Fresh from the printers…
Down to London for casting. The initial sift for the cast of The Tide Jetty was done by Director Scott Huran and Ivan Cutting of Eastern Angles a week or so ago. I’ve now been invited to Toynbee Studios in London to watch the recalls. As the writer I have no special authority in this process. Ivan and Scott will be interested in my take on who does what, but my voice is just one more in the mix. For me this is the start of the process of handing the play over to the production team. Theatre is a collaborative activity and its time for others to start bringing their expertise to bear. Waiting in the wings is a team of set and costume designers, composers, sound designers, musicians, set builders all preparing their own input for the show The Tide Jetty will become.
During the course of a long afternoon a selection of Tuckys, Mortons, Annies, Nudds and Elizas are all put through their paces in extracts from key scenes. For the actors this is tough. At their initial audition they were on their own. This time they are working in small groups. Scripts are handed out, parts assigned, and Scott leads them through each extract in turn – an initial cold sight-read sitting in a circle, followed by standing the scene on its feet. The actors are given minimal direction and the freedom to move around as they improvise the scene. For me it’s the first time I’ve seen the whites of their eyes.
The atmosphere is friendly and co-operative but everyone knows the actors’ livelihood for the next five months depends on the outcome of this session. It’s not just the prospect of earning a crust that is on the line. The lucky ones will join a closely knit team in an intense, exhausting, exhilarating collaboration that will see them criss-cross the county in a van laden with props, welcomed and applauded (we hope) in a different venue every night. The rest return to pulling pints and the day to day hustle that is an inevitable part of an actor’s life.
It’s exciting to see scenes start to come to life – a glimpse into the way things might work. I find myself moved unexpectedly by one of our Eliza’s confrontation with her daughter. Then delighted as a Tucky nails the earthy nous of a marshman. At this point we’re not necessarily looking for the best actors. The challenge for the casting team is to judge how these different personalities work in combination. It’s not a soloist we’re looking for but the full quartet.
As yet, I don’t know the outcome. Even when decisions are made there are agents to be contacted, availability to be checked, the outcome of auditions with other companies to be balanced. Does the actor’s agent recommend the security of a four/five month tour in the regions or does he suggest his client hold out for the possibility of some lucrative telly work? It’s all up for grabs. But somehow from somewhere within this group of talented individuals the final cast of The Tide Jetty will emerge.
Grey and damp on Breydon this morning. A low mist turned to steady rain as I headed out along the south wall. I should probably have stayed at home. Earlier – in the warm and dry – I’d been watching seals from the study window. Yesterday it was a small group of Gannets diving like missiles off the Outer Harbour. But not today. Today it was walking and weather.
There was little bird life to be seen from the boardwalk. In the shadow of the Roman wall I looked out across the reedbeds to Haddiscoe Island hoping for bearded tits. (Not this time.) There were godwits and peewits on the exposed mud, a few wood pigeons in the air and thrushes in among the hawthorn berries. But pretty soon my glasses were rained on and the scope and binoculars too – so my already limited ID skills were quickly exhausted. But it was still perversely pleasurable walking.
Diggers had been at work clearing the dykes behind the wall, the spoil piled neatly on the grazing marsh. New fencing too.
I walked as far as the Tide Jetty, the remains just visible above the water in the mist and rain. Rehearsals start in February. Meeting with composer Chris Warner in a week or so. We need to find a way of bottling some of this Breydon atmosphere.
Writing can be a solitary business. So when the opportunity for an outing cropped up, the chance to abandon the desk with a clear conscience proved impossible to resist.
From our earliest discussions about The Tide Jetty it was obvious sound would play a major role in creating the world of Breydon. The nature of small scale touring means that our set will inevitably be minimalist. Basically, everything has to fit in a van. So a full scale mock up of the jetty and the houseboat alongside went the same way as the community choir we’d used in Breydon Crowther. Instead of relying on bulky scenery we would supplement our emblematic set with an immersive soundscape of the watery world of the marshes.
The Broads Authority offered to help out so bright an early at 9am composer Chris Warner joined me at Goodchilds Marine at Burgh Castle where we were met by Howard and John, two of the Breydon rangers and ushered onto the Spirit of Breydon – their custom launch, decked out in military grey. Initially the plan was to creep into a quiet corner of the Broads to do some location recording but no sooner were we on board than an emergency call came over the radio and moments later we were barrelling down the length of Breydon with blue lights flashing and the wake piling up behind us.
We arrived to find a mud wherry had been cut free of its moorings in Yarmouth and drifted down on the tide colliding with boats and jetties along the way. By the time we got there the wherry had been recovered and it was left to Howard and John to secure a stranded cruiser and take photographic evidence of what damage they could find. Then off we went a second time and at last Chris could break out the recording gear.
For a while we hung off the end of the turntide jetty at the confluence of the Yare and the Waveney. Once the engine was switched off silence descended broken only by the gentle lapping of waves against the piling and the occasional distant cry of an oystercatcher. While we sat quietly on deck Chris deployed the delightfully named Wombat and set to work. Once he was happy we headed further into the Yare. On our right a view opened up across the Halvergate Marshes under a huge Broadland sky. On our left was The Island – an area of roadless unspoilt marsh isolated from the mainland by the Yare, the Waveney and the New Cut.
Haddiscoe Island is another world – largely inaccessible except by a gated track close to St Olaves. The place belongs to the wildlife. We moored by a crumbling staithe close to the remains of Hewitt’s Mill. As a result of flood defence work the mill stands with its feet almost in the water in its own small lagoon. We were met by swans, a hobby, muntjack deer and some nesting corvids – all of which seemed largely unfazed by the arrival of the creative team in shorts.
As writer on location I was – as usual – largely redundant, My main task was to wander round looking thoughtful while Chris did the hard work. I was soaking up the atmosphere while Chris had the much more difficult task of trying to record it.
As for the results, Chris is working on them. It shouldn’t be long before I have a watery wild-track to play at the desk to help with the writing.
There are two tide jetties on Breydon Water. The first, built in the 1830s, stands at the entrance to The Narrows on the North Wall. It was built to deflect the outgoing tide into the main channel in the hope that the scouring action of the water would help keep the channel clear. You can see what it looked like in Frederick Sandys painting Breydon Water, Norfolk. Originally two lines of posts with timber sheeters holding a loose fill of stones, today the structure is a ruin, only visible as a line of rotting posts at low tide. The jetty is knows locally as the Dickey Works, a name which seems to stem from the original contractor who used a donkey-driven engine to drive the piles.
The second is the turntide jetty at the mouth of the river Yare. This is a more substantial structure and has recently been rebuilt by the Broads Authority. The original – built in the 1860s – had fallen into disrepair and become a navigational hazard.
These two jetties lie at the heart of a new play commissioned by Eastern Angles as part of the Broads Authority’s Water, Mills and Marshes project. This play is a development of the Breydon Crowther musical which opened the Great Yarmouth Arts Festival in 2016. (The link will take you to a copy of the original script.) This featured a cast of 5 professional actors and a 15 strong community choir. The new show will be touring to 50 venues in East Anglia so the logistics – not to mention the cost – have inevitable ruled out the choir. The challenge is to tell a convincing story of life on a Broadland Estuary with forces that can fit in the Eastern Angles van. The Tide Jetty will inhabit the same landscape as Breydon Crowther and will once again be a collaboration with composer Chris Warner.
The writing is under way. Watch this space for updates on progress.
It’s June, and on Blackwall Reach there is a gauntlet to be run. Gulls are nesting in the corrugations of the low asbestos roof fronting the house. Over the last few weeks I’ve watched from my study window as the Lesser Black Backs make their untidy nests, canoodle and mate. There is a pair of Herring Gulls further along but so far they are happy to co-exist with their more bolshy neighbours. The parent gulls seem oblivious to the foot traffic in the street until the moment the eggs hatch and the first downy grey bundles begin stumbling about on the roof. Then things can get tricky.
It’s extraordinary quite how much guano can come out of a gull when it’s cross. The street looks as if it’s been intensively strafed. There are white scars several feet long criss-crossing the tarmac. A gull on a sortie will swoop noisily on the target, open its cloaca, and turn away while its chalky cargo complete the mission. Caught against the fence with a cup of coffee on the patio I suffered a direct hit. I had to wash my hair, my shirt and my trousers. There was still plenty left over to mark the birds approach on the flagstones.
Already the first feathers are starting to appear on the chicks. They grow larger day by day, gathering round the returning parents and pecking at their bills to encourage them to regurgitate the next meal. As the chicks become bolder and wander further across the rooftops, the parent birds become more anxious. So do the pedestrians.
It is still too soon to decide the significance of events which make up this narrative. They are part of a much larger story which has many beginnings but as yet no end. No doubt they will one day be set in their correct historical perspective, when events have cooled and taken their place alongside others perhaps more important to an understanding of Argentina’s troubled passage through the seventies and eighties. But by then events will have ceased to concern the people most directly involved. For Enrique Holmberg and Gregorio Dupont the issues are not historical. They are immediate, personal and hazardous. There is therefore some virtue in recording them now even if what there is to tell remains fragmentary and inconclusive.
The boundaries of belief
We can begin in Paris, in Buenos Aires, or in the crumbling renaissance piazzas of Arrezo. We can choose 1976, 1979, 1982. We can begin with a former minister of economy, with an astrologer who helped precipitate a terrorist war or with a retired admiral who sat as a member of the junta which kidnapped, tortured and murdered its way back along the road to peace. Some of the story is well documented, much more is supposition. This is the best we can hope for. For years Argentines have had to exist on a diet of rumour and speculation. Today – as ever – the truth is not easy to come by.
Even for the sceptical Portenos the scandal which broke in August 1982 was unusual. Its scale was quite simply beyond anything they had encountered before. The most diverse issues – a scandal in the national bank, the kidnapping and murder of a diplomat in 1978, a public argument between two politicians – turned out to be part of the same story. Scandals were nothing new, but within days this one had consumed every domestic and international issue in the news bulletins. Newspapers were a maze of cross references. So many well-known figures were implicated, so many familiar issues yoked together that the boundaries of belief were difficult to establish even approximately. Not for the first time the Portenos were caught in the paradox of their own scepticism – when nothing can be believed, anything is possible.
And then in October against a nebulous background of rumour and speculation one fact emerged precisely delineated – Marcelo Dupont, hands tied, his groin bearing the marks left by an electric cattle prod, was thrown from the fourth floor of a partially completed building in Palermo Chico and died on the pavement below.
Aleman v Massera
Six weeks earlier former minister of economy Juan Aleman had provided a welcome diversion from the dry speculations surrounding the visit of a team from the International Monetary Fund when he announced to the press his life was in danger and pointed an accusing finger at retired admiral Emilio Massera.
The exchanges which followed were public and acrimonious. Massera, one of the original members of the three-man junta which seized power in 1976, later turned politician and founded a political party – which, though it had its own newspaper “Cambio por una Democracia Social” lacked any visible supporters. Aleman called for Massera’s ‘private army’ to be disbanded; Massera suggested Aleman commit himself to a mental institution. After more than a week of verbal exchanges closely followed by the press Massera began legal proceedings. But events were working against him. Police in Geneva had arrested a man as he tired to withdraw more than a million dollars from a numbered account. The man was Licio Gelli, Grand Master of the ‘Propaganda Due’ masonic lodge.
Ever since the secret lodge was exposed (bringing down the Italian government in the process) it had been known the leadership had close connections with Argentina. Gelli as financial advisor to the Argentine embassy in Rome even held an Argentine diplomatic passport. When he was arrested police found two other Argentine passports, both issued under false names. More important to the Aleman-Massera confrontation, in a flat in Arezzo they found his files.
Information contained in the files suggested Massera was not only associated with the group, he was involved at the highest level, a member of the lodge’s inner circle and a close associate of Gelli’s. Back in Argentina it was discovered that Massera had his offices in a building owned by the Banco Ambrosiano, one of the financial institutions most deeply implicated in the scandal. Aleman accused Massera of protecting Gelli and hiding the grandmaster at a time when he was one of the most wanted men in Europe.
By now the confrontation was gathering a momentum of its own. Encouraged by Aleman’s outspokenness and the mounting evidence against Massera other figures were being drawn into the open. Among them was Enrique Holmberg whose name must have sounded familiar to many Argentines, and Gregorio Dupont whose name almost certainly would not.
Argentina’s caste system – the armed forces
Today’s Argentines have lived through some of the most difficult years in the country’s short history. A vicious circle of disastrous civilian government followed by military intervention followed by equally disastrous military government has proved impossible to break. The latest stage of the cycle began in 1976 when Isabel Peron acting on the advice of her personal astrologer, Lopez Rega, led the country to a state of unprecedented chaos. Terrorist groups were operating freely; there was the immediate prospect of open civil war. When the armed forces toppled her government the military intervention was welcomed by everyone. But few people can have predicted the excesses of the Dirty War which followed. The terrorists were defeated at the cost of thousands of innocent lives – the majority victims of the armed forces’ own terror tactics. Kidnapping, torture and murder were the hallmarks of the confrontation. The phenomenon of the desaparecidos was born. Union leaders, union members, journalists, teachers, civil rights activists, the young – all were regarded by military authorities as likely to harbour subversive tendencies.
The naivety of this classification was made possible by a caste system as clearly defined as any on the Indian sub-continent, a system in which each caste regards the others with scorn and suspicion. For the vast majority los militares epitomise privilege, power, ignorance and mediocrity; for the military establishment los civiles are undisciplined, unpredictable and inherently unreliable.
But the label los militares is misleading. The military establishment is not one homogenous grouping – almost the only thing the three armed forces agree on is the, to them, self evident fact that the civilian population is unsuited for exercising power. Between army, navy, and air force there is frequent rivalry, frequent tension and little communication. Among the groups the army is the most powerful; the navy traditionally the most reactionary. Each has its own security force which operates independently of the others but using the same methods. Thus they can not only act with impunity, they can act with anonymity.
During the Dirty War a security operation was habitually preceded by an instruction forbidding the local police to interfere. Several Ford Falcons without licence plates and driven by heavily armed men in civilian clothes would then descend on an area of town to gather suspects. People were taken from their places of work, from their homes, from restaurants surrounded by their families. Most were not seen again. When the operation was over the family could not even tell which of the armed forces had been responsible.
The Paris Pilot Centre
The excesses which characterised the country’s fight against terrorism further damaged an already ambiguous public image. By 1977 at the height of the Dirty War Argentina’s international standing had reached nadir.
On the other side of the Atlantic in Paris, Tomas de Anchorena, the Argentine ambassador decided something should be done. He proposed the setting up of a pilot centre in the French capital that could act as a public relations office. Its brief would be to offset the flow of adverse publicity by presenting an alternative image of Argentina, one which stressed its cultural achievements, its diversity and potential for growth. He envisaged a centre made up of writers and journalists who would work in conjunction with his press secretary, a career diplomat, whom he spoke of in the highest terms. Her name was Elena Holmberg.
The military authorities acted on the suggestion. But instead of the team of professionals Anchorena had asked for he was sent a group of naval officers. Some of them did not even speak French. Trouble began almost at once.
The naval officers refused to accept the authority of Anchorena as ambassador and answered only to their naval leaders in Buenos Aires. They frequented the most expensive restaurants and the most exclusive night clubs; their lifestyle in Paris quickly became something of a minor scandal. More significantly there was an inevitable collision with Elena Holmberg who played an important role in the centre and remained loyal to the ambassador. Anchorena protested and was rewarded with an attempt by the navy chief, Emilia Massera, to have him returned to Argentina. This was only prevented by the intervention of President Jorge Videla. However in 1977 Elena Holmberg, whose period in Paris had been extended at Anchorena’s request, was recalled to Buenos Aires. Shortly after the pilot centre was disbanded.
A picture of Elena Holmberg appeared in the pages of La Prensa on the day she was abducted. She is acting as interpreter seated between President Videla and the French Ambassador to Buenos Aires. An attractive woman, modestly dressed, and with short dark hair she looks collected and capable – very much the intelligent, efficient administrator Anchorena described.
That same day as she tried to leave the underground carpark in the basement of her apartment building she was stopped by three men. According to the garage attendant who saw the kidnapping she left her Volkswagen and started to run, but was quickly caught, bundled into the back of a Ford Falcon and driven away. Some days later her body was found in the Rio Lujan at Tigre. She had been shot several times.
The killing followed the pattern of hundreds of others carried out by the security forces between 1976 and 1979. The type of car, the armed men in civilian clothes, the place the body was dumped – all of these were repeated hundreds of times over for people who fitted the military regimes image of subversivos. But Elena Holmberg was not a member of any political party or trade union. She had no contact with forces known to oppose the military regime. She was instead a declared supporter of the Process and associated with the leadership at the highest level. Her position might well have made her the target for a terrorist attack but none of the many groups operating at the time claimed responsibility for her death. So this abduction and murder was different, despite the familiarity of its machinery. It had the hallmark of a killing by the security forces. But the security forces had no reason to kill her.
It was not until August 1982 that her brother was able to persuade the judiciary to open an investigation into the murder.
El Processo Nacional de Reorganisacion
The Holmberg investigation was itself an indication that in a post-Malvinas Argentina the political climate was changing. It was abundantly clear by August 1982 that the much heralded National Reorganisation Process was bankrupt of ideas, personalities and even excuses.
With the defeat of the terrorists peace had returned to the streets of Buenos Aires. But despite a period of brief and illusory prosperity at the end of the seventies the Process was firmly set on a course to financial disaster. In twenty months six Presidents sat in the Casa Rosada. The external debt reached 36 billion dollars. The state of siege suspending the constitution entered its eighth year. Political activity was forbidden, strict censorship enforced.
But then with the removal of the junta which sent an army of conscripts to defeat in the ice and mud of the Malvinas, a perceptible change in mood occurred. Backed by the army alone and amid rumours of a coup a new general took over the presidency. General Bignone’s first step in office was to remove the ban on political activity and to confirm the projected date of March 1984 as the date of civilian elections. The Communists held a rally in Luna Park. The Peronists gathered in the Plaza de Mayo. Political leaders began to speak out openly against the regime. All this was something new. The defeat in the South Atlantic had signalled ground zero for most Argentines, final proof that the process had utterly failed them. There was a growing feeling that it was time for a public accounting. Then came Aleman’s accusations.
The significance of the confrontation with Massera gradually became apparent. If these things could now be talked about openly and discussed freely in the press this represented an important change. For the first time it looked as if the Dirty War as being talked of as part of the nation’s history. Which in turn seemed to imply it was over.
In October Gregorio Dupont saw the opening of the enquiry into the death of Elena Holmberg, and later the beginning of the Aleman-Massera confrontation. In September he decided the time had come to speak. He had information that was important to both issues. He knew why Elena Holmberg had been killed.
His first move was to telephone the Buenos Aires Herald. The same day he met two journalists in the cafe Tortoni on the Avenida de Mayo, half way between the Casa Rosada where the generals sat, and the Congress building, where no one has sat for seven years.
Dupont’s story was simple. He had known Elena Holmberg well for a number of years. Shortly before she was abducted Holmberg had arranged a meeting with Dupont and three other associates. She was frightened. She had discovered that on one of his frequent visits to Paris, Emilio Massera, member of the junta which had seized power pledged to rid the country of terrorism, had met the the terrorist leader, Mario Fermenich. At that meeting Fermenich had been paid a million dollars. No one present thought the story was ridiculous. In the context of Argentine politics it made perfect sense that someone with political ambitions should come to an arrangement with a leader whose power was as extensive as Fermenich’s. Three days later Elena Holmberg was kidnapped and murdered.
At subsequent meetings with the journalists Dupont met Enrique Holmberg and agreed to testify before the judicial inquiry into his sister’s death. The Buenos Aires Herald agreed to hold the story until he had done so.
The consequences of running the story were unpredictable but the arguments in favour of the publication were persuasive. Dupont agreed. If the story was true the information had already killed one person. Publication would make the story public property and provide at least a measure of safety for Dupont. Clearly it was not enough to indict Massera, but it would certainly add to the pressure that was building up and perhaps encourage others to come forward and speak.
There was also the possibility that the flow of revelations would provoke a coup from sections of the armed forces with reason to oppose any examination of their conduct during the Dirty War. No one was quite sure what would happen. Light was being thrown into some very dark corners.
At the time of publication several newspapers had journalists waiting at Ezieza International Airport amid rumours that Massera was about to leave the country. It seemed quite possible that the retired admiral would follow the route taken by Lopez Rega and disappear into hiding. But Massera stayed. His first move was to request police protection for Gregorio Dupont. He feared, he said, an attempt on his life. It was a move widely interpreted as a threat.
Dupont’s brother, Marcelo, had no verifiable political connections. He was in no way implicated in the issues which had brought about the death of Elena Holmberg and there was no reason to suppose he knew of his brother’s involvement. He was a family man who had made a career for himself in advertising. Three days after publication of the accusations against Massera he left home for a routine meeting with his lawyer and failed to arrive.
When his body was found in Palermo Chico the police described his death as suicide – his advertising company was in financial difficulties. There were also reports that he had crossed the border into Uruguay and Brasil while he was missing from Buenos Aires. A bag of his clothes was found in Colonia. But the post mortem established that he had been tortured at the time he was supposed to have been travelling through Uruguay. And at a reconstruction of his death, complete with dummy corpse, it was discovered that to commit suicide and land where he did he would have had to jump form the building with sufficient speed to travel six metres outwards. And he would have had to jump backwards.
There was, however, a certain logic in his death. In the weeks which followed no new information was brought forward against Massera.
The Admiral’s Smile
On the day following the discovery of Marcelo Dupont’s body, retired admiral Emilio Massera appeared on television to deny involvement. There was a certain incongruity between his demeanor and the prevailing mood of shock which drew comment from many quarters. Some people interpreted his smile as proof of his innocence, others as confirmation of his guilt. However, the smile was neither self-satisfied nor innocent, but more ambiguous still. Massera’s smile is a nervous tic, familiar enough to his immediate associates. While at naval staff college he was several times reprimanded for the Argentine equivalent of dumb insolence before the gesture was recognised for what it was. And though it was clear enough on television as he answered questions about the Marcelo Dupont case there are no conclusions which can safely be drawn.
This might stand as the keynote to the whole affair; a smile that is not a smile, from a military leader who has become head of a political party with no supporters, who can threaten someone by asking for police protection, who can boldly call for a public accounting for an act in which he is implicated, and who talks freely about a new Argentina while so clearly embodying the destructive values of the old.
Buenos Aires, 1982
Early one Sunday afternoon in 2003 I came round in my study at the top of the house with the strong sensation that something was wrong.
The clock said 1.30. I knew I’d arrived at the desk before eight. But try as I might I could get no purchase on the previous few hours. They were a blank. I began looking through the work on the screen in search of evidence of the re-write I was working on. It soon became obvious there was nothing to find.
It had been an unusual year. The previous spring I’d reluctantly taken the train to London to attended a routine meeting – routine in the sense that as a provincial writer for radio and theatre my agent periodically ushered me into the offices of various television producers in the hope that it might lead to some work. These people would invariably admire this play or that and express a wish that more stage writers would consider the small screen before shaking my hand and waving me off back into obscurity. What made this meeting different was that I walked out with commissions to write episodes for not one but two television series. In the space of a little under an hour my writing career had undergone a seismic shift.
In the next twelve months I wrote from a standing start a dozen 30’ episodes of a new soap, two hour long episodes of a returning series, a 60’ play for radio as well as adapting a novel for Radio 4. And as far as I could tell had survived relatively unscathed.
This particular week had begun with a phone call. A change in the storyline of the soap meant they needed three new episodes ready for recording in a week. I took the call on Monday and delivered the scripts on the Saturday. Sunday began with a request for some last minute rewrites. In the far from normal world of television scriptwriting this was all perfectly normal. So I made coffee, climbed the stairs, and settled down in front of the computer.
What happened next is something I’ve never been able to explain. Some four or five hours went missing from my life. Unable to find any evidence of the rewrites I called my editor wondering how I was going to explain the lack of pages. But worryingly there was no need to explain. He sounded uncomfortable. Everything was fine he assured me. It was all taken care of. My thinking was still a little muddy but I knew this was not the way the call should be going. How could he know things had gone so badly awry? There was only one possibility. I took a deep breath and asked if we’d spoken during the morning. Don’t worry, he said. Just relax. A few moments later the phone rang again. This time it was the head of department telling me to get some rest and assuring me I still had a future with the company.
I later discovered that at some point during the morning my daughter had summoned me to help with her computer. I seemed strange she said, and kept asking her the date. As with the phone calls to my editor, I have no recollection of this conversation. While some automatic reflex seems to have kept me functioning I was absent from the transaction.
The house where I was working was on a new development built on the site of an old laundry on the banks of the River Wensum. In the days that followed I spent a good deal of time down by the water. On the face of it I was fine. But my sense of security had taken a blow. The ‘I’ that inhabited my life – something I’d thought of as fixed and unchanging – had been revealed to be precarious and mutable. With time on my hands I leant over the metal railings, stared at the river and tried to work out what to do next.
The Wensum rises in South Raynham in Norfolk. As spring arrives the waters clear and even in the heart of the city you can watch the shoots of water lilies reach towards the surface drawn by the rise in temperature and the strengthening light. By June bright yellow flowers have colonised the margins. One day shortly after our arrival in the house I caught sight of something moving in the reeds – something which from the elevated position of the living room looked like the back of a big fish breaking the water.
Assuming this was some spawning activity – perhaps a carp depositing eggs in the shallows – I hurried down to take a look. What I saw shook me. It was as if the river was giving up its fish. Everywhere I looked dark green backs were crowding the water. Huge shoals of bream seemed to pave the water between the banks. The muscular forms of carp and chub shouldered their way to the margins. Pike, bemused by this plethora of aquatic life, cruised like missiles in the clear water. There was something biblical in this largesse, such a profusion of fish that it could only herald the advent of some great catastrophe.
This display of the bounty of the Wensum lasted for two or three days. Then the fish disappeared and the river returned to normal. It didn’t happen again in the 8 years we spent living on its banks. Something must have caused this extraordinary congregation – some change in the oxygen content of the water, perhaps contamination upstream, driving the fish before it as it worked its way down to the city. But if this were the case there were no casualties to speak of – at least none that I could see. The river had simply drawn back a veil to reveal this hidden teeming life. And then just as suddenly let it fall again.
There was no sign of the fish now as I watched the water slip by on its way to the city centre and its confluence with the River Yare. But it didn’t matter. In my current fractured state of mind there was something immensely reassuring in the river’s presence.
A good part of my formative years had been spent by the water. It began abruptly at the age of 12. Telling my parents I’d be back for tea I had cycled out into the country heading for the River Nene. Just downstream of the old bridge at Milton, I was offered a rod and began to catch bleak – a small surface feeding flash of silver so bent on suicide that they hurled themselves on my clumsily wielded hook. I was bewitched. Tea time came and went. The afternoon passed into evening and I still couldn’t tear myself away. Only when it was too dark to see the float did we abandon the river and cycle home.
My parents would become familiar with these moments sick with apprehension as their quiet inward child went missing on the water courses of the Nene. Before it was light I would leave the house and head for the broad reaches fronting the marshalling yards, the warm water outfall of the power station in River Lane, or the dangerous mill race at Orton. For me life began once I’d reached the water.
Part of this was easily explained by a growing obsession with catching fish. But it was more than that. In the slow-moving water, the promise that lay below the dark surface, there was a rhythm to my time by the river that perfectly matched my own internal geometry. Even on the days when the Nene seemed emptied of its fish the river remained the place I felt most myself.
In the days that followed my mental absence it struck me that despite my privileged position living on the banks of the Wensum I’d been wilfully blind to the river flowing past my window. It had lain out there beyond the glass, along with the manicured lawns, the flowerbeds and benches, just another element in the desirable landscape of contemporary city living.
But here, up close, there was something familiar and comforting in its waters. Perhaps it is impossible to to have spent so much time with the river during the impressionable years of late adolescence without something of its magic entering your make-up. Or so it seemed to me then. Something which in the intervening years had disappeared under the demands of work and family life. Whatever the reason I stared into the green underwater calm in the shallows off Old Laundry Court and drank it in.
In time the crisis passed. Normal life resumed. But this glimpse of the healing power of the river would prove significant. Some years later the end of a 25 year marriage and a difficult period in my professional life left me left me feeling I’d lost the sense of my place in the world. I had no clear idea how to find my way back.
And then quite unexpectedly I found myself the owner of a small boat with a base in the extraordinary marshy landscape of the Upper Thurne…
Downham Market is proud of its connection to Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronte KB. There are plenty of people who will tell you he went to school on Bridge Street. There’s even a green plaque marking the spot.
There’s more evidence for the Nelson/Downham connection in the distinguished pages of the Dictionary of National Biography. The entry for Captain G.W.Manby FRS – Gorleston resident and inventor of the breeches buoy – asserts that Manby and Nelson “formed a close intimacy” as school fellows in Downham. It points to the Preface to Manby’s own Description of the Nelson Museum as evidence. The detail is impressive. Manby recalls their teachers, a distinctive jacket the young Nelson wore, as well as games at the pump in the Market Place.
But there’s a problem here. Nelson was 7 years older than Manby. Nelson went to sea at the age of 12. So the close intimacy which developed between them must – on this account – have come to an end when Manby was 5. The window for their friendship shrinks even more when you allow for the fact that Nelson was at school in Norwich and North Walsham before he went to sea. And while Manby has a good deal to say about their friendship Nelson has nothing to say about it at all.
Both had strong connections to Great Yarmouth. In 1801 Nelson returned to Yarmouth in triumph after his success at the battle of Copenhagen. Manby was Barrack Master in Yarmouth – but not until 1803. Manby is in the right place to have become familiar with our national hero, but at the wrong time.
Manby was clearly obsessed with Nelson. You get a flavour in the full title of his guide to the Nelson Museum: A Description of the Nelson Museum formed at Pedestal House, Southtown, Great Yarmouth with historic remarks on the subject: to commemorate the glorious deeds and ever-to-be-lamented death of that heroic British Naval Chief Nelson and Bronte.
In fact the Manby’s Description is little more than a pamphlet and its Preface appears to be the sole source for the story of Nelson’s Downham connection:
Of all men now living I alone can claim the honour of his school and play-fellow-hood – we were friends in youth, born in the same county, our early instruction received at the same time, at the same school in Downham Market, kept by Thomas Nooks and William Chatham. Nooks for the elder children where Nelson was – Chatham for younger where I was. Well do I remember his pea-green coatee; and how he used to accompany me to my home in Denver from Saturday to the Monday following. Well do I remember his nautical sports at the pump in the market place, launching paper boats in the surface stream, and his commanding authority amongst the Boys to make way for them….
The Nelson Museum isn’t quite what you might expect either. It was Manby’s own house, a modest cottage on Gorleston High Road. Its exhibits were made up of Manby’s own collection of Nelson memorabilia.
It looks as if Manby’s obsession with Nelson led him to embellish if not to entirely fabricate an acquaintance with the great man. This obsession seems to have grown rather than diminished with age. He spent his last years surrounded by his curios in Pedestal House looking out on the Nelson Monument and the North Sea. When he publishes the Description in 1849 by which time he is 84 and Nelson has been dead for 44 years Manby, in a remarkable non sequitur, is still straining to establish a connection:
If my great prototype, Nelson, achieved such glories by the expenditure of human life (including his own), shall it not be said of me by posterity that I achieved some valuable glories for the human race, by establishing amongst the nations of the earth a mode of saving human life?
There is something desperately sad in the modest little book held in the Colman Collection of the Norwich Millennium Library and its assertion on the final page:
I cannot conclude without expressing a religious hope, that having devotedly collected memorials to illustrate the glorious deeds of Nelson, it may tend to associate my name with that of our Norfolk Hero, and thereby preserve it from obscurity
Manby had his own distinguished career. His invention of the Manby mortar and breeches buoy was responsible for saving hundreds of lives. He can also claim to have invented one of the first fire extinguishers – the extincteur – and to have been instrumental in founding the precursors of both the RNLI and the Fire Brigade. He didn’t need the reflected glory of Nelson to earn his place in history.
The Nelson Monument from Pedestal House today
A hundred years ago tonight the collier SS White Swan dropped anchor off Gorleston beach to ride out a storm. She’d left Hartlepool 24 hours before with a cargo of coal bound for Liverpool. During the night her anchors dragged and she came ashore on Gorleston beach, side-on to the waves, where she still lies today. Though they probably didn’t know it her crew of 22 had reason to thank an earlier Gorleston resident, Captain William Manby, whose house on the High Street is marked by a blue plaque provided by the local history society.
Captain Manby had an inventive turn of mind. He was responsible for the ‘Jumping Sheet’ a blanket to catch people leaping from high windows, an unsinkable whaler, a lifeboat made of wicker designed for the rescue of sailors trapped below the ice, and – of more interest to the crew aboard the White Swan – the Manby Mortar. Examples of this squat little cannon were manned by local rocket crews up and down the coast. On the night of the 17th November the Gorleston rocket crew were quickly summoned. They managed to get a line to the vessel and after 13 hours in atrocious conditions the entire crew were rescued by breeches buoy. The White Swan was the only vessel operated by the Swan Line and with her loss the company duly went into liquidation.
Today the wreck of the White Swan is a hotspot for local fishermen. Beach casters can almost reach her from the shore and kayaks are able to pick their way through the pieces of her superstructure occasionally visible above the waves.
Curiously in its anniversary year the vessel was the subject of another rescue. On the 21st April the coastguard were called out to a report of something in the water off Gorleston beach. It turned out to be the wreck of the White Swan revealed by the falling tide.