Wednesday, 21 August 2013
Week Thirty-One - Jeanette
Voices Of The Old Sea by Norman Lewis (1984)
Recommended by Mark & Roxy
Mark is this Mark.
I first spoke to Mark via telephone, interviewing him for Seasons They Change. Not only did we talk of 1971’s Dreaming With Alice sessions – constituting some of my favourite of all acid-folk – he told me of the new record he was making with The A. Lords, which turned out to be another masterpiece: 2011’s I Lived In Trees.
I met Mark in person when we both performed at Cecil Sharp House: he with The A. Lords, me in the inaugural reading from Seasons (before the thing was even published and I had to, very glamourously, read from a printed PDF). Mark is modest, charming, and intelligent, as well as an awesomely talented musician and painter. Through Mark, I met Roxy, too. Phenomenally kind, generous, mega-smart, with a whip-fast humour… oh, they’re just two of the best people going.
Mark and Roxy invited me to stay with them, and their pug Missy, in Normandy last year. I could have cried it was so good. Not only was it the beautiful surroundings, it was simply being around them in their home. As they bantered with each other, it was proof positive to me of enduring love.
Their joint recommendation, Voices Of The Old Sea, has been a welcome constant of the past fortnight. For these two weeks have otherwise been engorged with sensation. A writing retreat in Suffolk with Jude, a serious illness in my family (and another upsetting trip back to bloody Norwich), a visitor from Japan, and all capped off by the sheer exhilaration of the Woolf Music festival.
With the pace of a particularly timid glacier, Voices Of The Old Sea tells of the change in (and to) the secluded Spanish village of Farol. As he explains in his foreword, Norman Lewis tackled the subject for psychological (as opposed to anthropological) reasons.
After three war years in the Army overseas I looked for the familiar in England, but found change. Perhaps it was the search for vanished times that drew me back to Spain, which in some ways I knew better than my own country – a second homeland to be revisited when I could. Here the past, I suspected, would have been embalmed, and outside influence held at bay.
When Lewis first takes us to Farol, in the middle of the twentieth century, he is correct. This tiny community is wholly reliant on fishing and wits for its economic and social survival. The currency of the village is of and for itself, with barely a by-your-leave to anything other than its immediate neighbours.
What was I doing here? he asked, and I told him I was on holiday. In a place like this? He looked through the window at the vacant beach. The fishermen were sleeping off the exhaustion of the previous day and had pulled the boats out of the water and gone off without bothering to clean up the mess. A number of cats like mangy little grey tigers were doing what they could to remedy this.
‘Nobody comes to a place like this unless they have to.’
Lewis’s prose, as he writes of his first summer in Farol, reflects the village’s everyday rhythms. His words undulate like waves gently rocking the fishing boats. Farol, with its stalwart rituals, customs, melancholia, and flat sea mist, is the book’s main character; everyone else (Lewis included) forms the supporting cast.
Farol had been like this for decades, centuries; wider forces might have nudged it (the Spanish civil war and Franco were not renowned for leaving people to their own devices) but the people there remained largely untouched. They felt the outside world at best as an irrelevance and at worst as a malevolent spirit, yet they could brush off any attempted incursions by it as easily as hanging up on a salesman.
Until that incursion was a salesman, or a salesman of sorts. Farol may have resisted fascism but it could not last against tourism. At first, the presence of outsiders (and, lest we forget, Lewis himself is one such beast) is greeted with bemusement.
There was a great increase of amateurs from Sort trying their hand at fishing. In the autumn the men had come down and fished with rods using the wrong bait, at the wrong time of day, and usually there were no fish to be caught anyway.
An entrepreneur named Jaime Muga arrives. He turns the local fonda (a basic tavern) into the Hotel Brisas del Mar, increasing the price from 8 to 50 pesetas a day (‘causing the locals to burst into peals of disbelieving laughter’), and encourages the shop to stock cheap carvings of Don Quixote. The villagers roundly mock Muga’s paying guests, just as they mock the useless fishermen.
But such laughs are hollow. For Farol is part of what we now know as the Costa Brava.
When I cleared out my dad’s stuff after his death, I found that he had not cleared out my mum’s stuff after her death. Thus, I was treated to a whole wealth of crazy crap like quilted flamenco postcards hoarded from her cheap holiday to the Costa in the late 1960s. Although I don’t know for sure, I’m betting that my mother wasn’t concerned with appreciating local untouched culture. Her life was hard enough and she didn’t want to spend her week off on a scabby cat-strewn beach. Rather, she did what thousands of other young working class Brits of the time also did: she drank sangria, she made eyes at Sergio, and she came home with a tan.
As slowly as he writes of Farol’s traditional life in his first season in the village, Lewis now tells us of the rise of Costa Brava tourism. Yet, now, Lewis’s stately pace is not relaxing, but deeply sinister. Its languor is like that of the zombies in Night Of The Living Dead. The tourists will overwhelm with sheer mass even if, individually, they’re easy to deal with.
The butcher’s had undergone a spectacular facelift. Gone were the bloodstains, the flowers stuck into jam jars, the artistic display of giblets, the beribboned tripes, and the severed heads presented on paper ruffs. The shop was as impersonal as a tax office.
Voices Of The Old Sea is a beautiful and often upsetting elegy. I believe that we shouldn’t, by rote, weep for the past. That’s the thing with the old days: they’re the old days. One also shouldn't forget people like my mother, for whom affordable tourism represented a much-needed escape from factory or domestic drudgery. But we do need works like Voices Of The Old Sea. Such stories may speak to us softly, but they can still, sometimes, be heard over modernity’s din.