Baby Steps Toward Reality
Lockdown has left its mark on many of us.
The famous Sunday Times verdict on JG Ballard was ‘He doesn’t care where he lives because he lives inside his head’. He invited his interviewers to conduct their sessions in the foyer of the Heathrow Hilton. A less conducive place for an intimate chat would be hard to imagine. The author’s attitude would have prepared him for the pandemic.
When your day job is opening a laptop and dropping into another world, you don’t need a holiday but you do need experiences. Stay at home for about oh, five months, and all you have to write about is a writer in a room. Into the internal life some external stimulus must fall. Nothing goes to waste; the memory of a trip to the shops becomes a springboard for a scene.
My consumption of stories, especially books and films, is prodigious. I spend so much time inside fantasies that there’s a very real danger of losing touch with reality. This half-life stops me from being a team player. I don’t just work alone – I have trouble relating to other people’s lives, so it’s important to keep talking to strangers.
With this in mind, I took my first baby steps to a place I had long taken for granted; the English coast.
In the face of government muddle, people have taken to unlocking the Lockdown themselves. It’s not so much lifting as dissolving, so we joined some friends in Kent. My parents lived in Whitstable for many years, and I know Kent and Sussex quite well, if only from the window of a car.
Deal never struck me as having much to offer. It has a long shingle beach, a featureless pier and several rows of unspoilt Georgian houses. It is quiet and still; this part of the coastline does not get lashed by waves. Most of the time the sea is flat enough to scull on.
Deal is on the up. It is relentlessly middle class, with good restaurants and genteel, over-polite residents. Once its alleyways were home to smugglers. Now its waters are patrolled to stop migrant boats. Sea frets settle a milky-aired caul of calm over the town. There are three main streets, the Promenade, a street in the middle called Middle Street, and a high street called High Street.
In this small space there were once squeezed 156 pubs, but there’s little sign of rowdiness now. There’s a single small amusement arcade on the front, but then there’s also an antiquarian bookshop. It seems more Norfolk than Kent, without the icy winds.
There are Dutch gabled houses and wood panelled rooms. There’s a 1950s powder blue ice cream parlour, and a lurid pink 1950s beauty salon. There is much walking of dogs. Writers lived here, and still live here. The English tend to self-isolate by nature, so Lockdown has lent Deal a more graceful air.
Nearby, though, is Thanet, a miserable, depressed and depressing area which is infamous for being Brexitland and Nigel ‘Quisling’ Farridge’s home territory. David Seabrook’s slipstream book about the place, ‘All the Devils are Here’, is astonishing.
Deal turned out to be a place for introspection, then, and a perfect start to re-entry.