»  The Straggler, No. 55

June 11th, 2007

  The Sea! The Sea!


One day some years ago I was arguing with a Viennese friend about poetry. Though a well-educated and cultivated person, my friend claimed not to "get" poetry. How could that be? I protested. Don't we all respond quite naturally to strongly measured and evocative lines? Listen … and to make my point, I quoted Tennyson's

Break, break, break,
On thy cold grey stones, O sea!

"Oh," she scoffed, "you English, and this huge thing you have about the sea!"

Is it really true? En route by cruise ship from Bermuda to New York, I look out of my cabin window at the North Atlantic, trying to summon up some atavistic emotions. The sun is close to setting in a clear sky. My cabin is near the front of the ship (which is to say, the bow) and on the left-hand (which is to say, port) side, so that the sun is heading down to the horizon at my right. Between it and me is an impressive bright road of reflected sunlight on the water, as in some kitschy seascape painting. The water itself is, I would guess (having very little experience of the deep Atlantic) rather calmer than usual, inducing almost no motion at all in the ship.

I stare, I summon up, to no effect. Huge thing? The hugest thing in my consciousness is anticipation of dinner, which my cheerful Hungarian cabin steward — I may develop a Central European theme here — should be bringing any time now.

By English standards I am anyway a hopeless landlubber, having been raised as far from the sea as it is possible to get in the mother country — about sixty miles. I am told that I was taken on seaside trips as an infant, but my first actual memories are from age eight, when my family rented a "caravan" — a tiny mobile home — on the cliffs above Hunstanton in Norfolk. There I explored the mud flats and rock pools of the Wash, that square bay that terminates the eastern bulge of England, a body of shallow water in which, as every English schoolchild used to know, King John lost his crown jewels. I recall being disappointed by the sea, which I had been told was blue and fierce, but which at Hunstanton was brown and sluggish. So many things turn out like that.

My subsequent relations with the sea were mostly unsatisfactory. I spent a couple of years in the Sea Cadets as a teenager, but geography demanded that most of our seafaring was done on a local reservoir. Only our annual camp featured actual sea, and even then we were housed at H.M.S. St. Vincent, which is not a ship at all, but a land barracks in Portsmouth. The most naval thing about the place was a tremendous mast at one side of the parade ground, with rope ladders we were made to run up and down.

My naval career ended when I failed my oral exam for promotion to Leading Seaman. I can still remember the question that scuttled me. Suppose — asked the examiner, a properly bearded old sea-dog with four gold stripes round his sleeve cuff — suppose I wished to tow a length of timber behind my boat, to season it in the water. What kind of knots would I use to secure it? I did not know the answer (which is of course: a chain of timber hitches), and, unable to face the ignominy of another year stuck at Able Seaman, resigned the service.

Dinner over, I climb up to the open deck of my cruise ship. It is quite dark now, but the ship has lights along the side shining down on the water. They make the foam of our passage look bright, but the sea itself darker by comparison. Depth here is 14,000 feet, I recall from a captain's announcement. Some lines from a different poet, Denise Levertov, come to mind:

the sea is turning its dark pages
its dark pages

I try to imagine those dark depths, and be scared by them, but it doesn't work. What I actually think about the sea is, it's boring. Readers with a strongly different opinion should make allowance for the fact that this was the last night of a two-week cruise.

[Next morning]  Now the true depths — I think I will say heights — of my lubberliness are revealed to me.

Sunrise is at 5:32 a.m. We are scheduled to reach pilot station for New York harbor about 5:00. I struggle out of bed and head up to the topmost deck, just in time to see the pilot come aboard. The sky is beginning to lighten. Directly ahead of us, some miles away, I see the Verrazano Narrows bridge — the gateway to New York harbor, as well as the star prop in the movie Saturday Night Fever.

Now a wonderful, incomparably spectacular show commences. Way over Long Island, the sky turns a fine delicate pinkish-purplish-orange. (The Chinese language has a word for this precise color: xia [霞].) The sun rises into a flawless spring sky. In line with an assortment of other ships — this is a very busy port — we head straight for the Narrows. The Manhattan skyline can be seen in profile: the towers of midtown and the financial district, and the dip between — a function, someone once told me, of how close the bedrock is to the island's surface at various points.

The sun is well up, and the observation deck packed with passengers, when we reach the bridge. We steam through into the great harbor beyond. Far up ahead, still tiny in the distance, is Lady Liberty. Here, a mile or so into the harbor, is where the immigrant ships of a hundred years ago would anchor so that their human cargo could be taken off in tenders for processing at Ellis Island. The topic of immigration is in the political air right now. Being an immigrant myself, I am immune to immigration sentimentality. (I think you need to be of at least the third generation before huddled-masses syndrome kicks in.) Still, it is impossible not to indulge in some mild historical reflection here, especially as we steam past Liberty.

The thoughts at the front of my mind, however, are how glad I am to be home, how much I love New York, and how happy I shall be to feel solid ground beneath my feet again. Like the fellow in the song, I'm never seasick but I'm awful sick of sea. My ancestors, I suppose, would be ashamed of me.