Lowry Cowrie Dowry

The artist L. S. Lowry once upon a time fell in love with a woman called Ann.

His portraits of Ann remain something of an enigma within the life and works of the apparently celibate painter. He worked as a rent-collector, lived something of a spartan mid-twentieth century Lancastrian existence, and was driven by his own independent-minded vision of townscapes, seascapes and local characters. His reputation deservedly grows decade upon decade. His work is now appreciated for a breadth that goes well beyond the ‘matchstick people’ imagery, important as that is.

Towards the end of his life he drew a series of sexualised sketches of a female marionette figure resembling the earlier ‘Ann’ portraits.

Fifteen years before his death I met Lowry on a quiet stretch of beach called Morfa Bychan, just outside Porthmadog in north Wales. I was 12 years old and it was only much later on that I realised who he was, from photographs and biographical snippets.

My father used to hire a car for a day occasionally and take us, my mother, my sister and me (our brother was already in the RAF by then) to the nearest coast. Mum and Dad avoided costly resorts, so our day-trips were often spent on lonely shorelines foraging for shells. In particular, I learned to love and revere the tiny, elusive cowrie shells, an attachment that is even deeper today.

Cowrie-seeking is not a team game and on that day in 1961 I had meandered off along Morfa Bychan to a point where I thought that I might have first pick at the tidal line of basking shells. I was slightly miffed when an elderly man worked his way into my invisible ‘shell space’. He was wearing a shabby suit with the trouser legs rolled up, and he was carrying a sketchbook and a shallow wooden box. I could see that this contained a number of pencils, and a small collection of seashells. Every so often he would bend down to select another shell, which he would gaze at for a few seconds before removing the lid from the box and placing the harvested object among the pencils. I sensed, with some irritation, that he was deliberately shuffling closer…I had only found seven cowries and didn’t relish any competition.

“Good day, young man, I see that you are interested in the smaller shells here.”

“Yes…I’m looking for cowries.”

“Ah. Very wise…a fellow collector. I have found only a dozen or so this morning, not a good haul.”

He showed me the open box and I could see a sprinkle of cowries amongst the pencils and a random scattering of other small shells. He selected a fine example of a buckle shell, all pink and mauve whorls inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

“Exquisite. Perfect really…but I would exchange it for another cowrie…”. He gave my near-empty plastic tub a proprietary glance.

It suddenly occurred to me that I might be intruding on his space rather than the other way round. I stood up as if to head back the way I had come. I did not want to swap any shells with him, no matter how fine the buckle was.

He eased his weight back onto a rock and placed the buckle back in the wooden box.

“I’m sorry, young fella, I should have spotted you for a comrade cowrieman. I’m afraid I don’t get to the likely beaches as often as I’d like these days…and I still need another hundred or so of the little beggars to get as many as I need.”

He looked sad, and I was intrigued by the word ‘need’.

“We look for them and see who’s found the most, then wash them and put them all together in a glass vase…we only come here a couple of times a year…what do you need them for?”

“Ah…you see, in some countries cowrie shells, I’m talking about the bigger ones you get in far-flung exotic places, are used like we use money. Or were used that way…probably not nowadays. They are both beautiful and valuable, though I love our little versions best, especially the ones with the three dark mottles on their backs. And they’re not so easy to find. For years and years I used to walk the streets collecting folks’ rent money…I wish they could have paid me in cowries!”

“But you said you needed them now…what for?”

There was a long silence as he ran his fingers through a small bank of shells around his shoes. Then he sat up and stared at the sea. I noticed that his sketchbook was open at a page filled with images of low waves meeting sand.

“I have a friend…a lady. She once told me that she would marry me for the right endowment. She was only joking me. She’d married someone else. She had this great big cowry shell on her mantelpiece…it’d been in her family for years apparently. She told me that she’d marry me if I could give her five hundred cowrie shells…”.

His voice trailed off and he grinned up at me. “Any road, it’s the looking that I like.” His eyes told a different story to the cheery tone.

I wish that I had asked him more questions. And I wish that I had given him my cowries.     

From intermittent forays over the years I now have about a thousand. After I have survived the apocalypse, when cowries become currency, I shall be a wealthy man.

The actual riches, however, lie in the search and the find.

Not all shelly beaches will have Trivia Monacha or Trivia Arctica, the two species of cowrie that exist in UK waters. Trivia Monacha is the type with the three beauty spots, whilst Trivia Arctica have a more transparent, bleached appearance. And what a great basic name – “trivia”! How many layers of irony and meaning can be peeled back in the concept of meaningful trivia…!

When looking for cowries on a beach where they exist you have to enter a certain meditative ‘zone’. They are there, but you have to learn to see them. It is like the story of the gold prospector who passed over several small nuggets in a stream before coming up to a large rock. The rock spoke to him: “…turn me over and you might just be rewarded”. So he sweated and strained until he had turned it over, but found nothing of value underneath. The rock just laughed at him and said: “…why do you seek further when you have not yet learned what you have already been given”.

Cowries are alert, emotionally intelligent, playful and wise. Looking for them is completely relaxing, there is no past and no future, only the moment. You know when you are in that zone because for brief seconds you might find one then two then three. Then you lose the meditative mojo and have to work on it a while before it can return.

Take them home, wash away the salty stink, and anoint them with a fine oil to preserve their subtle lustre. All hail Trivia Monacha and Trivia Arctica!

I wish I had asked Lowry if he knew about Baby Oil.

~               ~               ~               ~               ~               ~               ~               ~

{Sami and her seven fellow rebels, along with their No Novel Underground guide, Akasua, are now in Kake, Alaska. This is in the heart of the Tongass, one of the few areas in the Pacific North-West to survive the 20th and 21st century depredations of the corporate giants of the mineral and energy industries}

Akasua had asked them to meet up by 6 p.m. at the towering totem pole. This had once been the tallest in the world, having been specially carved for the World Trade Fair in Japan way back in 1970. The population of Kake was still mainly made up of Tlingit aboriginals. The Tlingits had a long string of ‘previous’ as independent, proud outsiders. Kake was a relatively safe place to rest and prepare for the next stage of the journey, a mono-wing to Kodiak Island. Here they were to be met by a specialist navigator in a small hydro-fin. This was to be their means of travel along the chain links of the Aleutian Islands.

Sami wandered around the small fishing dock, but there was little activity and she arrived at the meeting place early. She still felt uneasy when Akasua was not in sight. The striking Zairean woman radiated confidence and competence.

Another of the ‘Group of Seven’ was already by the totem pole. It was Glenn, the one person in the small band of fugitives who Sami had yet to feel any sense of rapport with. There had been little talk of reasons for not writing, or not completing, the obligatory novel. Sami felt that she could trust her intuition with most of the group, but Glenn was a little different.

“Fuckit! This place has less of a buzz than Ailsa Craig!” He was smiling warmly as Sami approached.

“Are we somewhere near the Arctic Circle?” He didn’t require an answer. “Arctic…Antarctic…antarcticarctic…arcticantarctic…it’s no wonder the whole world’s swinging between highs and lows and ending up crazy – we live on a bipolar Earth, Sami!”

“Well, we’re some way from the Arctic Circle, Glenn. Anyhow, just be glad it’s dry and pretty mild here just now…”.

He wasn’t listening. “You know, when we’re in those Aleutian Islands, the people we meet who live there are called ‘Aleuts’. By my reckoning, that means all the women should be called ‘galoots’! Get it? They’re gals, and they’re Aleuts, so they…”.

“Galoots? I know that Zane Grey is now taught as the pinnacle of 20th century literature, but where ‘in tarnation’ do you get your cultural references, you varmint?” Sami was relieved, and spared further repartee, by the arrival of Akasua and some of the others.

She realised that she was looking forward to the hydro-fin odyssey. It would be a hazardous enterprise. The weather was notoriously unstable, and both the seas and the islands were under careful surveillance. But she was ready to move on from nostalgic thoughts of the past, and from angst about the future.

She needed the relief that comes from being forced into the present by risk and danger.

Ted X


  1. When scanning the same area of shells with John, 9 times out of 10 he beats me to spotting the cowrie….definitely very good at getting into that beach-combing meditative zone. Generally the first to see the hidden image in a ‘Magic Eye’ picture too.


  2. You never told me you met Lowry! I suddenly remember your cowrie obsession though; there’s definitely poem potential in those rhymes.


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