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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

21 April 2023

Malcolm Guite contemplates the lessons for life in the ebb and flow of the tide

MAGGIE and I have been away for a few days’ post-Easter break in Blakeney, up on the Norfolk coast. It’s a lovely place. Its narrow high street, lined with small flint-built cottages, leads down to the harbour and the quay, though to call it a harbour may give the wrong impression. When the tide is out, the sea is so far withdrawn that you don’t see it at all. What you see, instead, is a narrow little channel, with only inches of water, winding its mazy way amid marshes and sandbanks, out at last towards Blakeney point, where the seals bask, and then out to the sea itself.

If you wander down to the quay at low tide, you see the mix of sturdy little double-ended fishing boats and occasional pleasure craft all wallowing in the mud, their masts dipping at odd angles, all lying higgledy-piggledy and apparently useless. But saunter down to the quay a few hours later, and there they all are, afloat and trim, bobbing eagerly at their mooring ropes or anchors, floating ever more assuredly as the incoming tide ripples past their prows. The place and its boats are transformed.

Then the quay is crowded with children fishing for crabs, and the real crab and lobster fishermen loading gear on to their boats, and tourists eagerly reading the notices about trips to see the seals, although most of these leave from Moreston near by, where the tide has not so far to come in.

We did, of course, go out to see the seals — and, as always, as soon as our skipper untied the mooring ropes, started the kick and throb of an old diesel engine, and swayed for balance on his long tiller, I felt the sheer thrill of being afloat at last, loosed of the land’s long cares and ready for adventure.

I was glad, though, to be in expert hands; for, in what seemed wide stretches of open water, there were many hidden bars and sandbanks that a receding tide would uncover — and, even out of the harbour and beyond the point itself, where we rocked up and down in small sharp waves and a keen wind, coming close to the exposed shore to see the seals, we were sailing in a place that would be dry land a few hours later.

The seals were magnificent, basking in the bright April sun and doing what all clergy should do in the week after Easter: absolutely nothing.

Back at Blakeney that evening, smoking a meditative pipe on the quayside, where all the boats were once more stuck in the mud, I found myself reflecting on the implicit wisdom of the rhythm of the tides. When the tide is out, every boatman knows that he can do nothing but wait. Rocking those grounded boats and straining to get them into some slightly deeper patch of water would achieve nothing but exhaustion. And so it is, perhaps, for all of us in our different endeavours; for, as Shakespeare observed:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

It is better to accept and live with these tides, these ups and downs, and not to blame ourselves too much when there is no water under our keel. Another tide is coming in to lift us — and, of course, Easter itself is a promise of that tide of glory which will one day lift every keel out of the sluggish muddiness of our mortality and into life in all its fullness.

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