I live very close to the sea, close enough for the house to shake and sea spray to wash the widows when the full moon brings the highest of tides and there is a strong wind behind it; but with a road and a promenade separating us, and a house that has stood since the late 19th century, we feel safe and secure, for the rest of our lives at least.
Juliet Blaxland’s house by the sea is rather less secure; and this book was sparked by a timely prompt, to which she responded:
The house on the edge of the cliff was demolished this week, which means we are now the house of the edge of the cliff.
She knows that her house will have to be demolished in a few years time, because the soft cliffs are crumbling under the relentless pressure of winds and tides, and so the land on which it stands will be undermined.
This memoir of one of the last years spent in the house of the edge of the cliff takes the form of a journal, and each month there is an image, a well chosen piece of poetry and prose, all of the details of seasonal produce and events that you would expect a countrywoman to record – and the distance from the edge of the cliff and its change from the previous month. In some months there was no change at all, in other months there were visible losses, and over the course of the year the distance fell from 24 to 19 metres.
The author wrote about that with wit and with grace.
You will not find the church of St. Nicholas, Easton Bavents, in your Pevsner guide to the buildings of Suffolk, nor will you you feel guilty when you repeatedly fail to be present in your pew as a regular member of the congregation, for you have the perfect excuse for missing matins on a Sunday morning: you are not a fish. As our parish church sits quietly on the seabed, part buried here, recognisable pieces of architecture there, perhaps a little buttress among the silvery bass swimming round the ruins beneath the waves, the memory of its existence adds to the sense of calm.
The house on the edge of the cliff was rented, but she had grown up in the area; and this is a book about much, much more than that one house and coastal erosion.
Each month’s journal records the world around her and considers a different subject. Some are clearly seasonal – there are winter storms, there is a summer night on the dunes, there is an attempt to create a crop circle – but there are others that simply reflect life in the country, and how some things have changed while others remain the same.
The writing is rich and evocative, and it is also clear-sighted about the practical realities of living on the east coast and the prospects for the future. The coastal area that Juliet Blaxland knows and loves is in many ways different to my coastal home, but her writing has allowed me to come to know it well and to understand the depth of her feelings for the place she calls home.
Her thoughts were wonderfully wide-ranging, she found so many different things to write about, but themes recurred: the acceptance that nature cannot always be controlled and that there are times when it much be allowed to go its own way; the the increasing speed of change and the importance of considering its consequences; and the ultimate realisation that even the longest of human lives is insignificant when compare with the lifetime of the setting of those lives.
Not all of her interests interested me, the quality of the writing was a little variable, but I was always engaged.
I loved her voice, I loved that she was able to see beauty and charm in simple, everyday things that many people wouldn’t notice, and I particularly loved that she saw hope for the future in the power of nature and the knowledge that tides must always turn.
The physical book is a lovely thing, and it caught my eye in my local bookshop before it was first long-listed and then short-listed for the Wainwright Prize. I was delighted to see that progression, and I would be happy to see it progress one step further ….
Its final words are, inevitably, elegaic:
When our part of this nature-wrought and romantic place goes, the memory of life here will go with it. Where once Chuffy the Brindle Greyhound bombed about the beach and Cockle the Cockerel gently heralded the dawn with his rural sounds, and our skyline hens laid beautiful blue eggs, and our vegetable garden thrived, and we loved the place so much, one day, where all that had been, there will only be a particular volume of sky over the sea which will hold all these memories in its air, and the people on the beach will not know.
And it catches those memories beautifully.