cover ghosts on shore

Review – Ghosts on the Shore, Paul Scraton

Note: Not so much a review, as a personal response to Paul Scraton’s thought provoking writing to the places and history he experiences along the Baltic coast. Paul has written an important book about the history of a coast line which feels symbolic of human history and the human condition. Reminding us of the importance of opening ourselves to our experiences, when we are travelling or when we are at home, to not allow history to drift, but to be responsible and not only for ourselves, but also our collective history, for all of us.

What strikes me about Ghosts on the Shore by Paul Scraton is his personal reaction to the social and politic history of the Baltic coast. Through this writing he asks us all to see what is no longer there, including those events that are conveniently forgotten, because the stain of them on our collective memory is too much to bear; so we switch our sight, we rebuild, we don’t return. Yet this comes at a cost, a man sitting in a bar with one too many beers and chasers, night after night. Lost.

Lost is something Paul appears not to have become on his travels, but loss is there in the scenes he shares. There are the ghosts of old Hanseatic towns, holiday camps and apartments; concrete slabs once home. These ghosts we treat as a trick of the light, yet they continue to haunt, as we as society are unable to own and explore, they instead flicker in and out. When will we learn that we can’t always be too late to learn the lessons of the past? When will we have the courage to look?

This not seeing is not confined to the Baltic coast and Germany’s own traumatic history; it applies to us all, “We need to ask ourselves how it happened”. It feels this is the question Paul is trying to answer with Ghosts on the Shore, and a large clue is given in ‘the 80%’ to why we don’t ask it. Most of us remain physically unaffected by societal changes, mentally and emotionally we may become attached through debate, protests, but physically our needs are met. In some way we also belong, often in our constructed bubbles, constructed by us, constructed by the state. The issue appears that on the whole we don’t appear to go on to self actualize as Maslow suggests we might in his hierarchy of needs, something appears to go askew in the love and esteem stages. Thus, this belonging how meaningful is it? As we allow things to slip; home becomes sad as Neo-Nazi posters are not torn down and/or defaced. We become implicit, unaffected by the ghosts, we allow them to fade out across the sea with no tides, to lie with the bones of civilians. Bones we dare not ask about, for was this not their war? But we know not their place in that war, their stories. To understand this puzzle of why we avoid the ghosts we have to ask each ghost its name, who are they and why?

Why? Paul keeps hunting this three letter word as he travels, reaching Prora and an answer of responsibility. Here responsibility can be side lined if you can afford a luxury apartment in a converted Nazi holiday park. Money the great anesthetiser. But we are all responsible and my question is when will we wake up and take hold of this responsibility? Like Gunter Grass none of us are innocent, we have to accept the choices we make and our lives for what they are, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot shift, we cannot act and ensure no more ghosts litter the shore.

Innocence is not black and white, the same with guilt, and what is it we allow to happen by not meeting with the ghosts? For me, often the strange decisions people appear to make is due to not wanting to take responsibility, instead wanting a quick fix, someone to blame, because they do not have the courage to meet the struggle. They want black and white, when the world is grey. Gunter Grass was perhaps asking himself most of all when he asked “We need to ask ourselves how it happened”. The Baltic coast, from Paul’s writings, strikes me as a place of greys. It is not cricket on the beach with ice-creams, but long winter walks hugging yourself against a bitter wind. And it is the wind we must listen to, for it is the whispering of ghosts. Can we accept and embrace the wind rather than battle against it, wishing it was not there. That is the struggle.