Thalassa! Thalassa!, Xenophon tells us thirty thousand Greek soldiers cried out when they came over the ridge and saw the Black Sea, The NorthernReader does not quite match that for volume or intensity of feeling, but it is our ritual cry on spotting when the horizon becomes all watery (pretentious? Moi?). Close to Britain’s very best coastline (tell nobody), we give ourselves the opportunity for this egregious showing-off at least once a week. Walking on empty sandy beaches, accompanied by romping dogs, with the early spring sunshine on your back and a breeze so fresh you wish you’d put heavier boots on, is one of life’s great pleasures. Is it just me (and that horde of Ancient Greeks), or have writers thought so too? Yes of course they have. And at least a couple of them know their Xenophon too (try the Penguin History of My Times and The Persian Expedition: he has a wonderfully clear and straightforward style and is full of vivid description): Buck Mulligan exclaims – or shows off to Stephen Dedalus, exclaiming in Ancient Greek and showing off never being very far apart – ‘Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother. Come and look’. I have no idea whether James Joyce kept a copy of Xenophon under his pillow and liked nothing better than to read a little Greek every day, but here in Ulysses it is clear that he knew this ancient visceral response to the sea. And of course Iris Murdoch – how out of fashion she is now but once she was, more or less single-handed, England’s intelligentsia – finally collared the Booker Prize with The Sea, The Sea. If you are unfamiliar with Murdoch, be warned: her heroes are profoundly slappable and you may be as irritated as you are entranced. An ability to remain calm in the face of barrowloads of cod mysticism is a requirement for reading pretty much any Iris Murdoch, especially her later novels, but go on, give it a go.
More fun, perhaps, is some poetry we can chant as we stride along the beach. John Masefield takes some beating: not only ‘Sea Fever’ (‘I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky’) but ‘Trade Winds’ and the deliciously exotic ‘Cargoes’, where every word is gorgeous to read and – important to Masefield – to say aloud. Oh, go on then, let’s have Coleridge as well, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And after all that lurid story-telling, let’s pause to reflect with Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. I love it: I come back to it after years away and I still love it. There’s a direct simplicity with which it looks you in the eye and takes you on a journey which engages your intellect as well as your heart. And Arnold’s view of the world, that ‘hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light’, stands delicately balanced between the metaphysics of John Donne and the terrible nihilism of Edward Thomas. Worse places to be, provided you are only visiting.
But there is something about the rhythm and pulse of the waves beating upon the shore that draws novelists as well as poets into lyrical writing. John Banville’s The Sea (another Booker winner) shifts its moods as fluidly as the tide. And we must have Virginia Woolf’s The Waves; an astonishing thing, woven of multiple soliloquies, shot through with the changing light of the coast across a single day. One to read while we listen to Britten’s haunting ‘Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes – a Desert Island Discs choice if ever there was one. We could add Woolf’s To the Lighthouse to this week’s shelf, too. Not only is it a perfect gem of Modernism, but it also conjures up a sense of summer on the Isle of Skye that will have you yearning for the Hebrides (To the Lighthouse is almost the only book I can think of that sets itself in the Highlands and Islands without wallowing in clans, tartans and generalised Brigadooning). Even normally-to-be-trusted Arthur Ransome goes a bit goodness-aren’t-they-quaint on us in Great Northern?, his last novel, set in the Outer Hebrides, where all the locals hang around in kilts and beards and mutter in uncouth tongues. It’s worth reading, nonetheless, even if only to give yourself the pleasure of one last trip with the Walkers, the Blacketts and the Callums. Ransome’s love of the sea and passion for sailing makes him unequalled by anyone other than Joseph Conrad for giving us landlubbers a sense of life on board: try We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea and Missee Lee and feel that you have sailed across the English Channel at night and met with pirates in the South China Seas. And then settle back in your safely land-locked chair and immerse yourself in the pleasures of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. We all think we know it – The Muppets, the current National Theatre version (the opera, the ballet and a musical with Tim Minchin as Long John Silver can only be a matter of time), but there is so much more to Treasure Island than adventure and derring-do. Its subtle exploration of the very fluid nature of morality, for a start, makes it a book for our time. Ah, hoarders of gold who will stop at nothing to avoid paying taxes. There are more, and uglier, faces than Johnny Depp’s to be the poster boy for pirates these days.