Ocean of text

Risingtidefallingstar (4th Estate) is Philip Hoare’s third book about the sea, and he writes, ‘Sometimes I think I can only think of the sea’. But this is not a book about summer seaside vacations. Rather, he swims no matter the weather, and writes about the cold, storms, drownings, shipwrecks, and about the eccentric authors and artists (Woolf, Plath, Shakespeare, Jack London, and of course Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson) who, like himself, were mesmerised by the mystery and vastness of our oceans. He trawls through literature and the biographies of artists to fish out water-related anecdotes, some of which are decidedly feverishly strange, such as Stephen Tennant’s retreat to his extravagantly decorated, ocean-themed country house where he hardly ever leaves his bed and asks, ‘Do people still think of me in London?’.

Themes run like currents through the ocean of text – Cape Cod, Thoreau, World War I, Lord Nelson, seals, whales, The Tempest, Shelley and Byron, wild fashion, forbidden relationships, suicides, David Bowie. The language of the sea infiltrates his observations of other things. Second-hand books are described as being ‘stranded’ on a shelf. Hoare is a literary and cultural beachcomber. Every bit of flotsam catches his attention. He suggests that the dream of astrophysicists is to find a planet almost entirely made of water. He describes the splendour of fin whales feeding, but is not too delicate to describe dead, washed-up animals. He picks up a deer skull from the beach and buries it in his garden, antlers protruding.

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Loitering in the liminal

Philip Hoare

Philip Hoare’s The Sea Inside is a mighty fine piece of sustained observation, as nature writing should be. Unlike, say, a David Attenborough documentary, it is also a personal one. He is something of a lost soul, cruising the world for sightings of whales and birds. There is something appropriate about his loitering in the liminal spaces, gazing after half-glimpsed creatures. He hints at darkness in his past and comments that home doesn’t really exist. Nature writing often tends, perhaps against expectations, to be more personal than cold scientific observation, and whether it be Ronald Blythe or his predecessor Francis Kilvert, or Iain Sinclair (who is a sort-of suburban nature-writer) or the recent wonder The Old Ways, from Robert Macfarlane, nature writing, as it describes the outside world, can often have things to say, perhaps inadvertently, about the inner one, as perhaps Hoare’s title hints at. Following on from his book about Moby Dick (another book that purports to be about the “outer” world of whaling but is as much about the inner world), Hoare observes the sea and its inhabitants and fringe-dwellers in the southern part of England before venturing wider to Tasmania and New Zealand, in search of, or in lament of, the thylacine and the moa. Along the way he mentions the desert fathers, Thomas Merton, and the preposterously good looking (female) whaling captain Valentina Orlikova, who even featured on the cover of Harpers Bazaar. And like the aforementioned Macfarlane, Hoare gives us a reversal of the usual map of the world, which places the oceans as blank frames for the land. Hoare quotes Arthur C Clarke, who said that our planet should more realistically be called ‘The Ocean’. Writers are often thought of as hunched over a desk, and far from outdoorsy, but Hoare and Macfarlane dispel that image for a more Hemingwayesque one, with their icy swimming, rough sleeping, and early morning rises.