Shells by Chris Arthur

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Mitra episcopalis shells

Two photographs of my Uncle Tony are the obvious place to begin. One shows him in an open grave with another man. In the second, he’s being embraced by a vampire.

Even by themselves, unaccompanied by any pictures, these words conjure striking images. They do what a beginning is supposed to do: catch the reader’s attention. The fact that the other man in the grave is Peter Cushing, and the vampire a youthful Christopher Lee, adds the spice of celebrity to the bait of the unusual.

I’ll come back to Tony and the photographs later. Although it’s tempting to focus at the outset on what – with no effort on my part – piques the curiosity, I want to begin with something less dramatic. It’s not immediately intriguing in the way of vampires, open graves, and well-known faces; it makes more demands on a reader’s patience – but it unfolds into something that I find more interesting than any hijinks with famous actors.


* * *


One of the best presents I received as a child was a box of seashells, collected by my Auntie Daisy – Tony’s wife – when she was stationed in Egypt during World War II. Daisy was the only one of my father’s siblings to have left the close, confining clutches of life in Northern Ireland, where invisible walls of religious apartheid ran through every social structure. Dad’s other sister and two brothers lived close enough to our family home near Belfast to make them accustomed figures of childhood. By contrast, Daisy always remained something of a stranger. For all the time I knew her, she lived in London.

She was the most adventurous member of her family. Intelligent, attractive, independent, with a wry sense of humor and a readiness to speak her mind, it surprised no one when she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) – the women’s branch of the British Army – at the outbreak of war in 1939. Quickly promoted to the equivalent rank to Captain, she was posted to the Middle East. There she met Tony, who was in the Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU).


* * *


When I say there are 200 shells in Daisy’s collection, it’s likely this will give the wrong impression – unless I quickly add that most of them are so tiny they fit in a cigarette tin of a type that was common in her day. It would, I suppose, have held 20 cigarettes. There’s a gold coat of arms on the tin’s red lid and underneath it the legend: “By Appointment Tobacconist to His Majesty the King.” Further down is written: “Benson and Hedges Super Virginia Cigarettes.” The King was George VI, Britain’s wartime monarch. Perhaps being in a cigarette tin added the allure of something adult and forbidden to the intrinsic appeal the shells already possessed. I imagined it sitting snug in the pocket of Daisy’s smart ATS uniform and being brought out with a practiced flourish as she took a cigarette, offered one to friends.

Most of the shells are univalves, exotic variants of the periwinkles and whelks I was familiar with from British seashores. The toughness of the shells and their natural glaze – together with the fact that they’ve been protected by their tin sarcophagus – means they’re still in mint condition. Even after all this time, they have the look of something newly gathered. There are a few bivalves too – similar in shape to our native cockles, but with a delicacy of line and hue that immediately marks them out as alien. The vast majority of the shells are snail-shaped; a selection of miniature gastropods, most of them smaller than a pea.

I was given the shells when I was eight. They immediately became a prized possession. I loved their repeated perfection of form and color across a set of varied themes. They were as appealing as little gemstones. But the jewel in the crown of Daisy’s collection – as different from its fellows as Daisy was from her siblings – was a Mitra episcopalis shell that was too large to fit in the tin.

The shell is about the length of my little finger, but nearly thumb-width at its thickest, before the spiral tapers to a point. It’s covered in bright orange dots and splotches on a white background, the markings arranged in lines that are angled around, and help to accentuate, the spiral shape. It’s as if a careful child had turned it slowly, daubing it with a paint-dipped fingertip. Then, wanting a more delicate effect, used a fine brush to echo the finger marks with a series of dots between them. At the shell’s aperture, the opening where the visible part of the creature’s soft body would have appeared, there are four ridged lines. These look like the tracks of some tiny railway, vanishing into the secret interiority of a once living tunnel.

The name Mitra episcopalis – bishop’s miter – was bestowed for two reasons. First, the conical shell is reminiscent of the shape of a miter, the high hat worn by bishops and archbishops. Secondly, if these snails are threatened they exude a noxious liquid. This defensive emission is purple, the color traditionally associated with high ecclesiastical office.

Daisy’s Egyptian shells are undoubtedly beautiful. But beauty alone doesn’t account for their appeal. I think part of their spell lies in the way they have about them a sense of life frozen and preserved. Of course this is an illusion. The creatures that inhabited them don’t partake of the seeming deathlessness of the shells. The shells are merely inert residue, an empty remnant, the rime left behind after the life that created them has gone. Yet, despite this, there’s a sense in which they appear to stall the flow of time, let it pool for a while in the little receptacles they offer so that it seems to slow and still.


* * *


Until I started to write about them, I’d not thought of Daisy’s Egyptian shells for years. What are regarded as treasures in childhood soon enough lose their luster. What gives them their magic fades over time. The shells never lost their appeal completely – I never wanted to throw them away – but for a long while they sat forgotten in a drawer. What made me think about them again was an unexpected visual prompt.

The prompt came when I was visiting the Bell-Pettigrew Museum last summer. The Museum is a Victorian natural history collection beautifully preserved and displayed at the University of St Andrews. As I was looking at a case featuring various gastropods, one of the shells made me start with the shock of recognition. It was a double of the orange splotched and dotted one that had pride of place in Daisy’s collection. But now I had a name for it, courtesy of the Bell-Pettigrew’s captioning: Mitra episcopalis. As soon as I got home from the museum, I looked out my Egyptian shells again.


* * *


Coincidentally, at around this time I was reading The Museum of Innocence, by Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. The novel chronicles how Kemal Basmaci turns collector and curator of a vast number of ordinary objects that are invested with special significance because of their association with his inamorata, the beautiful but doomed Füsun. Some of the words Pamuk puts in the mouth of his increasingly obsessive protagonist resonated with how I felt when I handled Daisy’s Egyptian shells again. Kemal recognizes that “the power of things inheres in the memories they gather up inside them.” As he amasses the collection that forms his museum, he becomes “like a shaman who can see the souls of things” and “feel their stories flickering” so that even something as trivial as a cigarette end can yield rich harvests.

The memories gathered up in Daisy’s Egyptian shells certainly invest their little cones and spirals with a kind of power, and trying to tap into its voltage feels not unlike some sort of shamanistic ritual. But whereas Kemal was interested in events in which he’d played a key role – and could therefore curate the objects he hoarded with the authority of direct involvement – I feel increasingly that the flickering stories held in the shells lead me into a tangle of other people’s lives about which I know next to nothing. Behind the familiarity of a treasured gift given unexpectedly by my father’s younger sister there’s a kind of misty labyrinth into which the thread of every storyline soon disappears.

Even at the level set by the modest demands of telling in outline the story of Daisy’s Egyptian shells, there’s a great deal I can only guess at. The shells summon familiar images sure enough, but they arrive eviscerated. Look just below their surface and unanswered questions start to ring through them, emphasizing their hollowness. I don’t know what Daisy’s military duties were, or why they took her to Egypt. I’m not sure where – or why, or when – she collected the shells. I’ve no idea what they meant to her. After the War, in London, if she took the Mitra episcopalis, let it sit on her palm until it warmed to the same temperature as her blood, what memories and associations started to unfurl? And what made her decide to give the shells to me?


* * *


There are a dozen or so wartime photographs of Daisy in one of my father’s albums. Sometimes she’s pictured alone, but usually in a group – soldiers, airmen, ATS, all in uniform. Often, the backdrop is the Nile, the Sphinx, or the pyramids. But there are two of her taken sitting indoors, in what’s probably an officers’ club. She looks pensive and beautiful, lost in her own world; oblivious to the presence of a camera. Tony features in several of the photos. In one he’s flanked by Daisy and another smiling ATS officer. In another he’s grinning broadly with Daisy in his arms, as if he’s about to carry her across a threshold. Were the shells in Daisy’s pocket in some of these photographs? Or were they stored among her things in a bedside locker in whatever quarters she was given? What did she dream of as she lay so far from home, with the noise of artillery rupturing the quiet of the desert night? Did she and Tony lie together, or was their union only consummated when they returned to Britain and got married? I wonder, too, how life unfolded for the other young ATS women in the photographs. Did they all survive? Or are some of their names among the ones inscribed on headstones in the military cemeteries in Alexandria, Suez, Heliopolis, and other sites in Egypt where those killed in combat were interred?

Thinking of the ATS women who lost their lives, I picture Mitra episcopalis moving in the warm Egyptian waters while above them battles rage and people die. As W.H. Auden puts it, suffering happens “While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Every day, whether in peacetime or war, people are injured and die, gather seashells, lay down memories that will stay with them for years – as others are walking dully by, oblivious to what’s happening to others. The vast remainder of the world, what’s apart from us, all the mass of things that crowd around us, continues without regard for the way our story happens to unfold.


* * *


When we were children we were told that we would “hear the sea” if we held our ears close against the opening of large conch shells. And, sure enough, whenever we tried this, placing their inviting pink-smooth apertures against our ears, we could hear a kind of faint pelagic echoing. The more I think about the Egyptian shells, the more it seems that, for all their littleness, they each contain a tidal roar. The combined volume is overwhelming and defies my attempts at transcription.

At the simplest level, the shells are tangible remnants – mementos, souvenirs – from a time of war. They’re things at once caught up in, and completely independent of, the conflict that dominated human history from 1939-1945. To hold one is to feel memory and imagination stir, populating the mind with a ream of possible stories woven from the few loose threads that have trailed into my life from the life of my Aunt. The shells possess the potency of objects that have been there, occupying places talked about, but never visited, where many of that generation went to fight. They are like marker buoys that have drifted from their quadrant of time’s ocean into mine, carrying with them the authenticity of presence.

The life history of Mitra episcopalis may seem easy enough to tell. The orange splotched snails are a predatory species that feed nocturnally, mostly on worms. It begins as an egg that hatches into a free-swimming larval stage. These phases of its life cycle, the shell’s growth, its markings, the favored habitats, the physiology and anatomy of the adult, the biochemistry that fires its metabolism, all submit with little difficulty to a setting down of facts. But the shell that I can so easily take in my hand and provide a rubric of information about, soon points to what came before it – by which I don’t just mean the parental duo responsible for its birth. It’s rather as if the tiny tracks laid down in the aperture not only lead into the spiral tunnel of this one single shell and the intimacies of its life-processes, but into the vortex of the species’ evolution; the creation of the whole bloodline of Mitra episcopalis. I feel myself pulled back through the eons, as if the shells opened a kind of trapdoor that leads back to their absolute beginning.

As well as making me think about their ancient origins and their journey through time to the moment Daisy found them, writing about the Egyptian shells has made me realize how little I know about Daisy and Tony. Their names are well-worn tokens from childhood, but such nominal familiarity is, itself, just a shell; beneath it lies much unknown territory. We only saw them infrequently. When we did, Tony in particular seemed to keep his distance – though perhaps it was us that did so, wary of what we read as his strangeness; his outsider’s aura. The fact that he was a divorcee, worked in the film industry, visited foreign countries, mixed with celebrities, and was English, caused a mixture of disapproval, interest, and envy in the local society of the time with its strait-laced and often small-minded Ulster outlook. My impression is of a vigorous, impatient man with dramatically swept back red hair. I suspect he found his visits as trying as we did.


* * *


Uncle Tony was Anthony Nelson Keys. As children we were told he worked as a film producer. Reach for the Sky – a biopic of fighter pilot, double amputee, and war hero Douglas Bader, starring Kenneth More as Bader – was pointed to as an example of Tony’s work. The film received a BAFTA award for Best British Film of 1956. It was filled with the kind of patriotism and bravery that our parents approved of. Fighting courageously against the odds, enduring adversity stoically, never giving up – these were seen as wholesome values to which children should be exposed. We were taken to see the film several times and made to sit till Tony’s name appeared on the closing credits. The cinema was regarded with suspicion in the austere thought-world of Ulster Presbyterianism, but Reach for the Sky was considered an exception to the rule that films promulgated sin.

What I’ve only recently come to realize is that Reach for the Sky wasn’t representative of Tony’s oeuvre. In fact he was a prominent figure in Hammer House of Horror productions, the company that dominated films of this genre from the 1950s to the 1970s. Tony produced a whole ream of horror films – Curse of Frankenstein, Quatermass 2, The Horror of Dracula, The Devil Rides Out. In 1948 he was production manager for two films directed by David MacDonald. Major David MacDonald had commanded the Army Film and Photographic Unit’s Number 1 Unit, stationed in North Africa. This thirty-two man team, one of whom was Tony, covered the Allies’ campaign against Rommel’s Afrikakorps. It was their close-up footage of tank battles, bayonet charges, and artillery barrages that was used – together with captured German newsreel – to make the acclaimed documentary film Desert Victory, released in 1943. Of the thirty-two men in AFPU’s Unit 1, four were killed, seven wounded, and six were captured. Against such odds, Tony was lucky to have escaped unscathed – though who knows what impact his experience of filming war up close may have had. Perhaps working with made-up horrors provided solace for the real ones that continued to haunt him.

At the time when I was given the Egyptian shells, Tony was producing films like The Pirates on Blood River, The Damned, The Gorgon, and The Brigand of Kandahar – and having photographs of himself taken with some of the stars. Looking at him staring towards the camera from the open grave, a fat cigar in his hand, Peter Cushing beside him, or fooling around and striking a victim’s pose, enveloped by Dracula’s black cloak, with Christopher Lee smiling to reveal his fangs, I wonder what he thought about his wife’s gifting of the Egyptian shells to her Irish nephew and what memories those shells held for him. I have a sense of someone’s life known only fractionally and I’m saddened by this – not just by the fact that my knowledge of Daisy and Tony was built on such flimsy foundations, but by the wider realization that this brings. So many of the people I remember from childhood are likewise, once examined, little more than shadows; there’s nothing of substance beneath the shell of name and appearance.


* * *


Our family holiday to London in 1965 – my first visit to Britain’s capital – left a cluster of deeply etched images. One of them is my memory of visiting Daisy and Tony and watching what they called a “ciné film” featuring their most recent trip to Africa.

They’d been staying at the famous Treetops Hotel in Kenya. After modest beginnings – it started as little more than a two-room tree-house built in a massive fig tree – Treetops soon became a fully-fledged hotel, attracting an international celebrity clientele. It was designed to afford guests the opportunity of watching wildlife in comfort and safety. Treetops came into the public eye because of a royal association. It was while staying there, as a guest of the owners, that the then Princess Elizabeth received news of the death of her father, George VI, the King whose coat of arms adorned Daisy’s cigarette tin.

In an age of sophisticated digital photography, it’s common to see high quality footage in a private context. But our visit to Daisy and Tony was at a time long predating such technology. In 1965, watching a moving film at someone’s home was rare. Given his professional expertise, it’s not surprising that Tony’s holiday film was so good. The animals were impressive, yes, as was the unique structure that is Treetops, but what struck me most about the film wasn’t the elephants and giraffes, it wasn’t the pride of lions or the alert looking cheetah, instead it was the way the waiters at the hotel cleared the tables. I was amazed at how they pulled the white tablecloths off the set tables. With a deft tug they whisked the cloths away, leaving all the cutlery and plates and glasses still arranged on the tables, exactly as they’d been before. I’d heard the expression “having the rug pulled out from under your feet.” Here was something similar but more exciting – removing the ground on which a whole array of things was standing, without knocking any of them over.

I can still picture that clip of film, hear the whir of the projector as it turned the reels, and Daisy’s raised voice telling us to watch out for what the waiters were about to do. What I can’t understand now is why it was done. Surely it would have been just as easy to clear a table first and then take the tablecloths away. And if the tables were already set, why would you then want to remove the tablecloths? But such questions didn’t occur to me at the time. I was simply captivated by the waiters’ legerdemain, their expertly confident whipping of the cloths away without disturbing any of the things that had been standing on them. It seemed like a kind of magic.

This image of whisking a cloth away, but leaving all the things that were standing on it undisturbed, has come back as a powerful memory from that time. I think again of Orhan Pamuk’s comment: “The power of things inheres in the memories they gather up inside them.” It’s as if those Treetops’ tablecloths were folded into tight bundles and stored inside Daisy’s Egyptian shells. But it’s not just as a memory of vanished times that they’ve come back. They also offer an image that says something about the nature of remembering. I have a sense of leaving the intricately set tables of Daisy’s and Tony’s lives untouched, undisturbed – essentially undiscovered. All I have in my hand is a kind of white cloth underlay that remembrance, for whatever reason, has pulled away. It’s marked here and there with a ghostly tracery of imprints – from where the few things that made an impression on me left their mark. But in the main the cloth is white, unblemished – signaling that almost everything about them has been lost.


* * *


In Sand: A Journey Through Science and the Imagination (2009), Michael Welland explains how, in many places in the world, beaches are made from broken pieces of shell, coral and other hard parts of marine creatures. Such sand is termed “biogenic.” It seems likely that some of the sand on the beaches Daisy walked on in Egypt will have contained millions of tiny particulate remnants from ancient human and animal bones, from shells hatched at the time of the pyramids and slowly ground down over the centuries. Perhaps the dust of pharaohs too was present in the sand beneath her tread. Whatever its provenance, each grain is pregnant with a story.

When I looked at them closely, I noticed that several of Daisy’s Egyptian shells have their apertures filled – with fragments of sand, quartz-like pebbles, and other even littler shells. Using a magnifying glass to look at these smaller shells, like Russian dolls within their larger hosts, it’s just possible to make out that their apertures too are clogged with particles.

And it strikes me that each of these particles represents the trajectory of a story through time. If we choose one and follow its course, it might take us to two men standing in an open grave; follow another and it would lead to a young woman taking a cigarette from a tin, the sounds of war raging around her; another has incised on it the moment when a snail with a striking orange shell emerged from the sand and started its slow nighttime hunt. One grain has followed a course that would take in Kenya and Treetops Hotel, another Northern Ireland; another the Bell-Pettigrew Museum; another a young boy’s delight at an unexpected present; and another’s course would twist and turn over miles and years and lead to the words of this essay and the eyes that are currently reading this sentence. Every grain, even the tiniest, is charged with the electricity of history. If we could really become “like a shaman who can see the souls of things” and “feel their stories flickering,” that flicker would quickly change to flame and furnace as story links to story in a conflagration that’s beyond the grasp of any narrative.

Chris-ArthurChris Arthur’s five essay collections are: Irish Nocturnes, Irish Willow, Irish Haiku, Irish Elegies, and On the Shoreline of Knowledge. Words of the Grey Wind, a new and selected essays volume, appeared in 2009. His work has been included in The Best American Essays and frequently mentioned in the ‘Notable Essays’ lists of this annual series. His time is currently split between being a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of Dundee, Scotland, and working on a new collection. For further information about his writing see



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