Not drowning but waiving

Water covers 70% of the planet’s surface. Water constitutes 60% of the human body. We come from water and we shall return to water. Two hydrogen atoms bonded to a single oxygen atom. Hullo H2O!

I think I’d like to die at sea – if only to act out a destiny foretold in my name and, by so doing, ratify the compelling power of words and so justify this writer’s life. Mortimer. Mêr de mort. Môr marw. Dead sea. Sea of death.

My Pembrokeshire grandfather spent his life at sea, evolving through oarsman, sailor, lifeboatman, Royal Navy rating, fisherman, lobster catcher and pleasure trip captain until finally washed up in old age; a fish out of water flapping impotently on dry land, a cantankerous, barnacled tar for whom The Shipping Forecast was the highlight of the day. His eldest son, the apple of his eye and archetypal chip off the old block, had died at sea; the 19-year-old merchant navy stoker went down with all hands in 1940 after his cargo steamer was torpedoed in the Battle of the Atlantic on route from New York to Greenock. His younger son – my father – was a swotty, bespectacled, risk-averse mummy’s boy and could be no substitute for his beloved Jackie, lost forever deep down among the dead men in Davy Jones’s Locker. Grampy never smiled again.

When I came along, his first grandson, he gleaned small respite from his perpetual misery because I was the spitting image of idolised Jackie and maybe showed signs of the mariner’s mix of apprehensiveness and curiosity. What unarticulated hopes he still harboured were thus invested in me. But he died at age 84 asleep in his attic, the Irish Sea booming through the caves of Caerfai and Caerbwdi, the lights of the Bishops and Smalls rocks pulsing across the ceiling (having never experienced a day’s illness in his life – all-devouring grief having trumped every other possible disease), and by then I was far away in London, fermenting revolution, taking shed-loads of hallucinogenic drugs and trying to learn how to say the word “no” – so had not even begun to fulfil any of his wistful longings.  He left me some money, most of which I promptly blew on an extremely inadvisable Harley Davidson motorbike (it was my Dharma Bums period). I had never ridden a bike before, but rather than start on a 50cc moped like everyone else I jumped straight in the deep end and had to learn the hard way on the most temperamental beast in the annals of motorbiking, dicing with death in numerous close shaves and tumbles. Somehow or other I got a full licence and the first long trip I took as a proper biker was up over the Chiswick Flyover and westward on the M4 to Wales. I soon branched off onto A roads and then B roads, sleeping rough in barns or woods in the hot summer nights and encountering a sequence of enticingly nomadic fellow travellers: it took me five days to reach Cardiff. For nearly a decade I risked life and limb on the ridiculous machine, for all the usual juvenile reasons (symbolism, self-centredness and sex). I was as cocky, freewheeling, gullible and vulnerable as Jackie on his steamship – but I got away with it. I had started to live up to the Mortimer model.

Not that I give two hoots about ancestral heritage; it’s more that the powerful, subliminal indoctrinations in our formative years inevitably recur and reverberate in repeated patterns down the generations whether we like it or not, and recognising and understanding them are essential if we are to avoid the trap of hand-me-down clone-hood that is the inbuilt reactionary purpose of the nuclear family. Anyway, a wet finale is, of course, not just a Mortimer thing; many go that way. And often they are especially creative figures who have made drowning seem almost romantic, such as those three giant specimens of English cultural breadth Percy Shelley (1792-1822, accident), Virginia Woolf (1882-1941, suicide) and Brian Jones (1942-1969, misadventure?). Although that statement could be selective bias on my part, given that around ½ a million people die every year from drowning (over 300 in the UK alone) and a lot of them are merely drunks falling into rivers, paddling holidaymakers swept out to sea or kids sinking to the bottom of cold, deep lakes. I don’t suppose anyone drowning inadvertently like that ponders romantic notions as the petrifying panic of helpless hypoxia takes hold.

However, in my case, that is precisely what I did when I nearly drowned off Porth Mawr on the Pembrokeshire coast 25 years ago. It all happened so quickly. In the water for far too long with two fellow stoners mucking about with a Frisbee, I was sucked out to sea by the undertows of a rip-tide and suddenly found myself way out of my depth. The beach, within wading distance just minutes before, was now a barely visible thin yellow line on the horizon and I was being swamped by massive ocean swells, each one dragging me even further out. My arms had turned to jelly, my legs barely kept me afloat; I was completely powerless and minutes from certain death. SPOILER ALERT: I was rescued by lifeguards who had only started the summer service a day earlier (well, I wouldn’t be writing this otherwise, would I?).  The relevant point here is not the random happenstance but my reactions to imminent death by drowning: instant acceptance, preternatural calm and a strangely satisfying sense of completion, even fulfilment, as I gazed up at Carn Llidi silhouetted against the azure sky. In retrospect, it was a dummy run – and I took to it like…like…alright then, like a duck to water.

Living right by the seaside (Sblot-super-Mare) means the thrillingly lethal Severn is available any time I want it, ten minutes from my front door. I shall pick a warm, sunny day when a full, waxing moon has generated a big spring tide and the sea is a faraway silver sliver sparkling beyond miles of gloopy glassy mudflats. I shall walk across the foreshore, one last two-fingered trespass on land “owned” (i.e. stolen) by the Crown Estate. I shall reach the water’s edge. And I shall keep on walking.

But not yet. I’m not ready yet. I need more time…

Pictures: Deposit Photos; Charles Hawes