Books > One No, Many
Yeses > Extract
CHAPTER 1: CITIZENS
Reculver Beach, Kent. 11 May 2006
It’s ten to eight. The sun was just beginning
its descent as we walked down the cliff path an hour
ago, sacks of sea bass, sea beet, sea purslane, dulse
and bladderwrack slung across our shoulders. Behind
us the twin towers of the ruined cliff top church of
St Mary, which stand sentinel over the remains of the
Saxon shore port of Regulbium, were framed by the late
Now I sit cross-legged beneath the cliffs, piling
driftwood onto a stuttering fire. Above me, hundreds
of darting, chattering sand martins ride the evening
breeze, shooting in and out of slits in the sandy face.
Out to sea, framed by the dipping sun, are the rusting
steel remains of wartime anti-aircraft tripods. Further
out, a new windfarm stalks the horizon like some distant
My fingers are encrusted with sea salt and ash. The
crimson sun is behind me, the square stone towers up
ahead. You can smell this place in the air. The evening
silence is broken only by the crackling of the burning
wood, the nattering of the martins and, now, the shifting
of the gravel beneath Fergus’s feet as he makes
his way back up from the shoreline.
‘I gutted the fish,’ he says. ‘How’s
the fire going?’
Fergus Drennan is one of England’s few professional
foragers. He makes a living – just – by
hunting down, seeking out and selling wild food. Take
Fergus to a wood, a patch of waste ground, the edge
of a railway line or an empty evening beach, and it’s
likely he can feed himself, and probably you, and feed
you well. He’s been doing it since he was young,
and it’s never going to make him rich. He says
it makes him free though, as far as that’s ever
Our evening at Reculver brings to a close a day spent
together in the Kent countryside, where Fergus has been
inducting me. He’s taken me to the woods and showed
me how to find morel mushrooms, how to cut nettle tops,
when to pick ash keys and how to track down the giant
yellow bracket fungus known as ‘chicken of the
woods’. He’s shown me how to make nettle
soup, what to do with wild garlic, sorrel and hairy
bittercress and what type of seaweed to harvest at low
tide. Now, below the red cliffs and under the red sun,
we’re ending the day with the fruits of our labour:
baked sea bass, dulse soup and fried sea beet, offset
by strong sloe gin.
‘The thing is’, says Fergus as he unwraps
one of the bass from its tinfoil and pokes it experimentally
with a stick, ‘that we’re just so cut off
now. Very few people understand the land, or even know
what grows in their gardens or on the bit of wasteland
behind their back fence. But once you do know, you start
to understand the place you live in, and feel part of
It’s about culture, as much as anything. Remember
those St George’s mushrooms we picked earlier?
They got the name because they start to appear around
St George’s day, the 23rd of April. You hear people
all the time moaning about how the traditions of this
country are disappearing, we’re not in touch with
our heritage, nobody celebrates St George’s day
anymore, blah, blah. But most of these old traditions,
when they were living, they came from the land and from
people’s attachment to it. These days we don’t
know where we are, or what happens in our landscape,
so we can’t create new ones. Traditions come from
places – from the land, from our relationship
to it. Once that’s gone, so has that living culture.’
The fish is done. We unwrap one each and poke around
in the shingle for our forks.
‘So many of my friends are constantly criticizing
this country,’ says Fergus. ‘You know, “I’ve
got to get out, it’s all going to the dogs”
– all that. But for me, this is what I do. Foraging
… it’s not even about food, really –
it’s kind of about belonging. I feel such a part
of it through this that I could never leave. I suppose
it ties me to England. This is my place.’
Bluewater Shopping Centre, Kent. 12 May 2006
I have never seen anything like this.
Or have I?
I’m driving down a slip road from the A2, following
the white words painted on the road, and the white arrows
painted above them in case there were any doubt at all
about where I was headed.
It opens up below me suddenly and to the left. It is
stunning; it stuns me to the extent that I swear to
myself out loud above the music from the CD-player.
Clawed out of the Earth, a mile, surely, in diameter,
is what looks like a giant, abandoned quarry. Its sides
are sheer white chalk cliffs, ringed with slip roads,
roundabouts, junctions and pylons. The road I am now
following sweeps round to the left in an arc, passes
between two giant white stone pillars, as if into some
ancient amphitheatre, and leads me down.
In the centre of the quarry is a quite remarkable
construction. It is a huge, spreading complex of enormous
buildings, steel grey, topped with curious angled towers.
I’ve seen their shape before, and recently. It
puzzles me for a moment, and then I have it: oast houses.
For the past hour, driving through Kent, I’ve
passed dozens of them; shells mostly, now, their old
weatherboarded wooden towers topping house conversions
or offices. These giant, steel approximations scream
their separateness as they try, simultaneously, to belong.
As I get closer, I can make out more. The vast complex,
linked together by covered walkways, is surrounded by
a sea of white-lined asphalt. Regiments of trees and
black steel lampposts separate lines of parked cars.
I get out of the car and lock it. If the world ended
today – if this place were covered in ash for
a thousand years and then excavated by some future civilisation
– what would it say about who we were?
It seems to be designed to make you crane your neck
and gasp. Its scale and its pomposity – the stone
pillars, the towers, the lakes … it could be a
colosseum, a palace, a cathedral. It is none of those
things. It contains not courtiers, relics or kings,
but KFC, M&S, Top Man. Just shops – and yet,
not just shops. This is the biggest shopping centre
in Europe. It attracts 27 million shoppers every year.
There is parking space for 13,000 cars. There are 330
shops, 16 restaurants, 14 cafés, 9 fast food
outlets and a 13-screen cinema. There is a bar, a car
valet, a crèche, several hairdressers, a spa,
a putting green, a go-kart track, a boating lake and
a climbing wall. There is a multi-faith chapel with
fifteen attendant chaplains of different religions.1
This is not just a shopping centre. This is an experience.
As I walk from the car-park towards the sliding glass
doors that will grant me entry to the ‘Wintergarden’,
I pass two drinks machines, selling cans of Coca-Cola
products. They aren’t simply standing there as
they would be in any other mall or sports centre or
cinema. They are encased in what look like steel sheaths,
pointing like cathedral towers to the sky. On the side
of each is a logo: a blue horse rising from a foaming
sea. BLUEWATER, it insists.
It’s then that it hits me.
I look around me. Everything here is controlled. Everything
is part of an overall plan. From the trees to the spires,
the pillars to the litter bins, the lakes to the drinks
machines. Everything fits.
Inside the Wintergarden, the first thing I see is a
statue. Rising perhaps 20 feet high, dominating all
around it. It is a statue of a Coke bottle. Affixed
to its sides are four telescreens, silver and rounded,
beaming out Coke adverts and Sky news. Behind the statue
rise six imposing white stone pillars, holding up a
high atrium of glass and steel. On top of every pillar
is a brace of CCTV cameras. Everything I am doing is
From nowhere, now, comes a hidden voice. Female, mellifluous,
well-elocuted, it advises me to keep my belongings with
me at all times. And now I know what this is. It just
seems so obvious, so clear.
This is totalitarian.
And it is, in the original sense of that often abused
word. Bluewater is a total experience. Every aspect
of it is planned, controlled and monitored by authorities
who you never see but who only ever have your welfare
at heart. Their authority here is absolute, but unless
you abuse their trust, break their rules, you will never
see them. You are here to consume, and as long as you
do so you will be left alone.
Planned, focus-grouped, monitored, maintained, private.
Here I am, in somebody else’s kingdom, disturbed
and slightly sickened and yet also somehow excited.
The abundance is breathtaking. Thousands of people in
caps, shorts and open shirts mill around me with children,
trolleys, Burger King cardboard cups. Bring me your
poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
and I will sell them things.
Welcome to everywhere. Welcome to nowhere.
Welcome to the Pleasure Dome.
Two places. Separate, distinct, divided by 50 miles
of England and half a world. Two ideas of what a landscape
can be. Two visions of the future. Two sets of assumptions
about the world and what it is for. Which is more recognisable
to most of us? Which is most representative of the country
we live in, the world beyond? I would like it to be
Reculver. But Bluewater wins every time.
There is a bit of Bluewater in every town in England.
And not just in the towns; in the villages too, and
even in the fields. On the motorways and the A roads,
the coastal towns and the conurbations, the fens and
the forests. There is a bit of that manufactured, placeless,
corporate landscape almost everywhere you go, and it
is getting bigger. Spreading out. Digging in. It is
the story of our age. It is the future, if we allow
it to be.
The things that make our towns, villages, cities and
landscapes different, distinctive or special are being
eroded, and replaced by things which would be familiar
anywhere. It is happening all over the country –
you can probably see at least one example of it from
where you’re sitting right now. The same chains
in every high street; the same bricks in every new housing
estate; the same signs on every road; the same menu
in every pub.
The meaning of England is different for everyone who
lives in it. Its physical reality – its actual
and emotional landscape – resonates at different
frequencies for all of us. But whatever tone we hear,
it is increasingly drowned out by the louder but flatter
sound of landscapes being levelled, colour being drained
and character being driven out by money and self-interest
and over-development. Whether the real England, for
you, is the local newsagent or the local church, the
thatched cottage or the city terrace, the hardware store
that clings on in your high street, the struggling street
corner pub, the patch of overlooked waste ground, the
chaotic street market, the hedgerows or the downlands,
an old farm or an urban canal: you can be sure that
if it is not sufficiently profitable or obedient, then
it is not safe from the accelerating forces of homogenisation
and control. It, too, will be Bluewatered in time.
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