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Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, By Jean Sprackland
Under a poet's eyes, the sands of Liverpool Bay yield treasures of natural and human history.
Saturday 23 June 2012
Nature writing, once to be found in what the waspish Drif's Guide used to call the "roast beef" section of second-hand bookshops, is enjoying a renaissance, and even figures now on creative-writing course curricula alongside that brash upstart, psychogeography. Poet Jean Sprackland's compelling account of a year exploring her stretch of Lancashire beach where Liverpool Bay opens out into the Irish Sea is in the new tradition: well-contextualised, sharply-observed, clued up, environmentally aware and deeply researched.
She writes a supple, attractive, gently ironic prose that brings alive this distinctive shoreline, the playground of Beryl Bainbridge – who set her novel Harriet Said here. It is a strand without caves or coves, crab-pools or cliffs, just flat level sand and dunes of spiky marram grass. Sprackland's journal of discovery unpeels all sorts of stories, and she has a great gift as an explicator of oceanography and natural history, writing in that recent tradition of Roger Deakin. His Wildwood clearly influences this sturdy, personal, anecdotal but formidably well-informed literature of place.
We learn, as she stoops to pick out of the rubbery wrack a Prozac blister pack, that the millions of these antidepressants prescribed by British GPs have passed through us into the rivers and the seas, confusing shrimps whose brains lose their proper sensitivity to light, and are drawn towards their destruction by predators. The discovery of a jellyfish prompts a fascinating account of how jellyfish appear to be taking over the seas, canny survivors whose natural predators like the turtle are disappearing.
Sprackland walks the beach in all seasons, constantly making discoveries like a perfectly-preserved cup from one of the defunct Cunard liners. She writes lyrically of the way the sea and the shore retain their secrets. Wrecks disappear beneath the waves and the sand, only to re-appear and then vanish again. The restless waters and shifting sands offer a ceaseless entertainment screen for the beachcomber and strand-walker, a kind of transforming magic like the imagination of a poet that welds together disparate flotsam and jetsam into freshly coherent patterns: Ariel's "sea-change" renders the detritus of the sea into new objects that are "rich and strange".
She celebrates the power of the beach to "surprise and mystify", but her alert, curious, interested mind knows how to follow up the leads these aleatoric moments present. The climax of her year of discoveries is the winter morning when the beach and ocean throw up the most amazing revelation of all: neolithic footprints of deer and humans, preserved in this sediment, the remnant of an ancient mud lagoon where people hunted animals for food.
In this life of the beach there is one strange omission: sea bathing. Even in the 1960s, as a mucky Scouse kid, I bathed off Sprackland's shoreline. Perhaps the bathers have gone the way of the shrimping-men, small nets slung across the handlebars of bicycles, that I remember from my own childhood by this very beach.
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