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  • Writer's pictureLesley-Ann Jones


He died today, seven years ago, and I published this book that same year. 2016. The world has changed almost beyond recognition since, prompting nostalgia and longing for past times.

I haven't yet seen 'Empire of Light', Sir Sam Mendes's latest offering, starring Colin Firth and Olivia Colman. I will watch it, however, primarily because it was shot in and around Margate on the North Kent coast, where my Welsh paternal grandparents settled post-war. Mendes re-wrote the script to fit Margate and its faded Empire Cinema specifically. It is also set in the 1980s, my musical comfort zone.

If the film prompts a scuttling to the Thanet cocoon of my childhood, be sure to visit the Grade I listed Shell Grotto on Grotto Hill, a short walk from the harbour.

Before you go, look again at the back cover of the insert of David Bowie's twenty-eighth and final studio album, 'Blackstar'. It features an eight-pointed star. A symbol of regeneration across cultures and religions, it is also said to represent the eternal intelligent order that underpins manifest reality. It is synonymous with salvation, resurrection and infinity. It denotes harmony and communion at the heart of all creation. And it reminds me of that place I first visited as a little girl.

The magical Shell Grotto is reached by a narrow chalk stairway descending to a winding, vaulted corridor and a small rectangular chamber. Its walls and ceilings are covered with mosaics made from almost five million shells, most of them local: cockles and mussels, limpets and scallops, oysters, winkles and whelks. The Grotto was discovered by accident in 1835, and its secrets remain intact. Whether prehistoric astronomical calendar, ancient temple or hidden meeting place of the Knights Templar in the Middle Ages, it has never been dated with any accuracy. The chamber contains what is presumed to be an altar with an ogival arch, its central feature a beautiful eight-pointed star.

David visited the Shell Grotto while he was hanging around at the seaside more than half a century ago. In Margate, he also played pitch and putt with my Grandad, former Everton and Southend United footballer Emlyn 'Mickey' Jones. He could barely believe what he saw in the grotto, David said. So many shells, such intricate patterns, for no explicable reason. It amazed him. It was the maritime equivalent of Stonehenge. He'd

always loved a mystery, had the Jones boy. Perhaps it was that particular star on the grotto wall which had lodged in his memory. I hope it was. Its appearance on the 'Blackstar' artwork hints at a gate to the cosmos, a portal to space, maybe even a crack at eternity.

'I'll be right here,' he seems to be saying. 'Out there, but also still here. In your ear. In your heart. I haven't gone far.'


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