Life at Sea

I’ve been on many pleasant coastal walks around the UK, particularly in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, and despite the company of friends or family, and quite often to their complaint, I find myself drawn into a silent contemplation. The vast emptiness of the sea seems to soak up all of my attention, and no matter how much is given, it’ll always absorb a little more.

But it’s not just the seascape that draws the eyes. Inland sit an abundance of curious treasures. Abandoned relics of wars past dot the landscape, concrete bunkers and pillboxes that sit on their haunches, nestled into the contours of the rock, or that lay camouflaged and overrun by nettles and brambles.

Standing tall in plain sight are military observation posts that look out to sea, already close to the cliff’s edge, they now appear to back away from the crumbling rock face, imperilled not by the army of some distant nation, but the entropic forces of wind and water. No amount of watchtowers will save the cliffs from that.

This wild frontier with the sea undulates continuously, and every now and again the path descends completely, taking you down to the level of the sea, to reveal a small bay. Flanked by rising cliffs, in the centre a beach of golden sand lightly speckled with ocean detritus. Here and there you find the translucent empty shells of dead crabs, fragile to the touch, while the pillaged homes of limpets sit beside, tiny mountains cosseted on a bed of crushed rock.

The insistent fizzing of the breaking surf provides an accompaniment to the viewing of this scenery, but it’s a soothing soundtrack, the energy of the waves diminished and spent against the cobbled harbour wall. A few small fishing boats nestle against it, sheltering from the dormant fury of the sea, which anger is only hinted at in the ripples of the water’s surface; an implied threat, softened by the play of sunlight on liquid, the ripples alternately catching, then propelling the sunlight.

Atop the harbour wall sits an unsteady pile of lobsters pots, empty of prey and overrun with unkempt beards of wispy green seaweed. A rope, of an artificially-blue nylon, coarse and splintering, binds these cages to a line of orange marker buoys. Beaten by the weather, they have become punctured footballs, faded in patches to a sickly pink.

Beyond the confines of the wall, a little further out to sea, there floats a larger buoy. A red steel cylinder it has the appearance of a WW2 bomb that was caught frozen as it pierced the water, and that must now bob impotently and unexploded. And this is where I begin to anthropomorphise, to imbue the buoy with human possibilities. How could I not? For I see a buoy, anchored and bound, condemned to stay in place, fixed there by forces outside its control or comprehension.

And once started, how to stop? Imagine now a face painted onto the buoy, daubed there by a weary sailor or his excited son. The features are simple, cartoonish, goofy looking, and so it animates, squirming into life. Doleful black and white eyes scan the waterline for evidence of another of its kind. For understanding.

The buoy rocks gently from side to side, propelled by that corrective force, buoyancy, and each time initiates a small train of ripples, a continual communication with the world, a sign of life. Its heartbeat counting out the time of existence, of a life at sea.

And as for us, bad weather is unwelcome. To shut his eyes brings relief from the insidious salt, yet the torment of uncertainty, of not knowing, is worse, and he must face the waves head on and stare unblinking into the enveloping green water.

Everyday here is different, and yet the same, until finally, an unwelcome change. Surveying his skin, he notices a blister of paint below his right eye, a low rise bubble, grown under cover of night. He stares at it constantly, seeing it grow daily, eyes helpless as his red skin weakens, until finally it splits to expose raw steel. Steel gives way to rust, the rust gives way completely. Only a hole remains, through which each wave brings the outside in.

Swaying buoy, lurching buoy, full up now, all movements slowed.
Drunken capsize, and fast descent. Vanishing sky, one blue swapped for another,
darker,
but darker.

Boy, boy,
drowning then?
Bubbles spew,
last sign of life.

Boy, boy,
sink alone,
gurgl’d goodbye,
last flare of hope.

There never was.

First Light, Final Thought

Over Christmas, whilst visiting my parents, I spotted the book First Light by Geoffrey Wellum on my bookshelves at home. I first read this WW2 memoir a few years ago, and it is an excellent, moving portrayal of life as an RAF pilot during that period. In 2010 the book was turned into a drama-documentary shown on BBC2 . I highly recommend both of them, however, rather than now, somewhat belatedly, giving a detailed review of the book, I instead want to relate a key impression of his extraordinary story that has lingered with me.

The memory I have is a quote that, oddly enough, isn’t actually from the book, but rather from an interview with Geoffrey Wellum that appeared in the Independent newspaper. When asked, by journalist Julia Llewellyn Smith, why he had written the memoir, he gave the following reply:

“I just wanted to sit quietly and convince myself that at some point in my life I had been of use.”

Having read his account of his extraordinarily intense military service of several years, including fighting in the Battle of Britain, it is incredible to think that he could ever have had any doubts on this point. These haunting words have stayed with me almost verbatim ever since, a testament to their power, and, even now, I struggle to think of a more raw or poignant summary of the question of life than them.

Note: the interview in the Independent seems to be currently unavailable online, but the quote is reproduced in this blog, Place to Land.