The Incidental Marshman
By Mervyn Linford
58 poems, 160 pages
Price: £10
ISBN: 978-1-8698482923
Publisher: Campanula Books
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Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater

The full title of author, poet and pantheist Mervyn Linford’s latest book is ‘The Incidental Marshman: From Mucking Creek to the Broomway’. A marshman is the name given to a person who lives in marshy country, an inhabitant of a specific area of marshland. It’s a term I had not come across before but Linford, having moved from the bombsites of Canning Town in the East End of London over sixty-seven years ago to the freshwater fleets, dykes and creeks in the Essex coastlands, more than fits this definition.

At the start of this book, which is part poetry and part prose, Linford pitches his readers into a distinctive landscape that is marked (some might say marred) by oil refineries, pipelines, flare-stacks, standpipes and landfill sites. Some might regard this as an unlikely place for poetry, especially poetry that relates to the natural world, but Linford is perfectly at home here drawing endless inspiration from creeks, guts, gulleys, saltings and marshes in the coastal environs of Essex: strange worlds that are neither land nor sea. Despite what Linford terms as ‘our eleventh-hour inability to face the environmental and climate facts’, there are success stories to be found within these pages. The Thames, for one thing, is far less polluted than it used to be.

Linford’s powers of description make this a memorable read: a single daffodil is described as ‘a bright idea’ and Spring is ‘a green idea.’ The sun is ‘a burning question in the west’. A little egret is ‘a circus performer on stilts’ as it teeters on the edge of the tide and Brent geese ‘bob about on the waves like burnt corks’. Reading this book, you can almost smell the oyster smacks, cockle spits and brine coming off the sea.

Never one for towns, Linford is happiest when he is communing with nature: ‘the curlew’s lost and lonely call speaks to the soul whereas the sound of traffic and aircraft doesn’t. Somehow it’s where we came from.’

The book is a fund of information. Linford’s knowledge of his local area is encyclopaedic. If you want to know where the Peasants’ Revolt began, why a pub called ‘The Dun Cow’ on Canvey Island changed its name to ‘The King Canute’ or the name of the plant that used to be seen on the back of the old thruppenny bit, the answers are all here.

Key events are described such as The Great North Sea Flood, interesting insights are given on the possible origins of Dutch Elm Disease and an account is given of the life cycle of the European eel. Always one to document the vicissitudes of our English weather, the Great Storm of October 1987 is given some prominence in a chapter on Southend-on-Sea when ‘Michael Fish went ex-directory’.

We catch the author’s surprise and delight in coming across masses of the relatively rare golden samphire below a seawall in Hole Haven, sense his wonder at seeing a phosphorescent bloom of plankton out in the estuary, marvel at his description of sand martins massing for migration at Paglesham and share the joy of patience rewarded when he finally comes face to face with a short-eared owl quartering the banks of Two Tree Island.

Linford’s love of fishing is all pervasive. Many fish swim through the pages of this book: eel, rudd, roach, perch, tench, flounder and skate are all there in phenomenal numbers just waiting to take the bait on the end of our line. He writes extensively about the shellfish trade at Old Leigh and the oyster fisheries at Paglesham.

I never knew that Essex had so many interesting place-names. As well as Mucking there is Messing followed by places with names such as Fobbing, Sutton-with-Shopland and Ballards Gore. In many cases, Linford gives us their derivations and sometimes he writes poems which play on these names.

The book ends at the Broomway: a public right of way across the foreshore at Maplin Sands. When the tide is out it provides access to Foulness Island. The Broomway is named after the ‘withies’ or ‘brooms’, bundles of twigs attached to short poles, that were used to mark the route. The track is extremely dangerous in misty weather as incoming tides can flood across the sands at high speed obscuring the direction of the shoreline.

This book is complemented with many colour photographs taken by the author to illustrate the local geography. With his wealth of knowledge and at times, irrepressible sense of humour, Linford leads us on an inspiring journey that is accessible, informative and enjoyable. Fully recommended.

This review was previously published in The Poet (UK) and is reprinted with kind permission.


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