The Coat in Question
- All the Devils Are Here by David Seabrook
Granta, 192 pp, £7.99, March 2003, ISBN 1 86207 559 X
‘Yet the dream he describes is a traveller’s nightmare: Englishness lost, identity cancelled, fatal infection,’ David Seabrook writes of Thomas De Quincey. Of himself, the dole-queue De Quincey, making a high-velocity, long-term progress through the Isle of Thanet. More speed, less haste: Seabrook is a master of the throwaway put-down, a speculator in tachist topography. The short haul, down the Medway from Rochester to Chatham, represents ‘a basic shift from retro to necro’. In Ramsgate ‘light bulbs swing unclothed.’ And the blue-plaqued yawn of Middle Street, Deal is ‘where escapism ends up’. Seabrook’s special subject is the ‘areal’, as proposed by the geographer Carl Sauer (a great favourite of that poet of place Charles Olson). Sauer, like Seabrook, deals in awkward particulars, grit under the eyelid.
Areal is what you finish up with when there’s no way out, economically, emotionally, spiritually – with Connex and Railtrack operating the only escape chute. With Quatermass pits for Channel Tunnel links. With chalk quarries made over into retail colonies. With every tame wilderness marked down as a future flight path. You take what you find, stay where you are, dig in. That is the nature of the contract. And Seabrook seems happy with it. He has enjoyed two stints, student and postgraduate, at the University of Kent. Canterbury, with its provocative mix of decanted tourists, unimaginative beggars and cultural promoters looking for heritage funds, is where he has settled – between moonlight flits and hinted-at episodes in the tight crease between disenfranchised scholarship and accidental criminality. Refusing to allow the area he inhabits, the banishment, to become a noose, Seabrook has decided to celebrate it with a virtuoso exhibition of sardony. He champions the unloved and the unlovely. He sneers with transparent generosity and notes, with approval, ‘faces that ought to be spouting water from the walls of Gothic buildings’. His franchise – the area he describes, raiding and returning – is anywhere that can be reached in an hour or so, by bus or train, from Canterbury.
The sky has poured down its filthy pitch, Seabrook turns up the collar of his Crombie, divides his Flake bar, hangs about until the appointed hour for his interview with an old queen in Deal, or with the executed traitor William Joyce’s daughter, by his second wife, in Gillingham. Carry On grotesques, professional alcoholics, poets suffering with their nerves, Broadstairs fascists, economic migrants of every stamp: all the devils are here. From the areal to Ariel, Seabrook casts Thanet as Prospero’s island – exile with demons and furies, hell emptied to provide a cast list. A shelter on Margate Sands is the only place where T.S. Eliot, fidgeting with his notes for The Waste Land, transcribed what was immediately in front of him. He sketched Cockney excursionists on the beach, then returned for dinner to his hotel in Cliftonville (now known, Seabrook says, as Kosoville). Walking with Seabrook along the shore at Margate, subjected to the white noise of puns, submerged quotations, barks of self-intoxicated laughter, is to understand the manifold potentialities of the word ‘front’. North Sea, First War, BNP, con, flash. Seabrook is a very mouthy writer, his rude tongue perpetually thrust into someone else’s cheek. He pronounces: Eliot sat here, he took a tram, he dined alone in the ‘white’ room. Look at his memorial, his Margate plaque, the anagram on the side of the public convenience: toilets. There’s still puff left, after Seabrook has swooped on a Stanley knife lying in the gutter, ducked into a milk bar, made an exchange of contraband cigarettes, pointed out the hooky electrical goods shop that cashes cheques, detoured through the diminished surrealism of the Dreamland funfair, to dismiss such transitory cultural pretenders as Billy Childish (‘a hundred records, all bad’) and Dame Tracey Emin. They peddle bad memories of the Estuary, Chatham and Margate, for the shocked delight of bored metropolitans (who never have to go there). Seabrook lives it, thrives on the way he’s been spurned and ignored.