Cancer 11: Romney Marsh, frailty and love

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Cancer 11: Romney Marsh, frailty and love

Paul Brasington 2023
Published by Paul Brasington in Good health · Thursday 24 Jun 2021
Tags: Cancer
I've entered the period of isolation before my operation to remove the tumour. It's an extra complication in the process, the need to ensure you're free of Covid 19 before you enter a ward of sick people, a forced stillness. In a way of course such isolation or at least near-isolation has become the norm in the last year or so, and this only adds to the sense of the oddness of these days, the feeling that I'm in an unreal period, waiting for my life to start again. At least I hope it will start again.

I spent part of my last day before the isolation out on Romney Marsh with a camera. This was not a random jaunt. I've written the draft of a novel which celebrates the marsh, its strangeness, and I'm considering the idea of interspersing the text with images. I wouldn't be the first to try this technically. The late great German writer WG Sebald uses indistinct photographs to complicate your response to his psycho-geographic narratives. In my defence I'd say the possibilities of illustration had interested me before I read any Sebald, and if I do use the images it will be to underline the existence of the marsh as a real place as well as a strange one, which has some relevance to the novel.
A short (long) history
Romney Marsh, which spreads to the north of my home in Rye towards Folkestone, is one England's unique places. Since at least Roman times its been an ephemeral area, generation after generation seeking ways of limiting the silting effects that would constantly reshape the land above water. The current geography was mostly stabilised only a few hundred years ago, and is under renewed threat from rising sea levels as the polar ice melts. Perhaps its old sea defences will hold out, but certainly on a worst projection it could be inundated as never before (as will much of coastal Kent).

The marsh is an immediately atmospheric place, a flat expanse of fertile farmland reaching from the upland edges of the Weald to the English channel, given over partially to cereal and other crops, but also much of it the rich salt marsh grassland on which its prized sheep graze. It has a distinctive history, known for many centuries for its unhealthy air, as well as being a hotbed of smuggling when the British government's need to raise revenue for its constant wars forced up tariffs to a level that made contraband tempting. The Cinque Port charters had also been an earlier source of prosperity, with the ports able to trade freely across the country in exchange for naval shipbuilding obligations. Winchelsea, Rye, Romney and Hythe all consolidated their relative prosperity till the shifting seas swept old Winchelsea away and left Romney and Rye landlocked. The emergence of an effective coastguard service as well as some moderation of those tariffs eventually put paid to the smuggling trade, while improved drainage largely eliminated the malaria that had plagued the place.
The landscape still bears the marks of these old lives, in the churches and ruins strewn around the marsh's small villages. In the winter its bleakness is invigorating (this is the best time to visit Dungeness, where that bleakness is at its most extreme, though under a different threat from increasing gentrification). In brighter months it has a wild beauty, as well as a scruffy authenticity in its farms (there are few barn conversions down here) and the dying throes of a kiss-me-kwik seaside economy around Dymchurch.

Love's anchor
My novel, which was conceived and largely written long before my cancer diagnosis, is a reflection on uncertain permanence, on the comforts of that sense of the natural world going on beyond your own life, in a place where that persistence cannot be taken for granted, the ground shifting more often than you might reasonably expect in a landscape. It's a love story too, a story of how we long to anchor ourselves in love, our dreams of holding on to what we love, and the sadness of things pulling away from us.

A photograph, which freezes a moment in time, offers a further dimension to this reflection, which is why I'd like to find a way of relating the images I took at the beginning of the week to the text. The marsh too is a photogenic place, though capturing its atmospheric strangeness is not so easy (one field can look too much like another). I'm working on ways it might be done, while continuing to refine the text. When I'm out of hospital I'd hope to get it out to a wider audience.

These reflections have taken on a new poignancy with my cancer diagnosis, predictably sharpening my sense of things slipping away. I know full well that's not the expected outcome, or even a likely one, but right now I feel as though I'm in a waiting room, biding my time while the rest of the world goes about its business. I feel daunted by the coming operation, having little experience to draw on, not knowing what it's going to be like to wake in sudden albeit morphine-managed pain, and really I just want to get on with it, to get it over with. But I accept that I must be patient, and try to savour these remaining days, contemplating the ephemerality of the marsh, and my lifelong ambitions to frame my experience in art.

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