By Jean Sprackland
Jonathan Cape 2012

Book reviewed by Sandra Gibson 25/2/2013

Highly recommended by Jean Sprackland’s success as a poet, Strands is a travel book where past and present comingle in the shore line between Southport Pier and Formby Point. Drawn by the peculiar quality of constant and unpredictable change in this area she has walked for twenty years, the author decided to, “cut through the blur of familiarity, and explore this place as if for the first time.” For soon she would leave it.

Oceans link the coastlines of the world, depositing wildlife and debris on the wrackline, creating a dynamic interface between land and sea through the “colossal kinetic power of wind and waves”. The shifting coastal terrain in this particular area reveals, conceals, reveals… and this has drawn the author to her eclectic task. The objects, creatures and changes she finds become the starting point for intensive and extensive journeys into biology, ecology, history, literature, science, technology, sea lore, scavenging, navigation, philosophy…

In the first chapter Jean Sprackland posits the idea of the beach as an acknowledged place of lawlessness, belonging to the people, not the authorities. Beach combing for chance finds is entirely accepted and wrecked ships have always been scavenged. However, the spectacular random and organised looting of container-ship booty washed ashore at Branscombe, Devon in 2007 was in another league. The authorities intervened; the author points out that these media pictures prefigured the city riots of 2011. I can claim a small convergence with this book of convergences because I reviewed the exhibition Port City at A Foundation Liverpool in August 2008, in which Melanie Jackson exhibited The Undesirables, (2007) - a paper diorama of the shadowy world of the container business. Her angle was that media interest on Branscombe beach was almost entirely confined to the activities of the scavengers, when the crucial point of interest to the artist was the scale and variety of European export to Africa and the issue of corporate culpability.

Robyn Woolston, the winner of the 2012 Liverpool Art Prize, created a potent metaphor for ecological mismanagement: a dead birch tree whose roots were smothered by plastic - the prolific, wasteful product upon which our capitalist system is based. The implications of the alarming amount of plastic floating on our oceans are dealt with by Jean Sprackland through an equally arresting metaphor: The Albatross and the Toothbrush. She has a shocking statistic: “there are, on average forty-six thousand pieces of plastic floating on or near the surface of every square mile of ocean in the world” with equally disturbing ramifications. Albatross are dying; their stomachs contain small plastic objects such as toothbrushes and Lego bricks and as the author says, “it’s the familiarity - the domesticity - of these small disposable objects which breaks the heart.” Because they’re not disposable. The author found an intact Marathon wrapper; Marathons became Snickers in 1990. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it fragments; fish think it’s plankton and eat it; when we eat fish we eat plastic. It gets worse but you need to read the book, which is full of ecological concern, making it a work for our age.

But the book is called Strands and there are many, one moving to the next. The endangerment of the albatross leads to a consideration of its mythical status and literary symbolism through Coleridge’s famous Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Similarly, the revelation of wrecks on the beach initiates research about Hutchinson’s work on tides and navigation. There are crucial but obscure topics for QI: why is samphire linked to Agent Orange? How is shipworm connected with biological washing powders? What can jellyfish do to help cure Alzheimer’s? How is seaweed part of cloud formation? Squirt may be a culinary novelty but how is it implicated in organ transplants? Prozac is on tap – discuss.

The fact that Jean Sprackland is a poet has obviously influenced her celebration of the naming of living things: the Papuan epaulette shark, the South China cookiecutter shark, the dwarf ornate wobbegong, the pointynose blue chimaera, the slimeskate … as well as sustaining a literary strand including Baudelaire, Shakespeare, Longfellow, Leigh Hunt and others. She is equally comfortable with the cold language of clinical pathology or cryptic messages in a bottle or the aural texture of bird song. There is no denying her anecdotal humane respect - at one point she quotes Richard Mabey on wild places: “If we go into them it should be as a privilege, and on the same terms as the creatures that live there, unarmed and on foot,” or her descriptive power - I particularly admired her evocation of shoreline moods - or her sense of existential wonder which takes her beyond the present facts: “It’s a shape-shifting place, in league with the wind and the moon and other forces of unimaginable power and energy,” and “this time in which we find ourselves, and which means everything to us, is a random and fleeting moment of negligible consequence”. But although this is a serious book with some alarming ideas it isn’t solemn and doesn’t proselytise; there is an earthy way of looking at things that makes you laugh, for example her observations of the parallel activities of dogging and the mating behaviour of natterjack toads.

The book ends with a consideration of what Jean Sprackland means by time travel. Throughout Strands the author is aware of the presence of intersecting pasts: the recent past in the form of daily flotsam, jetsam, shipwrecks or tobacco waste dumped on this coast but this chapter deals with the pre-historic past of the hunter-gatherer evoked by the footprints - “ephemeral archaeology” - in sand-buried silt, revealed then hidden by the tides: “It’s prehistory, stirred up after all this time, carried to the surface and coating your feet…Here on a good day, you’ll find footprints. The chances are you’ll be the first person to see them.”


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