“I’d come to realise that none of this was ours. Not really. A house is an accumulation of lives. It permits you to dwell among its walls for as long as those walls stand. But you will never own it. Instead the house owns you. It takes your money and makes you work hard to protect it until you either leave or die. Then it waits for the next soul to come along.”
The Stone Tide, by Gareth E. Rees, explores how moments in a person’s life affect self and those who come after, the unconsidered consequences of both action and inaction. It tells of grief and loss, searches for meaning in memory, how the stories we tell ourselves at any given time, that we consider fact, shape what comes next.
Gareth moves with his wife, Emily, and their two young daughters from Hackney in London to a dilapidated Victorian house in Hastings. When he walks his dog down to the seashore Gareth is assailed by memories of his best friend from school, Mike, who died falling from the castle walls in St Andrews twenty years ago. While Emily is devoting her time and talents to renovating their home, Gareth researches the history of their new environment, intending to write a book on the people and place.
Hastings has a rich history, and not just of an eleventh century battle. In 1923 John Logie Baird, who moved to the town for the good of his health, built a prototype of a machine that would transform the way people viewed the world. Television wasn’t a new idea, and Baird’s work was superseded by the Marconi Corporation, but the restorative walks he took around Hastings inspired him. Or so says the author. In each of the people he studies he writes elements of their story as he imagines it to have been.
He includes Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and fossil hunter who wrote a book called The Phenomenon of Man that was subsequently banned by the Catholic Church. The tome predicted the World Wide Web. Charles Dawson was another local fossil hunter. He desired fame and was not averse to manufacturing archaeological finds to achieve it. His most famous creation, Piltdown Man, was inspired by a conversation with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who also, for a time, resided in Hastings.
Aleister Crowley was another infamous resident. His belief in the occult and his own powers are demonstrated during a meeting with Baird on the seafront. All of these people worked in and around places that Gareth visits, examining what remains of their history and legends. He explores the lives and the deaths, reflecting on: memorials in churchyards; blue plaques on buildings; names or initials carved in teenage hangouts; a proliferation of memorial benches.
Emily is deep in her own research, seeking out the best materials and tradespeople as she organises the tearing up of the house and assists in its rebuild. Gareth admits he is of little help, escaping whenever he feels overwhelmed by the state of their home. As well as the challenges of progressing his writing he is plagued by health issues. In a pub he empathises with a collection of stuffed cats who died of suspected smoke inhalation.
“Life was hard. The best you could hope for was a little warmth now and then, even if the attempt killed you.”
Time passes and Gareth is possessed by the landscape and its development as he catches glimpses of other’s lives in shifting time and space. He contemplates the barrier between perceived reality and fantasy. He ponders if such a thing exists, if life is the stories we create for ourselves.
Gareth’s story is shadowed by memories of his friend, Mike, and his lack of progress with his book. He compiles a wealth of research but it lacks the coherent structure he initially envisaged. Meanwhile progress on the renovation has stalled due to lack of funds. Emily’s frustrations finally pierce Gareth’s self-absorption. Just as Mike’s actions affected Gareth, and forever changed his parents – a reality that Gareth could not see at the time – so Gareth’s actions have affected Emily.
The writing is a fascinating smorgasbord of interlinked history and memory. There are many references to factual accounts but I preferred not to dig further into the references provided at the end. The truth or fiction of what is being explored is both irrelevant and a key point in the narrative. It is a story, as is everything anyone learns or experiences. We are shaped by the time and place in which we live, just as we are a factor in shaping it. Each individual’s accepted truth is unique.
An unusual, deeply personal account that offers up many wider issues to consider alongside a psychogeography of Hastings. Beguiling yet brutal in its honesty, this is a recommended read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.