Paul Arnott: Confessions of a Branscombe beachcomber

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The Independent Online


We drop the children at school and head innocently to Branscombe just to see the Napoli. The listing ship is as incongruous as the Thames whale, but an odder sight is men wheeling motorbikes away with a docket from the Receiver of Wrecks. The atmosphere is jolly and journalists more likely to have finished Ulysses than to have seen the film are talking of Whisky Galore. Some of us roll empty wine casks away to use as water butts with the blessing of the law, pleased to be green. My wife picks up some dice but despite my sweet tooth I resist the wet tins of Quality Street.

We watch the 24-hour news hacks set up. The man from the BBC bargains hard with the master control room for a "live link into the VT". He gets his way, and with a minute to go he says to his guest from the Marine Conservation Society, "Er, what do you think I should ask you?" This does not bode well.


I awake a scavenger. Images of upstanding citizens rolling wine casks past the Mason's Arms are voiced on TV as if they'd plundered an orphanage. AOL describes the casks as "filled with bottles of wine". A friend policing the scene is appalled that the Daily Star has given sat-nav co-ordinates for Branscombe. Men in white vans arrive asking which container has the BMWs when the last one went the day before.

My son wins a jokey prize in a local tennis tournament, an Afrikaans Bible salvaged by the coach. He should be thrilled, but the prudes on Newsround, going live in the darkness ("You can't see it now but behind me are scenes of...") talk up civil disorder and he feels guilty. eBay slap a ban on traded goods, but allow a T-shirt bearing the slogan Skanky Pikey B*stards Branscombe Beach Clear Up to sell for £24.


Profiteering is rife, a nation on the brink. The Maritime Coastguard decide that all that helping yourself may not be legal after all. What do we do about the dice? The containers have drifted east and a friend takes his dog for a night time walk to Eype beach. On the pebbled shore 30 torches can be seen scanning for loot, but when the dog's stroboscopic collar illuminates by mistake they flick off and 30 men dive to the ground. They think the flashing mutt is an approaching police car.


GMTV heavy hitter Fiona Phillips scoops an interview with Billy Bragg about his beloved Dorset shore. It's funny, she tells him, because she's been whistling his song "Shipbuilding" all morning. With remarkable restraint Billy points out that the tune filling the Phillips brain is in fact by Elvis Costello.

There has been a terrible regional misunderstanding about wheelie bins. Elsewhere these are given freely by the council, but in East Devon we have to pay for our own. To remove a chap's bin to ferry your plunder is bad form. Two nations separated by a common garbage.


Back to a cordoned Branscombe where the scene is desolate, but for the dog-walkers. The scent of frying bacon drifts from a Salvation Army catering van, come to provide food for those clearing the beach. I ask if they'd sell a sightseer a bacon buttie and they tell me that they'd only ever give them away. Unfortunately, there is nobody left to report this charity on the "looting" beach.


In the village hall the even-tempered people of Branscombe ask questions of the official agencies which would make Mr Bair squirm. Most rightfully irritated is the postman, who has to negotiate the emergency blockages via Glasgow to deliver from one farm to the next. The black humour of theweek is still there, but with the ship ready to break in the next storm the prognosis is bleak. Yet the people are ready to trust their local police to battle on doing a job for them. If some more containers do wash up, though, and you're with the 24-hour news people, it might be wise to bring your own grub.

Paul Arnott's 'Let Me Eat Cake' has just been published by Sceptre