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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Writing about writing, and why I find it difficult

In the course of research for a recent writing commission, I have been reading a number of writers’ websites, their biogs on their publishers’ websites, and interviews with writers.  In these, they talk about their ‘practice’ (their writing process and rationale), their formative influences, and the philosophy underpinning what and how they write.  It’s been interesting, and was necessary in order to write my piece, but the experience has left me feeling more awkward than ever about something I have long struggled with.

Judging by the feedback I get, a lot of readers of this blog enjoy reading about the writing process.  But I find it so difficult to write about!  Talking this through with my partner the other day, I described it as being “a bit like asking someone to talk about why and how they breathe.  You just do it!”

OK, if you are a singer you will want to do breathing exercises, and learn techniques to manage your breathing and make it work for you so as to be as expressive as possible in your singing.  But, basically, you just do it.  And you can’t imagine life without it.  Writing has always been like that for me – I’ve just done it, and can’t imagine not doing it.  I read books and go on courses to learn new skills and techniques, but I’m not learning how to do it – I just do it.

I know I could read and write in Dutch by the age of 5, because that’s when my English-medium education started, and I was hugely frustrated by the vagaries of the language after nice, regular, phonetic Dutch.  But I know that by 7 I was writing my own books, keeping a diary, and devouring chunks of the Pocket Oxford Dictionary.  I wrote stories, poems, and lengthy pieces on natural history, accompanied by full-colour diagrams of leaves and dissected flowers.  By 8 or 9, I was torn about what I wanted to be – a private detective or a writer.

Although I excelled at English language, it was history I really loved, and which in some shape or form I’ve continued to study ever since.  I did ‘A’ level English, though, and was lucky enough to be able to do a pilot of a very progressive (for the mid 1980s) syllabus which included a large creative writing component.  My work was chosen for inclusion in a collection produced by the exam board to be used by teachers and students as an exemplar.  I got a good grade, my longstanding inability to write a decent literature essay more than compensated for by my facility with writing and practical criticism (the latter now coming in useful when writing reviews!).  But although my teacher was enthusiastic about my writing, the message from home and school was clear – you can’t make a living from writing, so do something else.  Interestingly, not one of us went on to study English at university.

Alongside academic essays and dissertations, I continued to write poetry for some years, and a series of jobs gave me opportunities to write across a range of genres: manuals, reports, press releases, newspaper articles, courses and training materials, strategy documents, and for the last decade or so, web content.  Writing was rarely in the job description, but was always a necessary aspect of the work and somehow I managed to subvert things so that it became a major part of the role.  For the last few years I have also been writing commissioned work alongside the day job, and now I’m writing full time, a mixture of commissions, blogging, and working on my first book.

I have from time to time thought about enrolling on a creative writing degree course, but for a couple of reasons I have decided not to.  Firstly, almost all syllabuses are designed for people who want to write novels.  I don’t want to write novels.  I quite like reading them, especially if they are historical or whodunits, but my mind doesn’t work that way and I can’t imagine dwelling within an imagined, parallel universe for the time it takes to research and write a novel.  It’s not that I don’t have an imagination (I do, a very vivid one, which is particularly visual), but I like to start with something factual, often historical, and maybe give a slightly different slant on it.  What story could this object tell?  How might it have felt to be in that place at that time?  Modules on plot and characterisation don’t seem very relevant to me.  The courses which aren’t about novels are generally about poetry, and whilst I do write poetry from time to time, it’s not my passion in the way that non-fiction is.

Secondly, it would mean a commitment of at least a year, full time.  I’m not sure that I can justify that at my age.  It’s not as if I don’t already have a track record of writing, and of getting commissions.  I’m not saying that I’ve got nothing to learn – there’s always more to learn – but I’m not sure that, even if I could find a course that was relevant, it would be the best use of a year of my life.

I can’t conceive of not writing.  It’s as natural for me as breathing, which is why I find it so hard to describe what I do, my ‘practice,’ and why although I’m rigorous about my structure, use of language, tone, and so on, and edit ruthlessly, I find it difficult to create literary-sounding biogs about how and why I write.  I’m interested in places, things, people – especially, but not exclusively, historical.  I always want to know why (this used to drive my family nuts when I was little!).  And then I want to use words to share what I’ve discovered.  Quite apt for the little girl who couldn’t decide whether to be a private detective or a writer!

It’s a process which is often quite solitary, but where the finished product potentially reaches many, many people, including many whom I will never meet.  In much the same way as I weave – first researching the design inspiration and the properties of the materials, then creating the design, then exploring the technical aspects of the piece, then making it – I craft the words on the page into a shape which I am happy with, and which I hope others will find stimulating, interesting or enjoyable.  Just as not everyone is going to like my tapestries, not everyone will like what I write, but as long as I’m pleasing some of the people some of the time, I’m happy!

Photograph of a woven tapestry of a seascape, entitled Lundy 1 by Lisa Tulfer

Lundy 1 by Lisa Tulfer. Woven tapestry, 3×3 inches.

Book review. The Hare and the Moon: A Calendar of Paintings by Catherine Hyde

As regular readers of this blog may have gathered, I am a bit of a fan of the hare.  I was delighted, therefore, to find this rather wonderful little book with the evocative title The Hare and the Moon: A Calendar of Paintings.  It is pleasingly square, with a tactile cover, which is always a good start.  And it had me at the first page, which is an illustration of the three hares motif!

There are a number of elements to the ‘calendar’ aspect of the book.  A poem, with the refrain which recites the folk names for the full moons (The Snow Moon, The Wolf Moon, The Hunger Moon, The Sap Moon etc) is woven through it.  Each month then has six themes.  There are black and white illustrations of the moon phases.  There are double page colour paintings of the hare in the seasonal landscape (I especially like January, where the hare is joined in the snowy countryside by the barn owl and the raven).   There are Indian ink drawings of the hare in action and at rest.  For each month there is a flower, a tree, and a bird, each accompanied by a colour painting and a note about the folklore and alternative country names.  For example, June’s flower is honeysuckle:

“Used for rope-making in the Bronze Age and also known as woodbine, honeybind, trumpet flowers, Irish vine, Goat’s leaf, sweet suckle and fairly trumpets.  Honeysuckle grown around the entrance to the home prevented a witch from entering and would bring good luck.”

The Hare and the Moon subtly weaves poetry and art together, blurring the boundaries and creating what has been described as ‘visual poetry’.  This is so much more than a book of poems and folksy factoids with illustrations.  The images have a dreamy quality which lend a timeless air to this charming book.  Perfect for reading, as I did, while curled up on the sofa on a dark winter afternoon, a steaming mug of tea by my side (think hygge!), this would make a fine Christmas/Yule present for anyone who loves the natural world, folklore, or art.  Or indeed hares!

 

(For more about Catherine Hyde, take a look at https://catherinehyde.co.uk/)

Family life – the swans of Oxburgh Hall

As the summer comes to a close, I’m sharing a family saga that’s been unfolding over the past few months.  I am fortunate to have Oxburgh Hall (National Trust) just down the road, and the fine moat is home to a pair of swans.  Last summer, while swan couples in the surrounding countryside reared their families, there were no little silver puffballs for the Oxburgh swans.

This year, however, they had more luck.  Back in June, they were proudly showing off their single baby.  Small, fluffy and grey, they guarded it fiercely.  Any visitor venturing too near was seen off by a hissing parent.  As an adult swan can easily break your arm if sufficiently cross, visitors wisely left well alone!  We got some nice pictures though.

Cygnets (baby swans) are quite vulnerable.  As well as having the usual youngsters’ talent for getting into life-threatening scrapes, when they are tiny they are also vulnerable to predators such as foxes, herons and raptors.  Prolonged wet periods can cause them to get waterlogged and chilled, and in hot weather they can easily overheat.  They can also be targeted by parasites, which weaken their system.  About a third of hatchlings don’t make it past the first two weeks of life.  They are not fed by their parents, but feed themselves from the start, so they have to learn quickly how to find enough suitable food to fuel their rapid growth.

On my next visit to Oxburgh, in July, I was thrilled to find that the lone cygnet was not only surviving, but thriving!  The parents were a little less protective now that the crucial first couple of weeks were past, and our little cygnet was growing well.

Much less fluffy, s/he (too early to tell if it’s a cob or a pen) is a sturdy little thing, and seems to have mastered the art of hoovering food up out of the moat.  It was actually quite hard to get a photograph, as the cygnet spent most of its time upended, feeding!  I got dozens of pictures of its backside, but not many of its head…

Fast forward to late August, and there was a heart-stopping moment as we couldn’t find the swan family.  We walked all round the moat, searched the fields, but there was no sign of them.   Just as we were about to go and find a member of staff to enquire what had happened to the swans, we spotted them in the river beyond the moat.  The cygnet is now HUGE!  It is rapidly growing to be as big as its mother, and is confidently swimming off by itself.

I stood on the little footbridge to take this photograph, but had to move aside when the flotilla headed my way, with the parents hissing loudly – they wanted to swim under the footbridge, and objected to my presence!  I obediently made way (I don’t argue with swans) and they ducked under the bridge and headed off downstream.

It’s been lovely to follow this youngster’s progress, and it’s great that the pair have finally managed to raise young – even if it is just the one.  Maybe they are an inexperienced pair and they’ll be more successful in future years – it’s a good excuse to keep going back to Oxburgh Hall to find out!

Where did the year go?! Sudden Autumn

After a brief Indian Summer, I am suddenly very aware that Autumn is here – the depth of colour in the trees is becoming distracting as I drive along country roads.  It will not be long before I am sweeping fallen leaves out of my newly-constructed pond.  This is, and always has been, by favourite time of year.  Somewhere around early September, usually, I am aware that the year has turned, and that the torpor of summer (even a nasty cold wet one like we’ve had) is about to give way to the excitement of Autumn.  At the other end of the year, the same thing happens in February as it suddenly becomes Spring.  But Spring has lots of fans, and does not need enthusiasts for its beauty and vivaciousness.  Autumn seems to have fewer acolytes, but I am definitely one.

Curiously, I find Autumn invigorating.  Not only is it the new year for academic courses, which have, one way or another, been a major feature of much of my life, but there is a sense of nature getting ready.  The swallows and the martins head off for summer quarters.  There is the prospect of the murmurations of starlings on the Somerset Levels to look forward to.  The boughs are laden with fruit and berries like a giant open-plan larder.  It feels as if they year is gathering in its supplies for the winter to come.

I’ve bought logs for the wood-burning stove.  I joined my neighbours in a collective apple juice pressing day which resulted in unfeasible numbers of bottles of wonderful juice.  I have pureed apples and frozen the results, to liven up porridge on winter mornings.  I have picked raspberries from the garden.

The garden – ah, yes.  The garden was supposed to be like a scene from The Good Life by now, but sadly I got flu in the Spring and lost 6 weeks of gardening time at a crucial time, and then engaged two consecutive gardeners to help me deal with the resulting jungle, only to have them not get back to me for, literally, months.  By high summer it was a seriously daunting project and way beyond me, but fortunately my lovely neighbour put me in touch with the delightful Jan from http://www.blueshedflowers.co.uk/ who has been doing her magic over the past couple of months, and I am now optimistic of being able to get the veg patch up and running for next year.  This garden has all manner of hidden treasures, so the year has not been completely a lost cause as I have had the chance to see what is here already – moving in during Jan/Feb meant I hadn’t a clue what I’d inherited.

One garden success has been the pond – a tiny pre-formed liner, intended as a wildlife pond.  I have to mention in dispatches here the heroic J who dug and installed it for me (with remarkably little bad language) on a muggy summer’s day.  The tiny frog which has already taken up residence in it is very appreciative too!  All manner of other creepy-crawlies have moved in as well, so I shall be interested to see what develops.  I built a bench and got a table for the garden during the summer, so next year I can sit and watch pond life in comfort!  I’ve been consciously planting for wildlife, with lavenders and buddleia, as well as for my own consumption in the herb bed.  I look forward to sharing pics of the first pickings from the vegetable patch next year – I’m looking at growing broad and dwarf beans, chard, salad leaves, garlic, spring onions, possibly some carrots and potatoes, and whatever else takes my fancy when I peruse the seed catalogues.  Meanwhile, in the next few weeks I need to plant up the big pots of tulips for the back doorstep, and alliums and fritillaria in the garden.  I got a bit overexcited about buying bulbs this year…