Notes on...

Tilbury Docks, where cranes meet Joseph Conrad

18 August 2018

9:00 AM

18 August 2018

9:00 AM

The great grey river stretched into the horizon. The sun was big and low in the sky. The air was very fresh and the clear sky streaked with smears of pink and orange. We had only a little left of the day.

From our spot on the Globian Sluice, a steel grating promontory, we could see the gaunt cranes of DP World London Gateway port, smoking factories across the water on the Isle of Grain and a ship or two, loitering. Behind us, a blanket of fields and marshes, populated only by all kinds of native birds darting in and out of the hedgerows. And beyond, the City of London displayed its sparkling collection of cut-glass towers and they looked very shiny but very small from our perspective.

Just over the fields is Stanford-le-Hope, where Joseph Conrad lived and wrote and it was here, overlooking the Thames estuary, that he set the opening scene of his novella Heart of Darkness. His inspiration came from the isolated strangeness of the Essex marshes, where London’s port seems so quiet, even eerie.

‘We looked at the venerable stream not in the vivid flush of a short day that comes and departs for ever, but in the august light of abiding memories… “And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.” ’ The opening page describes the river at rest. The Nellie, a cruising yawl, settles and waits for the tide to turn.

If Conrad were writing now, he would have described the Bontrup Pearl, a self-discharging bulk carrier, chugging in from the Bahamas via Amsterdam and Antwerp. These ships transport vast amounts of coal, grain or iron ore, with cranes unloading their cargo onto industrial jetties. The Bontrup Pearl, like the Nellie, will settle here as she waits for the tide to turn before sailing on to Jelsa port in Hvar. ‘One ship,’ wrote Conrad, ‘is very much like another.’ They drift in to this spot on the isolated Essex marshes like ‘bewitched children in a forest’.

My companion and I draped ourselves over the steel railings and read bits of the book aloud and watched the sun set. We talked about death and wondered why they make cranes so tall. We did not come to any particular conclusions other than that we agreed with Conard’s protagonist Marlow. ‘We live in the flicker.’ The flicker of something beyond the horizon.

We carried on towards Tilbury Town, past the great fort where Elizabeth I sent her troops off to fight the Armada. ‘I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman,’ she said, ‘but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any Prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm.’

The light faded, the night set in and we followed the red warning lights twinkling on Tilbury power station in the distance. The towers, built 50 years ago, would be demolished in seconds only a few days later.

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