by Peter Hill
336 pages, Canongate
Review by Pat Black
Scotland has a long, treacherous coastline. It looks fantastic on that gumby watercolour your granny might keep above her mantelpiece, but in real life, the lights have to be kept burning. You could make an island with the bones of sailors drowned in those waters.
Being a lighthouse keeper seemed like a romantic job to me as a kid. We think of the sea, of course – calm and gentle as your mother one minute, an unstoppable, raging fury the next. Then there’s the fog, the solitude, old CB radios, and of course, the sweeping light. It helps that Ray Bradbury’s “The Fog Horn” is one of my favourite pieces of writing.
The job has long been outmoded by technology – everything’s automated, and has been for decades. This phenomenon of redundancy is something many of us will have to get used to in the coming years if progress continues at its current pace, unless a nice nuclear war sets the clock back a few millennia. Whatever humanity survives might have to go back to burning beacons to show wooden ships the way to safety. Assuming they’d harbour good intentions towards strange vessels.
Stargazing, Peter Hill’s memoirs of his days spent as a keeper on several lights on Scotland’s west coast, is a step back in time. It looks at 1973, when Hill halted his art school studies in Dundee in order to take a job on the lights. He’s just 19 years old, his head full of Jimi Hendrix, Kerouac, the Watergate hearings and Vietnam. Peter wants to write haikus, paint pictures and write novels in his downtime on the lights, and he does. But he also gets to know the crazy characters he has to share the living quarters with. This is the lifeblood of the book. It’s good to consider a starry night, with the moon drizzling silver over indigo waters; but it’s better to have someone to talk to about it - or Coronation Street, whichever you prefer.
You’d think there’s not much to describe once you get past the rugged coasts, the seas and the lights, but… imagine the stars. Imagine basking sharks the size of lorries knifing their way across the water. Imagine thousands of seabirds nesting overnight on the rock, using the lighthouse as a sort of avian Travelodge to break up their journeys across the continents. Imagine the things people might say to each other in the dead of night, their psyches on the fringes of sleeping and dreaming. It’s magical stuff.
“At least you’ve got your art,” one late-night companion tells Peter. “You’re lucky. It’ll sustain you for life.”
In truth this book only takes up a few months out of Hill’s life – a matter of weeks, really - but you can imagine the impression it made on the young man. I was a postie for one summer when I was a similar age, over a similar period of time, and I was a turn of a card away from doing it full-time. My destiny took a different course, but I think I learned more about life, the universe and everything that summer than I have in nearly two decades since, sat on my arse in offices, getting fat, cynical and bitter.
Hill’s fellow keepers are incandescent characters. We meet Finlay, the highlander and gourmand, who teaches Peter how to cook as well how to look after the light; then there’s the tough guy who used to work on the boats, whose taciturnity becomes comical rather than threatening; the Doctor Who enthusiast, who could answer any question on the show in between blasts of the fog horn; the colonel Blinky type, who used to be a sailor during the war but now does all his fighting with Scrabble; the traumatised wartime secret agent who had Done Stuff; the polymath professor, who you suspect could have done anything but ended up working on the lights; and many more.
It’s not an essential, but having an idea of the locations described helped anchor some scenes in my mind. I know Arran and Ailsa Craig - the latter being familiar to golf fans from any time the Open is held at Troon, as it is during Hill’s time spent on the light; Peter Alliss even gives the keepers a mention live on the telly. Corsewall in the Borders is mentioned in passing; it’s a hotel and restaurant complex now. I’ve stayed there, on one of my best ever birthdays. These are all dramatic, gorgeous settings which Hill sketches beautifully.
As for the lights I don’t know about – what about those titles? Pladda! Muckle Flugga! Everything about these places is a pleasure. Saying their names out loud; looking them up on the maps; and, surely, going there.
There’s even some action and adventure, as a fishing trip to intercept a juicy shoal of herring turns into a potentially fatal incident as Peter and a workmate are almost swamped by a rogue wave.
You might ask: How do lighthouse keepers deal with having no sex for weeks on end? The same way anyone else does, is Hill’s reply. There’s a big, obvious, vertical, shiny bright metaphor we could use here, but Hill ignores it, and so shall I. I’m reminded of an interpretation I once heard of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse from years ago, but I shan’t go into it; I promised myself I’d get through this one without any smutty jokes.
Most of all, this book is a tribute to youth. The hope, the potential, the energy, the ambition, the chutzpah. Some parts transported me back in time to my own younger days – an encyclopaedia full of mistakes, stupidity and fool’s errands, to be sure, but wonderful and unforgettable and romantic in their own way. There’s one part where Hill uses shore leave to go hostelling in Amsterdam with a female friend, who he might be in love with. She knows this, of course, and tells him in that beautifully nonsensical way that she can’t sleep with a friend, as it’d spoil the friendship. Some people must think this tactic amounts to “letting you down gently”. This stirred memories and feelings from my own youth I’d almost forgotten. It was a lightning bolt, a sudden rekindling of how you felt when you were that age, doing the same things.
Stargazing reminded me of the good stuff; the parts a man of 39 thinks he might have left behind with the lad of 19. But I’d recommend this book to anyone, of any age, from any background.
It’s a reminder to keep your light burning; you never know who’ll need it out there in the dark.