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Word from Wormingford

19 September 2014

As in his youth, Ronald Blythe is thrilled by seeing the sea

"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 heart-stopping.

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 cry.

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.

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