I was brought up by the sea and was used to going into the water almost daily throughout the summer months. Our town was a popular resort and the beach near the pier was crowded in fine weather. We could walk or take the bus along the coast and find quieter beaches.
Despite its familiarity, I didn’t give the sea much thought. It was just there, like the shingle beach, the groynes, the chalk cliffs and the open-topped buses that ran along the sea front.
I was used to diving in and feeling the shock of cold, the salty taste, the rough tetxture of my skin when it dried with sea water on it. I was used to the sea’s changing colours and its pulsating flow and the weight of the waves crashing down on me on days when the danger flags were flying but we bathed nonetheless. But I gave little thought to the sea, its nature and extent.
Near the beach, the sea was a tame beast that invited us to paddle, to swim, to dive under the surface and to romp in the spray. Further out, it was a wavy surface, a roadway for pleasure craft and in the distance, tankers and cargo ships. The sea was a playground, familiar, harmless, uncomplicated.
The first time I experienced a different, less familiar sea was on a holiday in Cornwall. We drove all day and reached our hotel in the evening. By the time we had sorted out our luggage and had a meal, darkness had fallen. I decided to go out for a breath of fresh air and a look at the sea. The hotel was out of town and the only light came from its windows and the fairy lights around the building.
The sea was visible in this light, completely black except for the foam on the wave tops and along the edge. The sea clawed restlessly at the beach and I was suddenly looking at an entirely different sea to the one I was used to. I shivered involuntarily for this was an alien sea, mysterious, opaque and sinister. I imagined walking down the beach, plunging into the water and swimming out away from the shore. The prospect was frightening: what might there be out there in the black depths? What hidden dangers, what monsters waiting for prey, what rocks ready to tear me, what entangling weed waiting to snag my legs and draw me down?
I looked at this new and alien sea with surprise. My thoughts were foolish but I couldn’t shake them. The sea attracted me but also repelled me. Eventually I pulled myself away and returned to the domestic familiarity of the hotel.
Since then, the sea has changed for me. I can still bathe without a qualm in the shallows and even swim a little distance away from the shore but I am now aware of the sea not merely as a surface for ships to ride upon. Sailing from Harwich to the Hook of Holland recently I watched the sea. I was aware of the depths below us, of its cold green world inhabited by fish and other marine creatures. I imagined being in the depths looking up at a distant hull passing overhead. I imagined myself, floating waterlogged like a drowned mariner.
I still love the sea and can spend hours watching the waves swirl in among the rocks along the Cornish coast. I love its restless beauty and its endless energy. But the beauty of the sea is now limned with a feeling of danger. It is at once familiar and strange, smiling and sinister.
Why is this? Did the sight of the black sea that night in Cornwall evoke a forgotten memory or did I project onto it something from the depths of my own mind? Did the sea reflect the vast opaque ocean we call the unconscious, which reveals parts of itself in dreams and hallucinations but for the most part remains impenetrable and dangerous? Sea and mind: who can disentangle your deep currents?