The simple title and cover of this anthology, co-edited by Vine Leaves contributor A J Huffman, belie the complexity and subtlety of what’s inside: a glorious kaleidoscope of evocations of what the beach means to a large group of poets and prose authors. As the introduction promises, it’s far from the obvious seaside book, full of unexpected delights and idiosyncratic interpretations of coasts around the world.
I started to read it in the dissonant setting of the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Metro, airport-bound after taking part in the New Writing North conference. The first poems conjured up such a vivid and inventive set of images inspired by the seaside that I had to restrain myself from leaping on the first train that came along, whose destination board happened to promise “The Coast”.
This is the sort of book that, when reading on my Kindle, has me hitting the “highlight” button on practically every page, picking out joyous phrases and imagery to savour again later, such as “a wonder of landscape soft-running as my hour-glass of childhood” with “tunnelled memory where time is a perpetual summer” in Byron Beynon’s “Cefn Sidnan”.
I especially enjoyed the pieces which evoked the power of the coast to make us all revert to childhood, ready to believe we can dig a hole to the other side of the world or surf with mermaids. Doug Bolling’s playful “Going To China” (by digging a deep hole in the sand) is especially delightful.
Much fun is had with the transformative powers on people of all ages of being beside the sea, as in A J Huffman’s poem “The Fishermen”, in which apparently elderly, unmoving hobbyists quickly become sprightly, muscular energetic sportsman. Whenever there’s a bite on their line, they “spring from chairs like twenty-somethings, actual age regressing in excitement of ensuing battle. Previous hidden biceps now bulge...”
Man-made features intrigue observers almost as much as nature’s contributions, as when in “Musings at Fort McClary”, viewing the assorted boats gathered in the marina, Barbara Bald wonders “What stories hide in their hulls? What honeymoon whispers? Retired dreams?”
But there are not only affectionate idealisations of seaside life in this collection: there are also darker pieces, reminding the reader of the untamable power of the sea to damage and destroy man. Beachgoers are depicted as temporary daytime trespassers, from which the sea reclaims ownership of the sands after dark. Try as we might, we can never truly stake a claim to the shores, the sea’s charms draw us, Canute-like, back to try.
Essential reading not only for the beach, delivering the siren call of the sea with all its beauty and its dangers, wherever you happen to be, even in such an unlikely spot as I was, beneath the bustling city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.