The Sea Inside, Philip Hoare, Fourth Estate, 374 pp, £18.99 (hardback)
Staring up at the frescoes of a medieval hospital in Siena, I was incredulous at first. There, wallowing in what might equally have been sea foam or the plaster crumbling away, was, unmistakably, a whale. I checked my crib. ‘Symbol of the resurrection’, it said. In the hospital of our current condi- tion, Philip Hoare thinks roughly the same.
‘Nowadays we don’t know where we live’, T. H. White wrote in 1936, ‘or who we are. That is why, in a shifting world, I want to know where I am.’ The Sea Inside might as well have been called The Inner Island: it opens with scenes from everyday life in ‘non-descript’ Southampton, scenes which read the way Patrick Keiller’s films look and are among the best things here. Hoare stays home with England and the Isle of Wight for the first three chapters before the Azores, Sri Lanka, Tasmania and New Zealand follow in succession. When an English writer concludes a tour of far-flung islands with a return to the England he started from, it’s fair to assume those other islands have been imaginative stand-ins, that this has been, at some level, an exploration of the nature of home. The sea here is a great emblem of T. H. White’s ‘shifting world’, in which we are still strug- gling to find a place. To give merely the book’s conclusion – that home doesn’t exist and we all live there – is to give away little.
The narrative glides easily between themes, with an un-programmatic air which feels central to its purpose. If its main theme is an environmental one, a certain melancholic undertow takes the place of any polemical shrill- ness. Both Leviathan, or The Whale (2009) and Dominion (2012) were campaigning documents in different ways and his recent Moby Dick Big Read, co-curated with Angela Cockayne, carried a message on every page reminding visitors to the website that more than two-thousand whales are still being killed each year.
That approach is largely absent here and you could, I suppose, take him to task for that. But only last year the British Government drastically cut back on its earlier commitment to creating a network of Marine Conservation Zones around the coast. This book’s approach is more oblique but in its way it takes the need to re-imagine our relationship with the sea every bit as seriously as Leviathan. This is, among many other things, a timely book on a matter of pressing current concern.
How, then, does Hoare attempt his re-imagining? Upon what, in this shift- ing world, shall we ground a new care for our surroundings? Online peti- tions? Newspaper articles? Those too, no doubt, but what can restore to us, if not what we’ve lost, then at least a re-awakened awareness of just how much has gone?
Callum Roberts in his Unnatural History of the Sea gleaned from the ac- counts of seventeenth and eighteenth century explorers references to an abundance of sea life which has largely vanished. Ann Thwaite in her Glimpses of the Wonderful brought the question closer in both time and space with her study of Philip Gosse, father, artist, public lecturer, man of God and the moving spirit behind the mid-Victorian craze for shore-life and aquaria. To see, through Gosse’s artwork, what the Devon and Welsh shorelines were teeming with just one hundred and sixty years ago, is to register a shock. Arnand Leroi, for his part, made Aristotle’s De Natura Animalium his guide to this in the BBC film Aristotle’s Lagoon (available on YouTube).
It is not the learning itself which marks out Philip Hoare’s approach but its inflection, the way it is ranged alongside such intimate transcribings from direct experience. Time and again the history of our remorseless avidity as a species is set before us. Between 1842, when the first whaling station was set up on New Zealand’s South Island, and 1920, ninety-nine-percent of the southern right whale population was destroyed. Hundreds if not thou- sands of whales and dolphins are still washed up each year on the shores of New Zealand but the Maoris always regarded their arrival as tapu or sacred signs. They never actively hunted whales but when the sea offered them up, they knew how to use every part of the creature. To render the blubber and discard everything else would simply never have occurred to them. It took Europeans to teach them that the smell of whale carcass is ‘the smell of money.’
The savage treatment of Tasmania’s aboriginal human population, the de- struction of its thylacines or that of the native birdlife on New Zealand – these are stories which still have the power to tell us something about ourselves which we would rather not hear. The story of Hector’s dolphin (the world’s smallest) is neither quite so familiar nor quite so depressing (or not yet) but such stories are all angled here so as to ask a common question: are we redeemable? This is perhaps a book to read alongside the Natural History Museum’s current show about extinction. What kind of serious teaching can still reach us, once the TV and the commodification of everything have done their worst?
Melville’s whale, Poe’s raven, Coleridge’s albatross, Hughes’s crow are all on hand with advice but Hoare’s own central answer, from page one of The Sea Inside, is full and literal immersion in the watery element. The story of seventh century St Cuthbert is told early on and referenced again and again. Well might he mention Hughes in such a context: a poet who deeply regret- ted the loss to English sensibility from the overthrowing of the cult of saints at the Reformation. What, in our world, might they have interceded for?
Hoare swims early each morning: for Cuthbert, our ‘Francis of the north’, and other saints from that dark time, these ‘chilly immersions’ were an aid to spiritual discipline, but there is, about Cuthbert’s otters and efforts at bird conservation and hermitage on Inner Farne, a special charm. The lengths his followers went to in order to protect his body from Viking raid- ers suggest that his memory inspired a deep affection. The philosopher Mary Midgley long ago lost any literal religious belief but once told me she has repeatedly felt something powerfully spiritual at Cuthbert’s shrine in Durham.
Hoare finds much to admire in the familiar terms on which seventh cen- tury saints and present-day Maoris interacted / still interact with the natu- ral world. Anglo-Saxon saints were deeply indebted to the example of the Egyptian Desert Fathers, and indeed their ‘biographies’ were often closely modelled on those of their Egyptian predecessors. It was a much later writ- er, Thomas Merton, who turned away from what he saw as the decadence of his own (mid-twentieth century) culture, to notice strong affinities be- tween the Desert Fathers and the Zen Masters. Hoare does not miss this – it’s just the kind of nimble syncretism across time and space in which he finds such home, and such hope, as he succeeds in finding anywhere.
There is an almost penitent streak to some of his writing about the sea and the punishing schedule he has set himself in relation to it. He remarked uneasily in Leviathan, as he described the sperm whale hunting which con- tinued until 1986 in the Azores, that meanwhile ‘I was going to night-clubs in London’. Again here a swim in Freshwater Bay ‘has the usual effect of washing my sins away.’
I’ve not said as much as I might have about his treatment of the procel- larids, a group of birds ranging from the tiny storm petrels which flit bat-like around our shores, to the wandering albatross, which roams the southern oceans on the largest wing-span of any bird. He’s fascinated by the crow family, too, and as with the procellarids and whales, these be- come the occasion for reflections on both how under-rated and yet how urgently needed some renewed affinity with animal forms of intelligence now is. These creatures figure as something like spiritual guides for the perplexed modern.
If the book is a search for home, it’s a search too for some compelling lan- guage by which we might change our manifestly futureless present course. The amazing story of Queequeg’s original, a Maori warrior who visited England in the 1820s, is as deeply felt as anything in the book. It draws together Melville, the Maori theme and the role of clairvoyant imagination in a fine example of Hoare’s approach at its best.
It’s by appealing to interests not immediately identifiable as ‘environmen- tal’ that this work succeeds. Smuggling all manner of contraband into the ‘debate’, it sets out to address as much of the reader’s personality and expe- rience as it can and does its persuading that way. Hoare cannot, for all that, avoid a gloomy prognosis. As for the carbon emissions question raised by this book, my hunch would be that it’s one he’s fully aware of. Can anyone hope to redeem these darkening times who will not fully immerse himself in their contradictions?