The world behind them

by Steve

Tide is out at Normans Bay

They just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness.

W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

A few weeks back we went on a camping holiday, down to the coast. My holiday reading was W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Both had quite an effect on me.

As I read about Sebald traversing the Suffolk coast making links with history, mythology, memory, in my own clumsy way I tried to do the same as we wandered around a particular corner of Sussex. I picked up a self-published local history pamphlet, tried to pay attention to what was around me, started making links, connections, tried to understand the land and sea around me.

These fumbling attempts at something have stuck with me since. I’ve begun plotting something bigger than a blog post, but I’m not sure what it is yet. I’m not sure ambling about a place for a week qualifies me to write about it, but I want to anyway. Whatever I do get down on paper may never see the light of day, but I don’t think that’s the point. I can’t tell if it is the story of a few miles of coast, or a piece on camping and class, a tale of family, or of reading, or of the impossibility of joining the dots when the dots keep moving.

I want to write my way towards an understanding, even if it is a misunderstanding.

Reading Sebald, spending a proper amount of time outdoors, I could recognise how a lot of the psychogeographical writing I encounter ends up the way it ends up. Plotting my Bigger Piece of Writing I can see the patterns and pitfalls too. Wander about. Take a few moody photos. A bit of local research. An overarching theme, about the land and its history meaning something or other. There is that formula. A route to Bad Sebald. Reading The Rings of Saturn I could see how it is done properly, and how I’m destined and doomed to peddle out the same Bad Sebald I’ve read (and probably written) before.

I take some comfort that even the rough attempts I read have something worthwhile in them. Plenty of writing still achieves some kind of wonder. And who am I to criticise. We’re all just staggering towards our own kind of truth.

I’ve spent a lot of time pondering the quotation at the top of the page. We had made our way to the sea. It did feel like we were getting away from it all. And that it was important to get away from it all.

However, looking at the other visitors to the coast, the families playing, the old couples swimming, the teenagers sunbathing, I wondered again. If I stumbled up to them and read out the quotation, would they recognise it in themselves? Or would they, understandably, think I was mad?

Perhaps. I wasn’t so sure myself when I read it for the first time. But the more I thought about it, the more I knew there was some truth in there. I did want, need, the whole world behind me. And as much as you can do that figuratively, there is a real power in doing that literally, physically. Turning away from the world is important sometimes. Feeling so isolated, there on the edge of everything, felt like a refuge, an escape.

And before us, nothing but emptiness. On the sunny days the blue sea and blue sky calmed, the gentle ripples of the surf soothed, the empty beach comforted. The coast was a palliative, “(of an action) intended to alleviate a problem without addressing the underlying cause” as the OED defines it.

I see why people retire to the coast. It is where you go when you want the world around you to feel better, when you know the world will never get better. I get those people who sit in their cars and silently stare out to sea.

There was not always just nothingness ahead of us. There was that history too. Always the past, always those memories, creeping back into place. The tide went out and revealed the old, rotting groynes. The men with their metal detectors emerged and combed the beach. The clues are all there. The stories are there to be told. It is just a case of waiting for them to reveal themselves.

And there was not just nothingness in that there are now new memories. Paddling in the sea. Collecting pebbles. Huddling in a little beach shelter. Just being, for once. All so important in so many tiny ways.

Maybe the coast is more than a palliative. Maybe I needed the emptiness to want to return to the world. Maybe I just remembered how important reading and a sense of place can be. Maybe this was more the start than the end.

Maybe we always need those moments where the world is behind us, the emptiness before – so we can be reinvigorated, inspired, made purposefully angry again. This coast became less about finding peace, more about finding purpose, or at least the first tentative steps towards a sense of purpose. I’m not sure. Hence so many “maybes”. I will try to write it out, to work it out. Fill the emptiness. Or accept it.