Six weeks have gone past since my last post as a number of other things have landed on my plate, so it was time to give the old fingers a rest from flying over the keyboard: in common with everyone else these days, or so it seems, I spend my working life in front of a computer, too. I had a physical rest last week with a stay in Southwold – fantastic. The sun behaved itself and shone, and as each wave ebbed out it made a kind of little hissing noise full of thousands of gentle little thuds as it deposited shingle all over the shore and on my toes.
At school I was quite open about my ambition to be a writer. I’ve never forgotten the stupidity of a classmate who said straightaway: “How can you do that when you’re deaf?” as if the ability to paint a picture in words was dependent on being able to hear. I challenged her and all she could come up with was I wasn’t able to put over the tone of voice . . . erm, but you can see irony and sarcasm and love and anger all dripping from the lips, and I’m sure I would’ve had the common sense to put in creaking floorboards and other plot devices. Anyway, there’s such a thing as imagination. This girl clearly lacked it because she couldn’t see past the ‘can’t’. The negativity of all those people who say ‘You can’t . . .’ was probably the loudest sound I ‘heard’ for years.
I think I would always have imagined lots of different sounds as I did for so many years – my brain made it happen even as it went soundlessly past my ears – but there’s more for my imagination to play on now that I can hear. So here’s my take on Southwold’s most famous moment as the townsfolk witnessed the Battle of Solebay on 28th May, 1672, inspired by a facsimile of a sketch of the ‘Battell’ in our hotel at Southwold, made by a contemporary artist and eyewitness.
How much the 17th century residents of Southwold could have heard I do not know: sea battles were mobile and ranged over many miles, and the wind and waves may have snatched away some of the noise. For the onlookers it might not have been much more than dim booming drifting ashore through a deadening pall of smoke and sea haar. For those on board the fighting ships, it would have been deafening, particularly for the gunners: boom – roar – whizz – crack – thwack – and a scattering of splinters (which were more lethal than the cannonballs themselves) multiplied over and over until the men must have been half mad. Orders barked and oaths uttered in dialect English and guttural Dutch, yells of terror as a ball thudded into the mainmast, sending it ‘by the board’ and bringing down with it yards and ropes and rigging in a swishing, hissing, thudding shock of noise. The roar of flames as a fireship, stuffed with combustible materials and with its empty gunports left open to allow the whooosh of oxygen to do its work, was left to drift among the enemy. More oaths as the skeleton fireship crew jumped into the boat, the plash-plash-plash of their oars barely audible above the general din, the roar and crackle of flames intensifying as the burning fireship touched the hull of its intended victim, the English Royal James. Water, water, everywhere – and nothing to quench the flames leaping higher, hissing and rippling along the ropes and tearing up the sails, and creeping ever more dangerously towards the magazine. BOOOOMMMMM. The hissing, boiling, cracking, splattering sound as what was left of the Royal Navy’s newest ship sank beneath the waves, with a sucking sigh that would have taken down with it anyone unfortunate enough to be in close proximity and still alive.
And in all this noise, the tiny little sound of a graphite pencil as the artist, Willem van de Velde the elder, made the original sketch from the edges of the battle in his little pinnace.
I doubt whether I could have included that last little detail pre-implant.