Southend-on-Sea, my home town on the Thames estuary has very little in the way of cultural and literary associations. Julian Maclaren-Ross was stationed to the east in the garrison at Shoeburyness during the Second World War; the actress Peggy Mount (who played the battleeaxe Ma Hornet in Sailor Beware) lived in nearby Westcliffe; the artists Gilbert and George make occasional forays down the line from Fenchurch Street.
The town features briefly in the Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob, in the scene where Stanley Holloway shows Alec Guinness the kind of trashy souvenirs he manufactures at GewGaws Limited: "Southend Pier . . for keeping string in". That's about it, unless you count Lee Rourke's novel Vulgar Things (recommended).
So my recent discovery of this very fine poem by Alun Lewis, who died in Burma in 1944 at the age of 28, was quite a find. Lewis is, along with Keith Douglas, the best poet of the Second World War (and there are few others). In August 1942 Lewis's regiment, the Sixth Battalion of the South Wales Borderers, moved to Southend before being posted to India at the end of October. He must have written the folioing poem ten, which appears in a section of uncollected poems in the uniform edition of the Collected Poems, edited by Cary Archard and published by Seren, the book imprint of Poetry Wales, in 1994. The memorable 'fat hydrogenous angels' are barrage balloons moored along the Thames estuary; the Kentish Knock is a shallow area, or shoal, to the east of the mouth of the Thames. Southend is famously home to the world's longest pleasure pier and has an esplanade packed (then) with beery pubs and stinking 'fisshops'.
Southend at Dusk by Alun Lewis
The unobtrusive trampships gather
Dull-leaden, loaded, spaced across the bay
- Each with a fat hydrogenous angel -
And let the night's vague kindness come their way.
'Say! What's it like beyond the Kentish Knock?'
- The barmaid dreams from a window on the Pier.
'I'd know your step in a million on my stair.
Do you still dream of me? Or don't you care, my dear?'
Alongside the esplanade the fishshops stink.
Stumbling from cut-glass lounges, cursing all
The bleeding universe that drowns the taste
For beer within the stronger taste for drink,
The men in khaki lift inflated heads
And wink and drift ballooning to their beds.
'Oh won't you answer from the Kentish Knock?
Is it another world than this one here?
Or do your thoughts still foul me, even there?
Has the salt water changed your ways, my dear?'
The soiled and broken windows lost their glint.
The four-point-fives are growling on the cape.
Enraged by the reckless tourists of the Night
The metal is alive. Who shall escape?
A murmur came from all the tangled streams:
'We cannot change our ways. Though we can tame
The sea, we cannot curb our plunging dreams.
Man has no master: no one takes the blame.
Each drinks the other to a lucky end.
More than the sea we fear our pride and shame.'
And who shall count the bony fragile heads
Of every mother's son who knew despair
For one fierce drowning moment, till he sank
Beneath the shifting tides, and did not come?
'Oh why does my heart no longer leap
When men come creaking up my stair?
Oh why do I feel so mean, so mean?'
'Oh, snip the flowers, Molly. Go to sleep.
I tell you, by the Christ, there's no one there'.
© The Estate of Alun Lewis / Seren / Poetry Wales Press Ltd.