Robert Selby mulls over David Seabrook’s 2002 cult debut ‘All the Devils Are Here’, recently published in a new edition by Granta.
Granta have republished David Seabrook’s 2002 debut and cult classic All the Devils Are Here, a gothic mapping of coastal Kent’s uneasy psychogeography. It’s fitting that it should start with the story behind T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land – part written in Margate after a nervous breakdown – as the poem’s discordancy, its ‘heap of broken images’, is echoed in the digressiveness, twitchiness and paranoia of Seabrook’s noirish prose like the sound of the tide in the promenade toilets.
‘There’s no money in Margate,’ Seabrook writes of the Thanet resort (then yet to enjoy the green shoots of gentrification seeded by the Turner Contemporary, completed in 2011). ‘Eye contact has replaced it as the root of all evil and, yes, the town’s as ripe as ever for a low-budget remake of Brighton Rock: the joyless amusement arcades, the facial scars…’ This is the Kentish Riviera post-mortem and Seabrook has a very definite idea of the time and cause of death: ‘8 June 1870, the date of Dickens’s own death, is where Rochester’s history officially ends.’ The next station stop marks ‘a shift from retro to necro’: ‘Chatham is a long time dead, killed off on 31 March 1984 when the Royal Navy, a presence for more than four hundred years, pulled out of the Dockyard.’ While the local prostitutes ‘pound locked cars like gibbons at Longleat’, their industry in turmoil with the sailors gone, Seabrook watches on, eating a Flake, his Crombie’s collar pulled up against the Medway mizzle – that is until, as his friend Iain Sinclair confided in an LRB review of All the Devils in 2003, Seabrook had to pawn the coat to pay for a train fare to London. At the book’s eerie denouement, in sleepy Deal, we are led to infer the narrator, whoever he is by then, is himself ready to turn a few tricks to survive (‘It’s a question of rent; no more, or less’).
Seabrook, with the investigative crime writer’s nose for connections and conspiracy, sniffs out the patricide committed in Rochester by Victorian artist Richard Dadd (on ‘land now owned by Joe Pasquale’) as the potential inspiration behind Dickens’s contemporaneous The Mystery of Edwin Drood; he dizzyingly undoes the knot of connections between the British Union of Fascists and a Broadstairs villa once owned by the alleged German spy Arthur Tester, seen with Oswald Mosley ‘cruising around the ’stairs together in an open-top car’. Local legend says William Joyce, ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, ran a radio repair shop in Whitstable.
As Jonathan Meades (once doorstepped by Seabrook, according to Sinclair) wrote in a 1993 Times restaurant review of Whitstable’s Royal Native Oyster Stores: ‘The notion that the South is soft is blown here’. Meades lamented the Medway towns his train zigzagged through as breeding ‘nasty skinheads, the dog troops of the British Movement and rookie policemen (not much difference)’. Certainly the proud toughness and longstanding independence of eastern Kent, contiguous with but culturally distinct from London, repeller of Norman the Conqueror, incubator of the Peasants’ Revolt, Jack Cade’s Rebellion, Wyatt’s Rebellion and the Second Civil War, then going 60% for Brexit, has at times been harnessed by questionable causes. But as Meades acknowledged, 15 years before the next, Great recession and 25 before Farage’s annus mirabilis: ‘This is the bit of the South where [Thatcher’s] economic miracle failed to take; here, there never was a sunrise before the sunset of recession, there was never anything but sunset.’ Gillingham’s is a chemical yellow, its air some of the most polluted in the UK. ‘This is Gillingham,’ Seabrook declares:
Blackboards outside the pubs display some of the lowest prices I’ve seen anywhere; more expensive, perhaps, than a lock-in at the cemetery, but that can always be rescheduled for later, as a recent stabbing at one High Street hostelry suggests. Medway boys make no noise – believe it. Many a young lady, squatting urgently at the kerbside in the small hours, has been surprised by L-O-V-E / H-A-T-E fingers rising damply through the grille.
To Deal then – ‘the perfect refuge for the retired and retiring. You’re not going anywhere after this’ – where Seabrook interviews a septuagenarian whose recollections of his time as a rent boy in Sixties London encourages our sleuth to re-open the cases of boxer Freddie Mills’s apparent suicide in Soho in 1965, and the uncaught ‘Jack the Stripper’, who murdered up to eight prostitutes in West London between 1959 and 1965. (The serial killer is the subject of Seabrook’s second book, Jack of Jumps, published in 2006 and written, according to the Daily Telegraph, “with the relish of a necrophiliac”.) Throughout All the Devils, and especially here, the author enjoys the conspiracy he strings out in his idiosyncratic mind – and only partly confides to us. To him, nothing is what it seems: it’s normally darker. Thus Seabrook – a sardonic, enigmatic literary outsider, living alone in a flat opposite Canterbury West station (the book contains fleeting allusions to a fiancé who died of cancer) – would probably be gratified that his own demise, reportedly of a heart attack in 2009, aged 49, has spawned its fair share of conspiracy theories, including speculation that he was murdered, or is, in fact, still alive. His first, singular book certainly is.