The beach in the immediate vicinity of Bognor Regis is an unprepossessing, shingley kind of creature. Slowly backing away from the seafront, it seems to exist only through an exertion of some animistic will, making a begrudging effort to appear sandy, before guttering away into swash. It’s an attitude I’ve come to grow fond of— the resentment that much of the less popular parts of the south coast seem to increasingly emanate. In Bognor’s case though, the resentment is tempered with a sense that the place is eager to please; as if the beach itself is wondering why there aren’t so many Victorians around anymore, and blames itself for their absence…
Erm… Guys? Was it something I said?
My experience of books, art, cinema, etc— is eager to tell me exactly how I feel about walking beside the sea. And yet, despite the polyphony of different meanings and significances, I cannot help but find the sea to be a singularly hostile entity.
The first time I saw it this way was one Boxing day I spent walking backwards and forwards between the coast of Aldeburgh and Thorpeness. It was a timely reminder that the coast is only really popular in the summer. At other times, the water goes from a more picturesque, blueish shade, to various combinations of green, grey, and brown— the colour autumn might be if someone were to (somehow) liquidise it. Pausing to pick up a chip of amber, I felt a sudden sense of anxiety— as if someone I knew, somewhere, was in trouble, and that I was completely powerless to help them. This feeling persisted well into the New Year, and regularly nudges me whenever I choose to amble along the coastline in my present day dwelling of Bognor Regis.
It is at this point I should explain my reason for anthropomorphising the sea— for projecting emotions and experiences onto it which are unlikely to be relevant to anyone except me. When I first began reading about ecocriticism, I was quick to become puritanically against anthropomorphization. It was a fundamental wrong— the consequence of this being some extremely strange and not so great poems about the Brecklands (since quietly disposed of). And yet the harder I tried to purge it from me, the more persistent it became, to the point I found myself forced, in lieu of its expulsion, to make the best of the process.
The sea took on a human form to me— it walked around and did it’s best to distract me from my urgent business concerning pebbles, Piddock shells, and the sand swilling through the holes in my shoes. It was an irritation, but one I was keen to exacerbate— in the same way I might stop myself from scratching a mosquito bite, until the only thing to do is to scratch and scratch and scratch… I found there were many mediums eager to tell me what I thought of this personable sea: distasteful, spiritual, a scientific puzzle… I considered what I’d seen of fluid dynamics and felt my brain wail at its inability to cope with dense formulas, then thought about the Stella Maria, and finally the Shell on Aldeburgh beach.
Regardless of approach, all appeared to end in the same opacity— illuminating only an aspect of my own perception and filtering out anything of the sea that could potentially be considered ‘a totality’— a coherent route into some deeper understanding. I felt like a man given a shattered crystal, told to piece it back together into its original form— askance and slightly bewildered. I feel a pluralistic way of approach to be a useful one, but at the same time cannot help but feel I lack the necessary insight and intuition (not to mention reading / thinking time) to make it worthwhile. In short, looking out to sea makes me feel frustrated and stuck and happy in a dismal kind of way. It’s a bizarre chimerical kind of creature— and one I cannot hope to pin down here, for, unlike many of its natural counterparts— hills, mountains, plains, etc, the sea has one trait that sets it aside: it swallows art as fast as it inspire it— all indifference and no comment.
Coincidentally, Captain Haddock is my spirit animal…
It therefore should not come as a surprise that I prefer to avert my gaze and stare at pebbles instead. Over time, this has evolved into a kind of beachcombing— a shambling, head down kind of movement up and down the strandline, or ankle deep in swash after a storm searching for interesting uprooted bits and pieces.
I hold that humans are a species biologically inclined towards beachcombing. The fingers that wrinkle on prolonged immersion with water to provide a better grip, the endurance for long, slow walks, and the way the head inclines to watch the shingle, make us well suited. On a more personal note, this way of trudging along a beach reminds me a lot of the way monks process their way into their chapel— eyes modestly and half inwardly alighting on the ground, very much in their own sweet, unworlded realms.
As an especially dark song by Los Campesinos! puts it, the sea is indeed a good place to think of the future. In fact, it’s hard not to have a thought that appears insignificant. I simply hope that what’s flown into my brain while I scuttle up and down the coast is equally interesting, perhaps even useful.
To be continued…