Teaching Dolphins to Swim:
Negative Ambitions &
by Charles Davis
Why write? I don’t mean what characteristics define a writing spirit, I had a bash at that in an earlier blog, but what is the underlying motive, what do you as an individual want to do with your writing? It’s a worthwhile question, though possibly one best asked in retrospect. When you start writing there’s such an overwhelming desire to do everything all at once that, if you thought about it too long, you would probably end up doing nothing at all. For the rest of it, the deep motive, the thing that will keep you at it for years on end, will generally declare itself as time goes on.
When I started writing in my twenties, I had two ambitions. One, was to write the ultimate book, the greatest Great Novel, the book that would in sort be The Book for everyone, a definitive book that could be enjoyed as much by a fifteen year old girl as a fifty year old man, by somebody who was barely literate and by an overeducated academic, in short read with equal measures of pleasure but varying depths of understanding by people of any polarity you care to name. The other, marginally more modest ambition, but only marginally, was to write a book that could make a reader weep with pathos then weep with laughter . . . on the same page!
The absurdity of these ambitions when set against my abilities is so extravagantly ludicrous that it’s not even funny, and they were in any case such thoroughly noisome aspirations that, if I had any shame, which apparently I don’t, I would keep quiet about them. The first, after all, was effectively a desire (this from a professed lover of reading) to write a book that would end all books, terminating the dialogue between past, present and future that is the proper field of the written word, and which no other medium can rival. How sick is that? The second was scarcely less brazen, being a symptom of rampant anal retention, a craving to control and manipulate the emotions of others. I’m not too fussed by all that, though. It’s embarrassing, but nothing more. There was never any risk of either goal being realized and it’s always as well to aim well above the realistic scope of your abilities in the hope that you will stretch them just that little bit further. But the underlying motive as opposed to these expressed aims, that was something else.
Some years ago I was with a group of French friends, strolling along a broad sandy beach on the Black Sea in Turkey when we came across a young dolphin that had been washed ashore. It was in a hell of a state, its body covered with hundreds of tiny cuts where it had been slashed by the razor sharp rocks that lay a little way out to sea, but it was still alive, so we took off our shoes and socks, rolled up our trouser legs and lugged this thing back into the water. It was mid-winter and bloody nippy and the dolphin didn’t seem to think much of our efforts because he promptly beached himself again. Looking back on it now, it occurs to me that a tot of rum may have been more beneficial than immersion in icy waters, but we were young and misguided, and wanted to do good as only the young and misguided can. So we rolled him back into the sea and he rolled right out again, and we rolled him back and . . . well, you get the picture.
Time was getting on, we had a rendez-vous with other friends in the next town, so I told the rest of the group to go ahead while I stayed behind to see what I could do about the dolphin. I didn’t say anything, but I was determined to save him whether the little sod wanted saving or not. I simply would not let him die. Thinking the offshore rocks were the problem, I decided the best thing to do would be to get him round to the next beach where there were no rocks, so I went back to the house to fetch a sheet with a view to slinging him over my shoulder and carrying him across the headland.
I don’t suppose you’ve ever carried a dolphin, but they’re dense little blighters, and even a young one was way too heavy for me. I got him into the sheet all right, I even managed to heave him over my shoulder, but I’d only staggered about ten paces before I realized I wasn’t going to get to the end of the beach, let alone over the headland. So I stripped down to my underwear, shoved him back in the sea, and waded out with him for a while, hoping he would get the idea of heading north rather than south.
I stayed in the water with him for several minutes, making vaguely encouraging breaststroke gestures (as if I could teach a dolphin anything about swimming!), but it really was very cold, so eventually I patted him on the back and left him to it. Retreating to the beach, I hung about a bit, wringing my hands and generally being ineffectual, but time was passing and I had to get moving to catch up with my friends. It wasn’t a happy departure. The dolphin wasn’t exactly powering his way out to sea. In fact, he was still wafting about a few metres from the shore, probably thinking there was no point beaching himself again while this lunatic was loitering about up there waiting to pitch him back into the water. At least he was in the water, though. He was halfway to doing what dolphins are meant to do. Swim! Swim! Go on, you fool, swim!
I hurried back to the nearest road and hitched a lift with a Turkish peasant who couldn’t keep his eyes off me. At first, I thought he was impressed by my Turkish, then I realized that my clothes were soaking wet and stained all over with long streaks of dolphin’s blood. The gory sheet hanging over my shoulder probably didn’t help, either. I looked like I had just murdered someone in a particularly brutal struggle, possibly somebody with whom I had been sharing a bed. To be fair to the man, he was pretty cool about it all. He did stare, but he didn’t seem unduly alarmed. Perhaps it’s a commonplace of life on the Black Sea coast, bloodstained strangers reeling out of the scrub babbling incoherently about dolphins. Still, I’d love to know what story he told his chums that evening. Probably wasn’t quite as wild as the story I told my friends in very broken French. By the end of it, there was at least one girl who thought I had gone hitchhiking with the dolphin. Wish I had. Little sod might still be alive.
I returned to the beach that night. It was already dark, we were about to leave for Istanbul, but I managed to find my suicidal chum. Somebody who knew better than me about ‘saving’ dolphins when their echolocation is all shot to pieces had been to the beach in the meantime. They’d bashed his brains in and left his carcass to rot.
I suspect that encounter with the dolphin is pretty much what I’ve been doing all my life with writing, doubtless with a similar degree of success. For years, I have worn a mask of cynicism so impenetrable that, on occasion, even close friends have applied to me during moments of overwrought sentimentality (such as the hysterical mourning of Lady Di), for a dose of derisive realism, but despite that, I am and always have been, and sadly probably always will be, painfully idealistic. And that is the one common thread running through almost everything I have ever written, the motive quest that has kept me writing for twenty-five years, idealism and what to do with the bloody stuff in a world not manifestly governed by ideals, or, at least, not the sort of ideals I would care to subscribe to.
How, in short, do you save the world when it’s bleeding and broken and lost and you’re not strong enough to carry it to safety and it just keeps throwing itself on the beach to gasp its last no matter how many wise exhortations you whisper into its blow hole? That, of course, and the questions that inevitably come afterwards when you take a moment to think about what you are doing: Who the hell are you to ‘save’ the world? Does it demand, need, or otherwise deserve ‘saving’? And weren’t idealism and the desire to save the world from itself the pretexts, if not the motives, for the majority of the most spectacularly destructive movements in history, ranging from the crusades to the colonies, from National Socialism to Stalinism, the brave new alchemy of nuclear fission to the Twin Towers? You only have to look at the history of the United States, a nation firmly persuaded that it was founded on idealism, to deduce that. In 1800 , there were fourteen and a half million Indians; in 1900 . . . 250,000. As Jim Harrison has pointed out, little wonder the Arabs are a bit wary. It maybe idealism gone horribly wrong, but it makes you wonder.
I hasten to add that I offer all this not as a declaration of how uncommonly sensitive I am in order that you may admire the grandeur of my suffering soul. I’ll keep that in reserve in case I become a celebrity. Highly unlikely, but you never know when you’re going to need these things. It would be a lie, anyway. I don’t really do grandeur and suffering souls. Like most people, I muddle through a life of modest selfishness, taking pleasure of the good things that come my way and doing my best to ignore the rest. I'm certainly not patrolling the local beaches hoping to drum up the odd dolphin in need of saving. But the business of idealism, it won’t go away. It lingers, like a bad smell that sooner or later somebody is going to have to admit to perpetrating.
Where all this will take me in the future, I wouldn’t know. Perhaps I’ll write myself into some accommodation between idealism and realism. Perhaps I’ll become a vicious opponent of anyone who wants to save the world. Perhaps I’ll give up in despair and stop harassing publishers with my nagging chimera.
Whatever happens though, I doubt it will do the dolphin much good.
Pity. I was fond of Flipper.
Me too. And thank you for a fascinating story and blogpost.
To find out more:
To find out more:
Visit Charles' Davis' Amazon page: http://www.amazon.com/Charles-Davis/e/B001JS2IE8/
Read Standing at the Crossroads: http://www.amazon.com/Standing-at-Crossroads-Charles-Davis/dp/1579622135/
or Pilgrim of Love: http://www.amazon.com/Pilgrim-Love-Charles-Davis/dp/1507775008/
and meet the author on his website at: http://charlesdavis2.wix.com/charlesdavis