I wrote this review of two books about lighthouses — Tom Nancollas’s Seashaken Houses and R.G. Grant’s Sentinels of the Sea — for the TLS.
As lighthouses fade into obsolescence, literature about lighthouses flourishes. In a crowded field, both these books succeed in adding something valuable and different. Despite its subtitle, Seashaken Houses is more of a personal journey and meditative essay than a conventional history. Tom Nancollas has visited seven rock lighthouses in Britain and Ireland, from the relative tameness of Perch Rock on New Brighton beach to the godforsakenness of Fastnet, Ireland’s most southerly point, where he spends a week with engineers on a maintenance visit.
His accounts of these journeys, and his dealings along the way with boat skippers and owners of decommissioned lighthouses, are the best thing in the book. One chapter, in which Nancollas sails out to Bell Rock, eleven miles off Arbroath, shows vividly how a mere photograph could never capture the monumentalism of a rock lighthouse. As the boat gets closer, he writes, the tower “grows out of the horizon in stages, like a shoot in soil … details coalesce as the lighthouse produces larger versions of itself”. Throughout the book, Nancollas manages to convey a rock lighthouse’s utter unlikeliness – the way that it seems, on its mostly submerged reef, to rise up so unfeasibly out of the water, a heroic human conquering of gravity, wave power and the elements.
A building conservationist by training, Nancollas is expert on the construction and weathering of these unique buildings. But mainly he is interested in their symbolism, how their “noble simplicity of purpose” masks myriad ambiguities. Lighthouses, he writes, “stand between land and sea, strength and fragility, the defined and the undefined, the mythical and the real”. And their existence is inherently paradoxical, for “there can be few other buildings designed expressly to repel, to emphatically not be seen at close quarters”.
Nancollas has a good ear for quotation (the book’s inspired title comes from a Dylan Thomas poem) and is a watchful and meticulous writer himself. His description of the “requisite perfection” of a lighthouse is just right; on a rock far out to sea, economy of line and exquisite engineering are a matter of pure necessity. The book is filled with such well-fitting phrases. Nancollas describes his attempt to reimagine the lives of the light keepers as “stepping into the curvature of their lives” – for even their beds were curved to fit the rounded walls. He has some nicely eerie depictions of abandoned lighthouses, their windows fogged with saline residue and their floors flaked with peeled paint.
The parts of the book dealing with the history of lighthouses are less compelling, and seem tonally cut off from the first-person segments. Stories about John Smeaton’s success in taming the Eddystone Rock in the 1750s, and Augustin Fresnel’s refinement of lighthouse lenses, feel like well-trodden ground.
These stories also get retold in Sentinels of the Sea, along with other familiar ones about the Lighthouse Stevensons and the Longstone lighthouse heroine, Grace Darling. Not that R.G. Grant’s text, a compact global history of lighthouses from the Pharos of Alexandria onwards, isn’t interesting. We learn how impoverished coastal communities opposed the building of lighthouses, for they viewed the plundering of wrecked ships as “God’s bounty to the poor”. And there is much absorbing detail about the engineering virtuosity that balanced towers on tiny rocks, and about the lonesome vigils of the light keepers.
But Sentinels of the Sea is worth possessing mainly because it is, like the buildings it commemorates, a beautiful object. The book’s 408 illustrations, many in colour, wed beautifully with its words. It has been produced in association with the National Archives at Kew and they have done a great job of sourcing images everywhere from coast guard’s records to maritime museum archives. On every other page there is some arresting picture – of light keepers’ implements, of architects’ floor plans, cross-sections and elevations, or of rock lights lashed by waves. “Miscellany” is right: this is a book to dip into and return to.
Both these books have a valedictory air – in recognition that, in the age of radar and satellite navigation, working lighthouses may not be long for this world. But then, as Grant points out, the lighthouse has been in long decline since the 1920s, when radios and radio beacons arrived, reducing the central importance of foghorns and beams of light. Ever since, lighthouses may have benefited from a wave of technical innovations begun in other fields – telephones, radios, electric motors, radar, GPS – but they have long since ceased to drive such innovation themselves. Britain’s last occupied lighthouse was automated at the end of the last millennium. The valedictories are overdue.
The lighthouse lovers who will be drawn to these books will not mind that the melancholy is a little oversold. For the bare facts don’t register the endless suggestiveness of these buildings as metaphors for human isolation and connection. As Nancollas puts it, rock lights in particular “emit an unprejudiced message of fellowship” and “generosity of spirit”. Even if we know in our heads that they will soon be little more than concrete follies, they feel in our hearts like our common humanity made solid. Their beacons turn and blink eternally because we accept that strangers lost at sea are also worthy of our care and concern, even if we just flash our lights at them in the dark.
Photo of Perch Rock Lighthouse, New Brighton, copyright Graham Robson and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons.