‘When it starts, we may surmise,’ writes Brian Dillon in The Great Explosion, ‘it is with the merest pop or crackle. Unheard, unseen – or, even if noticed, of no very pressing import to those workers who know the place well.’ On 2 April 1916, an explosion tore through building 833 of the Explosives Loading Company at Uplees, near Faversham in Kent. Two hundred or so tons of TNT and ammonium nitrate went up after some empty sacks caught fire. The explosion was immense. In Southend, twenty or so miles across the Thames estuary, windows shattered. Tremors were felt in Norwich. The heat was so intense that a fire engine 30 yards from the centre of the explosion ‘burst suddenly into flames, apparently untouched by sparks or airborne debris’. The blast left a crater 135 feet wide and 13.5 feet deep in the Kent landscape, while 108 men were killed.
The sound of the explosion, ‘a sound that is also a force: a solid wave rushing across a flat expanse’, reverberates through Dillon’s book. In part, The Great Explosion is a forensic re-creation of the events of that day in Kent. But it is also a history of the explosives industry, a critical interpretation of literary and artistic representations of explosions, and the story of Dillon’s own relationship with the alien, often hostile landscape of the Kent coast.
In this one might have expected something along the lines of what’s increasingly being