Sunday, 22 January 2012

There Are Warnings Of Gales

A few months after I moved to London, my flatmate and fellow voracious reader Laura lent me a slim tome by Anne Fadiman called Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, a charming collection of essays, anecdotes and observations that bibliophiles the world over will identify with. In chapter three, "My Odd Shelf", she describes her bizarre literary obsession with the age of Antarctic exploration, in particular Scott's tragically failed attempt to beat Amundsen to the South Pole. This particular piece of history has little to do with the rest of her bookshelves which are heavily populated with fiction, and I admired Fadiman's ability to step so widely out of her literary comfort zone, something I can rarely bring myself to do.

A few weeks later, though, I found myself unwittingly immersed in a subject which, although I'd never come across it before, had me hook line and sinker from the off (pardon the cliché, but it fits with the theme). To do it justice I really have to go all the way back to Jeannette Winterson's Lighthousekeeping, and its evocative clifftop scenes. Salts, Cape Wrath, stormy breakers and coastal lights... this book conjures up the most magical, mythical images in my mind. Although Winterson's novel is in many ways about storytelling, I was always more affected by its setting at the most northwesterly tip of Scotland. Winterson only just touches on the incredible history behind the building of the Cape Wrath lighthouse, but it proved to be the tinder that ignited the spark of my imagination, and thanks to Bella Bathurst I was able to immerse myself in it entirely. I'll try not to bore you, but it is necessary, here, to set the scene just a little.

Britain in the eighteenth century was a seafaring nation. Naval power was strong thanks to the empire, and sail was the most common means of transport and trade. Astoundingly, though, the coastlines were poorly illuminated (if at all) by unmanned coal fires set atop stone towers, open to the elements, and obviously of little use. And in an age of rudimentary navigational technology, this was becoming a major problem - hundreds of ships were wrecked in the particularly savage waters off the coasts of the British Isles each year. Sailors were a superstitious lot, often coerced into a life at sea by the likes of press gangs and none too hopeful of their chances of survival (and with good reason). Truly remarkable, then, was the contribution of The Lighthouse Stevensons to the illumination situation along the Scottish coast. With Robert Stevenson at the helm, chief engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board and grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson, this remarkable family blazed a trail in Scottish lighthouse engineering for more than three generations, saving countless sailors' lives along the way.

The English lights were a different story: light-building down south was a privatised affair with many engineers competing for profits and ships' dues, so they never achieved the cohesive, coordinated approach that Stevenson was known for. With a rigorous work ethic and infallible morals, Stevenson and his sons (and later his grandsons, although Robert Louis famously broke with the family trade, turning instead to literature) succeeded in designing, planning and building most of the lighthouses along the Scottish coast. It's a remarkable story not only because the man himself was remarkable (the appetite for hard graft and perfection he encouraged among his workforce yet his renown for being a fair employer were borderline legendary), but also because the lighthouse Stevensons executed some of the most incredible feats of engineering, even by Scottish standards. The Bell Rock lighthouse, eleven miles off the coast of Arbroath and Robert Stevenson's greatest achievement, stands thirty-five metres tall and is the world's oldest surviving rock light. The hardship and obstacles that faced Stevenson and his men in its building were immense: not least that for ten hours a day, the rock upon which the light is built is fully submerged. Stevenson and his men, camped in elevated makeshift digs on the same rock, would often return to the building site after a heavy storm to find their previous day's work obliterated by the waves and, in the early stages, would have to start painstakingly from scratch. Despite this, and despite having been battered by the bitter North Sea since 1810, the Bell Rock's stonemasonry is of such a high standard that it has not been replaced or restored in two hundred years.

And then there is Skerryvore. It's hard not to admire all of the Stevensons' lighthouse-related achievements, and there were many, but Skerryvore is the most romantic of all, and therefore my personal favourite. It was designed and built in six tumultous years by Alan Stevenson (uncle to Robert Louis) on a remote reef twelves miles into the Atlantic off the island of Tiree. (My Gaelic teacher in primary school once told us that nothing grows above a foot in height on Tiree because the wind is so fierce). The great wordsmith Robert Louis Stevenson has called Skerryvore "the noblest of all the extant deep-sea lights" and the NLB asserts that it is "the world's most graceful lighthouse." Add to this that Alan Stevenson was a charismatic man, a romantic yet tormented soul, of ailing health in his later years and a poet at heart. In his early days, like Louis, he was forced to choose between engineering and his own desire to study literature. This time, family won out and Alan turned his attention to the building of the Scottish lights, and though he excelled at his calling and became an exceedingly able engineer, his life was tinged with a touch of regret. His heart was always somewhere else: in books, poetry and beauty. He chose to give up his passion, yet it shone through in his work, and he made his mark regardless. Alan brought a sense of aesthetic to the northern lights, visible in the discreet embellishments on the tower of the Egyptian-style Ardnamurchan lighthouse, but most of all in Skerryvore, which he designed - out of choice rather than necessity - in a hyperbolic curve, purely because it looked more beautiful. Now, that's my kind of man. 

Thanks to the likes of Bathurst, I've been well and truly infected with the sea bug, or a literary version of it at least (I did once feel compelled to try actual, real-life sailing, convinced that my literary obsession would translate to real life - alas, a few days' rainy slog in choppy waters off the west of Scotland soon cured me of this fantasy). I have thus come to the reluctant conclusion that I'm probably best as an armchair sailor, albeit a dedicated one: I have been known to hurry home after a Friday night in the pub so as to catch the lilting lullaby of the shipping forecast on Radio 4. And much as I feel I would love, sometimes, to exchange my hectic urban lifestyle for a hermit-like existence in the Outer Hebrides, I am happy to concede that my passion for the seas must for now be played out from my living room, through literature. And so, like that of Fadiman, my very own literary "Odd Shelf" has been born. An inexhaustive list of titles currently dwelling upon this shelf includes Winterson and Bathurst (The Lighthouse Stevensons is matched in quality and atmosphere by The Wreckers, a superlative history of shipwrecking off the British Isles); the great Robert Louis Stevenson, of course: Kidnapped is one of my favourite adventure stories of all time. Moby Dick, of which I own a gorgeous Oneworld Classics edition, though I haven't yet sunk my teeth into it. Attention All Shipping by Charlie Connelly: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast (is there anything more soothing than falling asleep, tucked up warm and safe, to the prospect of squally showers in Malin, increasing six to gale eight, rain at times, moderate, then good?) The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, and a book I'm so attached to that I can't it let out of my sight: Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch. Where Bathurst ignited a curious spark, Carol Birch has well and truly fanned the flames. She encapsulates all the fascination of the sea in fictional form, creating true escapism of a kind that doesn't come anyone's way very often. It's hard to describe the alchemic effect of some books without sounding like you're over-egging the pudding, and as this is the most perfect novel I've ever read, I'm going to leave it to the author. Here's a little taster:

We were all of us wild, great thumping fools with thumping hearts running about that first morning, making a pig's ear of whatever we turned our hands to. We knew nothing, nothing at all, and we didn't know each other yet. Eight of us were green, eight out of a score or more of men - men, I say - fourteen our youngest, Felix Duggan, a mouthy kid from Orpington, sixty our oldest, a scrawny black called Sam. Thank God for Dan looking out for us, with us but not with us. Seven years since I met him, but I never knew him till we sailed together. I do now. I know him better than anyone now.

The Lysander was a beauty, ageing, well preserved, small and neat. The captain watched from the quarterdeck as we made fools of ourselves, while the first mate, a florid, thick-featured madman called Mr Rainey, strode about swearing and cursing at us in a deranged manner. Christ Jesus, what have I done? I thought. Am I mad? Oh, Ma. The masts and the yards and the sails, the whole great soaring thing was the web of an insane spider against the sky. Ropes, ropes, a million ropes and every bloody one with its own name, and if you got the wrong one you buggered up the whole thing. How we ever got off I've no idea... We greenies stumbled and bumbled around getting in everyone's way. I lost sight of Tim. Lost Dan. At every moment I tried to look as if I was confidently on my way from one important task to the next, wearing a face I hoped gave an impression of eager intelligence. I caught sight of the dockside moving away, the people a blur, heard the sudden sweet hollow chiming of a London clock bidding me a long farewell. - Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch (Canongate Books, 2011)