In Lovely Blueness: Adventures in Troubled Light

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In 2004 Colm Toibin curated an exhibition at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin called 'Blue' which consisted of blue objects from the collection. This is his introduction to the catalogue.

The world was a bowl of lovely soft blueness. It was early morning in Port Douglas in Queensland in Northern Australia. As the boat began to move out towards the Great Barrier Reef there was not a cloud in the sky nor a vessel in the sea. A haze of heat over the water made the sky above us seem the only solid thing on earth in its vast clarity, its implacable and untouchable beauty. The water was calm; in the distance patches of deep dark blue lay as though part of a recent spillage of blue, too severe and dangerous and stark in its rich colour to be integrated into the glassy limpid blueness of the broad sea.
Some days earlier a boat like this, full of tourists also, had set out on the same mission - to travel for two hours to the reef for scuba diving, snorkelling, swimming. When the time to return had come, the crew asked if everyone was on board and, when they were satisfied that this was so, they started the engine and returned to Port Douglas. But everyone was not on board. Two expert scuba divers had known how to spare the oxygen and thus have more time wandering in the blue depths. They were still down there in the ocean. The boat had left without them and the crew realised this only when their belongings were not collected. They would have surfaced to find the great nothingness all round them, green-blue water, the clear blue sky, dark blue patches on the sea. And no chance of making it to dry land. And sharks below them waiting. They were not seen again.
This morning before we left the shore we were warned to sign our name which we would countersign before the boat returned. All of us promised that we would. We meant it. The previous day I had met the scuba diving instructor who maintained that he normally went down towards the ocean bed with a large group. This time he had only three, including an Austrian who was skilled and experienced. So with us two, who knew nothing, it would be easy, he said. One on either side of him. Just follow the rules. He went through them with us again - how to breathe, how to wipe the condensation from your goggles, how to signal. No one in all his years as an instructor, he said, had ever died down there. It would be safe and easy, and it was so beautiful down there, it would be worth it.
We wallowed for two hours in lovely blueness, the blueness of paradise, all liquid and light and easy on the soul, balm on the eyes against the harshness of the sun. After two hours when the boat stopped, my fellow passengers turned into athletes, busy changing and preparing for the ordeal of scuba diving, snorkelling and diving overboard into the blue unknown. I was handed an iron lung and I put it on and got my goggles and all the other strange instruments familiar to voyagers into the deep. The instructor was waiting. He pointed. There were steps down into the ocean. We had to walk backwards down them into that dark underspace, immerse ourselves in what suddenly seemed to me a most inhospitable and hostile element.
Others were diving in, fearless. I stood back and shook my head. I had paid for this and prepared for it, but the journey down towards this watery Hades was too much. I let the others go without me. The instructor shook his head sadly. It happens sometimes, he said, irrational fear, but it is always a pity. He left me some snorkelling gear.

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