A number of years ago, probably in the torrid times around my 32nd birthday, a friend of mine presented me with a book. The cover was a night-time photograph of a lighthouse, rendered in such a way it looked more like an illustration, and the jacket announced it to be: “Stargazing – Peter Hill”.
I thought the cover was a shade twee, and the liner notes, explaining how a boy became a man on the Scottish Lights in the early 1970s, wasn't too promising either, it smacked too much of beards, tatty pullovers and Capstan Full Strength. Nautical cliches rammed down your throat at Cat'O'Nine Tails point
I can't deny that there is indeed a bit of bearding and pullovering in the book, but this is allowed because it is a work of such magic. Poetry, art, storytelling and manual work are described on these extraordinary creations, many of them built out of sheer impossibility by the Stephenson Dynasty (Robert Louis was a relative) on rocks that often barely saw the light of day at low tide – witness lighthouses like the elegant Skerryvore or the famous Bell Rock Light. Countless lives were saved by the characters who worked on these lights; career men, veterans overshadowed by war, those seeking escape, and a keeper who ritually removed all his clothes for the duration whenever he arrived on a light.
And amongst these men was thrown Peter Hill, an art student looking for something new and different to do for a summer; a place to explore the artistic and literary sides of his personality while working out what to do with his life. We read of him learning the ropes on Pladda, a light off the coast of the holiday isle of Arran much loved by Basking Sharks, and how he worked out how to cook huge meals for four hungry men and light the Light without burning all his hair off.
He then moves to Paddy's Milestone, Ailsa Craig, where he hears tales of war from the elder keepers and explores the giant rock where once upon a time all the granite used in the making of the world's stock of Curling stones came from. He dines off fresh crab and lobster, and swims off rocks the size of houses, sketchbook and notepad constantly at his side.
Finally he moves to Hyskeir, an island he finds is smaller than the dot of the “i” that marks its name in his atlas and is strictly run not by the senior keeper, but by the goats that lived there. His final trial in this summer is to survive two days on half a cigarette. Everything out of his system, he goes back to art school and eventually becomes a well known artist in Australia.
How little I thought of this book, cruelly, when it was given to me, since then I've realised it was a gift of the most stunning mile. It is a book for daydreamers, writers, artists and poets who wish they could spend time alone, undisturbed, yet in the company of fascinating, congenial people. It is a book for those who love the sea, and those landlocked surrounded by sterile arable farmland who wish they had a chance to.
It makes me wish I could have done, or indeed do, the same thing – never mind the clumsiness, the unsociability, the utter poisonous of my cooking, for I would learn, somehow, surely – finished my two year my stint looking after the seafarers of the world, and shining welcoming light across the waters, that the sun had painted gold at sunset a few minutes before.
And then clutching notebooks full of words of purple, silver, silk and barbed wire, I would return home, and set the world alight with words. If only, if only.
Copyright Creamcrackerednature 29.04.14
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