Charlotte Runcie’s Salt on Your Tongue: Women and the Sea was published at the start of the year by Canongate. Making her long-awaited return to these pages, Nell Frizzell navigates the book’s politics, poetry, cocklewomen and Egyptian queens:
From the motion sickness to the crashing waves of contractions, the salty, sweaty sheen of afterbirth, the seal-like huddle of a newborn, the pregnant mysteries of what lies out of sight and the boat-like sway of your newly swollen hips; there is a lot of the sea in motherhood. A lot of water in femininity. All of which Charlotte Runcie not only expresses with beauty, lyricism and heart, but also manages to interweave with the sort of scholastic detail, nature writing, mythical allusion and scientific chops that put this book above the wet memoir it could have been.
Runcie’s past as a poet is evident in her simple, gravity-defying phrases like ‘I am drained of blood and water’, ‘Nothing reminds me of death as much as new life does,’ or ‘Mary is both virgin and mother; the coast is both earth and water.’ The record of her personal experiences – pregnancy, family, birth, the simple act of movement – are full of poignant metaphor and unexpected honesty. For me, Runcie is rarely better than when describing the large shell on her grandmother’s windowsill, in which the bar of creamy white soap sits. How many of us, I wonder, will be whipped through time by such a detail to our own grandmother’s house; the smell of talc, the soft pastel tiles and the childish fascination with everyday objects. Or when she describes the disappointment in discovering that a piece of driftwood loses its remarkable, oil-like sheen once taken away from the wet, briney position in the shallows. Or in her pearlescent description of breastmilk, of carrying a baby in a sling during high wind, or the view of the waves from a coastal kirk.
Salt on Your Tongue is also, joyously, a political book. In her strident prose style, Runcie confronts the misogyny and misconception in so much of traditional, canonical culture. ‘Parenthood isn’t the enemy of art’ she writes, ‘it’s art.’ Her description of sitting at a desk writing any old pay-per-word piece as her newborn baby sleeps beside her took me straight back to the strange, twilight weeks of my own son’s early existence. But the very act of writing the book itself proves what all women know to be true; that women needn’t suffer and men needn’t be absent, abject or in agony for great works to be made. From breastfeeding to making nets, writing, painting and scratching through wet sand in freezing cold winds for shellfish, women have been working and creating and making for the history of humanity. The apparent contradiction, the difference between art and work, of body and soul, is an entirely subjective, man-made construct and one that does harm to us all. As Runcie puts it, ‘The work of creating a child, of standing exposed to the elements on the borders of life and death, is work nonetheless, and work that women have been told to play down, to act as if nothing has happened. Working mothers must pretend they are not mothers and mothers must pretend they do not work’.
As we, follow her along the Scottish coastline, down towards the cave of St Ninians or past the old saltpans of St Monans, we learn the history of women that is woven into the landscape; from cocklewomen to Egyptian queens. We learn about sea eagles, the history of childbirth onboard ship, of selkies, St Elmo’s Fire, of the precious sea silk known as byssus, the salt biology of drowning and of sea shanties, of which Runcie is both an afficionado and singer. We learn that the sea can be characterised as female in all its incarnations. In the ferocious, terrifying power of Grendel’s mother in Beowulf or Scylla in the Odyssey; or the maternal, guiding comfort of the Virgin Mary, Stella Maris; Our Lady, Star of the Sea.
Sitting static, miles from the sea, reading Runcie’s account of childbirth during one of my son’s post-lunch naps had me in tears. It was as visceral and as heroic as any Homeric epic. I may not know Runcie, not live on a coast, have nothing fishy in my background, but hearing her story of pain and broken waters made me feel true affinity. I felt, as she describes in relation to the lives of fishermen’s wives, like a woman standing on the shore, looking at the drama unfolding far out at sea. I felt like someone with salt on my face and air in my lungs; a piece of something greater and more magnificent, enacted by women everywhere.
You heard it here first: Charlotte Runcie will be joining the (as yet unannounced) lineup for our stage at this year’s Good Life Experience. More soon!