23 Jul Estuary: from London to the sea
Rachel Lichtenstein writes with clarity and depth about her subject. Well researched and impeccably structured Estuary; out from London to the sea imparts a myriad of facts about the people and landscapes of the Thames estuary. It starts and finishes with accounts of a boat trip; the first on the Ideaal, the last on the Jacomina. In between there are more boat trips but also walks and encounters which provide fascinating stories, character sketches and snippets of information. Lichtenstein cleverly carries the reader through a mix of narrative text, quotations, poetry and images.
As with other books about place grainy black and white images are sprinkled through the text, (it seems to be the fashion), but none of them have captions which is a shame because many of the photographs are of people, people who Lichtenstein met and who shared their stories. It may be the author’s intention that we stop to scan the images and wonder about them. We are made to pause before reading on because to make sense of caption-less photographs we must re-read some of the text.
Rachel interviews an army of people from different walks of life, some from trades that are almost extinct such as fishing for cockles in the estuary. She shows respect for the physical effort and bravery of the men and women she encounters and some of the stories are quite poignant:
‘During the five years I spent writing and researching this book, I didn’t come across a single woman who worked directly on the fishing boats. When I asked why, the fishermen all said it was bad luck to have a woman on a boat, “because they make the sea angry”, but they also said that it as not a “fit environment for a woman”, being too smelly, dirty and dangerous.’ (p156)
The daily dangers faced by the fishermen and the worries shared by the women left behind are vividly recalled. Colin’s story is recounted by Jane, his widow:
‘On the morning of 10 November 2008, the sea was flat calm. There was no indication that the weather would turn. Colin had gone to the bottom of the garden, as usual, to “feel the seaweed” and look at the trees to try to work out what the weather was going to do.’ (p161)
And risking her own life in the research the author finds herself in hospital after an accident:
‘It was a slow-motion moment. I remember tumbling towards the water and thinking quite calmly, “Oh, we are going to capsize” as the boat started to rise up above me.’ (p120)
This book requires concentrated reading yet a steady pace is maintained over the three hundred and more pages. It’s a bit like a good hike, you feel energised, contented and slightly breathless. Non fiction at its best, I highly recommend it.
Lichtenstein, R (2017). Estuary; out from London to the sea, London, Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-141-01853-9. Paperback £9.99.