Neither the Sea nor the Sand by Gordon Honeycombe

Honeycombe_NTSNTSAnnie Robins, in her first venture away from an unloving mother and stroke-disabled father, travels on a whim to St Helier, Jersey, and there, despite her ‘unsociable, solitary nature’, falls deeply in love with Hugh Dabernon, seven years older but of a similarly solitary nature. They move in together, first into the house Hugh shares with his disapproving brother George, then into their own, more solitary home, above the island’s coast near the lighthouse at Corbière. Wanting, somehow, to get even further from human society, they take an unseasonal holiday in the far northwest of Scotland, and there, on a beach, Hugh drops dead. He gets up again some time later, but he’s still dead. Dumb (because breathless), blind to all but Annie (his gaze follows her even when she’s in another room), he does his limited best to obey the commands of the one and only love of his short life, though he can barely climb stairs. It’s all that Annie, in her distress, can do to get him home to Jersey, thinking there everything will be alright. When it isn’t, she calls George Dabernon, hoping he’ll know what to do with this dead-yet-not-dead brother, but she doesn’t get the response she hoped for:

‘It was the worst moment of George’s life, for it was unexpected, inexplicable, and tinged with blasphemy. Appalled at this resurrection, he gaped at the two of them…’

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Gordon Honeycombe

This is a strange book, of just the sort of strangeness I like. It’s one, I can’t help feeling, that could only have been published before the Stephen King-led horror boom of the 1970s (Neither the Sea nor the Sand first came out in 1969), after which, commercial pressures would have skewed it more to outright horror than the ambiguous weird it is. Though it does feature a walking corpse, it’s not really horror; nor is it properly a love story, though love is the driving force. Whatever it is that binds Annie and Hugh together, the novel is more about Annie’s attempt to catch up with her always-just-out-of-reach Hugh, who is older, taller, more knowledgeable, more adventurous, and more robustly solitary than she is. The book opens with her trailing behind as he clambers up a steep hill in the Scottish wilds and she can barely keep up. Later, even when it’s he (now dead) who’s following her, the feeling is that he’s gone ahead, this time into death, though there’s a lingering part of him drawn back to her, as though she, or her love for him, were a lighthouse shining into the dark realm where he’s fallen. (The image of a lighthouse haunts the book, as does the sea.) The book is full of sequences of Annie following Hugh or Hugh following Annie, with one trailing behind, trying to catch up — right to the end, when we, as readers, follow a policeman, a doctor, a boy and a dog, who are following Annie, who’s following Hugh…

When we’re not following Annie or Hugh, we’re usually in the presence of some other character or (more often) pair of characters — a farmer and his wife, a GP and a neurologist, a policeman and his son — trying to understand what’s going on. They make no headway, whether they use common sense (the farmer and his wife), religious dogma (brother George), medical knowledge (the GP and the neurologist) or logical deduction (the policeman and his son). Annie, on the other hand, accepts Hugh’s return without the need to understand it, and it’s only when she has a moment of rational clarity, and sees him for what he is — a corpse, still walking — that she reacts with horror, and falls her furthest behind. Love, for these two, has to remain a shared irrationality, a thing that exists on the border between life and death, not at all a clearly-defined or explicable thing, which is perhaps why the pair need such solitude, as then there’s no need to explain. Annie comes through — after falling into her own death-like state, as though to experience this new way of being that Hugh has discovered — and finally finds a way of catching up with the man she loves.

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Neither the Sea nor the Sand was the first novel of Gordon Honeycombe, best known as a newsreader for ITN in the 1970s, and for TV-AM in the 1980s, though a quick glance at his site’s biography reveals him to be a man of many accomplishments: an actor on stage (including with the RSC) and screen, a theatre director, adapter, writer, a TV and radio presenter. I can’t remember what brought me to this novel, but I was prompted into re-reading it when I recently found it had been filmed, in 1972. Honeycombe is credited with the screenplay (additional dialogue by Rosemary Davies). The main change is that Anna, played by Susan Hampshire, isn’t fleeing loveless parents but a collapsed marriage. This, for me, strikes the wrong note, as part of the reason the book works is that Anna is so young, vulnerable, innocent, and wilfully self-blinded to anything but the desperate fact of her one true experience of love, you can believe her unwillingness to accept Hugh’s death because she so needs it not to be true. The film’s Anna seems more down-to-earth, and the uniqueness of the bond between the two becomes that much less charged with whatever anguished power it is that draws Hugh back from the dead. Still, it’s an interesting film, part 60s in style, part 70s. Ex-Doctor Who companion Michael Craze is in it. It was retitled The Exorcism of Hugh in the US.

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The Conversation

Sometimes the quieter characters are the more interesting ones. Franics Ford Coppola’s The Conversation lets us into the tightly-controlled, paranoid world of Harry Caul (played by one of my favourite actors, Gene Hackman), a lone-wolf surveillance expert renowned for his ability to tape the untapeable. As the film starts we see him working on just such an operation, using a variety of microphones to capture a conversation between a young couple as they wander round a busy city square at lunchtime; then, back in his office (the wire-caged end of an otherwise empty floor), he gets down to what you just know is his favourite part: hidden away from the world, fine-tuning the mix of his audio sources into a single, listenable record of this mysterious, fragmented conversation. Harry Caul is a craftsman.

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He’s also a deeply vulnerable man. All the control, all the paranoia — a consequence, perhaps, of knowing how much can be listened to, recorded, gleaned — makes the vulnerability that much more plain. Caul wears a finicky but oh-so-practical transparent mac over his work clothes, which could be the symbol of the namesake birth-caul he seems to be keeping himself wrapped in, a barrier against the world. He claims to have no phone in his apartment, but we know he has, we see him using it. He regularly visits a woman (Terri Garr) who doesn’t know what he does for a living, or where he lives, but still knows more about him than Harry would like. The way he enters her apartment, for instance: “You have a certain way of opening the door. You know, first the key goes in all quiet, and then the door comes open real fast, like you think you’ll catch me at something.” Whatever secrets Harry thinks he has, the truth about his vulnerability and fear of opening up is obvious to everyone.

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As much as the first half of The Conversation is a plunge for us into Harry’s strange world, in the second half, he plunges deeper still into vulnerability and paranoia. When he goes to deliver the minutely polished tape of that lunchtime conversation, he’s told he can’t hand it over in person. So, he gives back the money and leaves with the tape. This, oddly, makes the character in my eyes — he may be strange, he may be reserved and secretive, but he has an ethic, not just to his craft, but to his word.

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The key scene where everything goes wrong comes soon after. There’s a surveillance industry conference and he and a few fellow professionals go back to Caul’s office with some drinks and a couple of good-time girls. Harry does a quick scan to make sure all the sensitive materials are hidden, locked away in a cage-within-the-cage of his already cage-like office. His fellow experts try to get him to open up about his past triumphs, to no avail. We learn that Harry once taped an impossible-to-tape conversation that got some people killed. They joke, but Harry doesn’t like it. He takes one of the women off into the empty space of his office and finally opens up to someone — only to find his colleagues listening in, playing a trick. But this is nothing compared to the trick the woman’s playing on him.

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The thing with this sort of story is first to make, then break, a character. A difficult-to-like person like Harry has first to be made in our eyes — we have to find him interesting (he’s certainly that, with his highly controlled ways) but also worth liking (and I think this is where his work ethic, and his keeping to his word despite having to turn down money, wins us over to this otherwise cold fish — that’s if his secret saxophone playing hasn’t already). But then, just when we’re starting to get comfortable in his distinctly uncomfortable world, the breaking starts. That precious, worked-over-a-hundred-times tape is taken off him, and he’s desperate to know it’s not going to be used to harm the young couple, not like last time, not again. He uses his surveillance skills to try to find out, but he’s close to breaking point. The need to know won’t help a jot if the deed’s already done. But, it turns out, Harry’s being tricked again. All that carefulness, control and paranoia only makes him that much more vulnerable. He’s not just been tricked, he’s being played.

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At the end, a single phone call — to that phone he claims he doesn’t have — is enough to tip him over the edge. They’ve bugged the world-proof enclosure of his apartment. And Harry, being the surveillance expert he is, can think of a thousand places they might have planted a bug, and a thousand types of bug they might have planted. He proceeds to tear his little sanctum apart, till he’s left with nothing, a ruin — the end result of all his attempts to control the uncontrollable. Even though, we know, from watching him, that the few secrets he has aren’t worth anyone’s while trying to discover. They’re the simple human secrets and vulnerabilities we all have, only Harry has them all the more because he pretends he doesn’t.

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