Sophie McCook

BBC Scriptwriter & Author of New Book Thinkless

Way back in the 1980s, the world smelt of Polaroid and tasted of Cremola. I was a gawky, solitary girl living in the hinterland between Hopeman and Lossiemouth.

An only child in a cottage far from neighbours, my nearest friend Mandy lived beyond the aerodrome. The world of Top of the Pops, Culture and London may have been on the far side of Mars for all I knew. My own horizon felt like the sides of a fish tank – you could swim as far as you liked, the chances were you’d never break out.

If it were possible to GPS track my footprints over the last 40 years, there are few nooks between Findhorn and Lossie that I’ve not pryed into. As a child I paid covert visits to farms, fields, fishing boats, climbed down irrigation wells, up trees, dived into the dark hearts of forestry plantations, wriggled into narrow caves and climbed stacks. Once I tunnelled into a hangar (the journey was more exciting than the destination). To be truthful, I was a solitary and odd child.

My primary school was in the burgeoning metropolis of Hopeman, a place where children could call on friends after school: ‘Are ye comin’ oot th’night?’

The school sits on a promontory above the Hopeman Beach. In 1984, the village was thriving and busy. The harbour was stocked with fishing boats that were strapped together against the walls three or four deep. Nets dried on the eastern side. Old men sat with thick wooden needles, knotting up the holes. Admittedly, this did not smell like Polaroid or Cremola but of decaying fish – not just a whiff, but an atmospheric Cullen skink of a hundred years of fish gut.

Our school regularly exposed us to ‘cross country.’ The reality was a stumble to Daisy Rock and back (the magnificent lunar zone of Hopeman Bay). On the way we snaked through the beach huts; southern side on the way there, northern on the way back.

My parents were not the socialising kind. Their own interests were work and music. When we visited the beach, the huts were always abuzz with families – whole generations of fishing folk. Grandparents, cousins, parents and pets clustered in formation on the sunny sides. Often their neighbours from Thom Street or Farquhar Street would also be hut neighbours, except much closer. Families, children, dogs intermixed in a collective mini society.

In my odd solitary way, I’d watch from a distance this high-days-and-holidays community tipped against sunny walls, communicating in a jolly, flowing way that you don’t always find in Moray speech patterns.

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When I was twelve, my father suddenly developed an unexpected love of sailing. He bought a racing boat in Findhorn, (a Defour T 7! – the name must be tattooed on my cortex). After a few excursions, I limited my role as deck hand and was allowed to stay on dry land.

Findhorn was vibrant. There was the flapping tail end of a fishing industry, a boat building yard and various nautical support businesses. The harbour, although in decline, was busy and grubby.

The fish sheds still had their mysterious occupants, the Culbin Sands Hotel was gently decaying. The boat yard was functional and rambling. Rusty machinery and war fortifications gave way to seagrass and gorse.

On the ridge above the sea were Findhorn’s own parade of beach huts. They were larger and more substantial than the Hopeman variety, not build on foundations but straight onto the sand. They were all near identical, even down to their peeling pale blue paint. They didn’t belong to one family but were maintained by the council. A regular turn of the handle showed that some were left open and some were locked.

In 1984, there were about twelve remaining. One had toppled over the edge of the links into the sand. Here children had a field day, in their slanty, sand carpeted playhouse.

A few times I decided to walk home from Findhorn, a distance of about eight miles. Back in 1984, the shoreline was still hosting the concrete necklace of barrage blocks. Mammoth pillboxes guarded every mile, and when the tide was out, the black bleak forest of posts to stop Nazi gliders from landing. Every time I did this long walk, the shore was different. The sea took bites out of Roseisle, trees keeled, paths fell into nothing.
The Findhorn point itself whipped around like a cat’s tail. Sand build up, sand disappeared. But nothing in my living memory altered the landscape like the storm of 1984.

I didn’t visit Findhorn straight away, but heard that the water had removed a huge portion of the beach and dumped it in the bay. Boats were lost. One friend saw one of the beach huts floating whole on the tide and claimed it as salvage. He put it in his garden.

In 1986 Morrisons Construction stabilised the beach head and so the shore line was fixed. Most of the remaining beach huts (apart from that well-known last one) were demolished during the works. The barrage kept the beach in place, the cat’s tail stopped whipping. It’s a bit chubbier now too, grasses and even young trees are growing in the hollows. Land is being reclaimed and the beach is moving further away, instead of closer.

About five years ago I was walking with my family in Hopeman, and met an old school friend and her children sitting in front of her hut. ‘I’ve inherited it from my grandparents. It makes me think about them, and about me as a child, and how my children will view this place.’

We talked about how grown up we had become, and about the silent harbour and the quiet streets. We laughed and shivered at that periscopic feeling you get when you feel the past and the future meet.

On the way home I mourned for Findhorn too, my new home. It is a wilderness in winter, where only two houses in my lane other than ours is occupied all year round. During the long nights the harbour decays a little bit more. The last boat builder moved to America about ten years ago. His workshop was demolished and a modernist building landed in its footprint.

What makes a community? The businesses? In Findhorn more are closing than opening, and those that remain struggle outwith the summer. The caravan park is now closed to visitors.

Is it the people? Our neighbour tells us that when his wife gave birth, thirty-five years ago, the village pipe band came to play for the baby. He says that elderly neighbours minded the local children.

It was my idea idea to recreate the beach huts, and I sold the idea to my architect husband. I gave him my memories of community, living closely and warmly in a thriving village. How the tar bubbled on hot days, how the nets festered and cracked in the sun.

He also felt inspired: his ancestral links to Findhorn reach back to the 17th century. His family tree is full of Findhorn fishermen and chandlers.

I sold the idea enough to persuade him to buy the old beach hut site – or at least, the closest flat area to it – below the barrage.

When Ian took the plan to the Findhorn Community Council, there were few objections: ‘Why are you selling them instead of letting them, like Hopeman?’ was one question.
‘Do you want to deal with the leases every year?’ was Ian’s reply. They agreed that they didn’t.

Findhorn Conservation Group independently put the beach huts into their five year plan.

Two huts were to be donated to the community for use by local groups. It all felt positive. I could almost hear the families chattering, see the children beach combing.image

Now the beach hut proposal has reached an infamy beyond my wildest imagination. If my recent novel had had the global reach that this scheme has had, I would be very pleased.

What, instead, has happened is a virulent campaign that has swept up hundreds of those who feel interested in Findhorn beach. There have been leaflets, meetings, hand-holding photo ops, viral campaigns, fund-raising film clips, glares and averted eyes.

Only one neighbour has actually approached us to talk about it.

This is neighbourhood now. ‘Community’ is about sharing protest pages on Facebook with inaccurate photos and misinformation.

It’s about expressing one’s own strong personal opinion without canvassing or listening to those of your neighbour. It’s the forgetting that you’re campaigning against one small family, not a faceless company.

I am very saddened by the experience. But I have had the chance to ask myself about how social connections work today: where is the line between individualism and conscious isolation? Where is the line between communal living and following the flock?
Do people make a community? Is wilderness more important than the intimacy of social connection? This campaign has turned Findhorn into a wilderness for me, for the wrong reasons.

For a solitary child who craved neighbours, this is part of a life long dialogue.

I know that villages do not stay still – movement, by definition, moves. But sometimes people build a barrage, movement stops and then it stays like that forever.

Ps If you are minded to donate money to the protest campaign, please also consider buying my novel Thinkless. It is far more garish and ridiculous that any beach hut, anywhere.
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Thinkless-Sophie-McCook/dp/190753699X

Link to Conservation Group five year plan: http://s3.spanglefish.com/s/21645/documents/theexecutivesummaryoffeasibilitystudy.pdf

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