Seashaken Houses by Tom Nancollas

A lyrical voyage of discovery…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

If there’s one thing I love more than most things, it’s being told all about a subject I know nothing about by someone with an enthusiastic passion for it and the ability to write in a way that brings it to life. I knew nothing about the various rock lighthouses that stand as warnings to shipping around Britain’s shore, and I couldn’t have asked for a better guide to them than Tom Nancollas.

He starts with a brief introduction of himself – he is a building conservationist who chose to study rock lighthouses for his dissertation, giving him a lasting interest in the subject. Having regularly visited as a boy both the Wirral coastline and Cornwall, where his family originated, he tells us he grew up feeling an affinity for the sea and a fascination for all its many moods. For this book, he set out to visit seven of the major rock lighthouses, sometimes getting permission to land and see the interiors, other times examining them from the outside. Along the way, he tells us tales of their construction and history, of the men who built, lived in and maintained them over the years, and of the many shipwrecks they have doubtless averted and of some they didn’t. His style is non-academic, sometimes lyrical, always enthusiastic, and I found myself coming to share his fascination for these incredible feats of engineering and his admiration for those who built and worked on them.

Shipping off the Eddystone Lighthouse
Attributed to Vilhelm Melbye (1824-1882)

He begins with Eddystone, off Plymouth as a way of showing how what became the standard design for rock lighthouses developed. Eddystone has had four lighthouses over the centuries – the first rather whimsical structure unable to withstand its first storm, the second, a part timber building destroyed by fire. The third, (above), built of interlocking stone blocks which provided the strength and stability required to stand up to the sea’s constant pounding, became the model for future lighthouses, and lasted for many years until it too eventually began to shake. It wasn’t the lighthouse at fault though – the rock it was built on had eroded. And so the Victorians built a fourth, the one which still stands, still warning ships to steer clear.

The chapter is a great mix of explaining the building techniques in language easily understandable by the complete layperson, together with vignettes about the architects and builders which humanise the subject. Nancollas also fills in the historical background, lightly but with enough depth to give a feel for what was going on in Britain and the western world at each point. He talks of Britain’s growing status as a maritime trading nation and tells tales of the shipwrecks and disasters that gave an urgency to finding some reliable way of guiding ships safely through the rocky hazards around the coast.

Bell Rock Lighthouse during a storm by John Horsburgh
Illus. in: Robert Stevenson, An Account of the Bell Rock Lighthouse.

Each subsequent chapter takes a similar form, gradually leading us round the coasts: to Cornwall’s rocky shores to visit Wolf Rock lighthouse; over to the Scillies to Bishop Rock; up to Scotland to the Bell Rock off Arbroath, built by the grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson; to the now disused and decaying Perch Rock in the Wirral; over to Ireland to Fastnet off Cork; and to Haulbowline on Carlingford Lough, in a kind of no-man’s-sea between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Each has its own story and its own history, and Nancollas extends out to tell us something of the places near which they’re situated.

For example, while discussing Bishop Rock, he talks about the Scillies, once one landmass and perhaps even attached to Cornwall, now divided into somewhat isolated islands by rising sea levels. He doesn’t specifically mention climate change, but talks of how the Scillies will eventually be completely submerged and, as the highest point, the Bishop Rock lighthouse will be the last thing in that seascape to be seen above the water. It’s beautifully written, and I found it both moving and frightening.

Haulbowline Light on Carlingford Lough
Photo Credit: Keith Ruffles

Or another example – Haulbowline. The troubled history of the divided island of Ireland means that all records of its building have been lost, if they ever existed. The lighthouse is now unmanned, but Nancollas visits it and tries to visualise it as it once was, with the help of stories from the men with him – the ferry pilot, the lighthouse mechanic, and the grandson of a previous keeper. He tells of how during the Troubles, the British Navy patrolled the lough, stopping and searching suspect ships for contraband, smuggled weapons, etc. He describes the lighthouse as liminal, belonging to neither one side nor the other but standing as a kind of symbol of humanity amidst this disputed and often violent zone.

Tom Nancollas
Photo Credit: Phil Fisk

I have one criticism of the book, which is the lack of adequate illustrations. There are some black and white on page photos, but the book is crying out for glossy sections of full colour pictures: of the lighthouses themselves first and foremost, but also of some of the many men we learn so much about along the way. (I nearly deducted half a star for the lack, but in the end couldn’t bring myself to do it.) That aside, I loved Nancollas’ writing, when he is explaining technical stuff simply, or when he is musing more philosophically about things past and future, or when he talks lyrically of the power of the sea.

I had time, from the elevated perspective of the tower balcony and lantern, to study the sea, really look at it, and watch it behaving in a way you don’t really see from the shore. It breaks around the reef in repeating patterns that reflect the submerged geology around the rock’s waist. There is a point to the south-west, in the path of the Atlantic, where the sea gathers itself up and splinters over a submerged reef on a long, horizontal plume that looks like the scaly neck of a giant beast. On a smaller piece of rock nearby it breaks into a perfectly contained white cloud, always the same size and shape. Engulfing the Little Fastnet, the sea falls back and dribbles in thousands of streams down crevices that will deepen over the centuries. Here, you get something of the sea’s eternity – rising, falling, calming, dousing and rinsing and thrusting against the rocks in myriad ways, a lazy, beast-like play of motion that will never end.

A fascinating subject, brought wonderfully to life, I highly recommend this one.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. All the lighthouse illustrations I’ve used are from Wikimedia Commons.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 177…

Episode 177…

Well, I read up a storm during my break but unfortunately all the books were about a million pages long, so the actual number read wasn’t huge. BUT… the TBR has gone down FOUR to 228! Impressive, eh? Proves conclusively that it’s when I hang around with you lot that things go wrong…

So, friends, here’s another batch that I should get to soon…

Factual

Courtesy of Particular Books (Penguin Random House). I love this kind of book on a rather quirky subject written by a real enthusiast. What particularly attracted me to this is that it includes the Bell Rock Lighthouse, built by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of Robert Louis of that ilk. Plus I adore the title – it conjures up images of wild storms and human endurance…

The Blurb says: Lighthouses are striking totems of our relationship to the sea. For many, they encapsulate a romantic vision of solitary homes amongst the waves, but their original purpose was much more utilitarian than that. Today we still depend upon their guiding lights for the safe passage of ships. Nowhere is this truer than in the rock lighthouses of Great Britain and Ireland which form a ring of twenty towers built between 1811 and 1904, so-called because they were constructed on desolate rock formations in the middle of the sea, and made of granite to withstand the power of its waves.

Seashaken Houses is a lyrical exploration of these singular towers, the people who risked their lives building and rebuilding them, those that inhabited their circular rooms, and the ways in which we value emblems of our history in a changing world.

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Fiction

Courtesy of Archipelago. I requested this ages ago since I thought it might fit into my Russian Revolution challenge, and then forgot to include it. Still, if the first novella is good, I can still add it to the final list…

The Blurb says: Two novellas from one of the most exciting writers in contemporary Russia.

Horsemen of the Sands gathers two novellas by Leonid Yuzefovich: “Horsemen of the Sands” and “The Storm”. The former tells the true story of R.F. Ungern-Shternberg, also known as the “Mad Baltic Baron”, a military adventurer whose intense fascination with the East drove him to seize control of Mongolia during the chaos of the Russian Civil War. “The Storm” centers on an unexpected emotional crisis that grips a Russian elementary school on an otherwise regular day, unveiling the vexed emotional bonds and shared history that knit together its community of students, teachers, parents, and staff.

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of Collins Crime Club. I’ve only read two of the CCC books so far and have found them a little more thrillerish and perhaps a little pulpier than the more detective mystery-based British Library Crime Classics. That’s not a criticism – I love good quality pulpy thrillers! I’m intrigued to see if this one falls into the same category. The blurb makes it sound like it will…

The Blurb says: A sensational wartime crime novel about a BBC announcer who abuses his position to commit crimes against the rich and famous…

By day Ernest Bisham is a velvet-voiced announcer for the BBC; the whole country recognises the sound of his meticulous pronouncements. By night, however, Mr Bisham is a cat-burglar, careless about his loot, but revelling in the danger and excitement of his running contest with Scotland Yard. But as he gets away with more and more daring escapades, there will come a time when he goes too far . . .

When Donald Henderson’s Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper caused something of a sensation, his publishers were keen to capitalise on their author’s popularity, quickly reissuing The Announcer (originally published under his pen-name ‘D. H. Landels’) with the more alluring title A Voice Like Velvet. Despite a small edition of just 3,000 copies, it was his best reviewed work, as suspenseful and offbeat as his earlier success.

This Detective Club classic includes an introduction by The Golden Age of Murder’s Martin Edwards, who explores Henderson’s own BBC career and the long established tradition of books about gentlemen crooks. The book also includes a rare Henderson short story, the chilling ‘The Alarm Bell’.

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Horror

Courtesy of Collins Chillers. I was thrilled to receive a selection of three horror anthologies newly published by this imprint from HarperCollins – an imprint I wasn’t previously aware of! The porpy, however, is muttering about the state of his quills and demanding danger money. Here’s the first – I’ve never come across these authors before, but it sounds great…

The Blurb says: A collection of the finest supernatural tales by two of the best Victorian writers of weird tales – Erckmann–Chatrian, authors who inspired M. R. James, H. P. Lovecraft, and many others.

Emile Erckmann and Louis Alexandre Chatrian began their writing partnership in the 1840s and continued working together until the year before Chatrian’s death in 1890. At the height of their powers they were known as ‘the twins’, and their works proved popular translated into English. After their deaths, however, they slipped into obscurity; and apart from the odd tale reprinted in anthologies, their work has remained difficult to find and to appreciate.

In The Invisible Eye, veteran horror anthologist Hugh Lamb has collected together the finest weird tales by Erckmann–Chatrian. The world of which they wrote has long since vanished: a world of noblemen and peasants, enchanted castles and mysterious woods, haunted by witches, monsters, curses and spells. It is a world brought to life by the vivid imagination of these authors and praised by successors including M.R. James and H. P. Lovecraft. With an introduction by Hugh Lamb, and in paperback for the first time, this collection will transport the reader to the darkest depths of the nineteenth century: a time when anything could happen – and occasionally did.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?