The sky is low and grey and the rain is lashing down as we take our seats in the open boat – only the helmsman is allowed into the small cabin. Wooden benches, soggy blankets, yellow ponchos, leaky boots, sodden gloves and a ridiculous attempt to keep an umbrella up in the whipping wind as we leave Brighton Marina.
POSH I’m not: It’s starboard out, port home for me.
Our vessel is called the Brighton Diver. We trundle past other boats – I note a Lady of the Lake and a Grey Viking. As the motor kicks in with more force and we pass the jetty and head out to sea, the ambient soundscape becomes more dynamic, and we hear the voice of a young boy – a cabin boy? – calling Man Overboard. Heave ho; maintain eye contact. An older woman asks, Is there a cabin? Well, sadly – no. We sit and shiver and blink the rain from our eyes. Are we in safe hands? Hope so. Such a city girl – I don’t own any proper clothing for this sort of thing. I start to wonder if it is complete madness to be on a boat in this weather.
But there is something very site-appropriate, so to speak, to be sitting here in the driving rain, bounced about on the waves, hearing stories of people whose life and livelihood depends on their respect and tolerance for the this great big heaving swell of water – the sea, the sea… A sunny day would make it more of a pleasure trip; a more usual and humdrum experience. This places us in empathy with the characters whose stories we hear. How hard it is to stay out all night in a storm (yep – 45 minutes in wind force 4, which is nothing, feels hard enough). The search for relatives and companions lost at sea. The rigours of fishing.
Words come and go, often repeating in a slightly different arrangement. Behind the words are sounds – church bells calling out to sea, bursts of looped guitar, echoes of piano phrases.
‘He put his fingers in the mackerel’s mouth and pulled back its head. Snap! It’s better that way…’ says the older woman’s voice. Down to earth blasts of verbatim text mix with poetic reflection. The fish on the floor of the boat are an ‘iridescent mess’. We hear of the ‘frantic slapping’ and the ‘pink foam’ that follows the boats. A fisherman is described as having ‘fish-gut fingers’.
I find the motion of the boat tossing on the waves soothing. A fairground ride. I find myself thinking of my last boat trip, a year ago – a motor boat trip to Bonete, a remote fishing community in Brazil. As words gathered in Sussex wash over me and I daydream about Brazil, I am not surprised to discover the universality of histories and mythologies in these tales of the sea, here and there. In Bonete, the fishermen say, ‘Eu, pescador… meu pai, pescador… e o pai de meu pai, pescador!’ They are all the son of the son of a fisherman. Here too – a community that has shrunk, but is still holding on, skills passed down from one generation to the next.
Fishermen everywhere have a story of a relative lost at sea, and how that story plays out. It’s the same everywhere. Fishing boats capsized or filling with water, or men overboard. The search in dark water. The protocol of cries and actions. The abandoned search at night resumed in daylight. Coming to terms with mourning someone when there is no body found. I think about tattoos – a tradition of sailors, creating a unique ‘brand’ for themselves so that wherever a body might wash up, and however bloated by the sea it might be, there is a chance of identification.
I look back at white cliffs. Beachy Head, suicide capital of the UK, is just out of sight to the east. I think of those who’ve taken their own lives, and those whose lives have been taken. In the past year or two, there have been numerous ‘incidents’ in these parts that have resulted in the death of adolescent or young adult men. Boys falling off cliffs. Boys jumping off piers. Boys standing too close to treacherous waves, washed out to sea. Boys who can’t swim on an outing from London, caught unawares. I’m the mother of three boys, now grown. We live by the sea, we hear these stories. There but for the grace of God I think, every time I hear of another watery death of a young man.
My wandering mind is pulled back by a story on the soundscape of scuba diving marvels and discoveries. Apparently, there are very many seahorses under Brighton Pier. Who knew?
Tea time! A very welcome hot cuppa and an oaty biscuit. We’re invited to chat, but mostly we concentrate on shielding our mugs and biscuits from the rain.
Five short blasts is for danger but luckily, not tonight. We get three short blasts: the engine is in reverse. We’re turning around. ‘Who will steer us safely to shore?’ asks the woman whose recorded voice we’ve heard throughout. ‘Is there a cabin?’
As we approach the shore, we hear a reflection on sanctuary. Will we welcome the desperate souls who attempt to reach our shores, crossing perilous stretches of water in insubstantial wooden boats? The boats, say a voice, know they were once trees. We are all interconnected, is the suggestion: land and sea; continent and island; family member and foreigner. One world.
I start to feel pretty pathetic for finding a trip of less than an hour, in a safe and sound open boat, challenging. There are around a dozen of us. Well-fed, warmly dressed people. Imagine scores of people, exhausted after long journeys. Pregnant women, babies, sick and elderly people. Imagine much harsher weather. The dark. High waves. Imagine a boat filling with water, possessions thrown overboard.
Why would we refuse refuge? Why would we say no? Why would we close our doors? These questions are just hinted at here, but they’ve kickstarted the thoughts.
More thoughts swim around. I think for a while about ‘site’ and ‘response’. This piece is called Five Short Blasts: Shoreham. It’s not sited in Shoreham, we set out and return to Brighton Marina. Does it matter? Yes and no. The sea stories told and evoked are mostly universal, archetypal. It could be anywhere there’s a sea, and people who earn a living from its waters – Brighton or Bonete or anywhere in between. Some of the verbatim sections are specific to Shoreham and that feels a little odd. We hear, for example, of swells and tides on the River Adur and stories of the houseboat dwellers. I don’t know if the sounds on the soundscape are field recordings from Shoreham. We generously accept what we are fed without questioning – a church bell sounding across the water is a pretty universal sound, I suppose – but the dislocation from one site to another feels a little – untrue. I’d like to know more about the making of the piece, and information is scant…
Then, a more generous thought takes over: it’s a bit like Wrights and Sites’ ploy of taking one map and transposing it to a different site, I think. Take a map of Prague and use it in Exeter! Go for a walk, and see what happens. Take a set of recordings from Shoreham and play them in East Brighton! Go on a boat ride and see what happens. The cracks and slippage and edges of overlay are interesting. Some things from the overlaid aural map of Shoreham waters fit, some don’t. It’s an interesting jumbling up of sites and maps and territories. This sea is all sea, and this sea is not that sea, and this sea is like that sea, and this sea is not.
I find myself thinking that a site, in any case, is not a fixed thing. It has its ‘objective’ existence (I use the word cautiously). Longitude and latitude. Wind force. Knots. Distance from shore. Number of blasts from the boat. It is also experienced through the interplay of our memory and imagination. This is my sea, and that is your sea. My boat journey is not your boat journey. The map is not the territory.
Back on dry land. Well, wet land actually. Slippery wooden boardwalks. Squelching boats. Useless sodden hat and gloves. I feel like I’ve been on a bit of an adventure. But now I’m safely in harbour, and I am going home to get warm and dry. I am one of the lucky ones.
Five Short Blasts: Shoreham was experienced on 18 May 2017 at Brighton Marina. The piece was created by Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey. This version of the piece is created with text by Tony Birch, Tim Crouch, and Julia Crouch; and made in collaboration with Bindi Green, Joseph O’Farrell, Bec Reid and Valerie Furnham. Presented by Brighton Festival www.brightonfestival.org