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The Pequod
Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Friday, April 11, 2008

What is it about a beached boat that attracts so much attention? Why do I learn of one man who has spent a week in penitential observance, standing from 9.00 to 3.00 in the bitter cold, before dashing to the nearby petrol station - the shop of which is now doing an incredible trade - for tea and a toilet?

The grounded Riverdance certainly stands out, a wart on the skin of a beach otherwise unblemished for several hundred yards out to sea, and for several miles up and down the coast. It is the incongruity of its 6000 tons just waiting there that fascinates. The tempting metaphor, is, of course, to describe it as a beached whale. And it is a hard image to resist: it is whale-like, with the curved hump of keel presented to the shore giving it, from this angle, a strangely organic quality. There are no radar masts or portholes to mark it as machine, just a bulk of ruddy steel, fringed by green around the Plimsoll line, speckled with tendrils of weed. Indeed, the only thing to break this animal analogy are its propellers and rudder silhouetted against the sky.

Although they are stuck fast now, it is possible to imagine the struggle of rudders, flapping from side to side like aimless fins, to hear screws slapping the air between cresting waves, as the captain battles against grounding; then the engines' roar turning to a churn, and an ominous grind of sand. In fact, it is this, too, that seems out of place: the timing is all wrong. For those who come to watch it now, it is hard to reconcile the immobile hulk of it all with the violence of the night in which it stationed itself there: gales, high seas, a mayday dashed off through static bursts, the relief of floodlights and flares, decisions taken, a boat abandoned, lifeboats and chattering helicopters. Even on a day like this, with knives in the north wind, the boat seems too stolidly resistant to have ever suffered drama, to have carried cargoes of fear rather than to have attracted merely prurient spectators.

Though it is not the ship alone which draws vistors. Prevented from getting closer to the ship than 200 metres, the exclusion zone that rings it paradoxically generates excitement. The round-the-clock presence of security guards and bemused contractors advertises it as loudly as the neon lights on Blackpool's sea front herald the fairground and the arcade. "It's official," they flouresce in their yellow jackets, "it's an event, a danger, a problem, a puzzle. Something could change at any moment. Watch and see!" Nothing will happen, of course, at least not with the drama the officaldom proclaims and the watchers expect. With its own, slow but incessant grace, all that is happening is a...tilt. Having grounded at a five degree list, the vessel has now tipped through over ninety degrees, toppled by the weight of its superstructure, now half-buried beneath the sand.

It is nice to imagine that it could be sucked completely away, a slow-motion magical trick performed by the cape of quicksand. It would then become the mirror to the shipwreck that lies a few yards from it, the Abana, sunk in 1894 in a similar winter storm. Just a few ribs of black wood - charred black by salt water rather than fire - poke the sand at low tide. But whereas the Abana can be left peacefully to rot, the Riverdance cannot be allowed to just vanish. In a fluke of global positioning, it is settling over a major sewage pipe, so as of writing the current plan is to break it up in situ, before this curiosity becomes an environmental catastrophe.

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Posted by Alistair at 2:28 pm


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