Why I Ran Away To Sea
After two years of major change, a reflection on how and why we move…
I believe that we retreat to the edges, the peripheries, because we are frightened. The world leaves us rubbed and worn; we cling to the sides. I was always going to move to the seaside, for the same reason that I look for the seat at the end of the row, and walk into the road rather than waiting for gaggles of pedestrians to make room for me on the pavement.
When I came to the coast, I’d mutter a nonsense mantra as I watched the shoreline for seals and sanderlings. ‘End of the earth, beginning of the ocean.’ And the one I tried to keep secret even from myself. ‘I could drown, if I had to.’
The town had a reputation. It had quickly turned tawdry in the twentieth century, then trendy in the twenty first. When I moved, I knew I was late to the party. Middle aged relatives asked me if I liked it there, ‘with all the hipsters’ — if they thought it was vaguely modish, the truly cool would be over it, already across the sea. I think it takes a very confident person to choose to move somewhere on the anticipation of emerging cool; that isn’t me. The most significant- and cowardly — rationale behind my choice was the availability of high-speed rail links. I could scuttle back to London ‘if it got too much’.
It = a terrifying beach barbecue where everyone ignored me and the one person I knew went home. A very hungry, hungover day of sitting in a succession of groovily Instagrammable cafes in which the kitchens would shut five minutes after I’d been handed a menu. The day I got lost on the way to Morrisons and felt like a failure and a fuck up as a human because seriously who can’t find their local supermarket without looking at their phone? My awkwardness, my air of apology, my frustrations and my shame for my frustrations, my embarrassment for being so spoiled and London lazy, for wanting to eat dumplings and take taxis.
It took me a little while to remember that it often got too much in London too. That initially the ‘its’ were worse, and that for a long time, I couldn’t afford to think spoiled thoughts. Dumplings and taxis had been the very height of my ambitions. We take taxis, sometimes because we have somewhere to go urgently and sometimes because we just need to feel urgent. We need to believe that we’re needed. If we’re always running late, it means we’re always being missed.
During my more sentimental moments, I liked to think of myself as one of a billion blood cells, circulating, not ever stopping. Maybe some of us can be blood cells forever. But I think some of us struggle to work out when we’re running ahead, when we’re running away, and when we’re running on the spot. We can’t escape ourselves; but in big cities we can come close. We can get away with it for years.
Some of us come to the sea in the midst of dramatic, visible changes and crises. It’s a great place to be drunk, heartbroken and ashamed. It’s a great place to pretend that every day is a holiday, and nothing really matters. Nature is healing, as we say archly when the seagulls steal our chips. But I think some of us are called to the edge of the earth like lemmings, clutching network railcards, muttering brokenly about property prices, as the sea says ‘I’ve been expecting you for some time.’ The sea is the ultimate therapist — it will stare you out until you lose your nerve and blabber and blurt at it. It will keep almost all of your secrets.
Over the last two years, waves of lemmings and hipsters have been converging on the little town where I live. (‘I think it’s really up and coming! It’s such an exciting place to live, now!’ said a new friend, after three months of residency. I bit my tongue and did not mention the fact that our internationally renowned art gallery was just about to celebrate its tenth birthday.) The ocean keeps my secrets, but it cannot be kept a secret itself. That is as it should be. And many of those of us who find ourselves driven to the edge of the earth will claim we wanted a garden, more space, fresh air, fewer three hour queues for pop up brunches, and it might take us some time to acknowledge the truth. We wash up on shorelines because we have been at sea.
I might not stay forever. I am not obliged to. Right now, it makes me feel grateful and glad. I have been very sad here, and very happy here. If I do move away, it won’t be to chase happiness in another location. It won’t be because the town has failed, and it won’t be because I have failed. I have learned to look into the water and see myself. I feel less afraid.
We are different and the same. We all have different levels of tolerance for disaster and adventure. We all have different reasons for running away and running forward. Since 2020, I think that every single one of us has probably drawn on unknown reserves of courage, and every single one of us has probably felt cowardly and exhausted. We have learned to build homes inside ourselves — and that change is no more frightening than the endless same. When we are scared, we can always retreat to the edges and tell the sea. Nature is healing.