David Harker

The world from the Isle of Grain


I’ve long been obsessed by the Isle of Grain – the name, the idea of it – although I’d never been there. I even wrote a poem about it, informed by a painting by David Harker. David had never been there either (he’d based the painting on a photograph he’d been given) so together we entered into an imaginative speculation about this magical weird spot, a misnomer (the name is derived from the Old English greon meaning gravel), the end of the world.


Because sometimes art is better for not having had the experience, just imagining what it might be like. Why get hung up on truth?

But this Monday I finally, physically, arrived in Grain – by bus, in the company of Steve Perfect (http://www.steveperfect.com/) and other artists (including Mike Nelson and Adam Chodzko) / keen psychogeographers. I can report that it truly does feel like the end of the world; although it’s now linked to the land, it has the aloof air of somewhere cut-off, on the edge.


We began our walk at the footpath at the end of the tarmacked road, which follows the sea barrier along the coast. Across the water at Sheerness, Garrison Point Fort was to our right, and, just over the ridge, Grain Power Station to our left. The power station was decommissioned in 2012 and is in the process of being torn down; its chimney remains (the second-tallest power station chimney in the UK). One of our group said the locals had protested against its demolition. You could argue it’s a strange structure to love, a reminder of our grim nuclear history, not worth preserving. But if you had grown up in its shadow, and it had represented work and prosperity, you might begin to understand its symbolism. And besides, it’s rather beautiful, with its gently tapered base, imposing in a stark landscape where there are few defining features. Like Grain’s answer to the Shard.


As we walked, we could begin to see our destination looming in the distance, forlorn and imposing: the Grain Tower Battery. There are many Martellos, mysterious squat structures that dot the east coast of England, mostly along the curved shore of Kent and Sussex. They were constructed to keep Napoleon at bay, over two hundred years ago. But the tower at Grain is unique; its Martello-style base was built slightly later, in 1855, to protect the nearby Sheerness and Chatham dockyards from possible attack by France. It was added to during both the First and Second World Wars, so what remains is an odd, slightly thrown-together construction, like something a kid might make if he’d gone mad with Lego. It has the best address in the world – Number One Thames, and sits in prime position, at the point where the Thames and the Medway meet. It is bunker and fairy castle combined, its brick and concrete daubed in graffiti, but undeniably beautiful, in a sort of butch, brutalist way.

As soon as we saw it, we had to get out there. The tower is accessed along a stone causeway that joins it to the foreshore, only passable at low tide. We started across, wading through the thick mud that sucked at our boots, making slow but steady progress.


What makes these strange, set-alone places so alluring? Often, it’s simply the challenge of reaching them (our journey to the tower at the easier level of achievement). Once there, it’s the promise of solitude, in this case, an opportunity to feel as if we’d stepped into the sea, with all the secrecy of codes and campaigns that the tower suggests.

The urban explorer Bradley Garrett made a point of getting stranded at Grain Tower at high tide: http://www.bradleygarrett.com/our-own-private-island/. Even more extreme was artist Stephen Turner’s thirty-six days in isolation at Shivering Sands, one of the incredible sea forts in the Thames Estuary: http://www.seafort.org/theproject.html. It was enough for us to touch the heavy bomb-proof walls, to climb the makeshift ladder into the upper levels of the lookout, and stare across the estuary to the sea.


Perhaps we also crave a notion of safety. We live in frightening times, and these coastal defenses were built to last, built to deter intruders, still standing to purpose two hundred years on. We find them romantic, windswept and lonely, looking out to sea, but they were symbols of defiance and fear, born from our panic that the channel wasn’t wide enough to repel the French.

And now we make them into desirable homes. Even as the power station is demolished, Grain Tower Battery is being repurposed. It has just been sold for £500,000, and may be turned into an exclusive residence, or maybe a hotel or nightclub. And so another reason for our desire is to see these places before they are modernised beyond recognition, always more beautiful as ruin than when made whole again.


Somewhere else

Lately I have discovered that I am most prolific when I take myself away from my desk to somewhere else. This week I have returned (with a small group of poets) to Château Ventenac, where I taught a course on the poetic sequence two years ago. Like the sequence, which has a tendency to reinforce  themes through repetition, I am here at the same time of year, with the wisteria in full bloom. Maybe it is good thing when attempting to write new poems to choose a ‘somewhere else’ which is not unfamiliar. This is actually my third time here, and so I have already made the typical excursions from base: I’ve walked along the canal and visited Carcassone and Narbonne, so I have not felt the need on this occasion to stray much further than the terrace. I’d like to think that I’ve been purposeful, at least as far as new poems are concerned: by coincidence, I am currently working on a sequence of poems to accompany new paintings and drawings by David Harker, for his upcoming show in July.

David’s new work is about provisional places, a good subject for me – I seem to have been almost exclusively situating myself in edgelands for the last few years. My sequence has been influenced by the works, but also by the fact that I am travelling – the idea of travel, of being uprooted in various ways, has given me the central idea on which to hang the poems.

My other silent companion, apart from David, has been Roy Fisher. His urban visions, the dark corners of Birmingham that provide a setting to his poems, might be at odds with the sun-drenched vineyards, the cloudless sky; but what I think of as his no-nonsense description (no excess, nothing that doesn’t ring true, both visually and musically) has given me a model for how to approach my sequence. My poems are short and spare, often without a clear point of view, so that there is a sense (I hope) of being alien, of being unsettled.

What I admire about Fisher is how much he is able to say with very little, as if somehow the places he writes about, restrictive as they are, have only permitted him a reduced vocabulary to describe them. There’s something about travelling on one’s own (although I have arrived to good company and lively conversation) that also serves to contain thought.

This is a small poem of his which just does it for me. It’s so simple, but also very moving. It’s about a moment, observed, captured, and tells how the poet felt, without stating the emotion. It’s about brevity, not just of the moment, but of time, one’s time in a place:


The sun sets
in a wall that holds the sky.

You’ll not
be here long, maybe.

The window
filled with reflections
turns on its pivot;

beyond its edge
the air goes on cold and deep;
your hand feels it,
or mine, or both;
it’s the same air for ever.

Now reach across the dark.

Now touch the mountain.

Yesterday, I sat on the terrace, not writing, not reading, but simply looking at the view of the Pyrenees in the distance,  through a cloud of wisteria, enjoying the moment.