Me, by 'my' sea where I live, lighthouse behind me.
My element is water. I spend a lot of time either in it, looking at it, or being near it. Not for nothing is my Amazon review name ‘Superswimmer’. I do a lot of swimming, but it’s also a kind of writing, or so it often turns out to be. I swim a mile, five times a week - a ‘mile’ is 64 lengths of a normal size pool - and I’m lucky enough to have a swimming pool down on the sea front only a few minutes away by car, so I get to see the sea, my lifelong love, almost every day too. I swim fast crawl with my head under the water, up and down, and my thoughts flow freely while I ‘play’ music to myself in my head. It’s almost a kind of meditation.

I’m disabled and can’t walk much, so swimming is my only form of hard exercise, and water is where I'm free and as good as most other people: I love it and am addicted to it. I often find my thoughts collecting round one of my writing ideas, a poem, a play, a novel, and lines of dialogue or ideas for plots or phrases pop into my head as I charge up and down. The pool is indoors, though the sea is just over the road - I don’t mind swimming in cold water, in fact I’ve done it when the heating has broken at the pool, and I’ve swum in water cold enough to stop your ribs expanding and to get
My local beach: hot blues, icy waves!
into your ears and stop you walking straight afterwards in volcanic lakes etc. But my sea is the North Sea, beautiful, cold and deadly, not only is it painfully icy but those who swim in it (and some people do) without wetsuits tend to go for ‘dips’. It’s not somewhere I could swim a mile in. It has undertow, riptides, sudden shelves, strong currents, high tides, freak waves... people die in it.

But I love to swim outdoors and my holidays and travels abroad all revolve around the question, is there a big outdoor pool? (A small pool is not worth getting my hair wet for, though in desperation I’ve managed in puddle-sized pools, swimming so many short lengths to make up a mile I’ve got dizzy with turning.) Is the sea swimmable-in? As a wildlife fan I love to snorkel too, and have seen and swum with amazing critters in the oceans of the world. The freedom of movement water gives us takes us back to our original homes in the ocean - there is even a theory that humans lived by and in the seas after evolving out of them. And that’s why our head hair keeps growing, while the rest of it doesn’t, for our babies to cling to in the water! If I can get a good pool I happily swim a mile every day for the duration of the trip.
Christmas on the Great Barrier Reef: me and my new friend.

When I snorkel I can’t wear fins, so I have to swim front crawl for hours at a time in the ocean, which is hard work especially in a wetsuit or stinger-suit. Swimming with my grown up children on the Great Barrier Reef with many species including reef sharks and best of all, turtles that chose to swim with us, make eye contact, and stay with us for ages, was the best ever Christmas day! I’ve had some scary encounters as well of course, suddenly face to face with bizarre jellyfish, almost mown down by boats, chased by a Titan Triggerfish. The sea is fundamental to me and my whole way of thinking. Because I live by it and grew up by it I know where it is, relative to me, at any time - if I go somewhere well inland it feels odd not having it nearby even if out of sight. The sea is dangerous, wonderful, teeming with life and ideas: I can love the sea without expecting it to love me back. Being on the beach and near to it in all its many moods and seasons has got me through bereavements, divorce, bad moods, creative hiatuses, its majestic, powerful, indifferent beauty adjusting my perspective.

Poster for The Selkie, my stage play.
So it’s no surprise that water, and the sea, crops up in my work like a recurring character I can’t kill off. Several of my full-length plays have sea-related themes: The Selkie; Collingwood and the Tars of the Tyne; Hadaway. I wrote songs for The Selkie including my love song to the sea, Boundless Heart. The sea features in many poems, too.

The sea is a major part of the setting of both my crime novels, which are set in my neck of the woods, I mean rockpools. THE ROTTING SPOT is set on a headland, an almost-island joined only by a footbridge to the mainland. The sea lashes at the cliffs and is part of the plot in various ways.

The new book, THE OPERATOR, despite having a medical theme, also involves the sea, in particular the mouth of the river where spectacular storms send rainbows of white water crashing right over the pier, and even the lighthouse on the end. I’ve set a scene here which is full of danger and action even for my fitness-freak, and yes, superswimmer, heroine Erica Bruce.
Tynemouth Pier, a location in my book The Operator.

Do you have an element, a force of nature, or perhaps an urban landscape, somewhere that you feel at home, or that calls you as the sea calls the Selkie and calls me? Somewhere that washes into your writing, and carries ideas into your head?

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Dan Holloway said…
Wonderful - I think we all have somewhere like that where we feel truly at home (what "home" means is one of those topics I come back to again and again). I have to say I do love the sea, though I'm not a swimmer (my wife's the swimmer of the family). For me the place I feel completely at home is London, in particular the southern part of Soho along Shaftesbury Avenue where the gay village, Chinatown and Theatreland live alongside each other seemingly oblivious of each others' existence. The self-containedness of those worlds makes it a place where you can surround yourself in a glorious sensual feast yet be completely invisible, which is a wonderful combination.
julia jones said…
Marvelous blog - and what photos! Wow!
julia jones said…
But it's ON not IN the water for me. please
Dennis Hamley said…
You are so lucky, Val. I hate it that water is a an alien element to me. The result of being born as far away from the sea as you can get at a time when there wasn't a swimming pool within miles. I could just about swim once, about half a length, but I now seem to have done what we are assured humans can't - forgotten how to. Oh, that climactic scene in The Operator. Amazing. And Erica wins through. I envy you and fear for you in the same breath. Terrific post.
Bill Kirton said…
I don't swim as often as you do, Valerie, but I certainly feel the same pull of the ocean. I was born and brought up in Plymouth in a home on Sutton Harbour. For most of my life I've lived in Aberdeen (further up on your freezing North Sea) with its miles of beach and dunes. When I left university, I got a job in Nottingham and, after 6 months, went for a weekend to Scarborough. As we drove over a hill and saw the sea in the distance, I felt an extraordinary wave of - I don't know, relief? excitement? love even? and I realised that I'd been missing it. I left Nottingham and the job very soon afterwards. It's beyond rationalisation, isn't it?
Jan Needle said…
delightful, thanks. when i moved up to the north aged twenty i didn't miss the sea for several years. then one day i had a mole moment - dulce domum - on a visit to north wales. within two months i'd bought three boats, and never looked back! on swimming, i'm with julia, tho. mmm.
Lydia Bennet said…
thanks all for your lovely comments! we come from water and are largely made from it, I feel it's a shame we've lost the ability to breathe in it! But yes cities too can give you that feeling of home or being in a good place. It's not about being safe, as we are in our 'home'/house/home town/local countryside, it's an acceptance that dangerous or not, it calls and engages us beyond the rational.

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