Those are corals that were his eyes.
No, that’s not right.
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Yes that’s it. Full fathom five thy father lies.
I’m staring into a rock pool, at Pink Bay, just outside Porthcawl. Called “pink” because some of the rocks, especially when wet, blush like wild roses. It’s an extraordinary place – look closely at the stone and you see a glittering spectrum of ruby and fuschia, burgundy and garnet, cinnabar and quartz and opal and topaz. On some days the rocks can seem dull and uninteresting. On others they blaze into life and demand attention.
But anyway, what’s in the rock pool? In this light of morning mist and drizzle I can’t see anything except my own reflection - always fatter and older than I imagine – and also there, peering over my shoulder, a pale sun, floating like a silver coin on the shivering meniscus.
I’ve been thinking about the old Greek tale of Echo and Narcissus. You probably know it. A beautiful boy catches sight of his reflection in a pool and falls in love. Entranced, he fails to recognise that it is himself he has seen. At the same time, the nymph of the pool, the presiding spirit, Echo, who has no voice of her own but can only mimic the voices of others, falls head over heels in love there and then with Narcissus. But when she approaches him, trembling, naked, unable to resist her desire, arms outstretched for a kiss, he recoils in horror. As the poet Ted Hughes puts it:
‘No’ he cried, ‘no, I would sooner be dead
Than let you touch me.’ Echo collapsed in sobs:
‘Touch me, touch me, touch me, touch me.’
(Tales from Ovid)
So Narcissus, crazily obsessed with his own self-image, unable to recognise himself, in fact confusing self with self-image, misses his chance at life, and is doomed. Unable to embrace Echo, he pines away at the pool side for the image in the water and eventually, trying to kiss himself, topples into the mirror and is drowned.
And yes, surely, here is a myth for our times. It’s often remarked that ours is an “age of Narcissism.” And I find it difficult to disagree. After all, we live in a culture that increasingly glorifies and rewards the superficial, and shuns or mocks anybody who tries to take things serious, even if only for a moment. We gaze into the mirror – and what is social media if it is not a mirror? – and we are encouraged to think and talk about ourselves more and more. I, I, I. No longer citizens, we are consumers; it’s our economic duty. Meanwhile, beyond the horizon that we steadfastly ignore, smoke is rising. Staring at our phones, we try not to notice. We pass on by, checking our messages – or pretending to. The children of Gaza, and Ukraine, and Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria, the millions of sweatshop workers, climate change, that unsteady glacier, the soul crushing poverty right on our own doorsteps – we haven’t got time for all that stuff. Because time is money, isn’t it? And time is running out.
And so what? There’s nothing else to do. Scan the news headlines, move on to the gossip and sport sections. We don’t act, we are enacted. We don’t create, we take. And maybe that’s fine. But how we see the world affects who we think we are. And choices have consequences. There’s an alchemy of perception constantly at work in a world of mass marketing, targeted and personally tailored advertising, and 24 hour rolling media and we are on the receiving end. We’re surrounded and there’s no way out, so click the next link and surf the wave and update your status. If you can.
But suddenly the cloud breaks and the sun burns gold in the sky and I can see beyond the surface of the pool and yes, there is something stirring there in the shadows. The pool of course is full of life. And this is the inter tidal zone so we must be quick – it’s a brief world, this rock pool, and will be changed forever tonight. And changed again, every night to come. So I reach into the water and cup some of it in my hand as the shrimps scatter. How much invisible life do I now hold? My boy wanders over with his fishing net. ‘What can you see?’ I ask him, as he steps cautiously, gently, like a hunter into the cold pool. ‘Hush, dad,’ he whispers. ‘Hush.’
Once I caught a lobster in a rock pool, on the town beach in Porthcawl, right in front of the strollers on the promenade, the drinkers and tourists in the sea front cafes and bars. I’d never even seen a wild lobster before until that moment. A bulge in a pool as the tide retreated and I caught it with a child’s net and lifted it, a creature of liquid clockwork, a cranky crustacean with claws to snip your fingers off, the greasy bubbles dribbling from its millstone mouth, a thing of emerald blue and ocean rust. We admired it for a moment but released it quickly into the sea as some of the nearby fishermen, like prowling hounds, began to take a boisterous interest.
So I sit back, as the drizzle disappears and a wave of midsummer heat washes over us and the rocks release their savage rainbows. I watch my son delving into the rock pool. He’s looking for lobsters, of course. That first glimpse years ago has stayed with him, as it has stayed with me. We haven’t found another one yet, but we know they are out there, and we keep looking. And suddenly I’m reminded of the mad French poet and mystic Gerard De Nerval, who, obsessed with the tarot cards, walked a pet lobster on a silk ribbon through the parklands of Paris.
‘Oh Monsieur De Nerval,’ I wonder, as my son shouts with delight and hauls a heavy net, ‘why do you keep a lobster in your company and invite the mockery of the masses?’
‘Isn’t it obvious?’ he answers, looking up from the milky green swirl of his glass of absinthe,
‘Lobsters don’t bark…’
‘… and they have encountered the mysteries of the sea.’