Interview: Jean Sprackland, poet and writer

Jean Sprackland
Jean Sprackland
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SHE used to live near a remote coastline in the north-west of 
England and what she found on the beaches there inspired a novel. 
Roger Cox talks to Jean Sprackland about her extraordinary project

A CHIPPED china tea cup, a piece of petrified wood, a toy duck, a sea squirt shaped like a human ear… these are just a few of the things the poet and writer Jean Sprackland keeps on the mantelpiece in the living room of her north London home. Not the kind of objects you’d expect to find in the abode of a member of the metropolitan literati, perhaps, but then Sprackland isn’t really a Londoner. At least, not yet.

Before moving to the Big Smoke last autumn to be with her second husband, the businessman Nigel Pantling, Sprackland spent the best part of 20 years living just a mile inland from Ainsdale Sands, the national nature reserve that runs along the coast between Liverpool and Blackpool. This is marginal territory – about as far from the stereotypical seaside idyll of the holiday brochures as it’s possible to get. With no cliffs or large hills nearby for protection, there’s rarely any respite from the wind, whether it’s whistling in from the Irish Sea or stripping sand from the dunes at the top of the beach and blasting it in the opposite direction. And with a tidal range of up to two miles, the sea along this stretch of coast comes racing in and out at speed, threatening to catch out the unwary, but also depositing a magical mixture of flotsam and jetsam over a huge area. For an avid beachcomber like Sprackland, every new day in a place like this brings with it a whole new world of infinite possibility.

Needless to say, her new life in London doesn’t offer anything like the same opportunities for seaside scavenging. “People keep telling me that there are these wonderfully rich, muddy shores of the Thames where all sorts of interesting things turn up,” she says with a wry chuckle. “But I think maybe I want to turn away from that particular sort of exploration now.”

The treasures on her mantelpiece aren’t in danger of being usurped any time soon, then. They will remain, as she puts it in the conclusion to her new book, Strands, as “a peculiar little museum, which I tour from time to time, picking them up and breathing their faint but unmistakable scent of the sea”.

Strands is a sort of extended farewell to the place Sprackland has left behind. Written during the course of 2010, her last full year at Ainsdale, it catalogues the various finds she makes on the beach. Each one, no matter how modest or apparently unremarkable, has its own story to tell.

Take the china cup on her mantelpiece, for example. Sprackland found it the morning after a storm, miraculously unscathed apart from a slight chip. Via a little detective work on the internet and in the archives of the Maritime Museum in Liverpool, she discovers it was once used aboard one of the Cunard Steamship Company’s great flagships, either the Queen Mary or the Queen Elizabeth. Was it, she wonders, thrown over the side in “anger, despair or exhilaration?”

Similarly, one of her driftwood finds prompts an extended meditation on the importance of sea-borne wood in other maritime cultures. For the Aleut people of south-west Alaska, it has always been a key raw material, used for making everything from kayaks to snowshoes; in ancient Norse culture, meanwhile, it was almost sacred – according to Norse mythology, Ask and Embla, the first humans, were originally pieces of driftwood, found on the beach by Odin. And so the book continues, with each new find providing the jumping off point for another fascinating essay.

“Strands came partly out of a particular sort of paradox,” says Sprackland. “Having lived on that stretch of coast for so long I felt that I knew it extremely well. I was going back there day after day, month after month, and I felt that I knew it intimately, and yet at the same time it was unknowable. Perhaps that’s why I found it such an exciting place – it was something to do with knowing it well and yet knowing that there is an unlimited amount to be learned about it, too. Every time I walked there I would see something I didn’t understand or find something I didn’t recognise or have some kind of new experience. Every single time.”

Sprackland grew up in the beer brewing town of Burton-opon-Trent – the subject of her second book of poems, Hard Water – and then studied English and Philosophy at the University of Kent at Canterbury. She moved to the north-west from North Devon when her first husband got a job there. “I think we both thought we would stay for two or three years and then move on, but somehow we got rooted,” she says. “It took me a long time to learn to love it actually – it was the coast that finally got me.”

Even though she’s now based in London, she still lectures in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University on a part-time basis. “I like still having one foot in the north-west and I am very fond of Manchester,” she says. “I feel very lucky to have a bit of a life there even though I’ve moved away.”

Sprackland’s first poetry collection, Tattoos for Mothers Day (1997) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Hard Water, published in 2003, was shortlisted for both the TS Eliot Prize and the Whitbread Award for Poetry. In 2005 she tried her hand at prose, contributing to a book of short stories called Ellipsis, also featuring Sean O’Brien and Tim Cooke. Strands is her first foray into non-fiction.

“When I started writing the book, my earliest attempts were very condensed,” she says. “They were more like poems than they should have been – they were like some sort of dehydrated soup or something that you need to add water to expand them. I had to really work quite hard at unlearning some things that had become second nature to me in my poetry writing – those habits of condensing and condensing… concision… I became very interested in that, very engaged with that – so much so that I found it very difficult to write poems at the same time. I just got into this particular way of writing and really enjoyed it, eventually.”

Although in that sense Strands was something of a departure for Sprackland, it was also a return to familiar territory. Her most recent collection of poems, 2007’s Tilt, winner of the Costa Poetry Award, is also largely inspired by the wild playground of Ainsdale, with its big skies, discarded mattresses and noisy natterjack toads.

“I think in a way writing [Strands] was a kind of signing off from my relationship with that beach,” she says, “not only because I knew I was going to be moving away, but also because I’d been quite preoccupied with that place for some years.”

But why, having already written a book of poems about Ainsdale, did she feel the need to also write a book of prose?

“I began to think that my engagement with this place and the things I found there were at the service of the poems,” she says. “In a sense, the poem was always the thing, and there came a moment when I thought ‘That’s all very well, but actually I want to really look at these things, I want to really look at this place, and actually find out about it and do something much more discursive, something which allows me to follow a train of thought and really investigate the stories about where these things had come from and what they were and what it might mean to find them here.’

“I’d never written anything like this before, so it was a huge step away from my usual writing practice and involved me in enormous amounts of research, because I was always working from relative ignorance on these subjects, having to learn. But I really loved that, and in a way that’s what the book was about, that’s what it became – it became about finding things out, rather than me already knowing it all and then spilling it on to the page. It became about the journey of discovery, if you like.”

In the preface to Strands, Sprackland wonders how her 20 years beside the sea at Ainsdale might have affected her worldview. “Perhaps if I had settled in a landscape of fells and lakes unchanged for thousands of years,” she writes, “my overriding sense of my environment… would be of something solid, immutable, reliable, fixed. But this stretch of coast has an entirely different spirit, It’s all about change, shift, ambiguity.”

Does she think moving to London might also have an effect on her psyche?

“Yes, I’m sure it will,” she says, “but it feels a bit early to tell. I’ve only been here full time since last October, so it’s still quite new and I’m still feeling a sense of novelty about all the good things about being in London… and then occasionally realisinghow much I miss just being able to walk out of my house and walk down to the beach and have that incredible sense of space and big skies. There isn’t any way of getting that in the middle of a big city. You can go to a park and there are places you can walk, but the sky is smaller, there’s no doubt about it.”

• Jean Sprackland is at the Book Festival on 23 August, 11am.