Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Seaside Surrealism

In 1936 the painter Paul Nash published an article in Architectural Review titled ‘Swanage – or Seaside Surrealism’. To my mind if you were after seaside surrealism today you might be even better off visiting the oddly named ‘Manhood Peninsula’ in West Sussex – a bulge of land, south of Chichester that includes the town of Selsey, the sandy beaches of East and West Wittering (where you’ll find the home of rock’s most mummified guitarist, Keith Richards) and the wonderful Pagham harbour.
The peninsula is not the place for flashy spectacular surrealism – if it is an extravaganza of the uncanny that is wanted then a visit to places like Clacton or Scarborough out of season would be more in order. Instead what you find on the Manhood Peninsula is a more quietly disquieting form of surrealism, of historical memory poking through the fragile membrane of the present. Wandering around the town of Selsey you start to notice how many of the houses on or near the seafront are made out of railway carriages. Sometimes all that is left of this history is the regularity and smallness of the windows, but other houses declare their roots (and routes) by fully restoring the carriage-work. Setting up house with a couple of railway carriages is a way of making an immediate habitation, and an immediate claim to a piece of land.
Elsewhere, as you travel from Selsey to the Witterings you’ll find the home-made museum ‘Rejectamenta’ – which sometimes feels a bit like ‘Dejectamenta’ – a collection of ephemera from the early 1970s onwards. For anyone who grew up in the 70s this is a slightly trippy return to a time when commodities gathered loyalty by including tiny – and pretty useless – toys in cereal packets and collectable cards in packs of tea. If you want to know what those ‘free gifts’ look like then Rejectamenta is the place for you. It is part of Earnley Butterflies, Birds and Beasts, and as well as collecting the most ephemeral of the ephemera it also has Biba dresses, posters, and such like.
Pagham Harbour is now a nature reserve presided over by the RSPB (the royal society for the protection of birds). It is, incidentally the place where my son first became interested in bird watching. The RSPB website claims it as an ‘unspoilt haven of big skies, coastal marshes and sea’. But rather than this being one of the few undeveloped areas of an intensely over-developed coastline, Pagham Harbour has a history as an important port in the middle-ages through to the late nineteenth century. Pagham Harbour was taking the lead in developing this coastline for trade. What produced this area of ‘unspoilt’ coastline was a series of massive storms early in the twentieth century that reclaimed the area as a wetland, and cast all of human endeavour into the sea. In this case the ‘unspoilt’ is a double negative that results in the spoiling of the spoilt.  
Put perhaps the pinnacle of this quiet surrealism is Selsey’s very own sound mirror. Sound mirrors, or acoustic mirrors were an early form of radar, built between the wars as early warning systems used to detect incoming air attacks. Built out of concrete they were massive, cumbersome parabolic microphones, that worked by pointing a huge unmovable ear-trumpet to the sky. If you placed a stethoscope-like instrument on the acoustic mirror you could hear aeroplanes, but you couldn’t quite make out where they were coming from, you could also hear the noise of nearby traffic and everything else. But unlike the sinister-looking sound mirrors that you find in Dungeness, the sound mirror in Selsey Bill has been turned into a house that has long since been abandoned and has been cast adrift on a traffic island.

Sound Mirror, Selsey

Sound Mirrors, Dungeness

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