A Tale of True Heroism
I could trawl the news and come up with a rationale for this week’s story. Maybe Novak Djokovic's determination in the face of Australian bureaucracy, fighting tenaciously for the near-certainty of earning £1.5m over the next fortnight. I hope his example inspires the slackers in his detention hotel, you know, the ones without a legal team who have been waiting three years for the same hearing that Novak is getting in two days. Or perhaps Boris Johnson's single-minded efforts to keep the British drinks industry afloat through the pandemic. There is so much heroism around. That must be why this tale popped into my mind.
In early 2021 I was asked by Ali Pretty from the Arts organisation Kinetika if I'd like to do a 500 mile coastal walk with herself and radio producer John Offord. Despite the riches of the world's seaside trails - Juan de Foca trail, Wild Atlantic Way, Pembrokeshire and so on - Ali had chosen Essex.
For those who don't know the area, Essex has the kind of scorched reputation that sends potential visitors in the opposite direction. The relentlessly flat landscape, so they say, is relieved only by hills built with London landfill; the rivers are stained brown with silt and its inhabitants orange by fake tan. In one recent survey the University of Essex discovered that the distinctive regional accent triggers associations with stupidity and criminality, a reaction that came from Essex people themselves.
I wondered if I should say something to Ali, but on reflection I realised that the Essex coast had one vital and redeeming feature for me: I had no expectations. The only way was up. And I had never been there.
I wrote a daily blog on the walk, available online, but a lot that happened never made it into those posts. The need to produce a coherent story each day meant excluding plenty. Afterwards I went through my notebooks and rewrote the entire thing, with the extra material.
The walk that day starts at the Napoleonic-era martello tower in Jaywick. It's a fine clear July morning and we ought to be well into our stride by now, having been going for over two weeks. Except I am not. Of the three of us who are doing the full 500 miles only Ali seems to have hit a rhythm, but then she wisely did some training beforehand. John and I had not and we are now suffering badly from blisters. I blame the incessant repetitive stepping forward. Why hadn't anyone warned me? John blames the coastal plants. Brushing against them has given him a rash that has got infected. Each evening we slump down in the campsite and go through our medicine cabinet, the one full of fermented liquids in brown bottles. None of them works, but we keep trying.
The martello tower stands just behind the sea wall that girdles most of Essex's gargantuan coastline. Without it most of Essex would disappear, including Jaywick which would be disastrous for the makers of television documentaries about black economy life, working class eccentrics, and heart-of-gold skunk dealers. That's Jaywick's reputation at least. What's true is that the place does stand aside from normal British life. It has only recently got a few tarmac roads and many of the houses look like they were self-build projects that started out as sheds only to develop ambitions to become cartel haciendas. Hobbling into the town the previous evening, everyone I met seems to be something of a character, including the toddlers.
Each day of the walk, the locals are invited to join us and this morning in Jaywick we wait on the sea wall to see who might turn up. Far in the distance we can see two figures approaching along the concrete path. They are on mobility scooters. I wonder for a moment if Ali has taken pity and organised a Red Cross emergency parcel, fully charged: 'Take a day off, Kevin and John, you deserve it'. But it is not to be. David and Gloria have motored down from Clacton on the scooters and are determined to accompany us for as long as possible. I instantly understand that they are Jaywick people: both of them are characters, big characters.
Gloria explains that they used to own a caravan behind the sea wall and have come down for an emotional reunion with their old haunts. Gloria's mother had lived here and when Gloria was made redundant from her London job in 2008 they came to live with her.
"When we came here, I thought my life was over." Jaywick's reputation at that time was at a particularly low ebb: supposedly the place where human flotsam and jetsam got washed up.
While she talks, David lounges comfortably on his scooter, surveying the scene. When Gloria pauses, he asks. "There used to be a naturist beach up there... anyone know if it's still going?"
When they moved in with Gloria's mother, Gloria would sit out on the shingle at Jaywick and write poetry while watching birds. One day a group of swallows settled nearby and the mother bird seemed to be teaching the youngsters to fly out to sea and come back. For a few days this happened, then one day the mother led the brood out and Gloria watched them keep going.
Eventually her children convinced her that life was not over. After much discussion in the caravan, she decided that Human Resources was what she would like to do. She enrolled on a masters course in Human Resources at Middlesex University that required a dissertation to be researched somewhere away from the university. "I told them I'd like go to Milton Keynes," she says. "I'd never been there, but I'd heard a lot about it."
We walk at a comfortable pace beside the scooters. Gloria has flags on hers and is holding her book of poems. She never goes out without it, just in case an idea strikes. The sunny start to the morning has faltered as clouds gather.
"When I was a kid, a whale was washed ashore here," she says. "I sat with my back against it, thinking it was a rock."
Her course at university had eventually reached the point where she had to decide where to go for her dissertation. But the supervisors would not accept that Milton Keynes was the right choice for Gloria. Instead they suggested Tanzania. She laughs at the memory, how she had sat in the supervisor's office in gobsmacked silence. She had never been anywhere at all like Tanzania. It seemed too far away and far too ambitious. She spent sleepless nights worrying about the decision.
"Then one day I was changing trains at Camden Town," she says. "I was walking down the platform when everything seemed to go slow." As Gloria describes it, she went into some sort of mystical state, walking up the stairs and into a corridor, then stopping in front of a billboard. Her mind was blank. The whole world had stopped. People were rushing past, jostling her, but she was oblivious. All she could see was that billboard. It was an advertisement and written across it were the words, 'You are going to Africa!'
"People who aren't religious might not understand," she says, "But I knew it was a sign. I should go to Africa. I had to go." She went.
Gloria loved Tanzania. And, it seems like Tanzania loved Gloria. She made loads of friends and worked hard. When she got back, she was still living in a caravan in Jaywick, but she graduated and started applying for jobs.
There is an obstacle up ahead, an access road through the sea wall, but Gloria and David negotiate the slopes and tricky corners with aplomb. Inland is a holiday park and the Sailor Boy fish and chip shop. "We used to go there a lot," says David, "Hey, do you think they're serving yet? Wouldn't mind some."
"On the way back maybe," Gloria says.
The path is getting a bit tricky now. The coastal plants are slowly burying the man-made structure: sea beets and vetches are burrowing into the cracks, beach peas and mulleins are coming across the shingle. The scooters start to struggle, but Gloria doesn't seem to think about turning back.
"The first job I applied for after the masters course, they said, 'Actually we're hoping for someone with African experience.' I couldn't believe my luck. Next thing I had a career."
Gloria went to work in Mozambique, then Kenya, then several more overseas assignments before finally retiring. "And to think," she says, "When I came here in 2008 I thought my life was over, but actually it was only just beginning. Mind you," she adds, "We do love this place."
Now the path really is too rough and overgrown for a mobility scooter and even Gloria and David have to accept they must turn back. David gives a cheeky grin. "No sign of the naturists then? Pity." After an expert reversing manouevre, they hum off back towards Jaywick and the Sailor Boy cafe.
With the scooters gone, Ali pushes ahead, walking quickly and John has found some form too. I am soon left far behind and adopt my favourite speed, a dawdle. When I was a kid, I head the admonishment, "Stop dawdling!" a lot. It's all very well to push hard and knock off twenty-five miles in a day, but can you make three miles last just as long?
On the path there are several other dawdlers: small snails who are marching relentlessly in the opposite direction, following the line of cut and trampled grass. I lie down at their level and see how hard they are working to make progress: climbing over thick tangles of stalks and stems, never pausing. It's hypnotic watching them. One of them senses me in its path and without hesitation starts a detour. I shift politely. The snail adapts. Whenever we have to add miles to our walk, diverting around some rich person's beachfront house or a military land, I inwardly rage about it. The snail, however, shows no sign of anger, then it says. "Wot you doin' down there?"
I leap to my feet. A man on a bike has pulled up. He must be in his sixties, wearing a tatty Death Metal tee shirt and a pair of salmon pink Bermuda shorts.
I had not heard him coming. "Watching snails."
He grins. "Nice one, mate."
"What about you?"
"Just out and about."
This is an Essex speciality. How to converse with strangers and give absolutely nothing away. It's a tradition that probably began after the Peasant's Revolt in 1381 when the king's men were rounding people up. Smuggling, witch trials, and all those television docs have polished the technique.
I press him. "Where are you going?"
He pulls a face. "Here and there. Nice, innit?"
"Do you come every day?" I'm starting to feel like an inquisitor.
"Now an' again. Yerself?"
"It's my first time."
"Ain't nowhere better." He says this with total conviction, then places a foot firmly on a pedal, signalling a departure. "Best be going."
Then he cycles off towards Jaywick.
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