London comes closer to the sea

Dubai Ports World runs London Gateway which will be competing against Felixstowe and Southampton to be the top container port in the UK.  Like many other DPW concerns, there seems to be an iron (or ham-) fisted determination to not let workers unionise – although protests seem to have stymied this effort for now.

I am hoping to visit the port at some point – but when I first heard about the Unite struggles with DPW at the Gateway, it reminded me of this piece by Iain Sinclair, the grumpy poet of London urban spaces.  The piece is a kind of a eulogy to Gravesend and Tilbury (on the occasion of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral), the first of which is on the other side of the Thames from the Gateway, and both are a bit further inland:

I’d decided to pay my respects in an unorthodox way, by time-travelling into the period of Thatcher’s pomp, when she occulted the light, alchemised the bad will of the populace and did her best to choke the living daylights out of the awkward, sprawling, socially coddled essence of metropolitan London. Hers was a tyranny of the suburbs operating from a position of privilege at the centre: she might have invested in a Dulwich retirement property, but she couldn’t sleep in it. In 1988 I began to explore the derelict deepwater docks of the Isle of Dogs and Silvertown (already floated as a future Olympic site) for a book called Downriver. Margaret Thatcher, in the person of the ‘Widow’, was a dark deity presiding over a nightmare version of England, channelling our worst impulses, our meanest prejudices, our fear of the alien. In those days the mark of the beast was clearly imprinted on the ravished terrain between the A13 and the river: discontinued industries, generic towers rising on the malign compost of the deregulated financial markets, crude surveillance systems protecting speculative retail parks. ‘Don’t you know there’s a war on?’ The repeated challenge as security guards questioned me at every imposed barrier. Thatcher was an abiding presence. Like the smell of the Thames: oil and river-rot and yellow mud. Along walls and embankments, the rabid slogans and anti-Thatcher curses were large and scarlet. In certain hideaway pubs, inscribed photographs in polished frames signalled a positive allegiance. Now, from the window of the empty train to Tilbury, there was nothing. No acknowledgment of funeral or legacy. Margaret Thatcher’s traces were visible in every new shed, in every mushroom estate under a pergola of pylons, but she was forgotten.

Like all new massive container ports the Gateway is far away from the city.  Such distance isolates the ports from scrutiny, from protest, from mass mobilisation.  As Sinclair writes,

The Railport was booming, but passenger transit and human immigration were over. All the platforms – spectacular ruins at the time of my last visit – were now enclosed, privatised, part of the secure container colony.

Like so much else in so much of the rest of London.