Monday, 19 July 2021

On old writing and old wrecks, by Joan Haig


On old writing and old wrecks

My WIP is set on a Pacific island. I’m considering an underwater element, so I fished out my old diving logbook.

I first learned to dive when I was twelve, and was immediately ruined for life. Nothing else has ever been so astonishing, no place else so pristine. My family lived in Vanuatu at the time, where, away from the oily harbour and beyond the reef wall, 80-metre visibility was not uncommon.

My preteen logbook is an excellent statistical record: visibility, dive times, depths. It is, however, useless at describing the beauty and variety of the oceanic world. I made no attempt to capture the colour of a blue hole beyond calling it blue; I saw ‘lots of fish from the chart’ but don’t identify which ones. One entry goes as far as listing sharks and rays we encountered but says nothing about how that felt – the only feelings described are of seasickness en route.

As archived material goes, my logbook is pretty pulpable. As material for a novel, it stinks. Luckily, my memory of my time diving means I’m not reliant on this particular record.

This isn’t usually the case.

Notebooks and journals are like external hard drives for my brain. Old writing recaps for me moments and emotions that I might otherwise have forgotten.

An example of this is my first published article, in 2007, in a Zambian magazine called The Lowdown, about a dive I'd joined on Lake Tanganyika. My initial memory is nothing more than the dread of lurking crocodiles. Re-reading my article, however, less menacing details come flooding back. The murky water becomes clear.

‘Diving the Cecil Rhodes’, The Lowdown, p26, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2007

In September’s edition of The Lowdown, readers learned the fascinating history of Zambia’s war wrecks. The editor made an appeal for information on the current site and state of the SS Cecil Rhodes, which was assembled on the lake as a cargo boat in 1901 and sunk as a target of war in 1914. By co-incidence, the same month that the article on Lake Tanganyika’s battle ships was published, a small team carried out a series of dives to the wreck, with the aim of recording its exact position using GPS.

Among the team was Philip Nielsen, who was jointly credited with rediscovering the site of the century-old steamer some years ago. Local fishermen have been familiar with its location for much longer: the steel skeleton is sometimes visible from the lake surface and occasionally shreds their nets.

It was fascinating to read that the Cecil Rhodes was destroyed by fire while German Lieutenant Kendrick was attempting to tow her out to deeper water: today she is awkwardly twisted, her hull broken and bow sitting at an awkward angle in the sand only six metres down.

The wreck protects a colourful ecosystem: yellow electric catfish waver under slabs of metal, crabs scurry across fossilising rods and bolts, and there an synodontis, zebra-striped or pale orange neolamprologus, eels and even nkupi.

Diving into the belly of the wreck would be a tight squeeze since space for tanks is limited, the hole from the gun is ragged and the port holes are small. There used to be many more of the riveted brass windows, but now only four remain. It seems a pity that these have been removed, since they are part of a situated, if not yet officially recognised, Zambian heritage site. Gladly, the name of the vessel, which is embossed in Victorian courier font, survives for posterity.

Maybe I will write a children’s novel set on Tanganyika at some point, when the names of its fish will serve a purpose greater than jogging my memory. They're not much use for my ocean island tale.

Does anyone else draw on old writing for information or inspiration? Does anyone else rely on old wrecks in their new work?


Rowena House said...

Your post evokes so many memories! It must have been spectacular diving in Vanuatu if my brief forays off the (uninhabited) islands of theMaldives in the late 1980s are in any way similar. That shock at the depths of the deepest ocean and irrational/rational fear of falling at the drop off; the dizzying array of colours at the surface, slipping into deeper shades lower down; the rays like military planes in formation; a slow turtle. Oh my. I hope they still exist somewhere.

How brave to dive on a wreck. My husband loved to, but his was miliary trained. I'd never dare go inside a watery coffin!

Like you, I have old notebooks and evocative scraps on paper, mostly from my travelling days. Without them I don't know how one would remember things. There is a philosophy academic I came across the other day (and promptly forgot his name but will look him up) who has a theory of the extended mind, which might be famous for all I know. The article I read said his theory is about thought processes going beyond the mind into social networks and technology. For an earler generation, letters, photos and diaries were our extended memories. Long may they last!

Good luck with your story.

Joan Haig said...

Thank you! I will look that up, too.

Joan Haig said...

Thank you! I will look that up, too.

Anne Booth said...

Wow! As a not very good swimmer I am very impressed with you both, Rowena and Joan, and glad to read these descriptions, as I will never see them in real life. Thank you for this post. I have old diaries and journals from the last 25 years, so if I look back through them I should be able to find little insights into my children's babyhoods and childhoods. I think I have some old diaries from my time at university - you are making me want to sort them out

Joan Haig said...

Oh, do, Anne! But be prepared to surface hours later...