Wednesday, 18 December 2013

beach scenes

The Martello Tower and Golf  Links
Bleak and solemn was the view on which he took a last look before starting homeward. A faint yellow light in the west showed the links, on which a few figures moving towards the club-house were still visible, the squat Martello tower, the lights of Aldsey village, the pale ribbon of sands intersected at intervals by black wooden groynes, the dim and murmuring sea. The wind was bitter from the north, but was at his back when he set out for the Globe. He quickly rattled and clashed through the shingle and gained the sand, upon which, but for the groynes which had to be got over every few yards, the going was both good and quiet. One last look behind, to measure the distance he had made since leaving the ruined Templars' church, showed him a prospect of company on his walk, in the shape of a rather indistinct personage, who seemed to be making great efforts to catch up with him, but made little, if any, progress. I mean that there was an appearance of running about his movements, but that the distance between him and Parkins did not seem materially to lessen. So, at least, Parkins thought, and decided that he almost certainly did not know him, and that it would be absurd to wait until he came up. For all that, company, he began to think, would really be very welcome on that lonely shore, if only you could choose your companion. In his unenlightened
"Burnstow" with "Aldsey" in the distance
days he had read of meetings in such places which even now would hardly bear thinking of. He went on thinking of them, however, until he reached home, and particularly of one which catches most people's fancy at some time of their childhood. "Now I saw in my dream that Christian had gone but a very little way when he saw a foul fiend coming over the field to meet him." "What should I do now," he thought, "if I looked back and caught sight of a black figure sharply defined against the yellow sky, and saw that it had horns and wings? I wonder whether I should stand or run for it. Luckily, the gentleman behind is not of that kind, and he seems to be about as far off now as when I saw him first. . .
(M. R. James, Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad. 1904)

I live in the seaside town that James fictionalised as "Burnstow". The northern part of the town his protagonist stays in is just past the Golf Links that the Martello Tower sits on, it's the tiny hamlet where I buy fish. The Martello Tower is still guarding the encroaching coast but nowadays people live in them as "unusual" houses. I presume the inn that Parkins stays in is the Victoria, which has been closed for several years. In the distance, the lights of "Aldsey village" is none other than the tiny village of Bawdsey which itself is watched over by Bawdsey Manor where essential radar work of WWII was undertaken.

Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You is a genuinely unsettling ghost story - many of the stories by M. R. James are - and it's nice to live somewhere that has, at least, one decent work of fiction based there. It's also one of those rare ghost stories that (partly) take place in daylight on a beach. Having spent a lot of time recently looking into the Gothic for Film Studies, I wonder how many other tales use daylight and beaches for their settings? Most seem to use obvious tropes - the lists that students reel off when asked what the imagery of the genre are.

Richard Adams set the creepiest and most shocking part of his novel The Girl in a Swing (1980) on a beach in full daylight. Alan and Karin are enjoying the afterglow of their lovemaking on a beach:

The level, still sea was moving, rippling unnaturally. Something was disturbing it, something was approaching the surface, though with difficulty, as it seemed; something close at hand, not twenty feet from where we were lying. A higher wave, softly turbulent, flowed forward and round us, soaking my clothes and very cold upon my naked loins. The shock brought me to myself and I knew once more that I was lying on the beach, holding Karin in my arms. She had turned her head and was staring, wide-eyed and unbreathing, at the water. Following her gaze, I saw the surface break and saw what came out of the sea.

What came out of the sea, groping blindly with arms and stumbling on legs to which grey, sodden flesh still clung, had once been a little girl.

I'm pretty sure that wherever Adams set his novel, it wasn't "Burnstow". I don't think a lot of idle lovemaking goes on on these beaches. Too bloody cold, for a start. Even in the summer. The thought of it is scarier than the ghosts.

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