"THE sea! The sea!" we shouted when the land ran ran out and the
blue wall of water rose ahead. At Aldeburgh, the church-builders
framed it in Gothic stone. Even today, when everyone goes
everywhere, this sudden proclamation by the sea itself of its
existence remains thrilling. To us Suffolk inlanders, it remains
Those who live by it never take it for granted. The fishermen,
lifeboatmen, and sailors generally eye it warily. Victorian
photographs in the sailors' shelter reveal ravaged faces of boys
and men as though waves and winds beat against them with the same
indifference as they would a breakwater.
The gulls scream, and Ian plunges in, the only one of us who has
an arrangement with it, a dark head, a white arm, a distant
I pick up stones. The church tower comes and goes between the
houses. A matching whiteness of form and architecture, birds and
boats, is everywhere. Time slips away, and I am the youthful writer
slipping and sliding in the shingle of decades ago, deafened by the
monotonous rise and fall of the elements. Yet, at the same time,
stimulated by their power.
There is Benjamin Britten's house. Sea-trained by his Lowestoft
origins, he would have found the interior silences of my native
scene sterile, maybe. No thud and crash of water, no pitiless
distances, and an absence of drama. No glitter to life. What was
somtimes wearying to me was reviving to him. George Crabbe, the
great realist poet, heard the Aldeburgh sea calling to him wherever
he went. He would make long journeys to it, just to breathe it in.
His snowy bust looks up at Britten's memorial window in Aldeburgh
church, and away from congregations.
The Revd George Crabbe was given a hard time when he re- turned
to Aldeburgh as a curate. But the mighty sea solaced him, and while
he could be said to have taken his revenge in The Borough,
an exposé of a poem if ever there was one, in his head the sea put
all human behaviour in its place. And so here it is once more,
diminishing, yet somehow praising us mortals.
There are no oceans in the King James Bible, only seas, and
these abundantly. Awe accompanies the many references to them. It
was St Paul who used the word "peril" in relation to them. Most
scriptural references show humanity acknowledging the sea's
supremacy. Those who wrote them would not have heard of the Pacific
or the Atlantic. They would have seen them as roads, and the
Gospels have a marine flavour to them.
St Paul's journey to Rome, in Acts, is one of the world's
best-written sea voyages, with its mixture of sailors'
superstition, religious trust, and economics. Nelson would have
found it quite an ordinary account of what is likely to happen when
you board ship. Jesus's eyes - his inner and his outer vision -
were sharpened by Galilee, that inland fishing-ground and
faith-carrying sea from whose shores he gathered his disciples.
"And did those feet . . ."
Matthew Arnold, in Dover Beach, the greatest of all
shoreline poems, writes of the ebbing of the sea of faith. "Listen!
You hear the grating roar Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and
fling, At their return, up the high strand, Begin, and cease. .
In Cornwall, I used to be entranced by the mesmeric sea, but
less so in Suffolk, where coastal history not so much tamed it as
made it practical. Every now and then, like Crabbe, or Maggi
Hambling, I visit it, and am transfixed by its immensity.