I’m downsizing my library, drastically. Half my books must go. I sit in my shed, surrounded by boxes I have already filled, and let my eyes scan across the shelves, left to right, then back again right to left. There is a word for this: boustrophedon. It describes the action of printing, writing or reading from one side of a page to the other, and then back again, as with oxen ploughing a field. And just as a plough will give a jolt when it hits a stone or a root of buried tree, so my eye stops abruptly when it lights on a book I have forgotten, but know immediately I could never give away.
Over and over again, I find reasons for not getting rid of this or that particular book or, worse, of this or that particular author. WG Sebald, for instance, whose novel Austerlitz I taught when it first appeared a decade ago; about which I have blogged once before, and of which a student said to me only yesterday, ‘I’d never have read Sebald, but for you. He changed my life.’ I have all his books on my shelf now, and I pick one at random: The Rings of Saturn (1998), a strange hypnotic account of a walk along the East Anglian coast. I have not opened it for several years and to my surprise I find I have annotated it heavily - highlighting, cross-referencing, pencilling notes in the margin. Did I once teach this book alongside Austerlitz?
A quarter of an hour’s walk south of Benacre broad, where the beach narrows and a stretch of sheer coastline begins, a few dozen dead trees lie in a confused heap where they fell years ago from the Covehythe cliffs. Bleached by salt water, wind and sun, the broken, barkless wood looks like the bones of some extinct species, greater even than the mammoths and dinosaurs, that came to grief long since on this solitary strand. The footpath leads around the tangle through a bank of gorse, up the loamy cliff-head, and there it continues amidst bracken, the tallest of which stood as high as my shoulder, not far from the ledge, which is constantly threatening to crumble away. (Vintage, pp.64-65)
Sebald’s book is a meditation on time, and time’s changes. The coastline he treads is itself always changing. Cliffs crumble, houses fall; footpaths become too dangerous to follow. Soon it won’t be only Dunwich which lies out to sea: Happisburgh is well on the way to joining it, and it will be a sad day when the lighthouse, the church and the Hill House pub (where Arthur Conan Doyle got the idea for the secret code in his short story, The Dancing Men) all disappear.
But it’s the North Norfolk coast I know better, from Cromer to King’s Lynn and round into the Wash. I learned to swim at Hunstanton, which used to boast it was the only resort (does anyone still use that word?) on the East coast that faced west. When Professor Parkins, in MR James’s ghost story ‘Oh, whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad’ sets off from the mythical St James’s College in Cambridge for the East Coast to improve his game during the vacation, I have always imagined that his equally mythical destination, Burnstow, ought to be Old Hunstanton, and that his golf course of choice must be the links next to the Le Strange Arms or the Caley Hall Hotel:
Bleak and solemn was the view on which he took a last look before starting homeward. A faint yellow light in the west showed the links, on which a few figures moving towards the club-house were still visible, the squat martello tower, the lights of Aldsey village, the pale ribbon of sands intersected at intervals by black wooden groynes, the dim and murmuring sea. The wind was bitter from the north, but was at his back when he set out for the Globe. He quickly rattled and clashed through the single and gained the sand, upon which, but for the groynes which had to be got over every few yards, the going was both good and bad.
I admit there is no martello tower off Old Hunstanton, and I know that Burnstow is meant to be Felixstowe (sure enough, there is a squat Martello tower in the middle of Felixstowe Ferry Golf Course), but it will always be the Norfolk coast in my imagination.
The stretch of this coast, though, that I know best, and often re-visit in my imagination, is hardly coast at all. It is where the river Nene flows into the Wash beyond Sutton Bridge, just near the lighthouse where Peter Scott lived in the 1930s, dividing his time between wildfowling, painting and conservation. You can follow the line of the coast and of successive waves of land reclamation by walking the sea wall from here to West Lynn. At high tide the sea comes almost up to the lighthouse; at low tide it is so far out you cannot see it. And when the tide is turning, the sound of the contesting currents is like nothing I ever heard anywhere else.
25 February 2011
[photo: the Nene flowing into the Wash at Sutton Bridge]
Find out about ICE's forthcoming day school on 26th March:
Coasts and Seashores of East Anglia: a Naturalist’s Paradise
Full details of all the courses offered by the Institute of Continuing Education can be found at www.ice.cam.ac.uk.