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Monthly Archives: May 2012

On Being An Historical Footnote

I am an atheist. I am childless. When I die, I will leave only footprints – hopefully not big carbon ones. But what if I could leave something else behind? What would it be?
Well, words of course.

One day (in my fantasy), in some quiet, cobwebby corner of the cyberverse an e-archaeologist will be digging down through accumulated layers of defunct blogs when his or her trowel will scrape against something called The Kinky Boot Collective. Exhumed and translated, what could I give to the future’s idea of our social history? Can I tell them how it is being a woman at the beginning of the 21st Century? Not really. I can no more speak for other women than I can for men. My background, my choice of career has led me to occupy a nowhere land between the sexes. I can only say, with some authority, that as a modern, European female I enjoy a sense of self-determination. A hundred years ago women were throwing themselves under racehorses to protest against their lack of freedom.

In this country, in my lifetime, women became equal to men in the eyes of the law. It puzzles me that this wasn’t always so. Even as a child I couldn’t conceive of a man being superior to me simply by virtue of his gender. Is this true for all British women, though? I think not, so venting my opinions on this would not add anything to a balanced view of the current present.

Let me record, then, what I can see around me in the pedestrianised centre of the small seaside town where I am sitting.

Semi-circular benches face the focal point of the war memorial where an elderly man is watching a small boy clamber up the steps of the monument. He seems to be encouraging the boy, is he explaining about the big, stone cross? Is he telling him what the inscriptions say? Or is he simply allowing the child to play so that his laughter echoes through the ether to the ghostly ears of those who died in conflict? I hope it’s the latter – the boy is too small to understand war and killing – and, after all, no matter what the conflict, surely those servicemen and women went to their graves believing in their hearts that they were fighting for a future where children can scamper over memorials and laugh in the sunshine.
The tragedy is that while the boy laughs and plays, people all over the world are dying in wars. Yes, Future Reader, we are still killing, maiming and traumatising each other, even at this late stage of human development. Every week, in my country, young soldiers in flag-draped coffins come home from Iraq and Afghanistan and it is becoming ever more common to see young men with some, or all, of their limbs missing thanks to roadside bombs; improvised devices that just go to prove that we didn’t already have enough ways to kill in this world.

For Afghans and Iraqis, the death toll is also high. In Syria, innocents are being massacred. Have you evolved past this brutality, Future World? I’m not hopeful of that.

Enough now, of bloodshed, let me draw away from the memorial to the fallen. Let me re-focus on the benches where lunchtime crowds are enjoying a late spring day in the West Country.
Typically, being British, with our aversion to sitting next to strangers unless we absolutely have to, people gather on the benches in groups with long, empty stretches between them. Admittedly some of this is down to avoiding the long streaks of gull shit that our less popular seaside residents have smeared across the wooden seats but not all of it. I confess that I wandered around the benches looking for somewhere that was far enough away from other people for me to feel comfortable. Avoiding seagull poo came second to that when choosing my seat.

It’s hot for those of us not under the shade of the trees (and under the threat of pigeons in the branches above imitating the gulls) and I can see a heat haze shimmering over the traffic droning past at the other end of the green. Young women in shorts stroll past the war memorial passing elderly couples who have swapped their winter coats for pastel coloured anoraks that make me feel uncomfortably warm just by looking at them. Dogs lie panting at their owners feet trying to avoid the advances of pre-school children that totter over to make friends, and off to my right an elderly woman is berating her husband for wandering off and not telling her where he was going.

None of this is very dramatic. It’s all very ordinary and probably quite dull but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? I’m saying to posterity, ‘Hey, guess what, people of tomorrow? I live in a world where millions are starving, where children are hurt and abused, where terrorism, pollution and Global Warming have knocked nuclear war into fourth place in the all-time top ten of nightmares but right here, right now, the most important thing in this garden is finding a nice spot to eat our sandwiches and not get bird shit on our clothes. Are you so very different to us?’

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Posted by on May 31, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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God Loves The 8-12 Watch

A lovely quiet watch this morning with light winds and a decaying swell that lifts the ship and sets her down again with a slow, rolling motion. Behind the clouds the sky is streaky-blue, smudged with wispy mare’s tails that foretell strong winds in the future. Not today though. Today, all is calm. The sea is a shiny, metallic blue, except sunwards where it breaks up into a billion flashes of white light that’s too bright to look at. For 360° around me, I can see forever. Unlike the end of my watch last night. Then, I could barely see the front of the ship but, hey ho, when the fog bank came down, it was only five minutes before my bed time. When I came down the bridge steps and headed for my cabin, I left behind me the next watch and the newly woken captain staring glumly out at a solid wall of grey.

Earlier a huge, full moon had risen over the nearby gas platforms, silvering the sea and outshining the stars. This morning I have brilliant sunshine and there’s not a shred of fog. Mm, whoever has offended the god of the weather, it wasn’t the 8-12 watch. Snigger.

 

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Neither Here Nor There

Professional sailors are not usually romantic souls. We are practical types given to discussing weather forecasts and wondering when we’ll next be in phone range. On a clear night, officers of the watch will be thinking about getting a bearing of a celestial body and working out the compass error, not gazing skywards and hoping that loved ones are looking up at the same moon and missing us. I’m not saying there isn’t time for homesickness but it passes and then we turn back to the conversation we were having with our watchmates about rust-buckets we have worked on, bastards we’ve sailed with and pubs of the world we’ve got drunk in.
I hesitate to use the word ‘earthy’ to describe a waterborne community but that is what we are – earthy. And salty. The language is definitely salty.
Outsiders – landlubbers – have no concept of shipboard life and tend to view us through Johnny Depp/Leonardo di Caprio tinted glasses. Or, they confuse us with the grey funnel line and ask when we are being deployed to the Gulf.
‘Merchant Navy. Mer-chant. Not Royal.’
‘Oh. Is that different then?’
‘Yes. We’re like lorry drivers, only wetter. We don’t do fighting – well, not sober anyway.’
‘Right. I see,’ say the landlubbers, with truly blank expressions. They don’t understand us, but that’s OK, neither do we. Ask any sailor why they do it and the stock answer is, ‘It’s just a job, innit?’ Well yes, it is just a job, and yet. And yet…
For those of us who stick at it, those who haven’t graduated to a cushty, well paid job ashore, it’s more than just a job. Not that we’ll admit it. The most we can say is, ‘once the sea is in your blood…’ then we shrug. Nuff said. In other words, we’ve thought about giving it up, we’ve tried to give it up but we can’t. Is the sea addictive? Should there be a government health warning on every dock, pier, seaside promenade? I don’t know but it will come as no surprise that I have contemplated my navel about this. My merchant navel, of course.
There’s a saying that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence and whilst this is often true, it doesn’t quite capture the mindset of seafarers. We know that just over the horizon the sea will likely be just as grey, just as rough and just as uninteresting as it is right where we are. The lure of foreign ports wears off quite quickly and we all have homes to go to but we insist on being far away and out of reach.
I once read that a lighthouse is neither of the sea nor the land but exists in the margin between them both. (I could be wrong but I remember this as something Terry Pratchett wrote) I have taken this to heart because I believe that some of us sea-going types are exactly that. We are marginal creatures. We live ashore but we do not belong there. We work at sea but we long to go home. One foot may be warming in the hearth of the family home but the other is always ankle-deep in salt water. Why? I really don’t know. Perhaps some of us are always on the way to somewhere else. Maybe that state of flux is what some of us need before we can pick up our pens. Sailor or landlubber, if you have a sense of disconnection and are both observer and participant in any situation, I’ll bet a pound to a bent hat pin that you are writer.

 

I know it’s been quiet…

… but I’ve been away at sea. However I’m home now and blogs will follow shortly. I need to be writing – especially as I’ve just learned that I got my MA!!!!!

 
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Posted by on May 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

 
 
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