Thursday, 23 October 2014

Turbulent Seas, Safe Passage

On my list of things to do before I die is stay in a light-keeper’s cottage. I don't know exactly why that immense, single eye belonging to a lighthouse draws me. Its blinding light reassuringly roaming throughout the night, lighting a pathway from land over sea. An luminous beam in the oily black guiding lost ships on a roiling sea.
That one beacon of light is said to be visible for 20-30 nautical miles, which means even a pinpoint of winking yellow saved many a sailor's life or led to certain death if that point of light was instead a wrecker's lantern. An unimpeded gleam brought ships too close to the shore, smashing them into the edges of cliffs. Then the wreckers, amidst the groans and dying wails, could claim their bounty.
Some of my ancestors, it is said, were involved in smuggling; triumphant with the spoils from crafty deals and possibly led astray ships. Relatives, I imagine, who were blessed with the-gift-of-the-gab and an unquenchable thirst for rum. The thrill of getting their hands on contraband charged through their dilated veins, but one had the misfortune of this blood forming a visible red wine stain. He wasn't wounded by a dagger or a pistol shot, but became discoloured through presumingly spilling the blood of others, and marked men then were punished accordingly: hung at the magistrate's pleasure.
The great-great-aunt, whom discovered this, felt herself to be tainted and so immediately halted her previous intrepid dig into that murky past. Those criminal skeletons, if indeed they did exist, should remain unspoken of, not let out again to roam the Dorset coastline. And nobody else has ever dare verify if there's any truth behind this myth; it's just continued to be handed down through the generations.
Was the hanged innocent? Was it a miscarriage of justice? Innocent, but still proved guilty. Innocent of manslaughter or murder possibly, but definitely not of smuggling. That branch of my family were, (and still are), born charmers, entertainers, and salesmen, and I very much doubt they would have wanted to miss out on the intrigue, the skulduggery in those heady times of coastal thieving.
And actually I kind of like it. For me, now years ahead, this history has been romanticised; its sinister and shameful hint has softened and made it positively desirable, like the thought of being kidnapped by a highwayman or tied to a ship's mast by pirates. If you travel your ancestors' roads backwards, eventually it becomes mere fantasy, until the consequences of their actions possess dream-like qualities. It's hard to put myself in their real world without injecting my own illusions: rugged landscapes, stormy seas, and untrodden hamlets; moonless nights, moist air, the clip-clop of hoofs and loaded wagons. I imagine voices whispering plans and breaking out in peals of drunken laughter.
The lighthouse then, for me more appropriately, symbolises a watchtower: a beacon of parenting, abetting men on land and sea. A majestic tower metering out its own unusual form of justice, like a parent who sees too late the blind spots, the obstacles, the pitfalls in their offspring, since they chose instead to cut themselves off from the mainland or left the tower completely unmanned. They can't right or understand the wrongs of their children, but that presiding sweeping beam, that throwaway ray of light is somehow atoning. It unsettles those on dry land, but for all those adrift on turbulent seas illuminates a safe passage.

Thursday, 16 October 2014


There's a painting on my bedroom wall, which I can often be found staring at, because although it's not of a place I've been to, it reminds me of a view I stood before in 2008. I have no photographs of that poignant place or that vulnerable time. Now I think back, I may have destroyed them....Deleted some, if not most, of them; critical of my photographic efforts, (or obvious lack of them), to capture my present scenery.
The irony is I'm a photographer's daughter. My father is a master of documenting history and those otherwise forgettable moments, (he never goes anywhere without a camera or a dog, or both), whereas I prefer to keep my images preserved in memory. Bottled tadpoles, swimming in gin and lined up in rows on musty shelves. The camera has always been an extension of him, but it pulls me away from experiencing the here and now; catapults my self-awareness back, even if I'm not in the shot, and more so if I have to take it.
In those instances when I want to remember, when I want to make a memorable mental picture, I use my sensory receptors like a butterfly net to catch it and screw it tight in a jam jar. Imprisoned, it, at first, flutters horribly, beating its wings against the glassed walls, until exhausted it sinks to the floor and settles, so that by the time it's doused in watered-down gin, it's quite tranquil.
Images, unlike butterflies, captured and contained in this way don't die or drown. They regress to a chrysalis and await their developing moment: their repeated re-release, where they project their flickering shadows around the brain's chambers and generate, in their person, reminiscence or nostalgia. Their repetitive finger puppet shows fills in the interludes, the fragments of inactive time.
This form of recall, for me, can often be overwhelming; saturated in a sensation that no photograph can return me to. I can walk the inside of a house from memory, smell and taste food, transport myself instantly to that beach or garden. There doesn't have to be a trigger, it's just there.
The camera, on the other hand, has not always been kind to this photographer's daughter, and neither sometimes has the photographer. “Stand there!...Smile!...Turn this way!...One more!...Move over!” Stiffened poses, forced smiles...until a very human, hunched and grimacing splodge, particularly during those awkward teenage years, imprints itself in front of a glorious background. But despite my own botched attempts to be in or take a picture, I do see the artistry in photography. I marvel at what that precious eye in a single blink can capture. What must it feel like to possess that! I curse my short-sight; blame it for my blurred focus and grainy vision.
No, I do not possess that kind of skill, despite my admiration. Words are my pictures, yet often it's pictures that inspire them. Go figure! And yes, memories, as with photographs, can be deceiving. There's a touch of fabrication. Memories can be made idyllic and photos can be airbrushed. Yet when I stand before the Shore with Red House, the floodgates open, even though I know it's of the artist's summer house in Aasgaardstrand, Norway, and not of Sausalito in California, that's where it takes me.
I'm standing on the harbour side-walk looking towards the jetty; in front of me the sea meets sky and my feet meet pastel-tinted rock formations. The late afternoon's colouring is still relatively light and warm. I dawdle, taking time on my own, away from my other day-coach-trippers, and consider how this setting is too perfect. The hillside combines so neatly with the shoreline, while the air is refreshing, and yet placid. A single, white, lone female records a potent memory of this picturesque San Francisco Bay Area city.
But what does this prove? That my memory is both infallible and very guilty of association.

Thursday, 9 October 2014


In the early hours of the morn, four skiffs had run aground together. Become stranded on the shore like a pilot whale or a pod of dolphins, where they would be noticed by joggers and dog walkers, who thought it possible that these skiffs too were seeking human intervention, whereas the local fishermen paid them next to no attention.
The coastguard was bemused, but stayed relaxed. In a statement he gave to the local news, he said there was no reason to raise a rescue mission, since they were in such good condition that he believed their sailors would, in time, come back. Members of the public however had united and wanted to drag them further inland to protect them from the wind and the eventual high tide. This notion the coastguard said was preposterous and even the RNLI agreed, but it's often impossible to dissuade well-meaning humans if they're convinced action should be taken and quickly. The stranded skiffs to them were no different from a disoriented whale, except that in their case a reverse course of action was called for: instead of being helped back into the sea, they should be removed farther from it.
Much to the coastguard's dismay, a team of volunteers borrowed ropes, winches and tarpaulin sheets with which to somehow drag and pull the four skiffs to safety. The public not involved stood around, took photographs and tweeted these until they caught the eye of the world's media, and seconds later BBC, Sky and ITN news crews arrived on scene.
The plight of the skiffs escalated into a huge operation similar to the scale of a search and rescue and involved most, if not all, of the emergency services. Overhead, helicopters maintained a circling vigil, whilst on the ground TV reporters kept up a constant stream of melodramatic live bulletins. The crowd too had swelled from a handful to hundreds like a tablespoon of soaked linseeds, most of whom were recording the unfolding scenes on their mobile phones and uploading these to Facebook or YouTube. Some even fought to see how quickly they could claim their five minutes of fame. Other less competitive and boisterous bystanders hopefully lingered in the background and pulled distraught faces at the cameras as they panned round.
The skiffs didn't seem in the least bit distressed by all this commotion and laid placidly, letting the current low tide give them a repetitive goodbye kiss. Goodbye, Hello, Goodbye, Hello again, like a lover who can't walk away to start his day or finish his night. Tabloid and local journalists were in their element, blessed finally with the opportunity to weave a strange tale dosed heavily with their own poetic licence. This was their lucky break to have their creative side recognised – they weren't just a talented hack! In their heads, they waxed lyrical about the absent sailors, presumed leisure boaters or fishermen, and the missing triangular sails and how the bare rigs now curved towards the horizon as single horns, surely pointing out the direction they would again set sail in. A media frenzy of more fevered speculations would certainly follow in their story's wake...
All those there had been drawn by that pervading human instinct to bear witness to disaster. The instinct to be there. The desire to know. Like a scene out of a J G Ballard or Daphne du Maurier novel, it had a heady scent of intrigue and plenty of overzealous people. The four skiffs were hostages, extras to the side show, surrounded by the raised voices of authoritative figures, who in turn were spurned by public jeers. Nothing would ever be decided here. They would be no affirmative action, no acquittal. By tomorrow, their sudden and mysterious appearance would be forgot, and the assumptive explanations of which used as fish and chip paper.
The skiffs would remain forever as they arrived, abandoned on the shore, yet tethered by wild rumours of revenge and sour friendship.