Five Questions for... Gary Budden

As part of our series of interviews with the editors and contributors to Elsewhere, we speak to Gary Budden – whose essay on the Romney Marsh appears in Elsewhere No. 01 – about what place means to him. Image above: Stodmarsh

What does home mean to you?

I’m torn on this one as to whether home is London, where I’ve spent nearly all of my adult life, or Kent where I grew up and still visit frequently, and where most of my family (most of them ex-Londoners) still live.

The landscapes of the Kent coast, as hopefully evident in a lot of my writing, are very vivid in my mind. Growing up on the Thames estuary in Whitstable, going to school in a city steeped in Roman, Norman and medieval history (Canterbury), being frequently taken to places like Stodmarsh, Reculver, Dungeness etc. by my birdwatching father, all left a strong mark on me. It was a place that I couldn’t wait to get away from when I was a teenager, but now parts of me still definitely consider parts of Kent home.  Only as I got older did I begin to appreciate some of the weirdness of the saltmarshes, start digging out the stories from Blean Forest, to begin revisiting Reculver with a different perspective – turning a place I couldn’t wait to get away from where ‘nothing happened’ into a living, breathing place in its own right.

However, London itself is also very much my home. I’ve been lucky enough to work all over the city, in almost every borough, and I think I know the place pretty well. I built a life here and I doubt I’d be able to be running Influx press, working for Ambit, or doing a lot of the things I do had I not moved here.

It can be an exhausting, baffling and frustrating place to live. But sometimes, when I see the Thames at night from the Hungerford Bridge, all can be forgiven.

Where is your favourite place?

Almost impossible to answer. I feel I should say somewhere more grand or exotic, and I’ve seen a few amazing places around the world, but one of my very favourite places that I find myself always willing to go back to, however, is the Stodmarsh nature reserve near Canterbury. It’s beautiful, and one of the few places in the UK that is home to breeding marsh harriers – birds that are, simply, an awesome sight.

What is beyond your front door?

A synagogue, the Cambodian embassy, a Buddhist temple, Irish boozers and lots of green parakeets. I had the misfortune of watching the local library at the end of my road get demolished over the past year and get replaced with Lego-style ‘luxury flats’. This is the way London is going, and I don’t like it.

What place would you most like to visit?

There’s a place called Deadman’s Island in the Thames Estuary, only accessible by boat and fairly close to the Isle of Sheppey. During the Napoleonic Wars, French prisoners were interred on the prison hulks (like the ones in Dickens’ Great Expectations) that floated in the estuary. Disease was rife on these ships and many of these men died. Their bodies were buried on what became known as Deadman’s Island – now due to coastal erosion, these bones are coming to the surface.

Ghoulish, but fascinating.

What are you reading right now?

I’ve been reading a lot of Alan Garner lately. His novel Strandloper is one of the very best ‘place’ novels I’ve ever read. I also recently finished Charlotte Higgins’ Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain, which brings what can be a rather dry subject to life. It’s more a history of the history of our understanding of Roman Britain than anything else; how our perceptions of what it all meant shift over generations. I also found out from reading this book that Syrian troops had been present at Hadrian’s Wall and Roman York was quite a multicultural place, much to the chagrin of Daily Mail readers.

I also have to mention Arthur Machen’s The London Adventure, which had been reprinted by Three Impostors press (it sold out but I fortunately found a copy in Housmans Bookstore). It’s a must for anyone interested in place writing, or London writing in particular. It’s Machen, in a rambling shaggy-dog story way, finding magic in the suburbs, weird backstreets and unloved parts of the metropolis – London incognita as he calls it. As someone who has spent a great deal of time walking around strange residential parts of the city trying to find the address of a new tutoring client, I knew what Machen was on about. Great stuff.

Gary Budden is the co-founder of independent publisher, Influx Press and fiction editor at Ambit magazine. His work has appeared in Structo, Unthology, Galley Beggar Press, Brittle Star, The Lonely Crowd and many more. He writes regularly for Unofficial Britain.

Gary’s essay ‘The Fifth Continent’ on the Romney Marsh appears in Elsewhere No. 01 – Order here