Sunday, 10 August 2014

I sail therefore I am therefore I sail

I wanted a boat since I first fell in love with the sea and sailing when I was a naive, enthusiastic twenty one year old first experiencing life on board. (This is what Sealegs is all about.)

I got lucky: ie, had some spare cash when someone turned up, twenty odd years later, looking for people to co-own a boat. I also had the time and flexible working patterns to sail around Scotland and the Irish Sea for the past six years. Lucky, too, to have a strong enough friendship with the co-owners to sail with them.

Dreams are, of course, nebulous, capricious. And, six years on, I'm wondering how much I love having the boat, sailing it, whether I am the best owner for it: care enough for it.

I've written plenty about sailing: the joys, headaches, the creative manifestations that come from it. So you know it's a complicated beast. There are elements I love deeply:

Helming through a force 3 or 4 across flat glimmering seas, where I can lose sense of myself in the stretching out of water, sky, navigation, and possible glimpses of creatures ... When I am forced to connect deeply with the natural world.

Sharing the load of inching down a channel at night, looking for lit buoys, water depth and the overnight anchorage with people I trust and with whom I toast the phosphorescence sparkling off the stern.

Arriving anywhere by sea fills me with the pioneer spirit. Even Whitehaven.

But because of weather restrictions, the limited range of sea/land we can cover and, more problematically, lack of companionable crew, these highlights are becoming less and less frequent. Raising the number and frequency of downsides:
The not knowing anything about engines which does not shift no matter how much I try to learn
The stress of coping with weather changes, thwarting destinations, challenging decisions
The recurrent first day's seasickness
The difficulty of training friends while sailing
The being responsible for other people's lives, the boat I share with others

And the past couple of summers I've not done so well with weather or crew to enable long weeks of pootling, obeying wind whichever way it suggests. In short, luxuriating in the positives

There is conflict between idealism and reality. While saying I wonder how much I love having the boat, I know I absolutely love having my sense of self wrapped up with it. My love of sailing and boats has existed for longer than my not knowing anything about them.

"I am Sarah, I sail." sums up so much of my understanding of who, how and where I am in the world. And implicit (for me) behind that statement is "I am serious. I am committed. I co-own a boat."

The cost of owning a boat has been famously likened to standing in a shower tearing up fifty pound notes. If that gave me pleasure then it would be worth it (if I had an acceptable stash of fifty pound notes) but right now holding on to the boat brings guilt for not using it enough and weariness at the thought of using it. Where do I find the pleasure in that ratio?

I want to be committed to that sailing, co-owning, committed self, but right now - after a trip of choosing four hour sailing days over twelve hour days, after realising I am at the mercy of an engine I do not understand, after enjoying the days ashore more than the days at sea, after feeling dependent on sailors who do not want to sail anymore - I do not feel so certain about my commitment.

The shake of that certainty brings a shaking of my identity. Who am I if not a serious, committed sailor? I was one once... or was I? How much can I force myself to be that person still by holding on to the boat, at all costs? What use is having a sense of identity so reliant on what I do / have, rather than who I am? Something as intangible as personality surely does not need tangible components? It feels as ridiculous as claiming someone is untrustworthy because of their eyes, or sinister because they are left-handed...

What I do is a result of who I am. The who I am remains pretty constant. How it manifests changes, sometimes subtly, sometimes more radically. Sailing and co-owning the boat has changed me - shifting my understanding of the sea and weather. Not owning a boat wont undermine my appreciation of them, although will affect how I react to them, assuming I'm landlubbed. Ultimately, though, I'm as interested in understanding as acting on that understanding. There are plenty of ways of implementing understanding, the more understanding, the endless they seem ...

Monday, 14 July 2014


After seven months of waiting we scored our first piece of driftwood this morning. It's a juicy end to the unwanted deficit. Although I'm not expecting more to flood to the shore. Previous to the storms last winter, we were used to picking up one or two trunks a week for the fire. But for the last seven months nothing.

I don't know if the lack of driftwood is because of the new bypass being built from junction 34 of the M6, which is cutting into land either side of the Lune, and must have felled tens perhaps hundreds of trees, which would have naturally found their way downstream. Or if the works are collecting trees coming down stream as part of a health and safety element. Although I can't think all of the wood previously arriving here came from inland. Some of it was so stripped and smooth it looked as though it had been at sea for some time.

Whatever the reason, we'd been getting none of it. And this morning, walking back home carrying the front of this piece of wood on my shoulder, the weight, the nubbing of bark, the wet frondy seaweed and our slow, syncopated steps added to my sense of carrying a dug out canoe, a viking burial ship, being part of a procession, marking the end, the beginning, the turn of events. Yes, we were collecting our winter fuel three weeks after the longest day.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Geocache is Go

success! with Helen Varley Jamieson and Michelle Green
Last Monday I was introduced to geocaching. It sounded vaguely interesting: a game that involves searching for hidden containers called geocaches, with the help of a hint or clue and a loose location. These are presented within a geocache app. There are Muggles - people who aren't geocaching, who need to remain oblivious of what you're doing - adding an extra element of tension/secrecy/suspense.

So far so so interesting. I was learning about them because I'm one of a team of artists and writers making a treasure trail of story parts for Manchester Literature Festival in October: Tales of the Towpath, which uses geocaches as one element of its story for people to find and piece together during the festival.

Helen, the geocacher and digital artist of the team, decided the best way for us newbies to really get it was to search for one. I was happy enough to go along with the plan, although I was really anticipating what the piece of print we'd be making would end up being. However, that afternoon we were mucking about with digital aspects.

Through the app we selected one nearest to us in Manchester (there are millions of these things scattered throughout 185 countries) and were directed to a tree with a bird house in a park. Around which we walked and walked, all of us peering into tree branches, behind bushes, scuffing the grass, looking around a statue, poking at mounds, until I spied something that looked not quite right but not quite out of place either.* Found it!

In the thrill of finding the cache we forgot about Muggles and ooo'd and arhhh'd loudly, attracting the attention of the only other park visitor as we unraveled the log slip to add our names to finders list. But it was tremendously exciting. It was code breaking, physical exploration and highly tuned instinct all rolled together.

Suddenly the use of these as part of our story trail became vivid. In the hunt for caches, the canal and various venues in Manchester would rise into our story, into the imaginations of the trail hunters. We could leave items ('tradeables') in the cache, offer a three dimensional, physical as well as digital, experience, and hopefully recreate that excitement of discovery, of solving clues in the caches while the story unraveled for people on the trail.

What also appealed to me about the hunt was being sent somewhere I may not know and given a reason to scour it, to explore it with sharp eyes and a hunger. Regardless as to whether there is a tradeable in the cache (which is probably a tiny trinket), the thrill rests on the hunt; the search rather than the find; the process rather than the end. It's like the best of journeys - the getting there is as important as the eventual end point. Which is, after all, what stories are all about.

*In the interests of geocaching etiquette I can't tell you any more than this in case I spoil it for someone...

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The Hare and the Short Story

This is not a great photo. But it is a photo of a leveret (why it's a little blurred: they run haphazardly on the road). Which makes it a good photo in the sense of it being hopeful and capturing something positive.

I started writing a short story yesterday. It has been burbling away for a few months, getting in the way of any poem writing, and this week was the week where I had enough time to get a first draft down. The idea for the story popped into my head, back in February, like an old memory. I instantly liked it and tinkered with how it could develop and shape over several weeks. Yesterday was the day I'd set aside to begin. I had already scribbled key points in my notebook but decided to sketch out a timeline of the plot before starting. Then to read a couple of Chekhov stories and perhaps some new prose poems from Ian Seed just to get me in the zone. Then there were the nasturtiums to sow before it was too late. Etc etc.

I'm not generally one for procrastinating. So it was an odd experience, especially as I was aware - after the Chekhov - of my aversion and kept asking myself why? It's over twenty years since I've written a short story. I didn't really expect to write another one, although they are my first love - both as reader and writer. I was aware, as I found some more plants to water, of being scared of all those words that would be needed to write the story. And how I was going to keep them taut and moving forward.

I did finally settle down and start - just as it was beginning to feel as though it was too late in the day to get anything useful down. That final threat of it not happening was probably enough to motivate me to write the first sentence and then the next. The bigger fear of it not being written.

Is it fear that motivates all my writing?

The leveret's run isn't so much haphazard as a tactic to avoid being caught by a predator. Fears that impel me to not write then to write are of failure and of responsibility or of incomprehension, respectively, (I write to work out my thinking much of the time - made obvious through this blog). Many of my past students wrote out of a fear of mortality. Then there is the fear of being invisible countered by the fear of shame or embarrassment in revelation. So it goes, until the piece is written and rewritten and the fear is forgotten in the love of language and accuracy of expression. Which is when the leveret jinks into the field and is off, away, blending into the environment, its physicality lost to muscle memory and exuberance of existence.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Another Sign

An altogether different sign. I pass this once or twice a week. It's tucked inside an 's' bend. Revealed and passed inside half a minute. Its fleetingness makes it all the most precious. It's the sign that attracts me particularly: how many information signs we read these days that use a serif font? The sign seems less informative for it, more chatty, perhaps. Its lay-out turns it into a poem. It could be a Thomas A Clarke poem. I love that white column on the right hand side. Somehow it turns the text into the caravan, next to... 

The shed. Which has its own shed. Who can turn their back on an outbuilding? Especially one as worn and loved as this. How far back does it go? What passions and fixations have occurred here? 

Everything is answered by reminiscence. As the corner passes I know everything: what the caravan looks like, its sea view, the field it's in (of course it's a field!), the books in the caravan, the caravan paraphernalia in the shed awaiting repair, the tools in the shed, the bare light bulb, the dog who used to sleep in the doghouse now buried behind the shed... It's a heady combination of a Tom Waits' song and a childhood holiday.  

Monday, 12 May 2014

In Good Weather the Sign Outside...

It's finished. I'm not quite sure when I started fiddling with the folds and design for this, but I wrote the first draft of the four pieces in December, originally for a hypertext story.

I'm pleased with it. Hypertext was a way to give the story multiple timeframes: present, past, imagined present and future. The folds that hide and reveal stories and semi-opaque end papers that add to the layering provide a similar presentation for the stories and their context in time.

The letterpress cover adds a weight. I don't mean gravitas, rather a physical weight superimposed to the text. Also on some of the covers the ink is slightly smudged or echoed from the rolling back of the printing press, added a send of movement and water. However the cover appears, each one makes a lovely contrast to the endpapers of semi-opaque photographs.

This is a limited edition of forty-eight. Fifty would have been cleaner, but that's the number of covers made and everything else follows the law of letterpress. There is variance within the forty-eight. I've used two different colours for the internal pages: teal and cobalt. So please if you have a preference, do state it.

I would call it a Puzzle Pamphlet if that didn't suggest you might find either crosswords or jigsaw pieces inside.

It will be available to buy here. If you're interested, and want to haggle, I've decided to work off a sliding scale of prices, email me to negotiate. They will also be on sale at the Rubber Band Benefit Gig on Thursday 22 May, 7.30pm start at the Gregson Centre, Moor Lane, Lancaster.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Getting Lost and Surviving

Last Saturday Hymas&Lewis performed a preview show of Sealegs to a small invited audience at the Maritime Museum in Lancaster for some catchy feedback to help us sharpen the marketing of it. I feel a bit too close to the piece to be in the best position for articulating clear handles. 'Getting lost' came up several times. Getting lost and it being okay to be lost...

I thought of this getting lost business again over the weekend when I was servicing the winches on the boat. The above picture is of just one winch : its 20 parts (not including the screws and cap that hold it all in) that needed to be dismantled, cleaned, greased and reassembled. There were moments when I was washed over by the cold fear of incomprehension - when I thought I'd lost one of those tiny springs on the left of the picture - when I tried to slide the washer over the shaft and it kept bending precariously - when I couldn't slot the wobbling plastic key into the shaft, nor hold it in place. The entire operation had to be performed with hands and fingers thick with waterproof grease. And, of course, on a boat on water, into which anything could fall and be lost forever.

As I was greased up and puzzling, memories of a recent interview kept surfacing. Or rather the gaps from the interview: the things I didn't say, that I'd wanted to say. The fluency and articulation of ideas and aspirations that slipped my mind in that room were, on the boat, sliding back into focus. A common-enough excruciating experience.

Of course I'm now at the point of not really remembering exactly what I did say, still it feels necessary to pinpoint my focus for the coming months, and declare it:
To deepen my communication and collaboration with fellow artists
To become more fluent in communicating ideas - from the micro to macro and how they connect - especially verbally
To create a broad range of alliances between artists/writers to develop work
To explore how I can consolidate all my 'parts' to become a cohesive motivating 'engine'
To maintain my enthusiasm for those parts, and honour both the more recent additions (celebrant) alongside the older (editor).
To finance myself equally as artist and producer.

Good luck to myself and all future collaborators (including those who sail with me!)