Like so many things, our Bath Writers and Artists calendar has had to be rejigged and our day of contemplating The Sea has been postponed. But with the coast out of bounds to everyone except its native inhabitants (how I wished I’d followed an urge to drive to Clevedon just before the lockdown!) what better time to think about those sea-side places and some books that celebrate them.
The Sea, The Sea, the title of Irish Murdoch’s novel echoes the cry of the Greek army in the 5th century BC when they marched back from their failed expedition against King Cyrus of Persia, Thalassa, thalassa! On a less epic scale, how many of us have given into the same urge? Somehow a sight of the sea is always deserving of a celebration.
My childhood home was only a few miles from the Forth Estuary at Limekilns, just close enough for a Sunday walk with a bus ride home, but the ‘real beach’ at Aberdour needed two buses –a whole day trip or even a week in a boarding house. On every expedition we craned our necks to be first to shout I see the sea! at the spot where the hedgerows parted to reveal a filament of blue on the horizon. Let’s face it, even with our children grown and flown, on trips to North Somerset, Devon or Cornwall, we do exactly the same.
For many years I had no reason to visit my childhood haunts in Fife, but when I did, in a miraculously hot week in 2007, the experience goaded me into writing the book which became A Kettle of Fish, the story of a teenager who clings onto memories of a childhood holiday only to find them tainted by secrets unearthed along the way.
While writing that book, I ran into some photographs of the fishing community on the other side of the Forth at Newhaven, outside Edinburgh, which led me to another story altogether, one that still involved many places I knew and loved but which looks at them through the eyes of history and the lens of one of the first ever cameras.
With the sea running so strongly in my veins (and preparing to talk about it!) I was more than ready to dive into Charlotte Runcie’s Salt on your Tongue, a kind of memoir linked to the author’s first pregnancy, which weaves in the folklore, mythology, history and art of all things oceanic. I plunged in and found many echoes of my own experience especially as the author has close connections to Edinburgh and the East Neuk of Fife. Then as the journey became more wide-ranging I found myself losing interest, I’m afraid and some aspects – like the naming of chapters after the Pleiades – quite irritating. I laid it down. However, when covid-19 came along , I turned to it again and over the last few days have found the closing chapters, in which she returns with her baby to her sea-side haunts, as soothing as the inexplicably calming sound of breaking waves. It’s not really a book to dip in and out of because of its sequential nature, but I can testify to is being one you can put down and pick up again without losing the plot! You can also find it on BBC Sounds.
This book also brought to mind another exploration of the seaside. Strands, by Jean Sprackland, describes her local sea-shore over the course of a year. I don’t have that book to hand but I found its revelations about sea-life and the incursions of man absolutely fascinating, and if I had it here I would be dipping into it again, although I suspect many of her ‘finds’ are now commonplace in our ever more eco-aware times. ‘The sea side has a special place in the collective imagination,’ says Jean Sprackland. And who can argue with that? Would The Salt Path have taken off quite so quickly if the walk had been inland? I’ve even been noticing how many recent TV dramas have sea-side locations (Liar, The Nest, Maggie Cole, Broadchurch and of course Doc Martin!)
There are calls on Facebook this weekend to flood it with pictures of the sea. Flooding Facebook with anything strikes me as dubious, so instead I’m posting this with one or two favourite seasides, home and abroad. In the end I left out some of the more far-flung and exotic locations I could have summoned up, because for me, even on a sunny day, the sea is always more bracing than benign.
As Charlotte Runcie puts it, ‘Even if we live hundreds of miles from salt water, it’s inside us.’
Happily our real sea day has not been cancelled but only postponed. If you would like to join us watch out for updates here.