Mike MJ Harris

Riding The Waves To The Lighthouse


In the distance the lighthouse flashes out a message in the grey dawn light. Waves lap steadily on the beach. On the sand a group of us huddle round the light of a torch, words from a book are read out - "The sun has not risen yet. The sea is indistinguishable from the sky.." Ninety years after those words were first published we look up to see if we can make out the horizon.

"...as if the arm of a woman...had raised a lamp" Sunrise from St Ives

The beach is in St Ives and I'm here with the London Literary Salon for my second trip to study and discuss Virginia Woolf. The author was based here in the summers of the early part of her life and the sea and local imagery wash through her writing. The location means we can bask in the themes of the books. Back in 2018 we took a boat To the Lighthouse. In 2022 our meeting takes place in a beautiful artists studio overlooking The Waves break on the beach. Inside our conversation rises and falls, crashing over ideas, spraying thoughts and conversation among us.

The London Literary Salon

In 2018 I met Toby Brothers - founder of the salon - on a swimming holiday. The Salon runs studies of a range of books - weekly sessions spanning weeks and months. This felt too much commitment but I loved the idea of a trip away to focus on a book so joined a special travel study.

View of the waves from the artists studio where most of our discussions took place.

A burst of early pandemic energy saw me sign up to one of the first remote salon's to study Ulysses but the tidal waves of zoom meetings meant that intention soon got stranded. The 2018 trip had been so good that this year I jumped on the opportunity to join again.

Both trips have consisted of a group of around twelve, overwhelmingly female and generally older than me. Most are regular salon attendees and some had already studied The Waves before. Everyone brought a different perspective, experience and knowledge. This trip Toby shared facilitation with Sarah - we had the freedom and flexibility to explore knowing that a few nudges in the form of questions and thoughts would help guide the flow of conversation along smoothly to the end of the book.

I love being in a group, especially over a couple of days to see how people's energy ebbs and flows, how the group dynamic shifts and changes, energy levels rise and falls. It's a unique experience having the space to chew over ideas and disappear down interesting avenues without a set agenda or goal. Much of my life is taking a leading roll in meetings - this was a chance for me to be able to relax into the flow, listen to the swell of ideas rolling around, the experiences and perspectives of the group adding direction to the flow of thoughts. drops of my ideas added to the stream along the way.

Porthmeor beach and waves - our artist studio for the study on the left

Beyond the books

While the study was the main focus of our few days there was plenty of time for other opportunities organised by Toby and Sarah. I signed up to all the extras - from sunrise swims, a trip to the Barbarra Hepworth museum (plus a talk on similarities and differences to Woolf) and a riotous trip to the Minack Theatre to see a parody of Pride and Prejudice (much needed after a morning swimming in emotional murky waters at the study). There were organised dinners in the evenings and pasties on the harbour.

With all these extras the days were full - and exhausting. During the final sessions my energy waned and I found it harder to focus. One of the topic of the Waves is that we can't do everything in life - you have to choose a path and I was happy to have enjoyed riding the waves of entertainment.

Post salon

I'd learnt from the first trip how tiring and involved the few days could be - this time with the benefit of working from home (I felt my two trips spanning a global disaster reflected the structure of To the Lighthouse) allowed me to arrive in Cornwall a few days before and spend time with my Grandma.

At the end of the study, after enjoying swimming in everyone's company, thoughts and ideas I planned to stay down in St Ives for some time alone. Friday morning we had our final session - covering the last chapter of the book that I'd struggled with and only skimmed before the trip. Then I took myself off for some space and art at Tremenheere sculpture gardens then wandered along to the Jubilee pool - escaping the waves and The Waves in an art deco lido where I could let mind and body relax floating in the sheltered geothermal waters.

Penzance Jubilee pool - away from The Waves


The final treat I'd saved up for myself was a long hike from St Ives to Zennor - I'd attempted it in 2018 but hadn't allowed myself enough time so was excited to have a full day to myself to walk along the cliffs. The sea crashed into the rocks as I went. Ideas and discussion from the week swirled and rolled through my mind.

In the end the hike took me even further- to Gurnard's head and a delicious pub lunch. My mind was prepared to go further too and I paddled through the final chapter of the book again. After, a steady walk back to St Ives as the "darkness rolled its waves along grassy rides and over the wrinkled skin of the turf"

Views of the waves on the coastal path from St Ives to Zennor


A full week. A wave of thoughts and ideas. An amazing group, the chance to listen and share. The opportunity to read, re-read, hear others and (one of my favourite parts) to read out loud. A tough, ambiguous and challenging book - often more ideas and questions than answers. Even amongst us we couldn't quite pin down what happened - the ideas as fluid as water.

A huge thank you to Toby and Sarah for organising and facilitating such an amazing few days. Thank you to all the attendees - for the warm welcome, for sharing ideas and your experiences.

A superb study with art, swims, hikes, people and time alone. The Waves suggest that life is a series of agonies and ecstasies. This week I was fortunate to enjoy riding a wave of ecstasy.

Post Script

And finally an apology for the relentless wave metaphors crashing through this piece. Not quite the subtle imagery of Woolf but it's helped me enjoy this writing process. So maybe not an apology more a recognition of a bit of fun.