I awoke with a shock that night, unusual to spring awake from a pleasant dream into a state of irrational fear. It took me a few minutes to realise what was going on. The small attic I had gone to sleep in was pitch black, the familiar rectangle of the single dormer window was lost in the impossible darkness. I cannot recall if I could see my hand in front of my face, but I can remember the screaming and clattering that surrounded me. It didn’t take me long to identify that deep regular base note beneath the irregular chaos of screeches and whistles. It was obvious, the rhythmic boom, boom, boom, matched exactly the slow movement of the brick wall behind the bed, the same wall that I was leaning against.
What I had mistaken for my heart beating in those first milliseconds of waking, slowly made sense as the random facts fell into place. The wall was moving, it was rocking, pivoting at a point just above the floor. The crashing sounds were the tiles being ripped off the roof of my attic, like scales from a fish under the knife, and the whistles and screams were the wind playing the improvised organ of newly exposed gaps.
Trying the lamp, nothing happened, so I started to search for a light, my cigarette lighter flickered and went out, at my second attempt reason caught up with me. Get the hell out of here! The wall was rocking! The wall was a chimney stack, a rocking chimney stack, five stories up in a wind that was dismantling the roof.
Downstairs the light was better, but a very peculiar shade of yellow, more windows here, big ones, floor to ceiling, each one rattling like something from The Exorcist.
As I attempted to look out, a sudden gust made me jump back as the possessed windows gave one last attempt to smash into the room then settled back to a manic rattling. Outside the roof aerial was flying like a kite on its coaxial cable, sticking out perpendicular from the frame of the window that I was standing at. Below a herd of tin dustbins were literally squeezing their way through the corral formed by a few hastily parked cars.
Not a soul around, no lights, no cars, no people, just strangely animated objects heading from left to right downhill. I had never before seen a hedge, ripped from the ground, proceed to follow the bus route, I needed to find out if the rest of the human race was as confused as me.
The phone was dead, the power was off. I sat for a while as the exhilaration of the moment grew. Careful not to pass beneath the spot that the chimney would burst through the ceiling. I rummaged around for that old transistor radio and pulled it apart so that I could get some torch batteries between the wires, a bit of tape and I was connected to the outside world. FM. Nothing. Medium wave got me the familiar squawks of stations from Berlin to Dublin, as I twisted the dial past Luxembourg to arrive at the mundane (and usually shunned) local station. I tuned in just in time to hear a local roving reporter filing his report, it went something like this:
“The wind is getting stronger, from where I am standing in Pelham Street every building appears damaged, waste bins and awnings are flying past towards St Bartholomews. I am about to cross the road and go down towards The Level…” There is a loud, protracted series of muffled crashes. “ I have just been blown off my feet and am clinging to a lamp post that is waving crazily above my head, I daren’t let go of the lamp post” at this point his voice fades and we are returned to the studio, who seem to take a while to notice, they are in complete disarray.
It seems that Michael Fish the weatherman had got it wrong. The night before he had scoffed at a message from a woman who thought a hurricane was headed towards us, now here it was. 4 AM and in the dark outside, the town was deconstructing itself.
This is how I became aware of the storm of 16/10/1987. The facts by now are well known, the worst for 300 years in England, over 15 million trees felled and 18 people killed, a tragic but small number thanks to the hour that the worst of the storm struck. But even now all I can remember is how surreal that day was.
Climbing down the hill into town, not walking as usual, over the trees that used to line the streets. Reaching the great wide open space of the Old Steine, that the day before had been its usual graceful avenue of huge elm trees, the last in Britain. Seeing the heap of crushed foliage and ripped twisted branches stopped everyone dead in their tracks. Businessmen foiled from getting to work, walking around dazed, some sobbing out loud at the apocalyptic horror of it all. The silence caused partly by the new acoustic of trees on the ground, but mostly by the complete absence of cars, had changed the open public space into a dense forest of dying undergrowth that was almost impenetrable. Those who attempted to get through this newly laid barrier were forced to keep doubling back to avoid the deep pits that had been opened by the trees roots as they were pulled from the ground, or the tangle of branches that were caused as the trees, tangled and fell like dominos. Eventually some paths were established that wound their way through the 300 yards of destruction, and lines of people shuffled through, pausing often to see the strange sights that awaited at every new turn.
The pair of phone boxes parted like teeth, laying diagonally but otherwise undamaged by the massive bulk of an elm trunk forced into the 6 inch gap between them. The row of cars that had all had their roofs inverted by a single elm that reclined and rocked on its new hammock. The strange clearing that shimmered in metallic shades of purple and green and looked as soft as down, that revealed itself to be made from the bodies of hundreds of thousands of starlings fatally caught roosting in the trees that night, on their way to Africa for the winter. You could see the horror dawn on peoples faces as they realised that every one of these fallen trees lay on a continuous soft blanket of dead starlings. Millions must have perished.
At last I got to the place that I was desperate to reach, the disused department store that my friends and I had established as an artist run gallery, relying on enthusiasm and zero funding, this day could have put us all into bankruptcy. As I got within view my heart sank, from down the street I could see the curtains that we had spent our last few pounds on billowing out into the road. The huge plate glass windows must have gone, each one would cost the equivalent of 3 months rent to replace. Expecting the worst I started to look for more serious damage, perhaps because of this it wasn’t until I got inside that I realised that the windows were still there, all of them. The curtains still billowed outside, inside they pulled taught on the rails, triangles of stretched cloth that disappeared between the glass and the window frames. The windows must have curved right out of the frames under the force of the wind and the curtains had been sucked out through the narrow gap before the windows flexed back into place. Impossible to remove, the cut stubs of cloth remained visible around those windows until the building was demolished several years later.
Later on I walked up the opposite hillside, from where I would be able to see most of Brighton, when I got as far as the ancient parish church of Saint Nicholas the view of absolute desolation was given a truly Dante-esque aspect. The trees in that graveyard had all been ripped up, the roots had scattered ancient human remains all over the ground, in some places it was impossible not to walk on broken skulls and shattered femurs that shone as white as the thousands of bone white shards of chalk that also littered the ground.
Only later came the tales that we all got to share, like the couple that were arrested trying to push home a fully made double bed that they had taken a fancy to, from a shop window. And who will ever forget the unfortunate man that was killed by a flying beach hut. Some friends of mine were saved when the chimney of their house fell through three stories of the four storey house they occupied, mine survived.