Cliff Holden

Documents: 1943


(written while commercial salmon fishing with a crew of seven on the River Tay between Perth and Dundee)

All elements are fascinating. But water has a peculiar and special fascination, which is capable of completely engulfing a man. I am always amazed at its freedom of movement and its relentless vigour of action. Consider the colossal volumes, which are constantly, heaved up and down, lashed against rocks and spouted into the air. Consider the tide that steadily and unceremoniously advances against strong wind and opposing river current. No obvious force is applied. The increasing surge of wave after wave on a pebbled shore, followed by the drag of the pebbles, expresses for me a continuity and dangerous action which I feel in no other place. The crash and smack of water against rock: the receding, seething, frothing mass. If you have never seen the sucked down, concave lines, which this froth reveals, then you cannot imagine or understand the fear, which I hold for the power which hurls these masses about.

Polished pewter reminds me of the sea under a moon – cold desperate beauty. Gentle, undulating curves of landscape give complete satisfaction to some painters; BUT I CANNOT STAND VIEWS WHICH GIVE ME NOTHING TO SEE BUT BEAUTY. Like to see the sea in its nasty moods when the shallows are yellow and brown with disturbed sand and the wind makes your eyes water. Broken green masses surging along to break something or break themselves. Life is there.

The ecstasy of swimming with the water streaming past, at once violent and caressing. Then down, down, down … down into a cool curving world … a silent billowing, quivering world, where the weeds wave to and fro. Where the sea trout glide, hesitating, wafting, stirring the sand into flurries. Where the crabs slither across slimy rock, where the Cyclops and the amoeba dwell. Away from the tumult. Silence except for the thud of a pulsating heart.

It is night. The water slides past, the depths reflecting the light of a sunset long past. The windlass creaks and strains on dripping ropes. The bellies of salmon gleam white as they splash, twist and turn in the coils of the net. The sickening thud of the ‘nabby’ stick against slippery skull … The gills are still, a mouth drops open in a feeble gasp and is still. They lie in a heap on the beech, white bellies gleaming. Blood and death. Where there was life there is nothing but a mass of decomposing stuff. Cold blood trickles on the sand, loose scales that glimpsed in the sun and the moonlight are dull.

And so it is with men. While they live they have meaning – dead they are just stinking flesh; so much butcher’s meat. Poor fools caught in the net of their own abstractions; drugged by the rhetoric of their brothers, and die by their brothers bomb and bullet. And yet some men believe in the sanctity of life. Some even believe in the sanctity of human life. I don’t know. It is like believing in God.

[Page last updated: 8th March 2005]

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