah was right to say : that as the river in flux offers hope
and possibilities, to watch it flow whilst having none - land
locked by utilities - would tantalise the expansiveness of despair.
Tea, tabloids, seasons : watching the gulls hawking brown stones
at low tide. We reach Mardyke Sluice where three men are fish
ing over railings - impossible task of landing any decent sized
fish over seven foot steel bars - but one ledgers his bait inches
from the bullrushes in what must be the greatest cast I've ever
seen. The skill against the constriction is admirable. Before
Rainham Marshes opens out to the new RSPB centre the path
narrows to a track of nettles & midge - a bridge over the sluice -
then opens suddenly to a gold carpark & Pavel on my shoulders
still, laughing at two dogs. Entrance to the marshes should cost
us six pounds but the woman at the desk asks where we've come
from - we say Dagenham - and she lets us through for free. The
land here is ancient, untouched in parts for six thousand years,
murmurs under the heat, swarms & stirs us into relaxation. As we
stare at coots (curious), buntings (swollen magpies) & little egrets
(skewed on sticklegs) the potency of this land is staggering : this
is what Dagenham was, up until the building of the estate. At the
base of the Ford works there is a remaining pool of water called
Dagenham Breach (from the breach of the Thames in the early
C18th) but the rest of the marshlands have been built over. Even
eighty years ago, before the project towards a cultivated working
class began, this is the same marshland that Dagenham, as it is
now, was built upon. We feed Pavel facing the water as a group
of school children are made to listen to the whispering bullrushes.
We then push on to a cover to look for wrens & water voles (these
marshes has one percent of the population). As we've come to
know of Dagenham these marshes are not as clearcut as they
seem & have kept, as a kind of museum, the vestiges of its military
training camp history - this is the only reason the land has not
become a site for property. Uncanny, when looking for creatures,
to come across firing ranges and paintings of soldiers aiming
rifles. A military storehouse declares itself against a sign for
DEADLY NIGHTSHADE. Look but don't touch. I spot the back
of a vole in the stream - wet hump of its matted back cruising to
the bank - but it's too late by the time Sarah looks. The stone
crane of the heron - demented airfix - cranks over Aveley Flash
in a five foot wingspan. Bizarrely, in a field of square cows there
is a stetson top down in the grass. I climb over the fence to get
it & give it to Sarah to wear. Lime green like lumps of good
mushy peas the marsh toads hop. A remaining firing range
of metal numbers is now used as a mouse lookout for the kestrel.
Up the path to the RSPB cafe we stop for tea before starting
the walk back to Purfleet Station. We've had such a perfect day
- Pavel is thriving - and we're both much less stressed than
those first months of thinking we had to know how to grow a baby.
At Purfleet Magazine a mother scolds her son for playing at the base
of the bricks - Don't play there, there's broken glass - as we walk past
a mound of grass with groups drinking, men topless with latte tans,
making the most of the heatwave. Inexplicably there is a crow's nest
at the centre of the grass, looking out to the river. On the grass
beneath our feet plastic Union Jack flags start to appear, cut
free from some sequin decoration for an occasion - Sarah
takes a photo, even though we want to get to The Albion pub
in Rainham - and printed on each flag is one white word : THANKS

There is nothing more uplifting than watching Sarah
- still wearing the stetson - pushing Pavel back along
the terraced ranch of Nicholas Road, Dagenham, with
the wicker of the hat crocheting her shoulders with light


Steve McKay said…
Chris that was so entertaining and beautiful to read.

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