I’ve just spent a week in Cornwall, so this post comes addressed to you onen hag oll (one and all).
We were based near Truro in a converted barn and on our first day I thought that this most genteel of cathedral towns was exceptionally full of shrieking children, then I realised it was seagulls shrieking, not children! Over the week, as we pootled from beach to beach, I became used to their cries, SKAAARKKKK, SKAARRRK, ska-aaark, caarrrkkk, or ca-acck, ca-aaaark, ca-arck, cack-cack-cack, sometimes sounding as if they were having a vociferous argument: CACK-CACK-ACCK vs cack-cack-cack-cack-arrkKKK. They’re really quite thuggish birds and at Mevagissey I saw a gull saunter up to an unattended sweet kiosk, whose owner was busy at the ice-cream counter: we’d just bought our ice-creams. The gull selected a packet of Poppets and walked out without paying (!) then proceeded to stab-peck, staaab-peck-peck-peck-rrriip at the packet until he had opened it right up.
We heard the gulls again at Gunwalloe as a dogfight ensued between gulls and jackdaws: the gulls shrieking and the jackdaws screaming back at them, chasing them off their territory. Gunwalloe Church sets its granite face towards the sea, defying its onslaught; like so many Cornish churches, built for endurance, not beauty. On the day of our visit the tide was ebbing out from the beach right in front of the church, swish-swirr, swish-swirr, SWISH-SWIRR, calm, patient and persistent, knowing that it will one day claim the church, however long it takes, so it could afford to take a day off and show how calm it could be. And bone-achingly cold.
The sound of the sea and the squabbling birds wheeling above brought to mind the words of one of my favourite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins. He’s been with me all my life: I ‘did’ him for O-Level, A-Level and at university, and, strange to say, his work has become part of mine even today, not for his poetic qualities but for his response to particular news events.
On ear and ear two noises too old to end/Trench – right, the tide that ramps against the shore . . . Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend . . . (The Sea and the Skylark)
Not quite the same – I’ve only got one ear for starters! And nothing so nice as a skylark, but even so, his words do where no-one else’s can reach (cue dated Heineken joke). I love the way the tide ‘ramps’, as if it is a living, threatening, animal, like a heraldic lion rampant, as it sounded a few days later, ramping against the rocks at Higher Sharpnose Point which over centuries have claimed so many lives: ‘ramp’ hits the spot exactly for seas which have a menacing swirl of turbulence even in the calmest weather, but without the terrific crashing force of a storm behind it. I thought of Hopkins again there, though again I missed out on a skylark on Sharpnose cliffs (but I did hear the dreary baaaa of a sheep).
I’ve always been alert to the visual beauty of Hopkins’ words – the alliteration and the assonance and all the rest of it – but now that I can hear, and I’ve never heard it before, there’s a new dimension to this poem. The sea and the skylark make distinct sounds as I read out his words: there’s a rising intonation as the lark ascends . . .