“Canvey at that time was a bit like the Wild West.”

The musician Wilko Johnson has written a very evocative article about growing up on Canvey Island, and about his life in general. It’s well worth reading here , but here’s a few extracts:

Never climb inside a haystack
I was born in 1947 on Canvey Island. Canvey at that time was a bit like the Wild West. People lived in bungalows and railway carriages. A lot of the roads weren’t made, they were just tracks. I remember there was also this huge haystack opposite my school, the size of a building. When they built these haystacks, they had to leave ventilation through it or it would catch fire from the heat inside. There were tunnels going inside, and the kids could climb right inside this thing, there was almost a room in there. When I think about it now? I mean, we used to play there… That ……huge haystack burnt down. It might have happened in the night but man, that could have happened when it was full of kids. This is not the fault of Canvey Island, but I grew up with the feeling that it was fairly shameful to come from there.

One of my earliest memories of Canvey was the flood in 1953
It was a terrible night, the sea wall collapsed and about 50 people died. All I remember was my mum gathering us together, and I looked out of the back window at the fields, but there were no fields, it was the sea, there were waves, waves coming in. They were evacuating the island and we got taken off the island up the hill to the King John’s school where about 20 years later I would be a teacher. We went from there up to Sheffield to be humiliated. Actually the people there were very nice, lovely people. When we got back there were RAF lorries with blow-heaters, trying to dry these cardboard houses out. Our house was a write-off.



My father never recovered from the flood
Everyone had been evacuated but certain people, including my dad who was a gas-fitter, had to remain behind. My dad spent a fair amount of time wading chest-deep in freezing water. He went down with a terrible case of pneumonia, it did destroy his health. Canvey was still very open and in the autumn you’d get these mists and fogs, some of them are incredible, like stage-sets. My dad gradually got worse and worse each winter when it was foggy. He couldn’t do his gas-fittings, he used to ride around on a bike. They gave him a job in the stores and I remember in my teens they used to drive him home from work in a van. We’d normally hear the van, the door slam and then you knew he’d be coming in. One evening we heard the van, and time went on. We’re thinking, ‘He’s not there?’ We ran out into the fog and he’s collapsed, lying in the road. We dragged him indoors, he couldn’t breathe. I was freaking…. …

I have a special feeling about the Thames Estuary, and it ain’t to do with Julius Caesar
I love to be at the Lobster Smack pub on Canvey and go up to the western end of the Island where there are all the creeks, or to stand and look across to the Shell Haven refinery and you see all the ships and buoys. There’s just something about it. Up by the Lobster Smack, I feel just like Wordsworth felt about Windermere. Obviously that’s all wrapped up in memories and whatever, but it’s one of the most expressive landscapes I know and I get a kind of spiritual uplift from it, always. You get magnificent skies, huge sky, and the river is so broad, which leads to all sorts of effects of sunlight, and you’re getting this kind of spectacular natural beauty just from that, but the whole thing? it stirs something in me….

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