image: I see the sea… West Pier, what remains of it
I MOVED TO Brighton in January last year to a flat on a hill on a whitewashed street. The view as you come out of the flat is amazing – the startling sea, a flat denim-blue horizon, filling the sky like a vast Rothko altar, blue on blue, right down the hill every morning, every afternoon, always there.
I am mid-divorce and this was an emotional move, symbolic – a new start, purifying. It was also a brand-new year, winter-shining with possibilities – I’d felt for a while 2020 was always going to be the year. In light of everything that then happened in this year to the world, and the drama that unfolded in Brighton… Well, thank goodness we really can’t predict what is round the corner.
Arriving on that blue horizon, infinite with possibilities, I hadn’t felt this spiritually optimistic for a while. Brighton has always been a lure for esoteric and spiritual renewal, as well as a health spa with sea-salty air and that full-flavoured Brighton bonhomie. The Copts settled here, as did the New Agers, the Buddhists, the Catholics and the Jews. As soon as I got the flat just as I liked – white carpet, white walls and two white sofas – literally whitewashing my old life – I began roaming the town, taking notes on my new home – walking the shores, glimpsing life on the pleasure pier, catching the light. Sea-gulls, graffiti, 8 a.m. swimmers. Kayaks and cafes. I thought again how there was a lightness to Brighton, a fun-ness. And I didn’t have to drive anywhere. The blue of the sea held the white of my flat. Fresh starts, even in the cold January air.
I have three good friends who over the years and through the differing stages of life have moved here too. Everyone seemed to have a narrative about this town; how they got here, and with it almost some spiritual gloss to that narrative. I decided the essay I was writing would launch a new section for MONK, on the spirituality of place, our geo-psychic spaces. In short – God in the landscape. I’d been amazed at the amount of spiritual self-improvement groups I found. In fact, I was so evangelistic I had titled this article ‘Is Brighton the new Jerusalem?’ You can’t get more optimistic than that.
The article was full of my own experience – the several friends I knew had moved down here, the healing power of the sea, the sea’s horizon, the metaphor of water. In the original draft of the essay I’d made evangelistic references to Buddhahood in Brighton, and the sea as Buddha-blue – or the more Catholic Marion-blue – I even stretched to Krishna-blue. I was seeking for an interpretation beyond the simple, simplistic, baseline magic of a place, to why we are drawn to where we are drawn.
I wrote about urban constellations of ley lines and vortexes dotting the geo-psychic map of Hove – and the energy of the neon-lit palace pier. Frankly, I was – and I’m still not embarrassed to admit it – spiritually blown away by this place. Through the threads of spiritual excitement, I would glance confidently down at the sea, down to its horizon from the safe upper streets of whitewashed Hovian bliss, fluffing my way to Waitrose, planning an evening in the pub after a Meetup mediation group, chasing enlightenment. My white sofas shone. The sea was calm. A solid blue-and-white start.
I was wrapping my postcode in tinsel and fluff.
Fast forward to February – a misnomer of course as technically time in this timeless period has presently stopped meaning anything much – and I get a call telling me that David, one of my oldest friends, who moved to Brighton before me and whom I’d met up with a few days back, had walked into that sea, and drowned himself. In the sea in Brighton. In my new Jerusalem. At night, into the churning dark mass of water, my beautiful David.
The denim-blue Rothko turns to grey on the spot. My flat loses its fresh white start. I can suddenly see my floaters.
I’d only been with him the previous week when we’d met at the pub the Easy Tiger on Upper North Street, where, twenty years too old for the pubs demographic, we’d got drunk and reminisced about our own youth in London in the 1990s, the clubs, the drugs and the drama. Of Diana’s death and Blair’s ascension. We felt old, and looked old, but you know, I thought that was OK; we were in our own skins, a little wrecked with the mistakes of life as they were – but we were happy, comfortable. We had great plans for the future months as a Brighton winter gave into spring and then the sun and summer. He was Irish, gay, an alcoholic – with a hundred demons – and godfather to my son. He was enormously warm, hugely funny. But I never ever thought he was suicidal.
So, in the unbearable light (an unlightness) of the news of David’s death I find I am flailing – flailing around the mental subject of my essay, and flailing around the town itself, quite literally.
Rearranging my mind, controlling my response.
David was one of my classic Brighton examples – moving here quite spontaneously (he once said to me the idea had popped into his head, heaven sent) for a new life and that fresh Brighton start – that blue-and-white feeling, picking up the spirit of the town, the energy of the place. In fact, we’d talked about it many times.
Now I imagine him walking to his death when the sea was churning and the horizon was blotted out in midnight ink. I can’t believe he did this, so I try to re-engage with this article, examine the town, because everything still stands. It’s just – everything looks changed. Everything looks changed.
It’s an existential point, a philosophical conundrum, as well as a great personal loss filled with pain and a little guilt – I hadn’t gone to him when he texted me over for a brunch the previous week. Why didn’t I go? Would he have said anything? But at the end of my street there is still the sea. As the Buddhists say, nothing has changed. You have changed, your mind has changed, but certainly, that sea – that sea – hasn’t changed.
We are still in February in this narrative. Of the three people I knew well in Brighton, the second was like David, an old friend from London days, a guerilla Jungian therapist, arriving here after hitting the dead-parent lottery, moving into a beautiful Hovian flat. A hard urban childhood in south London has given him a worn hang-dog expression which served the therapeutic community well. Among our circle he is known as Tribal Elder. Wise, you see. A survivor. I shall call him MP. And I always like talking to MP. I text him.
‘I need to talk about David. Pub?’
‘Not a pub. And not my consulting rooms either. You’re in shock. We’ll walk by the sea.’
But it’s the sea that scares the shit out of me now. It has become almost criminal in aspect, unknown and ungraspable. Faithless, a killer, I can barely look at it. It is like an accomplice to a crime. David’s body was washed up around the pier, and even when I sit half a mile distant on the cool winter pebbles in Hove – past the wreck of the West Pier – I think I can see the body still. Where is the soul now? I ask. Where is life?
‘I hate the sea,’ I tell MP whilst looking at it. ‘But I moved here because of the sea.’
‘There is something,’ he answers, ‘very primal about the sea and, I would suggest, Brighton. Or primordial, about the sea. Its depths, its chthonics.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘When I was three, according to my mother, God rest her soul, I saw the sea for the first time and ran down to the beach and threw off all my clothes, running into the water before someone caught me.’
‘What are you saying…?’
‘It’s the hidden oceanic depths. For example, I moved here for a life change, after my mother died, God rest her soul. There is a large psychotherapeutic community down here, and a lot of therapy shoppers. Brighton is an odd mystical place. People are drawn here. People arrive. Brighton is a wisdom journey, often the final stage rather than a chapter, it’s almost a destination without a destination.’
‘But – ’
‘There are no ‘buts’ with Brighton. You came for the flow. Because Brighton represents life. And death is life. David chose this town because it’s literally the end of the line. He tried to heal himself. It’s always been a healing place in the UK; that sea-horizon is the end of the world. It’s the end of the line on the trains. You walk out of the station down the roads and it’s the end of the world. An island line. The end of Britain. My sense is that that is reflected in a lot of the people who choose to come and live here. David, you.’
Of course, he’s telling me things I already know, whether or not I agree with them. Why are we so attracted to a certain place? And – why the sea?
‘You’re asking two different questions.’
‘So many people have a salvation narrative in moving down here. Fresh start, new life.’
‘That’s not what you’re asking now. You’re asking for an impossible answer. David is not here to give it. You’re going to have to learn to love the sea again – somehow.’
We leave the cold blue waves and stumble over pebble-shingle and beggars to the Belle pub on Waterloo Street. The pub television flickers on the wall, bored in the afternoon: some news droning on about China.
‘I don’t,’ says MP, ‘usually drink in the afternoon but I will have one for David.’
‘One would never count for David,’ I say.
‘The thing is, Sophie, Jung would say the sea is our mother. Everyone will have their own personal relationship with the sea here in Brighton. Often the sea can be terrifying – but still you’ll see people walk right up to it. They’ll look into the abyss. It’s a place of contemplation. It’s quite unconsciously ritualistic. That sea metaphorically and metaphysically links to all oceans, so that extraordinary horizon at the end of Brunswick Square or Palmeira Square is the highway to the world. It’s freedom. Mental freedom. The mind embraces the sea. Water is the most powerful thing on the planet. Which should, by the way,’ he adds wryly, ‘have been called the Ocean. There is simply far more of it than earth.’
So this is depth psychology, and we are all interlinked.
It doesn’t, of course, answer any questions, but it does move towards the notion that we have forgotten the truth that we are part of nature, we are linked to and have an intimate bond to the planet, that we are creatures. We came from the ocean – apparently. The sea reminds us of our origins – apparently. The sea is even our mother – apparently. I don’t even know what that means anymore. That space at the end of all roads – what did MP say? That you could think all roads lead to the Mind in Brighton because they all lead to the sea. It’s a 270 degree view. Literally – the edge. Exhilarating and frightening at the same time.
We leave the pub and I say goodbye, walk down through Brunswick Square to the sea, past the Brunswick sparrows. It’s now a blindingly blue wintry day, the edge of spring, the ocean framed by the butter-yellow of Brunswick Square, the sea calm and flat-sparkling like a plank of swarovski crystals, making vision surrealistic, hallucinogenic even, caught between a de Chirico painting and an acid trip. The sea looks vast and blue. That blue horizon is a layer cake of theological hue, of blue on blue on blue.
The sea has changed its personality in an hour. Less. Suddenly deeply godly blue again. Buddha-blue, Marion-blue, Krishna-blue too. I look through salty tears. I should love it. Today, I hate it.
David did not see the sea like this on his last night; that night the weather was grim, winter-grim. The sea was turbulent, chastening. He knew what he was doing. His suicide text said it all. I’m gone. Full intention, down to the shoreline, in control of his body and his breath.
He couldn’t swim, of course; he knew he didn’t stand a chance.
All that – all the above – was in early February, 2020.
In between my mental battle over accepting David’s suicide – and my sudden horror at the sea which takes on a dark, criminal aspect – in between all this, something called the coronavirus strikes Brighton, England, and the world.
Memories of a flickering TV screen on a pub wall – China. Half paying attention. Not mindful – and of course nothing will ever be the same again.
One drama, one horror, replaces another – surreally layering itself like the cold colours of the seaside stormfront – it’s almost like a bad geo-politic disaster film, an internal drama slowly simmering to a raging fear-index boil. Over the days I can feel the fear and tension grip this new-age old-world health-spa urban town. This thing called coronavirus snakes round the globe, apparently visiting Brighton first in Britain. The Cornerstone Church where I meet up with the Sahaja Kundalini Yoga group is suddenly shut for fear of cross contamination. Mingled with my fear of the sea is now a mythical pandemic narrative, not yet fully blown but simmering quietly offshore. The Buddhists in the Buddhist Centre next to my block of flats suddenly produce masses of hand sanitiser. Masks start appearing in Waitrose.
Frankly, it’s surreal and bizarre.
Lungs have always fed my neurotic motor. I had childhood asthma; my mother died of lung cancer; colds always go to my chest. Death, which has stalked my imagination and heart through the lens of David’s sea-suicide, now wakes me up in the night. I don’t entirely stop going to the Meetup groups that I’ve settled so happily into – I can’t, as they’ve been teaching me so much about breathing before Covid struck. David’s lungs filling with seawater merge with victims of the virus – and what fills my lungs? Fear fills them, even as I try to improve my mind and body by going running pathetically slowly on the beach shingle.
Still, Brighton and Hove does not close down. We’re into March. The weather draws in, goes out. Storms, sun, wind. Pebble-shingle gets thrown onto the walkways, the wind tastes of salt. My tears – salt. The sea – salt. In the theatre of my mind it’s as if Brighton is playing out some psychodrama to my script. There is talk of something called a lockdown – what does that mean? I call MP.
‘What’s this, a lockdown? We’re not China. They can’t lock our doors.’
‘They’re doing it in Italy. Milan is locked down.’
‘Beginning to sound like a bad fucking film–!’
‘Have you finished your article yet?’
‘No I bloody haven’t.’
The sea darkens even when the sun is shining. I now walk obsessively along Hove Lawns, that band of grass like a green stripe before the blue, blue ocean. This is not the part of the sea where David walked in (as if you can divide the sea) – but I can look down leftwards towards the pleasure pier where he walked his life’s end. My father calls me from London. He reminds me that my grandfather towards the end of his life used to come here to Brighton alone in the 1950s and stay long weekends to get away from family, wife, work.
‘Did he have a lover here?’
‘No! It was the only thing that soothed his nerves. World War I and the trenches had made him melancholic. He would just sit and watch the sea.’
Another story, another refugee.
My anxiety rises, the world shrinks. The virus – having kissed the shores of Brighton – continues to spread around the world, and again it strikes me that we are living in a bad Netflix series, casting our own plotlines.
I find myself self-soothing, whispering inane mantras that don’t quite make sense: ‘I am loved in perfect breath…’ I take to walking obsessively by the sea at dawn hours, knowing (thinking) I would be alone, far from the madding herd whom the prime minister of the United Kingdom is encouraging to gather immunity, as one would gather apples in autumn. But the herd has thought of that too and dawn numbers on the pearly beach-shingle are far higher than they would be outside the growing hysteria. At this point I hate the sea as much as I love it. The virus has contaminated my article, mutating it far and beyond the pure example of high literature, my clean spiritual narrative, with which I hoped to purify my own mind. I had envisaged my writing as pure response, like the sea-air itself, salt-cleansing, an act of atonement, intoning meaning. An examination of life, death, life.
The last meditation group with the Buddhists before they slam their doors shut, snatch back their sanitiser – it’s about breath. Pick up your breath, say the Buddhists. Pick it up, like litter, recycle it, clean it. Pick up your breath.
Hove starts to heat up, the word on the street is that there is to be a strict lockdown soon. The shelves in Waitrose are empty. I stand in an aisle having an insane chat to two strangers staring at empty shelves. ‘It’s not the virus I’m worried about,’ says one, ‘it’s the people.’ I wake up in the middle of the night from startling dreams. I’m suddenly aware that David would never have made it to the sea during lockdown. That, ironically, the virus would have saved him. He had gone towards the sea in the early evening twilight. The police will patrol the beaches if they get to lockdown, my neighbours are saying. It will be the first thing they close.
I feel myself retreating. David’s suicide is no longer about him; the virus is no longer about the world. I do not want to be here. I do not want to be in a flat locked in with only my imagination to conjure with. Frankly, I do not have the strength.
I call MP. ‘They can’t lock down the sea.’
‘It’s the first place they’ll put police,’ he insists.
I swing everything into my car the night before lockdown and drive three hours upcountry to the place where I began. Not literally, but spiritually – the place which taught me more about God than any theology degree or meditation class. I return to the garden at Lambourn. I return to my husband whom I am divorcing, my cat, my many-lessons-learned.
I remember David saying: ‘So you left your husband. Do you miss him?’
‘No. I miss the garden.’
‘You’re a gardener? Now that I would never have thought.’
Breathe, Sophie. Pick up your breath.
Yes – I ran away.
But the garden greets me with its solid chalk walls and reassuring lack of drama. I am rooted on entry, even as on entering Brighton the sea shook me. The cherry trees are budding, blossom is promised. There is soil and fertility. The world will go on. The walls are monastic, cell-like, creating routine and regulating my mind – just as the sea opened my mind, inviting it into the endless horizon, that endless form. In a crisis I have returned to a village with Saxon lineage and old-fashioned faith. A medieval church sits next to our garden, with its solid no-nonsense medieval tower.
And distant from that vast sea – suddenly I see it. Suddenly – I feel it.
Deep down I like to think this was David’s ancient memory of the sea as God, the universal mind, its magnificence. I am gone, he said. Gone in this life but crossing through the sea’s portal into the next life, washed by the curve of the ocean on the shoreline that you arrived at five years ago, to start a new life, to Brighton, to the beach, to that endless shore and neat smart upper-class architectural heritage that clips at us all – we can all do better, we can heal, we are not lost, not lost at all, simply arriving for a better life in a better world.
So, tethered by my garden, my soul grounded by my soil, I can step away from my fear and take stock. In my mind’s eye I think of Brighton. In my mind’s eye I see that eternal horizon of blue. I see my flat, and down the hill, and along the shore the pier. I see those white-washed houses. I walk down from the 1930s apartment enclave of Furze Hill – down the sloping streets hip with boutiques and cafes and homeless people – in the windows I can see the spirit of Brighton – sitting rooms and kitchens, a hub to creativity and culture, hope, energy – Brighton and Hove – its own rhythm. I walk through the butter-yellow Brunswick Square, which on this mind’s-eye imagined bright day gladeyes you, revives you. I walk, the sun shining on that sea lifting the entire energy of the city, bathing its lost in God’s light (that is, the lost of God – because that is what we are talking about, no?) The water particles shining the sun back into the sky, into our eyes, creating hope and beckoning us to come to the sea, the sea.
The width of it, the depth of it – stands for life itself, its potentiality, beyond the conscious and into those unconscious watery realms.
Its own watery, oceanic, life force.
A stability, formless and unfathomable – unchanged for millenia. Yes, all this beside the garish, neon Brighton pleasure pier. I am gone, you said.
And how glad I am now, David, that you chose this katabasis into the ocean over a lonely bedroom overdose or a hanging rope on a domestic door. Whether you arrived in Brighton knowing deep in your DNA that this would happen and you arrived for that moment is between you and your God. This is the way and the only way I can possibly begin to accept it.
The sea is God as liquid, holding the memory of all creation in its vast vial. Don’t they say water has memory? It is the great watery I am. Really, who are we to know anything, we humans? We are souls in skins, tracking our wrecked outer garments around the globe, occasionally bursting through these into a javelin of enlightenment. Perhaps – I don’t know – perhaps it was inevitable and David could have done this anywhere. But he lived by the sea in Spain for years and never did it there. He came home to what he knows, a womb of types for a reckoning and it turned final, the last station on the line, the end of England. I defy anyone to go to those shores’ end and stare out from Brighton town to the endless I am. I am.
No, more than ever, Brighton is the new Jerusalem. Or perhaps, the new Calvary.
Brighton is, if you like, the stages of life. It’s the stages of the cross, part of the urban pilgrimage, but behind it all holding us is the sea, the sea, a geoscape so profound that you can dip in and dip out – in David’s case, finally, an exit.
Come for Buddha, come for Christ. Come to be gay, come to be free. Come for health. Come for the cabaret. Come with your sovereign-soul here to walk with Buddha or walk with Christ – or walk with the shade of your demons on the shores of the sea. I still hold your soul’s chances of transmogrification are better here than in many many places. You have the best chance here. David, an alcoholic and so destroyed by liquid, turned to water to purify himself, absolved by the enormous sacrament of the sea. Baptised, if you like. Not a death at all but a rebirth and renewal. Sea’s portal…
And the tide pulls out, like a deep breath sucked into the diaphragm, exhaled with a wet soft hiss… I am alive, I am alive… I am, I am…
A portal by the sea and one we have in its infinity.
I am, I am… it whispers. Are you?
And I plunge my hands into the soil and think of the sea. This is God’s creation, as we are, me, David, you. The virus that separates me from my community. The sea is God, the earth is God. The virus is God.
Close your eyes and awaken.
Sophie Lévy Burton
Written and rewritten through January – April 2020
RIP David. I miss you.
MARCH 2021 Sophie Lévy Burton MONK