I'm not quite sure how the very local as well as national publicity for all things Nick Darke has passed me by, but somehow it had. I'd seen the name, read the details of Nick's life as a playwright and film maker, his beach-combing life in North Cornwall, his untimely death from cancer at the age of fifty-six back in 2005 and this after making such a good recovery from a debilitating stroke. I'd read details about his film The Wrecking Season which has been televised, as has his wife artist Jane Darke's film about the death of her husband The Art of Catching Lobsters.
In the end it was the arrival of the Souvenir Press catalogue that prompted me because therein details of a book by Jane Darke, Held By the Sea, an account of her grief and the task of rebuilding her life and finding her own identity whilst living in a county that had been her husband's by birthright but not Jane's.
It is Souvenir Press's sixtieth anniversary year in 2011, which seems like an enormous achievement for an independent publisher, and having met Ernest Hecht on several occasions I can almost hear him saying these words from his foreword in the current catalogue...
' Fun is crucial to independent publishing longevity, which translates into making sure that every new list provides surprises for the reader - the moment an independent ceases to surprise the probability of ending in a greedy congolmerates belly is high!'
In the next sentence Ernest might offer me mock sympathy for the plight of Plymouth Argyle (our nearest football team and recently in receivership, anyone with £10 to spare could probably put in a bid) whilst I never miss a little chance to remember some terrible Arsenal faux pas (their Carling Cup final defeat is my latest weapon) in ready exchange.
But Ernest's list at Souvenir Press has long been a source for me of some of the most valuable cradle to grave books so useful in my working day, from infant massage and natural childbirth, to loss and bereavement, books on depression, counselling, helpful listening, disability, death and dying. Ernest publishes and very kindly sends me the lot, and so whilst it was a lovely surprise to turn the page and see Jane Darke's book advertised, I was not in the least surprised to hear that Ernest, having seen The Art of Catching Lobsters on television, had then asked Jane to write it.
Jane begins with an account of the days immediately following Nick's death in June 2005, the shock has set in and she is planning his funeral from their beachside home. The service will take place on the beach, a friend is in the garden making Nick's coffin out of found materials and three teams of eight are assembled to take on the task of carrying the coffin, by means of oars slotted into rope handles, from the beach to Nick's eventual resting place in the nearby churchyard.
I have to repeat in full the wonderful Cornish Lord's Prayer by Simon Parker that was said at Nick's funeral, the capitals all denoting places in Cornwall...
Looe art in St Keverne
Porthallow be thy Rame
Thy Kingsand Come-to-Good
Thy Withiel be Dunheved
In St Erth as it is in Porthleven
Geevor us St Day our Gribben Head
And Relubbus our Tresparrets
As we St Ive Trevose Gugh Trespearne Relubbus
But Trelever us from St Eval
For Constantine is the Ding Dong
Pendower and the Cury
St Clether St Clether
For a wordsmith and a true Cornishman what a fitting send off.
But once the funeral is over and life returns to its day to day rhythm for others, Jane's work of grieving must begin, and I am going to make a very favourable comparison between Held by the Sea and Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking Joan grieved in a city whilst Jane mourns with the sea constantly in her sights.
This is the sea that has always been the provider in her life with Nick. It has a permanence and a predictability with its tides whilst creating an ever-changing landscape on the beach, but the sea also provides much more. Like Jane's grief it is unstoppable yet somehow it anchors her as she remembers happy times with Nick, fishing and catching lobsters, exploring the coastal caves and swimming, There is solace and comfort here, a living organic connection with a shared past, a stability in the face of overwhelming sorrow and sadness. And then there's the wrecking, that shared love of what the rest of us might call beachcombing, but which to Nick and Jane is much more serious and in the blood..
'I stride out, waterproofs flapping. Delicately pick along a strand line for tiny seeds from the other side of the Atlantic...there are always surprises that can't be missed...'
The chance arrival of some bounty, a cargo of cedar wood floats ashore and provides them with a ceiling and staircase, there is the huge collection of lobster pot tags traced back to the fisherman off the coast of Maine, USA.
Jane finds her own level in this new and unasked for world and adopts her own coping strategies. The regular support of her GP proves essential, as does music, exercise, being out and close to the natural world, making lists, crying, and those listening friends, the ones who I regularly suggest to those who are bereaved are like gold dust if you have them. People who will be there and listen unconditionally and not judge or tell someone how to grieve... and again I am reminded of that really lovely book I shared my thoughts on here a few years ago, Don't Let Them Tell You How to Grieve by Gina Claye. And if you think all this has the potential to be a little mawkish, rest assured this is a beautifully written and perfectly constructed book offering just the right combination of details about illness interspersed with past memories and present insights that offer a really holistic and balanced account of what it means to lose someone you love.
Jane also identified for me some common denominators of mourning... the times of year where just the light and the smells can bring back the memories, the Christmas toast to 'absent friends', we have one of those moments too, the fact that a great deal of the anguish of grief is about the fear of the unknown and that after a full year a person knows perhaps a little more clearly what to expect.
But still that excruciating sense of loss...
'This hole in my world caused me physical pain, a contraction in my chest, or in my stomach, like I'd been scooped out just below my ribs, I put my hands there to hold myself together.'
Anyone who knows the beaches of North Cornwall will know that they are possessed of a special kind of light, well-recognised by the Newlyn artists, difficult to describe but unforgettable once you have experienced it, and somehow I sensed that 'light' reflected in the pages of Held by the Sea. There is grace here along with that life-saving glimmer of hope for anyone feeling that pain of loss, perhaps sometimes it's about knowing that you are not alone.
Jane Darke will be speaking about Held by the Sea at the du Maurier literary festival on Monday 16th May at 11.45am.
Pictures courtesy of Phil Harding who very graciously gives permission for use of his photographs in return for acknowledgement.