Saturday, 8 August 2009


At Winterton with friends. The weather wonderful, warm to hot, a slight cooling breeze, the sand soft, the beach wide, relatively few people. The sea advances in wedges, a line of surf here, a line there: low surf. Behind us the dunes full of moss and heather with tracks to run up or down. A red kite in the sky. Just in sight an out-at-sea windfarm, another windfarm a little way behind us. Part of the beach is fenced off for Little Tern nests. A little further along is where the seals laze in the winter. Dogs run in and out of the sea today. I wade in and feel it surprisingly warm.


Emil Nolde, The Sea III, 1913

The first time I saw the sea was at Westgate, Kent in early December 1956. We were lodged, along with other newly arrived refugees, in out-of-season boarding houses. Ours was called Penrhyn. Out of the front door, descending a wide road down to the sea. Rain lashing the front. A thick greyness. I remember it as a romantic experience, something utterly new. Stranger still for my parents who had lived many more years without ever having seen a sea. The thick grey power of it. I once asked my father what impression it made on him. He simply replied: Fantastic. Fantastic.

And so it is. It makes me think now of Auden's The Enchafèd Flood which begins with a comparison of the sea and the desert. In it he quotes Marianne Moore saying: 'It is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing; but you cannot stand in the middle of this', the 'this' being the sea. Then he considers the romantic attitude:

The distinctive new notes in the Romantic attitude are as follows.

(1) To leave the land and the city is the desire of every man of sensibility and honor.

(2) The sea is the real situation and the voyage is the true condition of man.

The port we sail from is far astern and, though far out of sight of land, for ages and ages we continue to sail with sealed orders and our last destination remains a secret to ourselves and our officers. And yet our final haven was predestined ere we stepped from the stocks of creation. Let us not give ear to the superstitious gun-deck gossip about whither we may be gliding for, as yet, not a soul on board of us knows - not even the commodore himself - assuredly not the chaplain - even out professors' scientific surmisings are vain. On that point, the smallest cabin boy is as wise as the captain.

(- White Jacket)

(3) The sea is where the decisive events, the moments of eternal choice, of temptation, fall, and redemption occur. The shore life is always trivial.

(4) An abiding destination is unknown even if it may exist: a lasting relationship is not possible nor even to be desired.

Mais les vrais voyageurs sont ceux-là seuls qui partent
Pour partir; coeurs légers, semblables aux ballons,
De leur fatalité jamais ils ne s'écartent,
Et, sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!

But the true voyagers are only those who leave
Just to be leaving; hearts light, like balloons,
They never turn aside from their fatality
And without knowing why they always say, "Let's Go!"

Baudelaire, Le Voyage

Immediately after that he goes on the the subject of the desert.

I suspect we still live in the romantic age, because the sea does mean all that to us. But it's odd coming from a land-locked country as I do. In some way the British are of the sea: I only look at it or think of it as fairy tale. Hungarian ones set stories túl az óperencián (over the great sea). I think the British (I may mean primarily the English) have sea in their blood, that it transfuses their skin. It is a natural Other for them, an Other they have been wedded to. I think it gives them a kind of nobility. I admire this quality in them. I doubt whether they see it at all. Maybe you have to be a little outside it to notice it.

But that Baudelaire: leaving just to be leaving, always saying, 'Let's go!' strikes home with me too. 'Home' literally. It is 'home' that is being struck. By lightning? By something falling from the sky? Some enormous creature, like a bird for example. I think unless we understand that about home we don't understand it at all. Or, to put it another way, pictorially, so to speak... via Nolde, again.

Emil Nolde, Child and Large Bird, 1912


Mark Granier said...

Always brings to my mind one of Larkin's lesser known (or less celebrated) poems, ABSENCES:

Rain patters on a sea that tilts and sighs.
Fast-running floors, collapsing into hollows,
Tower suddenly, spray-haired. Contrariwise,
A wave drops like a wall: another follows,
Wilting and scrambling, tirelessly at play
Where there are no ships and no shallows.


Always bracing, a kind of sea-leveled High Windows.

Nicole S said...

I've just spent a week on the same beach, a little way up from Winterton, with friends and a pack of children. I'm surprised you found the sea warm, but like your father said, it is double fantastic. Waves that duff you up a bit, just teasing, and seals popping up all around like periscopes. They reminded me of the Thurber cartoon, with a seal peering over the bed's headboard and an irritable husband saying: All right, have it your own way - you heard a seal bark.

George S said...

That's a gorgeous bit of Larkin, Mark. Thank you for sending me back to it. Of course, it's the last line of the poem that is most quoted and is most memorable as standalone.

I didn't say the sea was warm in an absolute sense, Nicole, just surprisingly warm. And it was. I expect it to be much colder there, but then most of our visits to Winterton have in fact been in the winter. That is when the seal colony stays there, close tot he headland.

But fancy you being there too! I do think this part of the Norfolk coast is gorgeous and nicely out of the way of the world.