Monday, 31 August 2009

MY BOAT IS CAUGHT IN SUNSHINE





I

perch here

dazzled by light,

ransomed by the day star,

sprung from the dull world beyond.

O
see my brave boat caught in such a sun shine

as bids the glad heart

pound!

Did someone just cancel the seas, the sands, the skies?

What mystery now gilds and guides this gliding boat?

And these?

Are they diamonds that blaze from my eased blades?

And is there any name for this glory in which I float?

*
Here leave me, lost in peace, in contemplation,

nowhither bound,

circled by an etherial band,

here, where there is no form and no foundation,

no beginning and no end.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

MORE LIGHT (as Goethe ultimately said)




The light on the Estuary gives a daily dramatic performance. It has a full repertoire. Recently there has been much of the phenomenon where light falls in great vertical shafts from a dark sky. This drama, common on the Estuary, called for comment in the ages before television dimmed our sensibilities.. Ancient dualistic religions saw in these spears of sunshine the weapons of the Powers of Light thrusting into the Powers of Darkness. Just so Egyptian gods speared the crocodile with a piercing downstroke and so too the Christian George lanced the dragon beneath his horse’s hoofs. My friend, the sculptor used to call this phenomenon Jehovah descending from Heaven which must have been a reference to some painting now unknown to me.

When the wind whips up the waters and the light catches the waves large and small the waters delight the eye and their beauty cheers the inner man. When, however, there is only a breath of wind the waters work an even greater magic. There is always a rich spiritual quality to a calm rising tide filling slowly and to be in a small boat on such a tide floating gently out whether in sun or cloud is to be in a heaven on earth

Nightime only enhances the beauty of light on calm water and to sail across the Estuary under the stars of a clear night and when the water is a sheet of glass is to be in the closest possible harmony with the spirit on the waters, to be confronted with the wonder of time and space and existence. The water below is as deep as the sky above is high and the lonely boatman in his boat is as a nothing suspended beween these two infinities. Only lone aeronauts and perhaps astronauts can feel closer to the infinite.

Moon and stars, flashing buoys and the many lights of the waterside are reflected and refracted by the waters and their glory is doubled. Goethe wrote a song for the spirits, plural, over the waters, Gesang der Geister ├╝ber den Wassern, which was set thrice set by Schubert and once by Carl Loewe. I like the line : in dem glatten See weiden ihr Anlitz alle Gestirne. That’s true enough. Here on the Estuary the stars do indeed look down. They swell. They throw down their spears. They become quite Van Goghish. They positively stare. They go so far as to eyeball themselves, and it is certain that they always find their own reflected faces quite delightful and then they go so far as to preen themselves. I have caught them at it.


(Tomorrow: A boat-shaped poem entitled : My Boat is caught in Sunshine. )

Thursday, 27 August 2009

THE SPIRIT ON THE WATERS

And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
Not the least of the joys which the Estuary affords is the ever changing interplay of light on water. This is at times so strikingly beautiful that it almost brings a rational man to believe in ghosts and gods. Almost, but not quite! It seems probable to me that the teller of tall stories who begot the Book of Genesis was well acquainted with the glory of dazzling sunlight silvering some stormy Semitic sea or perhaps with the unfathomable beauty of moon and stars reflected in the mirror of calm waters. I imagine that he fondly believed that he had seen with his own eyes the Spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters. Astonished by such beauty the Big Question Mark that we all have to confront seems never to be bigger. But for me the Spirit only asks questions. It offers no answers

At times the light is such that the whole Estuary becomes a glittering silver platter. I have often sailed home down river under a cloud while ahead of me, out to the Bight and so to sea, there has been bright sunshine and beneath the sun the waves have been dancing and sparkling fit to bust. At other times my boat beneath the sun has danced along a narrow silver path down to the sea like Dorothy dancing up the Yellow Brick Road. At other times… but there are too many variations on this theme. Let me simply say again what I have said before, the light on the water is ever changing, ever new and very often breathtakingly beautiful.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

A CHANCE ENCOUNTER


By chance I met a charming woman last Friday who was ninety-nine years old and bright as a button. It was a brief encounter and somewhat surreal.

I was in Exmouth, in the Age Concern charity shop opposite the library, buying a couple of Victorian photo frames at two pounds apiece and she was at the counter beside me buying a book and a pen. She looked at my photo frames in one of which was still the likeness of a fine Victorian pater, all whiskers and waistcoats, and she smiled at me and said: “That could be your grandfather.” “It’s not!” said I, “but I might replace him with my great grandfather.”

And then out of the blue she said “My grandfather was a fisherman in Lympstone. I was born in his cottage in one of those lanes that go down to the beach.” “Quay Lane?” I asked. “Yes.” said she.

Well I was interested. Here was the granddaughter of one of the old Lympstone fishermen who had been born in that huddle of cottages in Edwardian times. In those days Lympstone had a proper fishing fleet and not a motor between them. This was the fleet that Eden Philpotts described in his 1922 book Redcliff aka Lympstone. Here he describes the local fishermen setting out at night:

“… not a few fishermen stood upon the little breakwater with their dingheys (sic) waiting below. The fishing fleet rode at anchor a quarter of a mile from land. They were set blackly on the still waters, and a boat or two from the haven had already started for them. Women and landsmen stood about among the departing fishers. Little groups talked, moved, mingled; lanterns twinkled and one by one the shore boats carried their crews to sea..”

I asked my chance encounter for her grandfather’s name: “Challis” she said. I asked her if she remembered much of Lympstone in those days. “Well no,” she said, “you see, my mother married a soldier and when I was about ten he was sent out to India, to Rawalpindi, and we went with him.” She grinned, “and I was taught at an army school - by a corporal – I think I knew more than him – because, you see, I was a reader – I’ve always been a reader. She held up the book she was buying to make her point.

I wanted to ask more but we were not alone and I was unsure what to ask and how to ask it and somehow I missed my moment. We went our separate ways and I was strangely stirred. I had learned nothing except that a fisherman called Challis had once lived in Quay Lane. I had done nothing more than chat for a half minute with one who had been a little girl shipped off to India at about the time Eden Phillpotts was writing his book about Lympstone. Nevertheless I felt that something significant had happened.

I had met a daughter of the old Estuary!

Perhaps I shall meet her again.



Tomorrow a sermon on the Spirit on the Waters

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

A HAUL OF MULLET

One morning early I was in his smallest boat with Dick Squire,
just the two of us,
and we were chugging home against the tide from upriver.

He was creeping around the banks like only he could,
never hardly snagging the Seagull
but when, quickly depressing the tank
bringing the blades clear of the mud with a splendid roar,
then in a second bringing us clear again,
letting the blades fall back into the deep and thus most surely homeward,
when, looking across a stretch of water like any stretch of water,
Dick said to me: Wayland, do you see those mullet? So many fine fish! Do you see them?
All I could see was the stretch of water
and we had no net.

So many fine mullet, he said and we sped home and he,
with ancient energy
folded his mullet net into the boat and back we went.
There they go, he shouted. Do you see?
But all I could see was a stretch of water like any stretch of water.

Then Dick killed the motor and I pulled as he told me.
Come up Wayland, come up a bit!
and he let out his net,
and this was on the bank below the marine camp
a terrible place for moots but we caught no moots.
We caught thirty stone of mullet in one haul.

And we landed our thirty stone of fine fish on the slip at Lympstone.

And it took us all afternoon just to clear the net.
*

(Tomorrow ‘A Chance Encounter’)

Monday, 24 August 2009

THE IMMENSE SHOALS OF MACKEREL OF 1814

“On Tuesday last,” reported the Woolmers Western Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of 20th August 1814, “immense shoals of mackerel came over the bar to the shore of the town of Exmouth.” The shoals seem truly to have been immense but this was not a unique occurance. Some thirty years before had been the last invasion. This time, in 1814, the immense shoals came between six and seven in the morning and the people of Exmouth were up and ready for them. The waters between Exmouth Town and the Warren Point were thick with boats.

All who could were there to take the mackerel as fast as they came. Every kind of net was being dipped and retrieved and many were busy with rod and line. Some fishermen who were working a seine net near the bathing machines ‘inclosed’ so great a multitude of mackerel that they could hardly make their haul. This seine was “so loaded with mackerel that it was with some difficulty it could be dragged ashore.” It must have made the pious chapelgoers of Exmouth think of the miracle at the lake of Gennesaret. Another seine, however, only a short distance away caught not a single mackerel but each time it was cast was found to be full of “an innumerable quantity of fish of a large kind of sprat”.

No doubt the immense shoals of mackerel were in pursuit of these innumerable sprat with the same energy, dedication and motivation that the Exmothians were in pursuit of the mackerel. The lines that Keats was to write in Teignmouth four years later- come to mind: “every maw, the greater on the less feeds evermore.”

The sprat, however, were not wanted by the fishermen who had caught them and they were picked out of the net as fast as was possible and thrown away “indignantly” “so that those who chose to pick them up were supplied gratis.”

The Gazette’s report on this “enlivening and interesting scene” ends with this wonderful paragraph: “Whilst the ocean was thus yielding such a profusion for the good of mankind the adjacent hills were stripped of their ‘golden grain’ by the sickles of the reapers. In this neighbourhood, certainly, they have not only peace but plenty too.”


Tomorrow a poem entitled: A Haul of Mullet.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

CONSIDER NOW THE EGRET




Trust not too much in whiteness as a symbol

for who can tell when foulness frames the bridal gown

or when smirched mind hides behind laundered wimple?


As for th' untrammelled snows, so beautiful,

likely they're scheming how they might remove your toes,

perhaps even peck off your precious nose.


Consider now the Egret how pure and innocent she seems,

dropping on angel wings from a heavenly sky

to stab to death every last thing that moves beneath her bright eye.

Next : Immense Shoals of Mackerel!

THE LITTLE EGRET


Over many years it has been a delight to witness the remarkable coming of the Little Egret to the Estuary. Thirty years ago the bird was never to be seen here and sixty years ago, when I was a boy they were not even listed as a British bird. My 1971 Larousse describes it as a bird ‘of the hot countries’ and my 1950 edition of Coward’s Birds of the British Isles states “One or two, possibly more, have strayed to England and Ireland.” It was certainly an excitement when, in the nineties, the first one or two came to feed here in Lympstone where the brook flows out between the mudbanks. They stalked up and down and in among the grey herons and brown curlews and other dowdy waders, conscious of their own beauty and rarity, and stabbed with their black bills at our mud. By contrast they made even the gulls seem drab. They shone angel white and bright against the dark of it like diamonds against velvet.

Now they are to be seen everywhere, up and down the Estuary and in the fields along its banks where they step behind the cattle. They are now more in evidence than the herons and I often sail past a dozen or more gathered together on the shingle beach at Exton and pass close enough to admire their handsome aigrettes, the long, slender snow white plumes that give them their name. “These,” writes Coward, “are the commercial “ospreys” worn by the bird during its courtship and after its death by a less rightful owner.” (my italics) The birds were slaughtered in their thousands for the sake of these beautiful feathers which passed, by way of the modistes to the hats of women. How and why the Little Egret’s plumes came in the late nineteenth cenury to be called ospreys is a mystery. Probably whoever coined the word had sprays in mind rather than that bone-breaking bird of prey, the osprey, who also sometimes visits the Estuary.

No other bird on the Estuary sparkles like the Little Egret and to watch one fishing in brilliant sunshine still seems to me to be an exotic adventure, a holiday on the River Nile. Sometimes too a lone egret will fly low over the boat, which the heron never do, his black legs trailing, bringing a touch of imported magic to a dull Devon day.,

Tomorrow I shall post a pretty poem entitled, Consider the Egret.

Friday, 21 August 2009

BEFORE THE LAND HAD RISEN

An evening mist invades our streets, has floated
up from the sea. Our sacred trees are blotted
giants, our lamps set back to candles glimmering.
A shimmering sheet of lead of the gods’ own hammering
hangs heaven-high behind the smudged riverside
buildings, inviting the deft hand to scratch and scribe.

Now, from the jutting sea-wall’s farthest border,
I look where shining mist combines with water
and do not glance behind but to my glory
write on the mist a song none sang before me
of an age before the ghostly moon could push
or pull and the red cliffs lay deep beneath the sludge.

Only my ear to hear the waters pulsing,
only my eye to see the ripples chasing,
only my cheek to feel the evening coolth
as water and mizzle await the fetching forth,
into the world, of lizards from the deepness
and leathern dragons from the glowing ether.

Is that the seagulls’ shriek or pterodactyls sounding?
Those splashings are they swans or limbless mammals flound’ring
In silt? And that deep rumble from the chasm
could it be some grand primordial spasm
or is it the Intercity cleaving the joyless
gloom from Penzance to Paddington via Dawlish?

Into my song a beer-can wreathed in scum
floats slowly, marks an end of my bright triumph
but does not make me doubt my hoary phantoms.
As I walk home under the teasing lanterns
the tree-gods call me proud.

Why should I listen,
I who was here before the land had risen?
*
When I was searching for a really good rhyme for Dawlish, it was joyless that took my fancy and I still like it well enough. There are still some of us who think that assonance fascinates, but when I contemptuously sailed past smallish as a rhyme for Dawlish I remembered the boy poet John Keats. It came to my mind that I was sailing past him, pale beneath his flowing locks and with only a couple of years left to him. Yes, he and Tom Keats are usually on the beach waving to me as I sail past Teignmouth.
*
Over the Hill and over the Dale
And over the Bourne to Dawlish,
Where gingerbread wives have scanty sale
And gingerbread nuts are smallish.
*
Tomorrow I shall discourse on The Little Egret.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

INTIMATIONS OF THE PREHISTORIC

In my own fishing days on the Estuary in the early seventies I sometimes had the feeling that I was working in a tradition that stretched back at least to include Stone Age humans. An instance being this: there were many times, when the night tides were ebbing away, that my skipper and neighbour, Dick Squire, the last of the full time fishermen in my village, would fetch me down from my sleep by throwing shingle to clatter against my bedroom window pane. A few yards from my door at the end of the slipway would be two or three men waiting silently in the dark. We were the crew, off in a group to walk across the mud, sometimes as much as a mile, to where, at the edge of the channel, we had left our salmon boat the tide before, anchored out and waiting for us. Those marches across the wet mudbanks, sometimes by moonlight, sometimes by starlight, sometimes under cloud, were wonderfully timeless. I had always the sense that just such expeditions had been part and parcel of man’s experience of the Estuary for ever.

At night almost every thing that was done by the salmon crew was done in silence. Dick, when we reached the channel’s edge, would bend down and plant a twig into the mud at the very edge of the tide and stand back and watch how the swirl of the tide lapped around it. From his observations of the little stick he judged the speed of the flood and divined when and where to make a haul, when and where to row the seine out into the channel. It seemed to me that he had sorcerous powers. He was intimate with the fishing god and by starlight he could see the fish deep beneath the water.

Nowadays, as far as I know, no one makes such night walks across the mud but still today I experience two circumstances when I, in my own small boat, Poppy, can feel that I am lost in time and experiencing the tides with these cave dwelling first comers and their prehistoric descendents. The first is again by night when, drifting aimlessly on a tide, I think to share the sense of blind adventure with these first humans. I can imagine them floating hereabouts, all senses, smelling with dilated nostrils, seeing with night eyes, listening with ears that twitch and move, trailing their fingers in the water, tasting the salt in the air.

My second prehistoric Estuary, even more so, is when there is mist on the river. Then the sense of a primitive past can be strong and every inch of the journey is a surprise, the fish that jump, the seabirds that fly out of the mist only to disappear again, the banks that loom out of the gloom at the last moment. We speak of the mists of time and it is a powerful metaphor for there seems something so transforming about mist that all our our senses including our sense of time can be warped by it. I once wrote some verses on this theme inspired by standing at the end of the boat shelter wall at Lympstone and gazing out across the Estuary into, well, into mist and kidding myself that I was gazing into time. I shall post them tomorrow.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

PREHISTORIC MAN






It is something of a mystery

that every time we look

there is more prehistory


and that, as we become better acquainted

with prehistoric man, we find him smarter than he is painted.

Indeed he is not so much painted as turned out in a three piece leather suit

with perhaps a wide hat and, as like as not, a smart suede boot.


Early man is not only earlier and smarter than one expects

but, as we get to know him, he behaves better to children and to the opposite sex.

Indeed he becomes so much like us that we are forced to admit

that in most respects human nature hasn't changed a bit.

So that looking at prehistory becomes more and more a practice

of gazing into the past and seeing ourselves grin back at us.
*

Tomorrow some personal intimations of the prehistory of the Estuary.

Monday, 17 August 2009

THE FIRST FISHERMEN




By Neolithic times it would seem that fishing from boats was becoming sophisticated. The harpoons made of delicately shaped reindeer antler that were found at Kents Cavern inspired Mr. F. Ashford B.Sc. , Edwardian schoolmaster and proud author of Child Man in Britain, to set down this dramatic vision of Early Stone Age fishing:

“ …on a calm day a raft of logs lashed together, or a canoe of tree-trunk with the hollow burned out, would have served for the practice of the art. Two men, one with the harpoon and the other with the wooden paddles, would have conducted the enterprise. Waiting and drifting over the clear water, at last they espy their prey, and with lightning swiftness, emulating the gull, it is speared, and brought flashing, wriggling and twisting into the boat.”

The men of the Early Stone Age were not only fishermen. They also hunted and gathered anything that might be eaten inland. The flint heads of their lost arrows are still to be found in Devon woods and fields. During many millennia humans increasingly took to the land and cultivated the good earth and harvested their own crops and then, during another few thousand years, tamed the wild cattle and brought beasts to pasture and became at last a people of farmers. But here on the Estuary there were always boats and there were always fishermen.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

THE FIRST MAN

There was once a first man ever
here as everywhere,
who came in the days of beaver,
hyena , wolf and bear.

He came like a big lad leaping.
He danced on our high ground.
His kin came after, creeping,
to see what he had found.

He spoke to his near related
in a language long since dead
but here below translated
is what this first man said.

The air here is delicious.
The ground rich, I suspect
and what a good place for fishes!...

and more... much more
and more... yes, more...
more to the same effect.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

KENT'S CAVERN AND PREHISTORIC MEN

The remarkable Kent’s Cavern is just round the corner from the Estuary, just down the coast at Torquay. In these South Devon caverns the oldest human bone in Britain has been found and here too was found the first evidence on this planet for man’s coexistence with the mammoth. When they were first inhabited the coast had not yet come to Torquay. The Estuary had not yet been shaped. These first cave dwellers were inlanders.

Much later, a mere thirty or forty thousand years ago, the same caverns were inhabited not only by homo sapiens but also by those strange, failed men, the Neanderthal. At some point in this tide of time, when the river had formed and the seas had risen to meet it, some of these earliest cave men came floating or boating in and out of whatever was then here of the Estuary. Some blew in by chance and others cruised in from the sea perhaps escaping from the elements or the elephants or from human enemies and some stayed to do a bit of fishing and hunting and, although no one lately has seen any Heidelbergs or Neanderthals in these parts, homo sapiens has been here ever since.