I lay on my side on the empty beach, the cold radiating through my body as it rested on the stones. This close to the ground I could see that the dark matter between the stones consisted of grains of plastic and ring pulls, strands of seaweed and shards of glass. The corner of a crisp packet poked up, like a weed fighting its way into the light. The smell of diesel rose from the ground and with it, childhood memories of cross-channel ferry trips and sitting in the lee of the wind at the ship’s stern, eating squashed sandwiches. I had a visceral recollection of sheltering behind the ship’s great funnels, feeling the pitch and roll, the long swell, and watching as the slow curve of the wake stretched out behind. I lifted my eyes from the beach. Beyond, the sea was so calm it was hard to imagine that somewhere out there, towering waves raced across oceans, tossing about huge containers fallen from cargo ships; waves that drown and terrify. From here it was hard to see where the water ended and where the sky began. Looking for the horizon became painful.
It was February 2015, the beach was Cadgwith Cove on the Lizard Peninsula, and I was researching my first novel. If you had caught me a few weeks earlier or later it could have been Fowey, Mousehole, Mevagissey or any of the other coastal villages I visited for research. The coastline the reader encounters in that novel is stitched together from maybe twenty locations – mostly in Cornwall, but also Northumberland, the west coast of Ireland, the Hebrides and the east coast of Scotland – small details gleaned and appropriated from each. In Falmouth, I watched as sheltering boats were obliterated by the incoming storm, walls of water battering the shore. In Newlyn, I was eyed suspiciously by fishermen as I wandered between their boats, nervous of overstaying my welcome. On the outskirts of St Agnes, on a day when the wind had blown the sea white, I sat on the edge of the cliffs above the village and looked out over the waves. I barely saw another person all afternoon.
I had no particular agenda for these trips, but they all followed a similar pattern. I would speak with a few people, usually fishermen if they were in the mood to talk, and later sit by the shore and let the thoughts sink in. Or I would wander along the shoreline and allow myself to remember incidents and accidents that occurred, some recent, some from way back, fragments of memories that would rise of their own accord. I didn’t write on the beach and most of the encounters didn’t make it into the story, but sometimes scraps of discussions, reminiscences or dreams would. By the time I was back at my desk, the next five hundred words were ready to be written. I’d like to say it was more conscious than that, but for me the writing was a process of unfolding. Elements sank and resurfaced fictionalised – the dew on a stack of nets; a retired fisherman listening out for the small fleet on an old radio; a curled, mouldering photograph found in a hut by the shore; the shape of the rocks at either side of a cove.
I wanted my reader to be able to share in the taste of salt in the onshore wind and feel what the characters feel even as the landscape around them crumbles. That which we experience, we care for. I wanted my reader to feel the pull of the tide, to realise the temptation my characters have to peer beneath the surface of things, knowing they may wish they had left things well alone, to live for a while with the threat of a rising sea.
Often I wouldn’t know what I was going to write until I saw the words form on the page, nor what was going to take place, or what my characters were going to find and how they would respond. Or maybe not knowing what I was going to write meant I had to look out in order to investigate within – like standing on the fringe, where the land drops off, looking into deep water. Whatever it is, the sea seems central to this transformation – the disparate experiences and memories, the raw material for the story returning to me unfamiliar and uncomfortable; the shift from the remembered to the fictional. Perhaps it’s the sea’s mutability, some metamorphosing property of its vast depths and breadths engrained in the collective psyche. Look out from the shore for long enough and you’ll see what I mean.
Much of the inspiration for The Many came from a very personal grief, from a loss with which I still struggle. In late December 2011 we came down to Cornwall for some respite after the events of the previous month. In the carpark at Chapel Porth I stripped down to my shorts and walked across the rocks down to the shoreline. I had been thinking about doing this for a few weeks, perhaps reminded of the ritual I had performed so often as a child when, upon arriving at a beach, I would wade into the surf just to feel the waves break over me. And so I stood there, chest-deep, for as long as I was able, battered by incoming waves that felt as though they were run through with ice. And for a few moments the grief wasn’t silenced so much as confronted by a wall of deafening white noise muting its constant scream. The sea’s great indifference was a comfort in a way I can’t easily explain, and it continues to play its part – when I need to grieve, I almost always turn towards the sea, and similarly when I need to celebrate too, when I need inspiration or solace.
Call to action: Join Surfers Against Sewage (https://www.sas.org.uk/), which co-ordinates beach and river cleans, petitions government and industry to tackle throwaway plastic and oceanic climate change, and inspires people to protect our coastlines.
Wyl Menmuir is a novelist based in Cornwall. He is the author of the Booker-nominated The Many and Fox Fires, released by Salt Publishing in March 2021. His short fiction has been published by Nightjar Press and the National Trust and has appeared in Best British Short Stories, Elementum Journal and Pipeline, the journal of Surfers Against Sewage. When he is not writing, editing or teaching writing, you’ll find him messing around in boats.