The Dagenham Idol

Something I wrote a while back…

1. BARKING

The London Borough of Barking and Dagenham was, he thought, London’s answer to East Berlin. An unremarked workers state. Part of a vast metropolis of public housing that accelerated away from the City before running out of energy and finally losing itself, ten miles out, in the estuarial marshes.

Travelling out of Fenchurch Street the parallel District line and the overground suburban trains were like Berlin’s ‘S’ and ‘U’ Bahn. As in post-war Berlin the suburban trains sped past disused platforms whose exits were sealed. But at East Ham and Plaistow there were no pillboxes, no dogs.

You were free to defect to the West End on a Travelcard. You were free to go further – stay on the District Line to London’s western suburbs where you would find Barking’s free market alter ego. But why bother? In Barking’s municipal suburbia everyone was equal. The other side of London cowered under flightpaths and motorways: it crackled with mortgaged insecurity. But not here. Everyone one was happy here. Or as happy as they were ever going to be.

Look at the people that came from here – Terry Venables, Dudley Moore, Sandie Shaw. A bit ragged at the edges after what the wider world had done to them – but all of them attempting to express – recapture joy. Even Alf Ramsey will forever be associated with a greater joy.

Barking carried no burden of expectation. Barking dreamed of being somewhere else. It was rich in dreams. Unmapped. Unchanging. It would never be discovered. Never even acknowledged. The London working class had always owned this place and always would. Nobody else wanted it. It was his to dream in. He was a free man. The bliss and the boredom of the suburbs was his: the escape and the final reckoning.

Years would pass here.

In the winter a distant ceremony at Upton Park reverberated eastwards. In the Summer the workers organised the Barking parade. There were floats and small girls in pink tutus parading past the flat blocks.

The light in his room flickered

2. FIRESTORM

One flash. Three square miles of fire. Ten square miles gone. Then the air is sucked in and the fire storm begins. But what would happen to Barking? Would it be on the edge of the zone of total destruction? Would what was left of it be sucked into the city.

Would the Russians aim the missile right at the epicentre of London? And what would they take as that epicentre? Buckingham Palace? That would be a neat end to the revolutionary project. Nelson’s column? St Paul’s cathedral? Not so lucky in this blitz. Or given the state of Russia would the missile even come close. Perhaps ground zero would be Wood Green, or Bromley? A semi-detached in Barnet or a primary school in Peckham.

And would the missile be visible? Would you be able to see it on its fifteen minute flight from a North Sea submarine? Watch the mighty rocket descending – the last true marvel of the age. Trace the arc before your retinas were destroyed and you flew across the memorial park – half elated, half alight – the boating lake evaporating beneath you.

These are important questions, are they not?

3. FIRED

Being fired was like having a fight. And having a fight was like having sex. Too much sudden intimacy with someone you didn’t want to be intimate with.

Being fired meant that at last time could be allowed to be itself. When he worked time was broken up into ill fitting chunks. Too little time for some tasks you are meant to perform. Too much for others. Time in fits and starts. Time treated with too little respect. Time taking its revenge. Now that he had been fired time asserted itself, flowed to its own rhythms, he let it guide him, he lost himself in it. He lost himself in time and place, he allowed places to take him over, to overcome him. He lost the sense of himself and replaced it with the sense of the place he was in.

Being fired meant time to insinuate himself into the city and the city’s estuary as it flowed eastwards and lost itself in the sky and the sea.

But it was hit and miss. Transcendence, hopelessness, boredom.

4. BARBICAN

The Barbican’s palace of culture is so bomb site big it has its own freeways. Unconnected enclaves where culture huddles. Off one walkway gyratory he found the Museum of London. If you read every single panel and enter into the spirit of every age depicted it will take you three visits. The thing he loved most about the Museum of London was the pre-history section. The incongruity of the finds.

A pointed hand axe (350,000 to 120,000 BC) from the site of the Regent Palace Hotel; a lower pre-molar of a woolly rhinoceros from Avenue Road, Brentford; a perforated antler bone mattock (9,000 to 7,000 BC) found at New Scotland Yard; and the remains of a temple at Heathrow airport. But best of all, best by far, is the Dagenham Idol.

The second oldest representation of the human figure found in Britain. Discovered at a depth of twenty feet by workmen in the Thames marshes close to the A13. Carbon dated at between 2140 and 2350 BC. Late Neolithic, five hundred to a thousand years older than Stonehenge.

A 50 centimetre high figure in Scotch Pine. Perfectly straight but somehow also twisting round. A head split and cracked almost to the core. One sunken eye, one eye just an indentation. Drinker’s nose. Old man’s nose. Half burnt off. Never had arms. Peach of an arse. Square hole where his cock should be. Or maybe it’s a she? A toothless crone – staring. Ritual scars carved across the legs. No feet.

But it was a replica. He asked the curators where the original was kept. They directed him to the Castle Museum Colchester

Leaving the Museum of London the Moorgate blocks circled him in conspiratorial designs. He could taste blood in his mouth. Felt himself going deeper.

5. THE QUEST FOR THE IDOL

The wind was blowing the litter aggressively around Liverpool Street. The spring light was rabbit’s eye white. He wished it was still Winter. He wanted Winter to follow Winter. Instead everything was teething and bawling. The flower bed Daffodils were like old fashioned telephone receivers – tracking him. He wanted to kick their stupid heads in. The ball and chains were smashing through the cutting walls as the train left for Colchester. Razing and levelling the City margins.

The Castle Museum told of how Colchester was an army town taken by surprise. Sacked by Boudica. Thirty thousand gone. Later Hopkins, the Witchfinder General searches the marshes for girls who will burn. Takes them back to the hill of blood where the castle stands.

In the museum the Dagenham Idol is glanced at, passed over. Suspended in its display case by a plastic halter around its neck. To protect it the Idol has been treated with a tarry resin. It glistens. The dust clings. The spotlight casts shadows. One-eyed mute molasses man. Waiting. Waits to be burnt again. Waits to be lost in the river again.


6. ESTUARY

The focus of his wanderings changed. He scoured the Thames Estuary for clues. Some find that would be equal to the Dagenham idol. Some reciprocal offering. He found a landscape that became holy to him. He found Canvey where the winter sun caught him on the sea defences. He found the church on the Isle of Grain where Pip first encountered Magwich. He found Blue Town on the Isle of Sheppy where deserted Georgian terraces echo with the unearthly groans of the steelworks. He found the shell temple at Margate and the beach of shells at Shellness. He found an abandoned city of caravans at Leysdown. Above all he found a landscape where land, sea and sky were undivided. Where days of grey were devastated by sunsets which London would be incapable of imagining.

He took photographs, he sat in pubs and cafes, he walked. He was the only one.

Whenever he approached the Estuary on a speeding train he began to see them. Power station chimneys. Factory stacks. Markers in the marshes. Modern monoliths. Slim and shining white. Grain, Kingsnorth, Tilbury. Of all the elements in this extreme landscape the power stations began to fascinate him the most. Rising up out of the sullen marshes often they seemed to glow, the white concrete drawing whatever light there was to them. In an estuary of muddy islands and inlets perspectives shift so much it seemed only the power station stacks held the landscape in place. Gave the sun a focus.

He began to map the position of the power stations, to see if there was a pattern, if there were alignments with the rising and setting of the sun. How these alignments fitted in with the slabs of council blocks at Gravesend and Purfleet. If the engineers had been influenced. How could they not have been when they first put down their tripods in these blank and sacred places?


7. SUNSET AT TILBURY

He was making for Tilbury Power station. Setting off across the muddy fields from West Horndon station. Today his calculations said was the right day. Almost immediately the world had seemed very full.

Colour was rationed to variations on grey – the gateway to the other. Except for the red rosehips that prefigured the sunset.

There had been news of floods on the radio and of the death of a poet. The fields were saturated. Cold winds lodged in his head.

He was suddenly aware that it was absurd to do this. To pour over maps. To use the internet to discover who built these monoliths and when. But was it really any more absurd than those who devote years to drawing up theories about the role of Stonehenge or the Neolithic standing stones on Orkney? Or more absurd than the Neolithics themselves who spent decades on similar calculations and decades more installing their monoliths. They were all acts of faith. All sacrifices of time. As was his. The sun was there. The monolith was there. All he was doing was bringing the two together. A Tilbury idol for the Dagenham idol.

The twin stacks of Tilbury were visible now, ten miles away, framed by the branches of a solitary oak. The pylons made their pilgrimage across the fields from London to the power station.

He kept up the pace across this drained and resentful land where the sky had flooded in. Deeper into a zone of scrappy farms. A sign said the dogs were loose.

There were bar coded fields – their crops pre-allocated to particular supermarkets.

Busted shacks abandoned by East End refugees.

A bunkerland

The OS map sang out the way to Tilbury but these paths were old songs transcribed. They were rarely sung now. He saw no one.

There was a distant roar of traffic on the A13 and the low morse that warned of reversing trucks at the Mucking rubbish tip.

The path led down now towards East Tilbury where he would turn west to walk along the Estuary straight down the river bank to Tilbury power station.

He rested at the old Coal house fort at East Tilbury. East Tilbury seemed almost normal by the Estuary’s standards. Ordinary homes lined the main street and at the fort dogs were walked and families lingered by the swings. The fort itself overlooked a great curve of the river round Canvey. A perfect spot to bombard invading ships and planes. Adapted time and time again over the years only now was the MOD pulling out. He could have stayed. It was an ordinary old fort, set in an ordinary park on an ordinary river. He could have made his way home. But the imminent sunset tugged him away along the river wall. Someone had to have these visions – it was necessary.



8. BIZARRE POWER STATION RITUAL

As the power station got nearer it was clear his calculations were going to be correct. The orderly reflection of grey had been overthrown by the sunset. The sky was in chaos. The Thames a burning orange. The purple sky streaked with jet trails like premonitionary comets. The scrub and broken glass blazed.

Something more was required. A greater sacrifice. It occurred to him that if he could enter the power station furnace he would be instantly converted into light and heat. There was a hole in the perimeter fence into the seemingly deserted power station complex.

The lights of the Tilbury docks flickered in the coldness of the winter dusk.

2 thoughts on “The Dagenham Idol

  1. Sir, you have grasped both the recent cinematic anti-celebration of EastEndBloc teenage wasteland Fish Tank, and the late Soviet-kinopoet Tarkovsky’s visionary Stalker. Thurrock, especially, is a land of pilgrimage, passing through and passing on, those little hunched characters on their little hunched asses. Here, once, the Thames was wide and shallower. All the parishes went down to meet the water’s edge, kissing the terrible beauty of the march-lined river with sanctuary from such as the Dagenham Idol and any associated fear, and the endless rhythm of tide and wave, tide and wave. Geography and history weigh heavy here like the anchors of hulks that once imprisoned desperate Jaocbites in Sassenach chains of empire, and the enslavingly impressive words of a Queen with the heart of a King – a King of England, too. This constantly raped scape and concreted creation and dumping ground of orphan spirits slips quietly from its moorings out to the Continent, ‘from the Thames to the peoples of the world’, says the Thurrock motto. Some sunsets, it’s like blood from a wound, oil from a slick. Some sunrises, it’s like gold from a smelting pot, balm from an alabaster box. Peel back the palimpsest and heal the land.

  2. And you’ve connected with the power of wind and water, long forgotten with the advent of other power forms but remembered by those who walk, like me, the sacred marshy edges searching for God’s intent. You’ve connected with the smell and taste of land long abandoned, orphaned, unfathered. Yet despair is transformed and identity rises when restoration comes.

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