Underwater Heaven

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All my life I have been deeply affected by the underwater world, by rock pools and streams and rivers. In 1949, when I was 10, my father gave me a book called The Sea-Shore, with 48 delicately coloured plates, which I would read again and again, gazing in wonder at the limpets and blennies and starfish and seaweeds and hermit crabs. We used to spend our summer holidays at Filey on the North Yorkshire coast, and enjoyed many hours of happiness exploring the pools on the Brigg, a rocky promontory that juts into the sea to the north of the curving sandy bay.

Each high tide submerged it, and its pools were replenished. The sense of renewal was mystical, purifying. ‘The moving waters at their priestlike task of pure ablution round earth’s human shores . . .’ I didn’t know those lines of Keats then, but I often say them to myself now. I still dream of the Brigg. Late in his life my father wrote a novel called Scawsby (1977) which is clearly set in Filey. He calls the Brigg ‘the Reef’, and his narrator says that it was the submerged ruins of a Roman jetty, but I’m not sure if that’s true. Even so we were all enthralled by it.

I can’t remember what age I was when I came across Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies. I must have read it earlier than my other childhood favourite, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, which was a Christmas gift in 1948, but at that age I can’t have tackled the Kingsley tale in its full version. I must have read a shortened illustrated children’s text, of which there have been many. I loved the story of Tom’s adventures, first as a dirty chimney-sweep intruding on little Ellie in her fine white bedchamber, then when he went on the run through a landscape that strangely mixes Yorkshire and Devon, then as a water-baby, as he ventures down the rivers and into the sea. I sympathized with his loneliness and with his longing to find other water-babies, and rejoiced with h

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About the contributor

Margaret Drabble DBE is a novelist and critic. After a brief, inglorious career as an actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company she became a full-time writer. She is the author of nineteen novels, most recently The Dark Flood Rises (2016), and has also edited the Fifth and Sixth editions of the Oxford Companion to English Literature.

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