I rang the bell. I had been about to pass it, having heard it rung, mostly by children, almost constantly for the past two days. Something called me back, to approach it. Maybe it’s because no one else was around and I saw my chance. I rang it. It sounded louder than when other people rang it. I felt naughty somehow. So I rang it again. It had a clarity, as though it had found exactly the right points around it to bounce from to make itself sound important; drew them in like coordinates of the perfect pitch then sent them pealing out to the clouds.
The bell is A Crossing Bell – an art installation at Tilbury Cruise Terminal by Professor of Sound & Landscape Angus Carlyle who has worked in residence at Metal, an arts organisation with a big heart in a big house in a pretty park where I am lucky to work. He is also a part of Estuary Festival. Passengers are invited to ring the bell while offering a prayer for a crossing – their crossing or someone else’s, a friend’s or a stranger’s; a prayer to ward off the bad or wish for the good. Angus’ hope is that the bell’s unamplified peals suggest other crossings, other times and other places. And they do.
I only remembered then as I rang it that right there, down to the deck to the waters between Tilbury and Gravesend, that my dad had been moored here in the 60s. I have the last diaries he wrote as a teen in the Merchant Navy. 1964. After months of sailing more exotic waters – Biscay, Suez, Arabian Sea, Muscat, Persian Gulf, Abu Dhabi, Calcutta, Trincomalee, Colombo, his list goes on – they drifted… into Southend-on-Sea. My hometown. A strange town that Dad could not have known then would be the place he’d later move to in his fifties to be near his daughters, and then soon after where he would take his life. He stayed four days in 1964 then sailed on to Tilbury, and one night – “went ashore to dance in Gravesend with lads. Got really pissed.” The next morning, he got up at 8.15, and “just read papers all morning.” Then the diaries come to an end, and as far as I know he never wrote any others. Or certainly none that he kept and passed on. Perhaps these were the only ones that he wasn’t ashamed of. The ones that only chronicle small details of ship life – no truths of his character or feelings at all that might be of use in the puzzle of a dead bi-polar man.
I had just been thinking the week before, as I walked past the road where he lived and died, that I felt pretty cool about him being dead, now. I felt tough. Over it. Cool. I walked past – as I do most days, I live a few roads away now – and felt ‘nothing’.
But I didn’t feel nothing when I rang the bell. It was like a brass hammer to the sky, cracking open the clouds to say hullo to my father, there on the very waters where he had written in his tiny blue scrawl. Maybe only meters away from where I stood, now, ringing it. Maybe if I could call to him back then – me on the deck, him rocking in his bunk – he could have heard me. Was his ship that close? If only time could allow me that experiment. Distance and time and death. Science. What huge impassable relentlessly factual things keep people apart.
Earlier that morning I had been up at 5am for a dawn performance by a vocal artist named Caroline Bergvall, who wove her mesmeric voice with that of a vocalist Peyee Chen and a backing track of collected sounds. Raga Dawn. My job was to capture it for other people, but towards the end I just lay down on the deck behind the audience, my spine falling between one of the broad gaps in the planks, the breeze surging up through the fibres of my jumper to my skin, and the sound of the heavy lapping water beneath my head. What do we think in these moments of reflection? Our thoughts trip on to one thing mostly. To how we feel, to people, to those we have lost. To love. To loss. To death. I often wonder if anyone can ever pass truly blithely through life without thoughts of death; whether it is a dialogue that can be completely avoided. Whether the ‘mentally ill’ can shut out awareness of it with a complete efficiency that we, the ‘more normal’, the ‘well’, cannot.
I suppose it comes as a not-too-great surprise that artists are drawn to water and to death. It tells not only stories, captures our thoughts, loves, and fears, but it also inspires a sort of peace that must be made before we ourselves go. A peace with ourselves. Estuary Festival is full of work by countless artists of dizzying various disciplines that observe a similar theme, but it is this piece – A Crossing Bell – that spoke to me, because it spoke for me.
I didn’t tell Angus during our multiple chats as he milled around in a nice blue jacket that I had rung his bell and been moved. I felt shy. I don’t know why. Maybe I just wanted to keep it for myself. Between me & Dad & the river.
The bell did its job. A hullo was said. And a small patch of the Thames that was new to me became familiar, like Dad was with me for a while, strong and tangible as bronze, invisible yet potent as sound waves saying “I was here.”
Estuary Festival runs until the 2nd October in various places in Tilbury, Gravesend, and Southend. For more – go here.
For Caroline Bergvall & Raga Dawn, go here.