Peristalsis and Epiphany


The artist “is like a pump”, Gustave Flaubert told Louise Colet in 1853, “sucking up what lies undisclosed in the deepest layers and squirting it out “in great jets to the sunlight.”

If Nature is the supreme artist, no need to get involved in the effort and mechanics of deep topography: simply push Flaubert’s conceit on its side and go beachcombing. The sea is a reliably constant displacement force, and provides all sorts of flotsam and jetsam for study: jellyfish, lugworms, laver, sea stars, lumps of subaqueous coal, euphemistic “mermaid’s tears” and empty blister-packs, sodden driftwood, rare but amazingly well-preserved pieces of Cunard chinaware, bottles with (but mostly without) messages, wrecks of ships that ran aground or fell foul of the weather in Liverpool Bay, and sea squirts, which do naturally what Flaubert thought artists ought to do figuratively.

Going to the beach and observing (and sometimes collecting) the spills delivered by each slew of the tide—a “cargo of mysteries”—is the poet Jean Sprackland’s occupation in Strands, an account of a year’s excursions “as an ordinary walker” on the estuarial Ainsdale Sands between Blackpool and Liverpool, “hardly the prettiest or most unspoilt” part of maritime Britain. The beach is a threshold zone, the intertidal natural variety of what Paul Farley and Michael Simmons Roberts recently drew attention to in their eponymous book as “edgelands”—her beach is a vast graveyard of organic and inorganic life at the pulsing mercy of the waves. Sprackland elects to be its caretaker-interpreter, a travel writer who keeps taking the same walk on an endlessly shifting part of the earth. “The tideline is an open book in a babble of different languages: an account of what the world desires, and then wishes to be rid of.”

But the sea keeps coughing up those things we want to be rid of and it is meant to hide, and in these late days there is no hiding at all the not very biodegradable casts of human ingenuity. One of her twenty-four chapters is given over to the former wonder product of twentieth-century materials technology, which can be found festooned across beaches far from the Mersey when it is not gathered in dense carpets at the oceans’ gyres. Recently the American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani even made a short feature about one of the bags that used to be so common at supermarkets going on an epic journey and ending up with its kind in what is called the North Pacific Trash Vortex, voice-over by Werner Herzog. And the stuff that gets ground down to plankton size—microplastics—is now so ubiquitous in the marine environment it threatens to spill into the food chain. That offers the unappetising prospect of another kind of “liminality” altogether, one which has already been transgressed by many pharmaceuticals including contraceptive hormones, fluoride (from toothpaste) and most recently the SSRI antidepressant fluoxetine (Prozac®): it is telling in this respect that Sprackland never once considers going for a bathe in the admittedly chilly source of all her ruminations. (Before the invention of cheap package deals to the Mediterranean the British would think nothing of going down to their local beaches in summer, even though sewage slurry was being piped out at sea only a few hundred yards away, and with their paraphernalia—windbreaks and deckchairs and hot tea in thermos flasks—turning them into the opposite of a panorama for the solitary walker.)

Another, perhaps surprising omission in a book with ecological aspirations is the subject itself: beaches themselves are disappearing across the world, a result of massive sand quarrying for the purposes of making concrete (often for the unregulated construction of multistorey hotels with ocean views, thereby further eroding the coastline) and damming the rivers that used to replenish our seashores with the fine granular rubbings of distantly weathered rock.

Strands is not a book about despoilment only, and Sprackland writes a spirited, undaunted prose: her “strands” are also fabulously coloured filaments of Ariadne’s thread, extensions of a yarn. Having set out her combings for our inspection, the book ends fittingly with her discovery of the prehistoric footprints sealed in subboreal silt that are sometimes laid bare by storms around the British coast, only for them be erased half a day later by the incoming tide. This is the kind of evanescent archaeology that has Sprackland out in all weathers, standing on a shelf of time where “voices [are] torn to rags and blown away by the wind.”

©Iain Bamforth, review of Jean Sprackland Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, Jonathan Cape, 2012 in the TLS, June 8, 2012.