For once so far, this summer, it isn’t raining. But the clouds are thick and hang low in the sky. The gulls wheel in and out of them, calling in that screeching voice of protest that is so familiar to the coast. It’s lunch time. I am poised on the top viewing platform of Caro’s Quayside sculpture, ‘Sea Music’. There is a box of fish and chips balanced on the railings and my two-year-old parrot, Maya, is on my shoulder, purring to herself.
They call this uppermost viewing platform ‘the Crow’s Nest’. In Caro’s original design, he and Tom Roberts, who was head of Poole Arts Council at the time, discussed the idea of a spiral staircase leading right to the top of the structure, with a crow’s-nest-like circular viewing platform. In the end, this notion was dismissed, but Sea Music is still surrounded by three tiers of viewing platforms, the central of which is adorned with very simple seating. The railings are painted silver. When the sun is high, it matches the gleaming peaks of the stirring sea.
I am told that Caro would often come with his wife, (Sheila Girling, a renowned painter in her own right and Caro’s regular advisor when it came to applying colour to his work) and eat fish and chips whilst sitting on one of Sea Music’s viewing platforms. It feels right to do the same now, while I am writing about its recent restoration. Maya is eager to share the chips. Being a bird, she is not allowed, but she has some treats of her own that I give her. The treats are not chips so she is not impressed and spends the next ten minutes sulking.
This morning, we have been in the library. What a happy place to be – the excellent librarians and experts there had surrounded me with a variety of cracked and aging books, photocopies of old poems and stories and a folder of artefacts to do with the object of my study. His name was Harry Paye, known by the Spanish as Arripay, a late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century pirate. Paye was born in Poole, spent much of his time sacking French ships and attacking Spanish towns to bring the looted goods back to Poole. He caused such trouble amongst his continental nemeses that they sent a combined fleet all the way to Poole in 1405 in an attempt to burn it down. They failed, but only just. Harry Paye was far before the time of Sea Music, but the more I read about him, the more I realise he represents something similar. Rightly or wrongly, he was admired by the people of Poole. (He still is! A social organisation called the Pirates of Poole run regular events in his honour, often dressed as pirates. Recently, they travelled to Spain to return the crucifix from the Church of St Mary, which Paye stole on one of his many rampages along the coast of Spain.) Paye brought back foreign goods, was appointed a Commander of British naval ships and provided wines and loot for the people of Poole that were far beyond what many of them would have seen at that time. Perhaps, to some, he represents the heroism and daring that could defend a town, that could give it purpose and longevity. Yes, they were hazardous times, with the harbour against which the town was nestled inviting both opportunity and danger, but Paye was brave enough to climb to the crow’s nest of his ships and stare out into the horizon as he chased it.
Standing in the Crow’s Nest of Sea Music, my own parrot on my shoulder, her feathers fluffed against the wind, I feel oddly close to Paye. He was—to all intents and purposes—a destroyer, a looter, a thief, but he brought opportunity. Like him, Sea Music was initially considered to be something quite piratical by the locals. Likened to a can opener, dubbed ugly and useless, a waste of space and public money by the residents, it received much disdain. During its time on the quay, it has been open to the elements as well as to the callousness of humankind, suffering graffiti as well as gull guano. It wasn’t until it was revealed that the design and installation of Sea Music had cost the public no money at all that they began to soften towards it. Indeed, Caro waived his fee, many of the materials were donated by Bourne Steel and the workers involved in construction were often volunteers. £130,000 the sculpture was estimated to cost, and yet not a penny of it was drawn from the public purse. Like Paye, it had crossed the horizon of public imagination and brought something back; a gift. Like Paye, Sea Music is often consigned to the depths of local history, known to the people of Poole, but not far beyond, despite the interest that may be gleaned by both stories.
A little like Paye may have been considered, by some, as the defender and hero of Poole (though, doubtless, he is thought of with nothing but contempt by the French and Spanish), Sea Music now stands sentinel on the quay, drawing the eye for the length of the harbour. It was designed to be a meeting point, to draw together town, harbour and open ocean, a crossroads for the imagination. To me, it stands a little like a guardian. We do not face armies of marauding pirates any more, it is a long time since our coastal towns have been sacked and burned, but still we face challenges. We are challenged by the nature of our nation’s identity, by how we seek to create—both as individuals and as a culture—and establish a positive and meaningful place in the world. Now Paye may be a controversial figure, both loved and hated, feared and admired, but in that regard, he is no different to Sea Music. The sculpture (so far as I know) has never sacked a Spanish town, nor looted French ships, but it has drawn much criticism in its time. Despite this, its steel spine will not bend in shame, the rolling ribbons of its shape will not warp under the pressure. It remains, stubborn and steadfast, offering a view of the horizon, the working ships, the distant sea.
Perhaps now is a good time to mention that I am afraid of heights. Looking up at the top of the sculpture from this height makes me feel dizzy. I can see the sea and the harbour through the slats in the platform. The wind is stronger up here and my knees are bent against my own unsteadiness. But fear is invigorating. The unknown forces our minds to race in shapes hitherto unfamiliar to us. Whether it is right to revere Paye or not, he is a figure that sparks conversation amongst the locals. It is not unusual, in Poole, to see a pirate crossing the road, carrying a bag of chips and possibly walking a dog. This is a town—perhaps, arguably, a country—eager to have its imagination awakened, whether by pride, anger, reverence or fear. It is openness that I hope this sculpture inspires, a willingness to see beyond the basics of shape and objective fact and observe the human stories behind those things.
I don’t stay up in the Crow’s Nest long after having finished my fish and chips. Maya is grumping loudly and we are drawing a lot of looks from the crowd below. Pirates in Poole may be normal, but even they have to look twice to assure themselves that there really is a live parrot on my shoulder!
We climb down. I bin the empty box and am composing a Paye poem in my head as I return to the museum. A few metres from the entrance, I am stopped by a father holding the hand of his young child. The father smiles at me but the boy stares with a mixture of fascination and nerves.
“He wants to know,” the boy’s dad says, “if you’re a pirate, because you’ve got a parrot on your shoulder.”
I smile. As is often her way, Maya chooses that exact moment to exert the power of her Jurassic lungs and challenge the seagulls. The boy puts his free hand over his ear, but a smile tugs the corners of his mouth.
“Not a pirate,” I say, “It’s worse than that. I’m a poet.”