I grew up by the sea. From the time I was four years old until long after I’d left home, my father was a lightkeeper for the Northern Lighthouse Board, which meant that we lived all around the coast of Scotland, usually moving home every four years. While sometimes my father worked at remote lighthouses where families weren’t allowed, and he did month-on, month-off shifts, at other times the whole family lived right next to the lighthouse.
Growing up, I can’t recall living anywhere I couldn’t see the sea from my house. Sometimes we lived so close that strong winds and heavy seas could send splashes of spray right in our front door if we’d been careless enough to leave it open.
Even when I went to university, first to St. Andrews and then to Dundee, I was never far from the sea.
A lot of my early writing was shaped by this constant proximity to the sea. I’ve got an abandoned novel set in a sea-port where the first chapter (which almost, but not quite, starts “it was a dark and stormy night” – give me a break, I was 20 when I wrote it) is concerned almost exclusively with the arrival of strange dark ships into port. I’m not sure if it’s conscious or not, but every city or town I’ve written about has been a coastal one. Even if it wasn’t mentioned, in my mind, it was near the sea.
I’m still doing it. Whole chapters of The Chimney Rabbit are set at sea, and The Chimney Rabbit and the Underground Mice has incorporated the return sea voyage.
The strange thing is, I’ve now lived in Leicester, right in the heart of the Midlands and about as far from the sea as you can get, for nearly 20 years. Oh, I suppose I still spend most holidays near the sea – the last few trips in this country we’ve taken have been to St. Ives and Whitby and Brighton, and we had a long trip to the coastal cities of Melbourne and Sydney at the end of 2010, so I suppose I’ve had the salt in my blood topped up from time to time, but you’d think that spending such a long time living so far from the sea would have tempered my inclination to write so much about it.
I suppose it’s the early exposure that has the most effect. And growing up with the sound of the sea so close has shaped me permanently.
I’ve just realised that my initial notes and thoughts for a third Chimney Rabbit book are even more sea-based. It’s even got “sea” in the title – The Chimney Rabbit and the Sea Wolves.
Maybe it’s just time to accept this obsession with the sea as a permanent feature of my writing. No-one ever complained that Patrick O’Brian wrote too much about the sea, did they?