The Naked Shore of the North Sea by Tom Blass
(Bloomsbury, paperback, 320 pages. Out now.)
Review by Mathew Clayton
“I set out to write a book about this sea, too often snubbed by writers, derided for its moody lugubriousness, its inclination towards inclemency, damp chilly sands and a decidedly utilitarian aspect when glanced at from a certain angle. But both the sea and the shores it beats upon possess their own allure”.
It has to be said that this beautifully written, often beguiling and highly readable travel book is no Driving Over Lemons. We accompany the author on a series of bracing outings up and down our eastern seaboard and along the European coastline that lies north of France and south of Norway. Along the way he encounters a number of taciturn individuals that enliven his quest. On each trip the weather appears to worsen. In chapter five, ‘having driven beyond Hull’s outer circle of retail parks and refineries’ he visits Spurn Point a four mile spit off the Humber, ‘a place where whales go to die’. The weather is typically bad, ‘outside the wind had picked up, and the trees began to scream’. When he announces that he has brought his teenage daughter along for the trip I found myself shouting out, ‘How could you?’
Things take a more eccentric turn when he ventures to the other side of the North Sea. In these sections I was pleased to discover there was quite a lot about Belgium, a country of which I have a great fondness. In Ostend, he chases the ghosts of a group of avant garde artists that made the town home at the end of the 19th century. Their leading light was a painter called James Ensor, who took inspiration from the sea. Blass quotes him as being, ‘guided by a secret instinct, a feeling for the atmosphere of the seacoast, which (he) had imbibed with the breeze, inhaled with the pearly mists, soaked up in the waves, heard in the wind’. Ensor was also influenced by growing up around his family’s old curiosity shop and his paintings often reflect its slightly macabre and surreal atmosphere.
For a couple of years at the start of the 1980s Ostend was also the unlikely home of Marvin Gaye. He came to escape the taxman and a variety of other demons. It was here he recorded Sexual Healing and managed to kick his drug habit. A bizarre, but charming, documentary film of his stay exists called ‘Ostend in Transit’. Imagine a plotless blaxsploitation version of Bergerac set in Belgium rather than the Channel Islands.
Stranger still is Blass’s visit to Halligen, an archipelago of low-lying islands off the German coast. Instead of adopting the more usual method of building dykes to keep the sea at bay, the inhabitants of Halligen all live on five-metre-high mounds of earth called Waffen. On most there are just one or two households. They are regularly cut off by winter storms and the islanders are isolated on their little hillocks but they seem to relish the experience. One describes the coming of a flood as being, ‘kind of like Christmas’. They are less keen on voles, however, who bury into the Waffen and weaken them.
The book ends with Blass on a Shetland fishing boat – The Radiant Star – contemplating global warming and questioning whether he did ever manage to get a handle on the swirling grey North Sea. It is an admirably self-depreciating note to end this most enjoyable book. I just hope, for his daughter’s sake, that for his next book he turns his gaze to sunnier climes.
The Naked Shore of the North Sea is available in the Caught by the River shop, priced £9.99.