Sunday, January 16

Down To The Seas Again

I’ve just been to Brighton for a few days. Both my sons live there with their girlfriends, and each time I go there I fall in love with it all over again. I’m sure it has its rubbish side like every other place, but I enjoy the cosmopolitan feel, its architecture (I mean the good, old Regency-type stuff - not the godawful 1960s concrete blocks of offices and flats), and most of all – the Sea.

I love the sea, but I could never be a sailor. I like being beside it (not, I must add, in bathing costume) and within earshot of its incessant noise. For twenty years or so I lived on the Suffolk coast, in Felixstowe, not quite within earshot of the North Sea but only a few minutes walk away from it. I used to love walking on the beach on November evenings, when the wind whipped in from the East like a load of ice cold knives aimed at your head. For five years I worked for a shipping agent in the Docks. I used to go on board cargo vessels and make sure the Captain and crew had all the stores they needed, and sort out the cargo manifest and what have you; I was kind of the link between them and dry land. Okay, they had a gangway, too, but I was more human. It was a pretty interesting job. I learned how to have whiskey for breakfast at 6 o’clock in the morning and how to go back to the office at half past eight and appear not to be drunk. One day a sailor fell down the narrow gap between the side of our ship and the dock and was killed. Every now and then one of the Captains would say that maybe one day I could go on a round trip with them, but it never materialised. I wasn’t too bothered. Sweden and the North Sea in midwinter didn’t seem a great proposition. And they weren’t very big ships, and it didn’t look particularly comfortable down below in the living quarters. Cosy, yes; comfortable, no. Every now and then we’d get one of the big transatlantic container ships in, but I was never offered a round trip to Miami. Felixstowe was (and probably still is) the biggest container port in the country. One day a docker was hit by one of those huge mobile container carriers that move containers around the quayside. It sliced him in two at the waistline. I missed seeing it by about a minute. The bloke I worked with, an old chap who’d been a seaman all his life and had been through more shit than most, saw it happen. I’ve never seen anyone whiter or more shaken up either before, or since. He needed more than one shot of Scotch to face the rest of the day. When I went back to the ship later that morning they were hosing the quayside down, cleaning up the mess. The only time I actually went to sea while I worked that job was for a learning trip my employers sent me on to see the docks in Ostend and Dunkirk. They were very dull – see one docks, you’ve seen them all, to be honest - but the coachload of other dock-type people I went with included a bloke called Harry Gibb, who was a boxing referee. He refereed international bouts, including a fight between Henry Cooper and Joe Bugner. It was big-time televised stuff, and he did it in his spare time from working in a London dockyard. Boy, he had some stories. We laughed a lot, and got drunk again, and looked in red light windows in Ostend. I was only a lad, with a wife and two kids. But I’m digressing. Back home, sometimes we’d have to work all night, and you’d see the darkness fall on the sea, and the day dawn. But I could never be a sailor; I’m too much of a wimp.

I just re-read a couple of Joseph Conrad things. This is more or less a coincidence. I once wrote a poem called “For Joseph Conrad”, which was partly because I like his work a lot, and partly as an excuse to write a poem that involved a trip around the world and mention of lots of places I’d never been to on boats that didn’t exist. I also tried to be witty and amusing, because I was beginning to work out that poems didn’t have to be about the cosmos and why, but I’m not sure how successful I was. This is a bit of it:

In San Francisco it was foggy,
as usual, though that didn’t alter
how we ate our way across the city.
A few days later, finding ourselves
wandering aimlessly outside a condo
complex at Oakland we took up with
a couple of guys who were headed
for Vietnam. This was quirky enough
to be too good to miss, so we hopped
aboard Darkness and Light and
trusted someone knew the route.
Someone did know the route, but
nobody knew how to steer the boat;
in New Zealand we cut our losses
and bought berths on The Cutlass,
though the mate’s eye patch, and hook
where his hand should’ve been, gave
me nightmares.

Of course, a lot of Conrad is about the cosmos. I always loved those big grandstand (and often incomprehensible) paragraphs where he goes on and on about the vast silent immensity of great unfathomable enormousness. And this kind of thing:

Yet at midnight he turned out to duty as if nothing had been the matter, and answered to his name with a mournful 'Here!' He brooded alone more than ever, in an impenetrable silence and with a saddened face. For many years he had heard himself called 'Old Singleton,' and had serenely accepted the qualification, taking it as a tribute of respect due to a man who through half a century had measured his strength against the favours and the rages of the sea. He had never given a thought to his mortal self. He lived unscathed, as though he had been indestructible, surrendering to all the temptations, weathering many gales. He had panted in sunshine, shivered in the cold; suffered hunger, thirst, debauch; passed through many trials -- known all the furies. Old! It seemed to him he was broken at last. And like a man bound treacherously while he sleeps, he woke up fettered by the long chain of disregarded years. He had to take up at once the burden of all his existence, and found it almost too heavy for his strength. Old! He moved his arms, shook his head, felt his limbs. Getting old.... and then? He looked upon the immortal sea with the awakened and groping perception of its heartless might; he saw it unchanged, black and foaming under the eternal scrutiny of the stars; he heard its impatient voice calling for him out of a pitiless vastness full of unrest, of turmoil, and of terror. He looked afar upon it, and he saw an immensity tormented and blind, moaning and furious, that claimed all the days of his tenacious life, and, when life was over, would claim the worn-out body of its slave.

I don’t think my squib of a poem was trying to capture quite the same thing, to be honest. Which is good, because it didn’t capture it at all. But yes, I’d like to live by the sea again. I’d quite like to live in Brighton, because my kids are there, and you can get very good lunches at The Hop Poles on Middle Street, I think it is. But I can’t afford the rents or the house prices. I’d have to get a full-time job.

Powered by Blogger

British Blogs. Listed on Blogwise Subscribe with Bloglines

Song Lyrics

Search Engine Submission and Optimization Blogarama - The Blog Directory

Get Firefox!