Friday, May 29, 2015

Ashley Sterne Sand and Seaweed


Another Ashley Sterne article, republished in The Telegraph (Brisbane, Queensland) on 24 November 1934.  Unfortunately, Sterne was only going through the motions with this article: it begins awkwardly, plods along through some modest historical drollery, and then sputters to a close without his usual concluding quip or punch line.

[Correction from June 6, 2015:  The article's last line quotes John Masefield's poem "Sea Fever."  So I suppose that it's not a bad ending to the article, although I don't think it's a particularly amusing ending.  I have included the poem below for the sake of context.] 


Sand and Seaweed

An earnest seeker after light and truth has, I see, been inquiring of his daily newspaper as to who initiated the vogue of going to the seaside for the summer holidays.  Well, I suggest that the answer to that question is simply that there was never any vogue at all.  We merely possess an ingrained tendency occasionally to come over all sand and seaweed, which we have inherited from our very remote ancestors who lived in an age when practically the whole globe, except possibly a couple of Himalayas and a Pyrenee or two, was seaside.

Medical men will tell you that this periodical seaward impulse is nothing more nor less than the human body crying out for ozone — that bracing constituent of coastal atmosphere which impels the ancient mariners of seaside resorts to behave like a Russian ballet.

But since sufficient ozone to fill a dirigible, all neatly squashed into a dinky little cast-iron cylinder, can now be purchased at the chemist's for a few shillings, there seems to be no need to pay ten guineas a week, with the prospect of sleeping on an emery pin-cushion, and subsisting on a diet of perpetual potato-pie, for the privilege of inhaling a casual whiff of irregularly moleculed oxygen blent with the less acceptable aroma of moribund crustaceae. 

Many things, however, have contributed in the course of the ages to add a romantic glamour to the seaside; and these have served to give a fillip every now and again to what might otherwise have proved a long-since subordinated habit.  I have little doubt in my own mind that the seeds of seaside holidaying were primarily sown by Father Noah, though it is only fair to stress, not that he started the ball rolling by going down to the seaside, but that the seaside precipitated the issue by coming down on him.  But it is difficult to believe that, once having tasted the delights of boating, he did not subsequently make an annual "do" of it, though naturally with a completely different passenger list.  Indeed, I have always clung to the idea that Father Noah was the original of Mr. Masefield's sea-fevered mariner.

Jonah, too, appears to have exhibited a distinct craving for the flung spray and the blown spume, albeit I can imagine far more comfortable methods of satisfying this urge than a trip in one of those deplorably managed and equipped Joppa-Tarshish liners; while Jonah's inverted notions of deep-sea angling can hardly be said to have established a system which has been very widely adopted.

Later on, Royalty seems to have had a finger in the sea-pie. There was, for example, that scandalous old rascal, H.I.M. Tiberius Caesar, who had his own private little seaside at Capri, of whom and of which perhaps the less said the better.  I need only remark that Capri's famous grotto remains blue to this day. 

Then there was King Canute.  Probably we British commoners really began to acquire the seaside habit in earnest directly after Canute had hoicked self and retinue off to the South Coast for the day, where, having successfully attained the shingle, he dismally failed to control the permanent wave.  Obviously crowds of people were eager to go and see for themselves the thing which the all-conquering Dane was unable to master, and ere long I imagine there was Baldric the Unseemly operating Belle Vue en pension for paying guests, and Osric the Unlikely inaugurating the great Plain Teas Movement.

King Harold, again, seems to have taken quite a considerable party of trippers down with him to Hastings some thirty years later, and it was not his fault that William of Normandy chose that same day of the year to ruin Hastings' reputation as a health-resort for many a long year to come.

For some time after Harold's excursion to Hastings pierrots sighed to the silvery moon in the presence of two programme-girls, one fireman, and 3,000 folded-up deck chairs; while its negroid minstrels reiterated the fervent wish to repatriate themselves in Old Kentucky into the unsympathetic ears of the bathing machine proprietor and a few stranded jelly-fish.  However, Hastings has long since lived down that bit of unpleasantness.

Subsequently came King John, whose little adventure in the Wash ended so disastrously for the Crown Jewels, which had never been taught to swim.  But what Royalty does one day, hoi polloi will ape the next, and the boatman of Hunstanton and Boston must have picked up a packet hiring out their craft and diving gear to the myriads who doubtless breezed along in the hope of salvaging the orb and sceptre, the crown and anchor, and all the other regal fallals which John had so thoughtfully carried into battle with him.

Still further impetus was assuredly lent to the seaside habit in Tudor times by the huge parties of folks who were desirous of seeing Raleigh and Frobisher and other distinguished navigators off upon their periodical Odysseys. At such times, Portsmouth and Plymouth must have been congested with relatives and friends of the adventurers, some imploring Raleigh to bring them back a parrot or a monkey from Virginia, others enjoining Frobisher to be sure to put on his thick vests when he reached the entrance to the notorious North-West Passage.

But probably what has done more than anything else to revive in us our submerged marine instinct is all this Channel-swimming racket.  Channels being normally kept at the seaside, the pursuit of this delightful and exhilarating pastime has forced us to go to the coast for it.  There is no recognised method of synthetic Channel-swimming.  It has to be the real goods or nothing.

Hence the individual who merely executes the mileage-equivalent by swimming up and down the Camberwell Baths 7,546 times will not be greeted at the conclusion of his feat by the mayor, a lot of trombones, and an illuminated address, nor even have the porpoise-oil scraped off his limbs by souvenir-hunting swimming-fans.

So many of us have fallen for the craze in the last 20 years or more that it is the exception, rather than the rule, to find a person who has not attempted the exploit, in greater or lesser degree, even though the large majority may not have got any farther to France than the hind-legs of Dover pier.

Anyway, the seaside habit, be its prime cause what it may, shows few signs to-day of being abandoned, and I for one feel more strongly than ever that the call of the running tide is one that cannot be denied.

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Sea Fever

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

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