In this new podcast for The Clearing the writer Sarah Acton walks along part of Chesil Beach, marking the ghosts she finds there, while exploring the landscape of her new book Seining Along Chesil.
I’ve just written a book about the seine fishing industry along Chesil beach, the tradition.
But I’m not a fisherman. I think the old fishermen must have explained to me about a hundred times how the horseshoe net goes around the fish…I wish I’d been there I wish I could’ve seen it.
I’ve talked to a lot of people to try and put together an impression of what it was like to be there.
And when I talk to people to research, to collect oral histories, I’m primarily, um, my role is as a listener first and foremost, and a writer second.
I sit and I listen at kitchen tables, I go on walks, I listen to the people, their voices, this place.
I’m listening to the story in all of its many fragments floating in memory dimensions, and these fragments are always rearranging themselves, sometimes in surprising ways. And I’m listening to voice, dialect, place speaking, speaking back to place.
I’m listening to what isn’t said in the silences and stillnesses and pauses.
I’m listening, that’s my role, and what I’ve learnt is that collecting oral history, listening to oral histories, opens up a portal.
The conversation is always ongoing, it doesn’t end. It continues each time afresh.
I’ll go back to visit someone and we’ll pick up the conversation immediately we start again and everything rolls out like a wave towards the shore. And I say, “Oh! why didn’t you tell me that before, I would’ve put it in the book.” There’s always something else and it’s usually after I’ve switched my recorder off, because I’m opening up conversations.
And with each retelling, with each fragment of the story, um, that fragment is its own generator, a trigger. And the next time an added detail or a surprise or a repetition but with a slightly different emphasis.
Memory is like a spiral. Each telling is witness and another fragment is loose.
Lots of keyholes we can look through into another world another time, zooming in on a moment – just out of reach, faint music from another room.
Um, Rab Stone is my friend, he’s a quarrymen and a seine fisherman, a former seine fisherman, and he’s lived all of his life on Portland. Rab has said to me a few times that continuity, um tradition, is lost within two generations if it’s not passed on. It just…it’s lost and I believe that.
I’m in the old Fleet church, the one that was, um, abandoned (destroyed after the great storm of 1824) but it’s still open. This place trembles with voices echoes stories ghosts. I’m fascinated by memory. The ritual of orality, the intergenerational, um, passing on – what happens when we do, what happens when we don’t. The selection of memories into a communal storyline that are told and told time and again and become part of, um, belonging, place identity, become part of something bigger – a collective sense of self and place. All these memory fragments floating in memory dimensions, rearranging themselves into patterns – it doesn’t end, many layers of storied truth.
You can’t take tradition for granted – I think that’s what else I’ve learnt, you have to work at it. Even in the most beautiful and traditional way which is of course storytelling, singing, repeating, honouring, listening. Repetition of stories and memories, patterns. Rhythms, call and response with seasons and landscape.
This book is about the soundtracks of the seine fishermen (of Dorset) mostly within living memory. Faint music, just out of reach. And I’m at Chesil, at the Old Fleet church, listening.
Sarah Acton is a poet, oral history maker, writer and theatre-maker whose projects focus on nature, seasons and place. She is co-founder of the Heart of Community theatre project on Portland in Dorset, and lives on the Devon coast, where she rows and swims in the sea. Her book, Seining Along Chesil, capturing the voices of a Dorset fishing community, is out now.