|Oct/Nov 2004 Book Reviews|
Vintage (August 2004) 275 pages
ISBN: 1 74051 276 6
"Anything for a quiet life, as the man said when he took the situation at the lighthouse."
—Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers.
Stargazing is more than a book about romantic dreams of lighthouse keeping. It's what Peter Hill used to do at night from the lighthouse tower—"playing join-the-dots with the constellations... kept awake by the spray and the cold wind." And Stargazing is a book in which Hill joins-the-dots between bright points in his own memory to make nostalgic, very funny, very entertaining pictures of youth, adventure, a variety of admirable, strong-minded, tough characters, and a vanished profession. It is a delightful book.
Hill was nineteen in the early nineteen-seventies when he landed a holiday job as student trainee lighthouse keeper. Vietnam, Watergate, and Jefferson Airplane were matters of importance to him and his art-student friends in Dundee. And, being an undomesticated, long-haired, poetry-loving, laid-back sort of fellow, Hill was totally unprepared for the next few months of his life, much of which was spent in close contact with total strangers in the confined spaces of isolated lighthouses off the west coast of Scotland. It was a life totally occupied with shift-work, weather reports, cooking, polishing, painting, gardening, road-building and whatever other odd jobs the Commissioners of Northern Lights (in their warm, dry offices in Edinburgh) thought up to keep their lighthouse keepers awake.
So, how did he find it? "Being on a lighthouse," says Hill, "resembled nothing more than being on a spaceship. Perhaps one co-designed by NASA and the Goons." One can understand the spaceship analogy, but the Goons? Hill was constantly busy, but he was also amazed and amused by the characters of the men who manned the lights and by the stories they told. Over the weeks of night watches (art-student Hill immediately christened these "Rembrandts") he heard tales of mystery, giant storms, vanished keepers, madness and heroism. Crazy things happened‹like sheep-shearing on Pladda and learning to find the business end of sheep which, pre-shearing, "all look like roadies for Dr Hook"‹and bird invasions. On Ailsa Craig, the doors had to be kept shut at night to keep hundreds of swarming rats out. And on tiny Hyskeir, there were three goats which "decreed that we had to walk in single file in a precise sequence of goat-human, goat-human," an order which was always strictly enforced by the mother goat. Apart from that, there were basking sharks, herring shoals, sudden storms and a frightening near-death experience.
Hill's first lighthouse was on Pladda, off the coast of the isle of Arran. "Don't tell me they've sent another fucking hippie!" was his greeting from the farmer who picked him up by tractor from a remote field to deliver him to the rowing-boat which would take him to the lighthouse. Perhaps the greeting had something to do with the fact that Hill was standing on a wall reading a Langston Hughes poem about a mighty river to a small Scottish stream. It was, however, a meeting of romantic youth and dour Scottish elder which was typical of his first two weeks on the lighthouse. There, the three seasoned, older keepers inculcated him into the job, and into the art of living together in a small space, and into the art of telling stories gripping enough to keep each other awake on night shifts.
Story-telling is an art Hill has never lost. He has an artist's eye for colourful detail and poet's ear for accents and for the hypnotic rhythms and varied emotions of a good yarn, all of which make his own tales a delight. His serious descriptions of everyday life of lighthouse-keeping include fascinating details about the light itself, and since this was before lighthouses were automated, there were many vital routines to be learned so that the light remained reliable and bright. And Hill's periods of shore leave and his reflection on his own teenage character and experiences also make funny and, often, nostalgic reading.
Stargazing is also an enlightening book for anyone who ever dreamed that living in a lighthouse might offer them a quiet place in which to read, write, paint, meditate or do anything which requires peace and isolation.
Not long before I read Stargazing, I saw the two cottages at the Douglas Head Lighthouse on the Isle of Man, advertised for sale. "Enclosed garden. Superb location. Stunning views," the advertisement said. And there was a photograph of the cottages, gleaming white in the sun, with the lighthouse towering above them into a cloudless blue sky.
The location is not as remote as any of Hill's lighthouses. You can walk round Douglas Head, down 76 concrete steps to a rocky beach and jetty, then up 53 stoney steps to the cottage-garden wall. Or you can climb down (and up!) the hundred-or-so steps from the top of the cliff.
Postal deliveries might be a bit of a problem unless the postie is young and fit. More importantly, though, the Isle of Man is more noted for its legendary mists than for the clear, blue skies of the Estate Agent's photograph. So it's funny that the advertisement omitted to mention "Moaning Minnie," the foghorn on the cliff just below the cottages' garden walls. And, it's interesting to hear what Peter Hill has to say about foghorns. "Nothing," he writes, "had quite prepared me for the painfully loud noise," or for the number of hours "turning into days" that the foghorn might have to blow. Hill's account of conversations held in fifteen second bursts between deafening blasts of sound is hilarious, but he certainly put paid to any romantic idea I might have had of buying a lighthouse cottage.
Hill's book, however, did leave me with some intriguing stories about the Isle of Man to ponder. Was it Douglas Lighthouse from which the keepers were once sacked for selling off the spare stock of mercury: stock which was needed in order to keep the light turning smoothly? And is there still a naked lighthouse keeper on Chicken Rock?
As you can tell, I enjoyed Stargazing with Peter Hill. And he certainly revealed some unexpected and fascinating constellations.