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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Thursday, August 07, 2003
    The English and the sea
     
    Taking sanctuary on the settee from life's ebbs and flows, having half-drowned in grief and loss today, I find myself journeying with Eliza Carthy's Anglicana. "This album is an expression of Englishness as I feel it," she writes. "no border checkpoints, nobody pushed out, just what it is." Funny, as she notes, that "it ended up themed around songs of the sea."

    The English and the sea. In Albion, Peter Ackroyd identifies our relationship with water as one of the defining features of the English imagination: "The island is full of the sounds of the sea", he writes, citing references from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle through Julian of Norwich, Blake, J.M.W.Turner, Dickens, Vaughan Williams.

    In Carthy's folk revival it's often a cruel sea, as it takes lovers away to fight distant wars, or claims the lives of fishermen. In Turner's seascapes bright, calm coastlines are battered by violent waters, and "when human figures are introduced into his seascapes, fishermen or mariners, they are frail things; they are bowed before the immensity". But the sea can also be also a source of awesome, wildly creative power. Ackroyd shares W.H. Auden's words on this; he "remarked that the sea represents 'that state of barbaric vagueness and disorder out of which civilisation has emerged'."

    Maybe that's why folk in all sorts of states of mind walk by the genius sea. It helps us get a handle on things, embracing the chaos. Maybe that's why the sea is such a strong metaphor for life's ups and downs even when you're physically distant from it. The Irish Sea is two miles away. So tonight my settee is afloat.