Sea swims in England are all rocks, cliffs and shingle

In our Nature column, Sophie Elmhirst tips her toe along Dorset's Jurassic Coast to discover the reality of sea-swimming on home turf.

There is sea-swimming and sea-swimming. There’s the fantasy: clear Mediterranean water, bluegreen and warm, lapping at white sand. And then there’s the English Channel, that thin, cold arm of the Atlantic ocean.
 
I swam recently, while the heatwave was still thick in the air, at Burton Bradstock in Dorset where the shingle is rough under your feet and the water’s dark and choppy. The breeze was up and so the waves were curling and crashing on to the shore but it didn’t stop anyone, even children small enough to be enveloped from head to foot by the water, turned upside down and then spat out again with a look of thrilled surprise on their faces. The trick, I learned slowly, was to manage your entrance: plunging through the surges quick enough so one didn’t take you out.
 
I’d take the rough reality of Dorset sea-swimming over sandy beach life any day. You can’t be elegant or selfconscious swimming here; it requires a certain sturdiness, a willingness to pick shingle out of your swimming costume and an ability to negotiate a sudden shelf in the sea floor as you walk into the water. On the flip side, dolphins and seals have been spotted in recent weeks.
 
The water’s cold too, though the day we went, after weeks of that strange, hot sun, it was as warm as I’d ever felt it. On the beach, there were tentative attempts at sophistication: gazebos, cool bags, picnics and so on. But mostly it was the usual windbreakers and towels thrown down on the stones, flushed babies stowed under battered parasols, bare and burning flesh.
 
At one end of the beach was a large yellow sign warning of danger and death if you pitched too close to the cliffs. These aren’t just any cliffs. This part of the Dorset coastline is on the dramatically named Jurassic Coast: a natural World Heritage Site (England’s first) because of its geological history that spans three periods – Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous – with rocks up to 250 million years old.
 
You can find ancient fossils here and admire the stone at West Bay – the next beach down –which glows deep orange in the sun.
 
The cliffs are monumental walls of rock, layered and compacted, worn by centuries of weather so that useful steps have emerged for the birds. But they come with their hazards.
 
Last year, the wettest on record, the cliffs disintegrated. They’ve done this often over the years, and the risk of rock-fall is constant, but in 2012 the rain was so heavy that a great chunk of the cliff simply collapsed: 400 tonnes fell on the beach at Burton Bradstock, killing a young woman out walking with her family. It took nine hours for rescue workers to dig her body out of the rubble.
 
Those endless drenched days seem remote this year but the sign on the beach is a reminder: while the scene around you might look like something out of a children’s book – buckets and spades, ice creams, kids yelling as they career out of the surf on body boards, sweating old ladies on low chairs wedged in the sand, helplessly, hopelessly fanning themselves – behind you, these great natural beasts rise up out of the earth. For millions of years the cliffs have worked at their own invisible pace, liable to splinter and crash to the beach at any time. There’s nothing we – passing travellers – can do about it.
 
You don’t get cliffs like this on those fancy Euro beaches with their golden sand. There’s no resort here: those marshalled enclaves that attempt to enclose the unenclosable, the sea. This isn’t a beach, but a coast, which runs for miles along the bottom of England and spends much of its life ignored, being battered by wind and rain. I almost prefer it here in winter, when it’s monochrome and empty apart from a couple of miserable dog-walkers and you can’t imagine ever being able to swim in the black water. But on the rare days when you do, at a safe distance from the cliffs, you can’t believe your luck.
Jurassic Beach: West Bay in Bridport, Dorset. Photo: Jorge Luis Dieguez, South End Sea Project (2012).

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era