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REVIEW: Dr Feelgood Exhibition/Lee Brilleaux Memorial Walk
Sophia Deboick , May 22nd, 2013 08:12

Sophia Deboick heads to Canvey Island to embark on the annual walk in memory of the band's late frontman and take in the new exhibition of Dr Feelgood paraphernalia

Photograph courtesy of Chalkie Davies

Canvey has gained a certain prestige in the wake of Oil City Confidential, Julien Temple's paean to native pub rockers, Dr Feelgood. The film was as much about this below-sea level outpost in the Thames Estuary as the band itself, sparking a wave of class tourism to this place with some of the most deprived areas in the country. But those who gathered at the weather-boarded, 17th-century Lobster Smack pub on the morning of Friday 10 May were no such casual visitors. This was the annual Lee Brilleaux Memorial Walk, held on the birthday of the Dr Feelgood frontman who died of cancer in 1994, aged 41.

This year the two-hour walk along the seafront to Canvey Heights, where Brilleaux's ashes were scattered, was followed by a visit to a newly-launched exhibition on the band, sited on Canvey itself. Behind both events is Chris Fenwick, the band's manager, Brilleaux's childhood friend and our tour guide. Over 80 fans of a certain vintage – all jeans, leather and patch-covered cut-off denim jackets – trooped up the grassy bank to the sea wall, to view the backdrop to the cover shot of the Feelgoods' 1975 debut, Down By The Jetty, and to begin our journey.

Despite the Feelgoods' uncomplicated R&B being the focus of interest for those in attendance, the walk isn't a Feelgoods sightseeing tour. The notorious Monico pub and the room above Parkin's Palladium arcade where the band played their first ever gig are passed without mention. Instead, it is about sense of place. Fenwick tells no anecdotes about the band. He talks about Canvey. Its geography, its people and its history – the boats from Holland that offloaded their cargo of eels for the East End markets here and the bare-knuckle fights that the island was famous for (including the undoubtedly apocryphal match between Pitsea Pete and Billericay Bill that went to 84 rounds). Proceeding past the unfortunately-named Hole Haven caravan park, the oil storage facility and on to the windswept, concrete-girded seafront and the 1930s Labworth Café, the landscape changes rapidly, and four hundred years of Canvey's history is glimpsed. Passing the site of the Chapman Lighthouse, mentioned in Conrad's Heart Of Darkness, the remains of the sea defences built by Dutch engineers in the 1600s, and the place where a Viking ghost has often been seen, the feeling is otherworldly, and it isn't difficult to imagine the Canvey of old – a strange place of foreign sailors and pugilistic natives.

The sun had emerged by the time we got to Western Esplanade, the towering sea wall on one side of the pathway – an ominous reminder of the 1953 floods that killed 58 islanders – the grey clouds and sweeping views across the estuary towards Kent on the other. The sea wall graffiti bears witness to the low-level delinquency of generations of teenage islanders, but the civic pride of Canvey's residents is represented here too, with the Friends Of Concord Beach installing several wooden benches (one is dedicated to Dr Feelgood), and combating the graffiti by covering the concrete canvas with colourful murals. Even so, the seafront remains better-known for the ironic graffito 'Canvey is England's Lourdes' than the murals, and as we processed along – almost a hundred dark figures walking in single file as the seafront pathways narrowed – there was indeed an atmosphere of going barefoot to Walsingham.

In the 19-year history of the annual Memorial Walk there's always been a large, devoted and distinctly international attendance, according to Fenwick: "The memorial day is always full of the hard core 'pilgrims'. They come from all over the world – we have people here from Finland, Holland, France, Scotland, Ireland, America". Pilgrimage is a spiritual journey to a sacred site, but it is as much about community as devotion. Strangers coming together to make a physical journey – a tangible gesture of spiritual commitment – and to experience a sense of belonging. The Memorial Walk is a collective act of homage to Brilleaux as the essence of the Feelgoods. Fenwick underscored the sense of community: "I'm touched that people are prepared to travel so much to come here to go on the walk... These people are out here today to commemorate the life of a very special guy. It's frankly quite a moving experience – it's a shared thing – we all share in that." The walk, then, is community across national and cultural borders. Music, and respect for those who made it, is the bond.

That bond was expressed as a raucous camaraderie as we arrived at The Canvey Club, where bubbling Dutch tones mixed with the native Estuary English, just as they did centuries ago, and the beer flowed as 12 bar blues was bashed out on the piano. The Canvey Club – a tin-roofed shack, typical of much of the 'temporary' housing to be found on Canvey – doubled as the 'Alibi Club' on the cover of 1977's Sneakin' Suspicion, and hosts the new exhibition. Included are a wealth of photographs and posters, covering every wall of the one-room hut, as well as some star exhibits – the band member Toby jugs from the Let It Roll album cover, and one of Brilleaux's childhood maps of Canvey, memorably animated in the Temple film. "Most of it is my personal stuff that's just been kicking around in various Feelgood lock-ups for years, so we've scraped the dust off... Four decades worth of life is here", Fenwick explains. Devoid of original members, the band goes on, and Fenwick says, "Lee's heritage is one of the reasons that the Feelgood band, the whole thing, is still in high momentum. We're currently still doing 120 shows a year, and we're booked out until 2014 – the journey never ends".

The Canvey Club itself goes back to the very origins of the band, as Fenwick explains: "This is where Lee and I and Sparko, the original bass player, started to play as kids. We were in a jug band here... That picture there – that's me in the pink jacket... We played in here quite regularly as teenagers, so it's a very strong root." The day was indeed a matter of roots – identity and heritage – but not predicated on place of birth or even a common language for the fans who journey here to celebrate a band, and its driving force, who represent a shared heritage for them. At the Memorial Walk’s end, on green and windswept Canvey Heights, Fenwick recounted the story of the scattering of Lee's ashes, when he became part of Canvey's physical fabric forever, and a comic turn about the attempted interference of the coastguard from Southend Pier ("it's illegal to scatter ashes in the Thames estuary") gave way to a genuine atmosphere of reverence as he concluded, "so, Lee's mortal remains ebb and flow with the tide we have here in the Thames estuary. This is Lee's day."

An additional Chris Fenwick walk is scheduled for Friday 24 May, starting at The Lobster Smack at 10.30am. The Dr Feelgood exhibition runs at the Canvey Club until June 30