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Tuesday, 10 July 2012

What isn't like the sea?

The late Victorian and Edwardian periods saw the explosion of a new phenomenon: The holiday. These holiday entitlements, normally no more than a single week and negotiated locally by unions meant that the workers and their families needed somewhere to go. In many cases the workers were escaping the industrial north and the place they chose to spend their week of freedom became the coast. The same coast that had been there, undiscovered by the working class traveller for millenia. What they turned it into was the seaside, a distinctly eighteenth and nineteenth century invention. In many cases, this was a case of proximity and cost both of which worked in the favour of the mill cities and the average wage. They escaped to the ‘pleasure palaces’ as the contemporary journalist GR Sims described them.

It is interesting that the escapism they craved most was delivered by the sea. The sea became emblamatic of being the furthest away from the grime, the soot and the industrial conditions of their working lives. Professor John Walton said that “all these perceptions reflected the 'liminal' nature of the seaside as gateway between land and sea, culture and nature, civilised constraint and liberated hedonism. The spirit of carnival bubbled close to the surface, threatening and promising to turn the world 'upside down' as the holiday atmosphere stimulated the latent fun, laughter and suspension of inhibitions”. That’s what the sea meant to us.

So where does that leave us in 2012? Is the sea still perceived as the ultimate place of escape? A quick google search reveals the following are ‘…like the sea’: some girls’ eyes, love, women, men, knowledge, time, emotions, democracy and my heart. The ocean remains the ultimate metaphor for human frailty and endeavour.

So how do we view the ocean? Is it simply a map of trade routes or an obstacle to be gotten over while we chip away at the size of the planet, desperate to make it that little bit smaller? It’s true; travel in the 21st century rarely includes the sea passage. The ocean itself is less a place to escape to but instead a place that is either jumping-off point or barrier.

But in the eyes of some it is still a destination in itself. It is a place where the best encounters with ourselves and the planet’s most impressive creatures still occur. What’s more, they can occur nowhere else and John Masefield was compelled: He must down to the seas again. The boundary line between coast and ocean remains a charged border and the Norfolk poet Jay Appleton called his coastal landscape an “encounter with infinity”. Infinite in volume or not, the sea’s ability to be infinite in its capacity to move is unchallenged by other mediums.