Spirit of the sea – art, music and glass

There are few sounds more magical than the sound of the sea. Whether it’s the slow, breathing cadence of the beach at Aldeburgh, with the North Sea washing the pebbles up and down the shoreline with each wave of the swell, or the thunder of the storm waves hitting the breakwater at the Cob in Lyme Regis, sending a plume of white into the air, I find the sound of the sea compelling. Sadly I am rarely successful at taking photographs of the sea – in the time it takes for my eye to see the image, by brain to send instructions to my finger to press the shutter release, and the camera to respond, the scene has moved on, and the moment is lost. Writing about the sea is hard too, with words often feeling too solid to convey something so mercurial and transient.

Paintings can be more successful at evoking the sea – I am especially admiring of Maggi Hambling’s sea paintings (there’s a video here where she speaks about ‘painting the sound of the sea’, with images from her exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in 2010). Music can do it too, and for me the most moving examples are by Benjamin Britten (his Four Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes) and his teacher Frank Bridge (his symphonic poem The Sea). Britten lived and worked in Aldeburgh, on Suffolk’s North Sea coast, and when I walk on the quiet beach there the soundrack in my head is his first sea interlude (On The Beach: Dawn).

My love of the sea is not sentimental. I was brought up on or near it, and I know all too well how its moods can change, and the destruction and death it can cause. It’s not all blue, bathing beaches and bobbing boats. The sea demands respect, and takes revenge on those who trifle with it. It’s also merciless to those who are in the wrong place at the wrong time, those who have to make their living on it and risk their lives doing so. For me, the heroes of the sea are the volunteer lifeboat crews who set to sea in the worst of conditions in order to rescue those for whom they are the last resort. Yes, the sea is beautiful, but it is also powerful and cannot be tamed by humankind.

The British coastline is shaped by that power. Breakwaters and sea defences notwithstanding, the sea has created – and continues to create – a dynamic coast. Erosion and encroachment by the sea (to stick with the North Sea examples, think of Happisburgh which is being ‘lost’ to the sea at a sometimes dramatic rate) is balanced by the creative forces of deposition (for example the giant and ever-growing shingle bank of Orford Ness).

There has been much concern, and rightly so, about the amount of plastic debris being washed up on our coastlines, and the effect of this on wildlife and the marine ecosystem. But there is something else which is regularly washed up on our beaches, which to my mind is a great example of the power of the sea at work to create something beautiful from the cast-offs of our past. I think of it as a kind of recycling, the forces of nature reworking the mundane into unintended gems. I’m talking about sea glass.

Sea glass is formed when pieces of waste glass are abraded by being tumbled in the sea for extended periods of time (sometimes decades or centuries), their sharp edges eventually ground down into a frosted smoothness and pleasing pebble shapes. I have collected sea glass for some years, and there is a vast network of collectors around the world – Instagram is a good place to see their finds.

Sea glass can be found on beaches anywhere – as with any beachcombing, the best pickings are often to be found at the first low tide after a storm, when all manner of interesting things can be washed up. Some parts of the UK coastline, however, seem to yield more glass than others – I have found a lot in the North West, and also some on beaches in North Devon and East Anglia. I hear that the North East of England is a favourite location for collectors, due to the presence of several bottle works in the 19th and 20th centuries – the largest in the country was at Seaham – which dumped their waste glass into the North Sea. I have included a few photographs from my collection, most of which I display in a large glass vase, although the best way to see sea glass and the way it plays with light and colour is to handle it. The blue pendant is a gift from my partner, who found this unusual aqua-coloured and very large piece of sea glass at Lynmouth in North Devon (other people’s partners give them gemstones. Mine gives me sea glass. I am very lucky!).

Sea glass pendant

Most sea glass is a magical pale aqua colour, but some is white, a lot is green, and other rare colours include amber, blue, orange and (most prized of all) red. As most sea glass originated as glass bottles, the abundance of any colour depends on how common the bottles were – blue, for example, started life as medicine or poison bottles, while amber bottles held spirits. Glass bottle tops are sometimes found too, as are the glass marbles which formed the stoppers of early carbonated drinks. Keen collectors have researched the origins of sea glass, which is in itself a social history and archaeology of glass. Occasionally I am lured into researching a piece – for example the reinforced glass incorporating rusting metal wire grids which occur on Crosby beach on Merseyside, which are part of the debris from buildings destroyed in WWII air raids on the city of Liverpool which was dumped there. Mostly, though, I collect it because I am enchanted by what the sea has made from our thoughtless waste. The power that destroys coastlines and wrecks ships has formed something which, in its colour and ever changing reaction to light, is a kind of echo of itself. Have nothing in your homes, said William Morris famously, that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. Sea glass, I believe, is the most beautiful thing in my home.

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Working from home – welcome to my world

The recent move towards working from home as a response to the Coronavirus pandemic has flooded the internet with cries for help from people who aren’t coping with it, and advice for how to make it work for you.  The fact that it’s proving so difficult for so many people, and requires so much adaptation, has really flagged up to me how relatively unusual my preferred way of living and working actually is.

First, some disclaimers.  I don’t (any longer) work for a company, where I have to account for my working time at home, be available for virtual meetings during normal office hours, virtually ‘clock on’, and have my productivity monitored.  I appreciate that for many, that’s the kind of working from home you are doing.  Also, I don’t have children, so I’m not attempting to home educate/entertain them 24/7 while simultaneously working.  That must be the stuff of madness, and if that’s your situation, I salute you.   I have not lost my job, and I’ve not been furloughed on reduced salary.  I have the good fortune to have a home that’s large enough not to have to share my workspace with the other inmate, and some (albeit small) outside space.  And above all, we are both well, and I realise that a lot of readers of this blog will be experiencing illness or bereavement and may feel that my comments are shallow and facile.  I’m just writing about how things are for me.

We are sticking diligently to the rules: only going out (singly) once every few days for essentials such as shopping (we’ve not been able to get supermarket delivery slots) and picking up prescriptions, and going out together once a day for a walk in our local area, keeping social distancing when we encounter anyone else.  From that point of view, we’re in the same boat as everyone else in the UK.

What has struck me is how little my life has changed during lockdown.  The main components of my working day are reading, researching online, and writing, with a bit of work-related social media (mostly Twitter) and some of the boring administrative tasks associated with self-employment.  None of that has changed.  I’m still writing, I’m still planning my book and doing research for it, I’m still submitting commissioned articles, I’m still blogging.  My working life is almost totally solitary, and I need it like that to be able to think, to be creative, to make work that I’m happy with.  The only exceptions are when I interview people for a piece I’m writing, or when I do a ‘field trip’ to somewhere I’m going to be writing about, or when I occasionally go on a writing-related course.

Travel, of course, isn’t happening – and frankly that’s the main impact of lockdown on my work, as I was just at the stage when I was going to spend the late spring and summer travelling round the country doing a dozen field trips in preparation for the book.  I’m having to completely re-think how I can use this time to research effectively until such times as I can make those field trips, while hopefully not delaying the completion of the book more than I can help.

Lockdown has demonstrated that there are times when being an introvert is an advantage.  Mostly, it isn’t.  Societally, extraversion is seen as preferable, and introverts are regarded with either pity or suspicion (being perceived as a ‘loner’ isn’t good in our society – being a ‘people person’ or a ‘team player’ is).  I used to feel lesser, like however hard I tried I was never quite good enough because I found being around lots of people knackering rather than stimulating.  To be honest, I find meetings and socialising with groups of people exhausting, I prefer humans in ones and twos (any more, and I long to lie down quietly in a darkened room to recover), and I’m happiest on my own or with one or two carefully chosen people, ideally with a pile of books to lose myself in.  Susan Cain’s book Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking was a revelation.  It isn’t just me – it’s about one third of the human race. It’s OK to be an introvert.  We are not failed extraverts – we are successfully, happily introverts – well, we’re happy and successful if we’re allowed to live and work in ways that allow us to thrive.  Don’t put me in a noisy, busy open-plan office with a dozen other people and expect me to be productive and creative.  And certainly don’t expect me then to be sociable in the evenings or at weekends – that’s when I need peace and quiet to recover from being all peopled-out during the working day.  I know there’s a lot of concern about the impact of social media on people’s mental health, but for me it’s been a boon – I can keep in touch with people, in my own time and when I’m in a place to welcome and enjoy it, rather than getting peopled-out by socialising.  I have joined online groups of people with shared interests, and I love it – for me, it’s the best of both worlds.

It also means that during lockdown I’m in the fortunate position of not missing the stimulation of colleagues and friends around me.  People I’m collaborating with for work are still there, via email, phone, social media or Zoom, as are my friends.  I’m sorry that a couple of large events and conferences, which I had geared myself up for because the content was sufficiently interesting to make it worth the crowds, have been cancelled – but it’s the content, rather than the buzz, that I miss.  I’m just getting on with what I do every day: reading, researching, writing, pitching to commissioning editors, keeping up to date with the writing industry, invoicing.  When I’m not working, I’m going on my daily walk, reading, knitting, planning weaving projects, spinning, weaving, playing with my camera, baking.

Actually, that is one thing that is different because of lockdown – I am baking more than usual.  Going out for coffee and cake is one of our favourite treats, and as the cafés are closed, I’ve stepped into the breach and baked cakes and cookies, scones and parkin.  Fortunately we had just acquired a coffee machine, so at least we have decent coffee while we can’t go out!

Photograph of scones with butter and jam