Hemmingway knew how it went with new work. You needed to keep your head down and do it. In an interview with George Plimpton he told him “though there is one part of writing that is solid and you do it no harm by talking about it, the other is fragile, and if you talk about it, the structure cracks and you have nothing.” If the book isn’t complete then talking it up isn’t going to get you there. Explaining how it all fits together will ruin it. So what’s the new book going to be about? They ask me that at the pub. I try not to explain too much. It’s about the estuary, the river, you know. What, another Real book? Maybe
Actually what I’ve ended up writing isn’t a Real book at all and although it most certainly is about the Severn Estuary it’s also about an incredible amount more than that. Is it a psychogeography? Maybe, it could be that.
I’d long been interested in the idea of the linear city. This was something first proposed by Arturo Soria y Mata in the nineteenth century. He proposed turning Madrid into an elongated rope of buildings which would follow the Rio Manzanares. The Soviet planner Nikolay Alexandrovich Milyutin took the idea further but nothing actually got built. In the late twentieth century the notion regained currency with proposals to run the resorts along England’s south coast together to form one continuous conurbation. They were almost that anyway. The fiction of JG Ballard’s dystopian future suddenly became real.
Cities did not need to be lozenge shaped, walking suburbs had been outmoded by city metros, communities had become acclimatised to scattering. Conurbations could be ninety miles long and half a mile wide. Then I read about the Cardiff Custom House back in Tudor times. The Custom House was the base for the king’s officers. These were bold Englishmen sent out from London to collect taxes levied on all goods landed on the king’s shores. And these Welsh shores belonged the English king. All of them. For ease of admin everything landed from Chepstow right down to Worm’s Head on Gower was controlled from Cardiff.
Cardiff, that wide. The linear city in place hundreds of years before its time. It was a concept I could not leave alone. I vowed to walk it and to write about what I found. Edging the Estuary is the result.
The walk was completed in sections, done largely in the right order, east to west, always chasing the sun. There were diversions. Trips inland up rivers, the tracking of canals, the crossing of cities. There were three of those – Newport, Cardiff, Swansea – and each deserved and got more than a single traversing. Using a technique I’d exploited in the Real series I often got someone who knew the area well to travel with me, to tell me about themselves and their locale, about the place we were walking through. Tony Curtis at Barry. Robert Minhinnick at Porthcawl. Nigel Jenkins in Swansea. John Briggs at Newport. Des Barry and John Williams in Cardiff. Lynne Rees at Port Talbot.
It soon became apparent that this Welsh walk alone would not be sufficient to describe the great muddy estuary I was tracking. I had to get to the islands, to the far tidal reaches up beyond Gloucester, to the bridges, the barrage sites, the boats that sailed on the waters and, most importantly, the much richer English side.
I needed to explore the literary connections – John Williams at Cardiff, R D Blackmore in the Doone Valley, Shelly at Lynmouth - and the industrial ones - lime, asbestos cement, electricity, steel, coal, copper.
There were difficulties and deviations. The electricity generators alternated come on in welcomes with you are not entering these premises under any circumstances go aways. I was given tea and tours in about equal number to chases off and no mate not without a permit, this area is forbidden, you’ll have to walk round. Sometimes I obeyed, sometimes I did not. This land is not entirely a free land, despite what you may read.
I met characters, chancers, owners, renters. I talked to locals, to visitors, to workers just passing through. Gareth Woodham told me about his Severn Lake barrage proposals. Glyn Jones, the ebullient chairman of BARS, the Barry Amateur Radio Society, gave me Marconi’s history. Paul Parker at the Severn Estuary Partnership explained just how the estuary worked, where its past was, and where its future may lie.
What came out of this was a community that lived and worked the greatest waterway Wales has residing cheek by jowl with a larger population many of whom barely understood that they lived on the coast and that the water out there beyond them was the world’s most powerful thing – the sea.
History underpinned everything. I read of the Conquest and of the Normans riding down the Welsh coast from their base at Tewkesbury to invade the and subsequently subdue the Welsh princedoms. I followed their route along the northern shore of the Severn – through Lydney towards Newport. I tried to feel as they must have done galloping the flat Severn shorelands. And when I got back home to Cardiff where Robert Fitzhamon had taken up residence in around 1093 I read of what actually occurred. They came across the water from the direction of Bristol, by boat.
I wound what I discovered and what I experienced into a homogeneous whole, brightening it with memory and personal experience. I digressed from the true course as many times as I needed. This thing is be read. So what is it about?
It’s about the difference between Wales and England, here in the place where the border is, where the one place runs out and the other begins. Fishermen at Black Rock by the bridge speaking in clear Gloucester accents but declaring themselves eternally welsh. Tourists at Lynmouth who barely knew that that was Wales over there through the sea mist. Students in Cardiff who had little idea that they were studying in what was once the world’s greatest coal exporting port and still a city on the coast.
It’s about the history of the waterway – from its time in the age of the saints as a sort of sea motorway, its time as one of the greatest merchant sea routes in the world, to today when there are barely enough commercial sailings to warrant the existence of all our ports and docks and the most anyone sees are leisure craft and fishing boats.
It’s about the communities that cluster along these coasts: the farmers, the fishermen, the walkers, the industrialists with their docks and their container parks and their power stations, the leisure provider with their fair grounds and their family beaches, the caravaners, the historical remains, the castles and iron-age headland forts, the scrap-metal merchants, the tyre hoarders, the horse traders, the turf growers, the flatlanders, the heritage industrialists, the wedding planners, the lighthouse keepers , the harbours, the creeks, the sea walls, the muds, the conservationists, the nature reserves, the sites of scientific interest, the sewage outlets, the barrage builders, the atomic scientists, the b&b owners, the hoteliers, the surfers, the beachcombers, the time wasters, the manic, the retired, the wonderful, the hopeless, and the lost.
It’s got a map – I twisted the publisher’s arm and they provided that. It has no photos. The links to several gross of them are here: http://www.peterfinch.co.uk/Estuary/estuary.htm
It comes out on the 19th of this month – September, 2013 – published by Seren books at £9.99. the launch is at the Norwegian Church the same day. 7.00 pm. I’ll be in conversation there with the former director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs, author and journalist John Osmond.
Start edging now.