Writing in the Sand
Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen (Photographer)
From the Side Gallery touring exhibition text, 1991:
The photographs in this exhibition were taken over seventeen years on beaches between Druridge Bay and Hartlepool; most of them in Whitley Bay, which has been my favourite beach and home town for seven of them. My daughter, when four, made an observation: ‘It’s only half an hour from Newcastle to the beach, but when you’re asleep, it’s only half a minute!’ In the blink of an eye from the city to the seaside, and to the freedom that awakens the child in the toughest of city dwellers.
The photographs are a celebration of the beaches, and the uniquely Northern spirit, which not only survives, but becomes playfully innovative when battling with the natural elements. However, our beaches are under an increasingly sinister cloud.
I dream on my favourite beach while my child is splashing in the sea, and I think of the baby seal we found on the sand, without eyes, and of the seabirds my daughter tried to will back to life, and of the strange fish: all dead. We live on an island, and we are surrounded by a dying sea. The beaches are among the last areas of common access in Britain; not yet privatised, not yet theme-parked. Once golden, and infinitely priceless. We must not lose them.
Note: Sirkka continued working on Writing in the Sand until 1998, when she began to document to the legacy of mining along the cliffs of Durham, The Coal Coast. An Amber film The Writing in the Sand (1991) was entirely constructed from 400 of Sirkka’s photographs. The book is published by Dewi Lewis/Amberside. They are available from the Amber website.
Introduction to the book by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, 2000:
Twenty years ago I bought shoe-boxes full of photographs from a second-hand shop in Byker, the working class area of Newcastle where I was living. Dog-cared family albums had been cleared out with solid mahogany chests-of-drawers heirlooms cajoled from their owners by dealers promising new lives for old - while the entire community and its era were under a demolition order. Years later, now married and moving house again, I sift through my dusty shoe-boxes and stop to gaze at those intimate expressions on unfamiliar faces, before packing them away once more. A pocket-sized album remains stubbornly in my hands. Yellowing photographs with serrated edges have been taken on my favourite beach, in Whitley Bay. Amidst the swing-boats and donkey rides my gaze is met by two radiant young women in billowing frocks, with curls freshly out of rollers whipping across their plucked eyebrows and cheeky smiles. A man with rolled-up trouser-legs grins at me beside them and, in front, a small boy dangles a bucket and a spade. I show the picture to my husband. ... My God! You’ll never believe this... That’s my mum and my auntie Violet! My dad!... The boy - that's me! A snapshot, winding up in Byker via relatives, of a family of shoe factory workers from Leeds enjoying their annual one week summer holiday in Whitley Bay.
Whitley Bay! The very name conjures up memories of happiness, bringing visions of the Holiday De-Luxe after the long months of work and worry. It is a name sufficient to bring the sparkle to the dull eyes of thousands of workers, as they visualize the long, wide promenades, the golden sands, sea spray, and endless round of amusements..., enthuses The Whitley Bay and District Holiday Guide of 1936. By 1952 three million holiday makers per year are drawn to Whitley Bay, Cullercoats and Tynemouth, ‘the playground of the North East’. On an August Bank Holiday Monday a hundred thousand people gather on the beaches, giving themselves to the warm sand, the sun and the saline waters.
The holiday guide of Edwardian times extols the coast for its bracing air. The sharp bite of the saline waters at Whitley Bay is of the utmost value in all cases of debility, and especial to the jaded businessman, in setting up a pleasant and energizing re-action in the whole body... The death rate (in the coastal region) seldom exceeds ten to eleven per thousand, and that in spite of the number of organically weak subjects who sleep here the year round while working in one of the busier town centres nearby.
In the Middle Ages a visiting monk to Tynemouth writes: Day and night the waves break and roar and undermine the cliff. Thick sea-frets roll in, wrapping everything in gloom. Dim eyes, hoarse voices, sore throats are the consequence. Spring and summer never come here... See to it, dear brother; that you do not come to so comfortless a place.
On my first visit to the coast, in the late 1960s, the guide book covers are adorned by the bikini-clad Miss North Tyneside, jauntily perched with her beach ball on the rocks of St Mary's lighthouse; and the sun always shines.
I pop my head through a cardboard beach-scape in the Spanish City fairground on Whitley Bay's sea front, and have myself photographed as a buxom lady cracking a whip, balancing on one toe on a donkey's back. Then I gaze into a crystal ball with Gypsy Rosa Lee next door, and I see I have a future here.
Fainting with the suffocating heat of a summer's day on the train from Byker to the coast. Packed to bulging, continually breaking down, crawling along, interminably. After what seems an eternity, a fractious cavalcade of buckets and spades streams out into the dazzling, intoxicating expanse of sky and sea and sandy bays.
Already coachloads of day trippers from nearby steel towns and pit villages form ever-widening circles of corporation deck chairs and tents, with knitting, bingo and rounders under way. Dads on their hands and knees dig moats and waterways to their sandcastles; mums, chased into the surf by their sun-propelled children, in turn bury them in the sand, metamorphosing them into mermaids and Incredible Hulks. Dogs dart back and forth across prostrate, sun-burned bodies and in and out of the sea, periodically returning to shake off wet sand into freshly spread out sandwiches. Three little girls muse over a quivering pancake of purple jelly.
Don't disturb it!
You can see its insides when you turn it over...
Something’s coming out of it... It’s giving birth...!
... Can jellyfish walk?
The screams and the laughter, the barking dogs and the roaring sea blend into a euphoric crescendo, until, long past the turning of the tide and the setting-in of the sea-fret, the sated crowds are restored to their city lives.
Years later on the new Metro train my four year old daughter observes: It’s only half an hour from Newcastle to the beach, but when you're asleep, it’s only half a minute. The journeys to the coast, with a bucket and a spade and a camera, have become a regular part of our lives. And much later still, wrapped in the clammy blanket of sea-fret, we are lulled to sleep by the dreamy ensemble of foghorn, bell buoys and restless waves in our own bedroom by the sea.
The mist suffuses the universe into luminous continuity, then unrolls, and the sea separates from the sky and the sand. My camera propped on a tripod, I stand in the waves and wait for the sun to rise.
The crimson sphere emerges shimmering out of the sea and we face each other quietly, until burning whiter and hotter she begins to send molten silver towards me in beachlong, tranquil waves.
Underneath, not far away, extinct coalmines extend their hollow tentacles seven miles under the North Sea. Coral fossils, sliced open in the mines, wash ashore and rub shoulders with mussels, carrying messages through millions of years. Shuffling nearby, flints like knuckle bones from the South: ballast tipped from coal boats returning to the North East, gently rocked on the water's edge by a visiting Siberian breeze. Amongst these aliens, two seas away from the lakeside shores of my native Finland, I feel at home. I hear the hum of the forest in the foaming waves ... and I’m floating.
A sudden swoosh of wings above my head! A boomerang of swans return from a swift morning constitutional: back to the boating pond. A celestial morning in Tynemouth.
A visiting preacher from Glasgow shouts from his fold-out pulpit to his sweltering congregation:
The devil? It’s us, human beings – that’s the problem!... Look at this beautiful sea that God has created. What do we do to it?.. We empty our lavatories into it! We are poisoning our planet! And for what?! For money... Money!... The world is upside down, and the cork is leaking!
The children with their untarnished voices join in a cheerful choir: One, two, three, the devil’s after me! Four, five, six, he’s always playing tricks...!
The dumping of fly-ash from the power stations has smothered and sterilized forty square kilometres of seabed off the coast of Whitley Bay, destroying the food chain as effectively as if the floor was laid with concrete. The Government is currently applying for licences to dump more industrial waste just a few miles off St. Mary's Island, our councillor for the Whitley Bay Ward informs us in an urgent newsletter in January 1990.
Alarming levels of a highly toxic chemical which causes shellfish to change sex have been found in the North Sea, reports The Observer newspaper in December 1990.
A nuclear power station will one day be built at Druridge Bay, the industry’s boss assures The Journal newspaper in April 1995.
A beloved beach and a Site of Special Scientific Interest, with National Trust dunes and Wildlife Trust nature reserves, is to be the site of two large nuclear power stations, announces the Central Electricity Generation Board back in 1978. Local outrage spreads and propels itself into a fierce campaign, which takes on and outwits the hydra of the nuclear industry for eighteen years. Then a jubilant double victory: along with the power stations, a multinational concrete company which extracts sand from the dunes, is banished from the site.
A disquieting after-image remains. When the crowds and campaign groups have left after a fund raising day on the beach, I stumble on a startling scene in the deserted landscape. A group of sand-coated swimmers lie on the shore. As though caught by a sudden calamity, they appear petrified in mid-stroke. I circle the figures, made entirely out of sand, unwittingly looking for signs of life.
Mass seal deaths, thousands of dead fish, disappearing sea birds, and fishing industries facing economic collapse herald an ecological catastrophe of enormous dimensions. Every year millions of tonnes off industrial wastes and nuclear wastes are dumped and discharged into the North and lrish Seas, poisoning the waters, bringing death and disease to its wildlife, contaminating our beaches and threatening our health. We live on an island - do we like being surrounded by a dying sea? shouts Greenpeace on our behalf during the nineteen eighties.
A ship called Northumbria sails out of the River Tyne twice a day to dump 1,500 tonnes of sewage sludge at sea. I watch with a sinking heart as its murky trail spreads out on the waves, and speculate on the rashes and sicknesses of our sea-loving children.
The surfers who emerge from the waves in Tynemouth with panty liners and worse stuck to their foreheads join the national campaign, Surfers Against Sewage. A decade later an interceptor sewer scheme is begun on the coast with extensive excavations. Sewage disposal at sea has to stop by 1998, demands European legislation. Northumbrian Water installs new show-piece technology for the processing of bio-pellets out of sludge, to be used as soil conditioning, fuel and construction materials. I adopt a green policy in the disposal of my darkroom chemicals.
Dolphin ‘Charlie’ sets up residence at the mouth of the River Tyne.
Other battles go on, as reported by our coastal newspaper:
Dog owners have ‘fallen foul of the law’ as North Tyneside Council made its first prosecutions under newly introduced by-laws. Owners were left with more than a mess when magistrates fined them £100 for allowing their pets to defecate and not clearing up after them.
Success! A mere two weeks later: ‘The bins on the shoreline at Tynemouth and Cullercoats - the only ones in the borough - have been removed as the authority cannot keep pace with the number of deposits left in them.’
I run my own battle with the dogs of the beach. My camera bag possesses an inexplicable pull for the free-ranging Butches and Rexes. They sense from afar when I stray from the bag, absorbed in my photography. Hopelessly I’m pitted against a four-legged creature in a race to rescue my gear. Long before I reach my goal, a hairy leg cocks up and it is a perfect shot, yet again.
The perfect shot eludes me. A man with a leg in plaster hops around in a game of family cricket, using his crutch as a wicket. A bride hitches up her hem and veil and goes for a plodge. A skinhead moons his tattooed buttocks to a blast of belly laughs, and a football team races backwards. A theatre group on stilts wades into the sea like giant redshanks... and a woman turns and turns in her silent Tai-Chi... But I am at the other end of the beach.
An opportune moment arrives. Sun and shadows on the morning beach reveal the nocturnal revelries of tide and sand in intricate similes of crushed silk, forests and lunar landscapes. Before I manage to stoop close enough with my camera, the light has died and the picture has gone.
However fleeting the encounters, they stay with me. I remember the imperious old seal who came to take his rest on Long Sands, growling to keep us at bay, and the Nigerian youngsters, who gazed at a sea for the first time in their lives. I remember the little boy with Down’s Syndrome who amused himself dancing and striking funny poses for my camera. Even without the pictures I'd remember the slouching skinhead in a ‘Straight to Hell’ T-shirt who caught a stray beach ball, then flirtatiously engaged in a game of football with two self-assured student girls. A mutually enjoyed encounter on a level playing field, after which their paths may never run parallel again.
Riotous rituals, always the same and always surprising: leaps into the surf in full clothing, bodiless heads grinning in the sand, cool sand-mermaids melting in sea’s embrace at the end of the day. And all of it taking place again the next day and the next summer, and long after I have taken my photographs.
This is a natural habitat for cameras. Mine, which strays to gaze upon other people's antics, occasionally invites refreshing responses. A gang of motorbike lads charge into the sea, fully-clothed, yelping with glee. Spotting me in my bikini camouflage, they seize my arms and legs, carefully remove my camera and swing me in, too! Other times I put away my camera to stop smaller boys performing for me at their own peril.
The light on the beach, blindingly abundant, allows for shutter speeds of a thousandth of a second, making it possible to seize the briefest of moments.
My pockets spill with addresses penned on sandwich wrappers. The church group from Glasgow religiously remember me for their photographs with a Christmas card each year, and the mermaid’s dad keeps me posted.
A winter snapshot from Tynemouth.
Skating on the icy pavements to The Plaza, to the January Arts Ball.
The Plaza, with one of the finest ballrooms in the North Country, the Ballroom Fantastique, decorated and appointed in luxurious fashion with a maple floor and a resident twelve piece band. The Plaza, with its Repertory Theatre and a West End company presenting the latest plays, the Exhibition Hall with the perfect floor for roller skating, the fabulous Beach Combers Bar and Sands Café catering for parties up to 1,000 in number, advertises itself enthusiastically for the last time in the late 1960s.
The enigmatic Plaza, elegantly poised in sand, the sole remaining example of the brick, iron and glass variety of Victorian Winter Garden, is now partly gutted, the curved glass roof clad in asbestos and the arches of its arcades bricked up. The thousands have gone for warmer beaches and hotter holidays. The winter gardens and exotic palms, the aquarium with its alligators, the waltzing competitions and masquerades are history. ‘The Messiah’ and ‘Captain Cuff’s Skating Pony’ have bowed out of living memory to give way to an amusement arcade, a bar and a fish & chip shop; roller-skating remaining the sole survivor of the century.
A Millennium Lottery bid dreams up a scheme for the restoration of The Plaza to its full former glory, but before the next Arts Ball all has gone up in smoke. A winter’s dawn reveals the contorted, smouldering remains of the building; soon to be carted away. Within a few weeks the ground is grassed over, and storms will blow the sand from the beach over the empty embankment, piling it up in heaps under the car wheels on the road above.
The arguments we had in the mornings, she wanting the quick, last minute route to school and I the scenic one by the sea. Returning home after work in the dark I will wind the car window down to take deep, long breaths. I’m longing to smell and hear the sea.
A wild winter’s night. On the capricious water’s edge, a mother skulking around the milling crowds of thirteen-year olds, whose screeches are drowned by the roar of the sea. I am desperately trying to catch sight of my daughter, to know she is safe.
An earlier snapshot.
Toes luxuriating in the warm sand by the newly hauled-up, rusty shipwreck at Seaton Sluice; my first day out with her dad.
Eighteen years on.
She with a friend on the roof of the Rendezvouz Ice Cream Parlour, counting a shower of shooting stars. And a year later sitting the night with her friends on the beach below the cliffs, mourning a friend who ended his life there.
Then my own endless, dark night, picking up feathers of an angel from the sand, on the edge of eternity, when my brother died.
Sea removes the sand from the Whitley Bay beach stripping it down to rock and shingle. Two years later she brings it all back. The grand arch of Marsden Rock on the beach in South Shields collapses during a stormy winter's night. The remaining Permian limestone column, which houses thousands of seabirds, is blasted down by the National Trust. For safety.
I stand on the shore photographing a storm, secure behind the railings, on a platform high above the sea. Water crashes against the pier with thunderous cracks, sending spectacular fans of spray above the lighthouse. The sea churns and rages beneath my feet, polishing the pebbles. Awesome theatre in the dazzling morning light. Then silently, unseen, a wall of water shoots up, and I am down, on my knees. My camera bags have gone. Through rivulets of salty water and shock waves I see them tossed from crest to crest, like trophies paraded by champions. Taken to the mermaids. I wave good-bye to my equipment. An apt end to my project.
Later the same morning a thirty-foot wave crashes on a fishing yacht, already within the piers. Two men are washed overboard and lose their lives.
A month after the storm, on the morning of my fiftieth birthday, I watch the sun rise on the Long Sands in Tynemouth. Suspended, behind me, glows a glorious double rainbow and in front of me, by my feet, lies a bouquet of red roses brought in by the tide.
Beach urchins with chattering teeth have grown into teenagers trailing in sand in their dripping jeans, getting ready to move on to farther shores.
Picnics, beach games, birthday parties... Hot mugs of tea, served by warm funny ladies in cool cafes on drizzly August afternoons. Lazy Sundays chasing newspapers behind makeshift windbreaks. Dips in icy waves, sprints on sun-drenched sand. Summers of melting into holiday crowds. Solitary winter walks.
The sea coming in and going out, writing in the sand. Silky fine, sensuous sand-scapes, forever re-shaping themselves, inspiring and sublime. The sun racing through the clouds to find us. The moon building bridges on the waves at night.
Fortunate years of growing up and growing on among the free spirits of the beach.
So many snapshots in which the vast skies, sand and the North Sea keep our human endeavours in manageable perspective.