Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Diving for pearls: Philip Hoare's book is a meditation on the sea

RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR sometimes feels like drifting, from Cromarty to Cape Cod to Porthmadog.

It begins with a storm. It is violent and terrifying, but it is also different things to different people. To a sea swimmer such as Philip Hoare, the storm’s destruction is intimate, personal and elemental. He tries to swim where he always swims, off Southampton, but he is pushed out by the wind and waves. He leaves the water, “fighting to get dressed as the wind whipped my clothes into air-filled versions of me”.

Elsewhere, away from the front – a telling word, when you think about it, to describe the end of the land – people are experiencing this storm on mute because of modernity:

Behind this frontline, people were driving cars, taking buses, going to work, school, shops, locked in their own personal climate. We shared the same city, but they felt safe, seeing the storm through their screens. I was on the edge of it, physically confronted by the violence, as shocking as if I’d come across a fist fight on the street.

It is a strong illustration of how modern life has severed us from the sea, confining it to holidays and digital maps. Now there are land people and sea people, and Hoare is of the second, swimming in the sea every day that the weather does not prevent him. He has written movingly of whales and oceans, and this book, too, seems to set off in the same direction. There are swims, and walks on beaches, and many pages set in Provincetown, another end-land. On the whale-watching boat in Cape Cod Bay we think we know where we are: not just off a hook of American land reaching into the ocean but in another of those books, lyrically and thoughtfully written but not particularly unusual in these publishing days of hawks and holloways.

After 80 pages of Hoare on (and in) nature, the current changes. We meet a series of literary figures, chosen because they had some relationship with the sea. We sit on their backs as if they were gannets, and dive hither and thither, into this and that. There is Thoreau, the man of Cape Cod, and Stephen Tennant, the beautiful boy and poet, subject of an earlier biography by Hoare. There are Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Barrett Browning; Percy Shelley and Keats; the Stevensons – lighthouse and literary – and Melville, of course.

You will skim some pages, and tread water in others: I floated happily in the section on Percy Shelley – this man-boy who could not swim but bathed, who kept stirring up politics on land then fleeing to some distant shore. Shelley’s friend Byron appears, so vivid and wild, dead from fever and revealed – in a probably unreliable account by his friend Edward Trelawny – as having the “form and features of Apollo” but “the feet and legs of a sylvan satyr”. Byron was known for his clubbed right foot, but Trelawny, throwing back the sheet to expose the embalmed body, claimed to have discovered (though he and Byron had swum together many times) “both legs misshapen and withered to the knees”. Shelley drowned after sailing into a storm, but for Byron, walking with pain on land, the water “was the only place he could be himself”. Shelley’s body was recovered with reverence; his fellow sailor Charles Vivian was “buried in the sand, like a clam”.

Reading this book sometimes feels like drifting, from Cromarty to Cape Cod to Porthmadog, from one historical period to another, like Orlando in Woolf’s novel, which Hoare explores at length. Some of our literary gannets are more enticing than others: I shake off the pages about Tennant like droplets, but poor Elizabeth Barrett Browning – with her deliberately obscuring black ringlets, and her grief for her brother Bro, drowned at sea – sticks. Later, ailing, she finds comfort in the salt-water, and her husband Robert finds “a hole I can creep through to the very shore… and the sea is open and satisfactory”.

I warm too to Wilfred Owen, a small man with a war-toned torso, the child of a semi-detached house who grew out of it, but who remembers his father, a Missionary Society volunteer, bringing four Lascars home to tea: “eight bare Indian feet appearing under the family table”. Owen’s are the strongest pages. They are not really about the sea in the end – though he was a keen swimmer – but about the trenches which became an inhuman ocean of shit and blood and mud, where everything, as Owen wrote to his mother, was “unnatural, broken, blasted”. This was the war – as Rupert Brooke wrote – that men turned to “as swimmers into cleanness leaping / Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary”. But there is only filth to be leapt into, in the trenches where Captain Owen would grease his men’s feet with blubber to stop the rot. In that war, towards the end, men set off on the final attacks “wearing lifejackets from Cross-Channel ferries, advancing in the fog through flooded fields”.

It is a startling image. There are others: when Hoare, for no obvious reason, pulls the head off a dead bird he finds on a beach, then later removes the antlers of a dead deer. He inserts his finger into the genital slot of a dead dolphin “ostensibly to investigate if she, as she had now become, had bred, but in reality out of prurient curiosity”. I begin to wonder if the pitilessness of the sea is contagious.

But there is warmth too, for the “washashores” who live in Cape Cod and who watch him swim in great waves. I learn with delight about the stained glass of the Irish artist Henry Patrick Clarke (1889-1931), who placed saints next to self-portraits and mermaids with madonnas. The Irish famine ships that failed to reach American shores seem both old and new: when Thoreau wrote that one shipwreck “had not produced a visible vibration in the fabric of society” he could have been looking at the seas off Lampedusa in the 21st century, where so many desperate migrants have drowned.

When Hoare is in hospital after a cycling accident, he gets an IV of saline. Human beings are mostly water, of course, and there are debates about how blood is related to seawater, but this cold flow of saline, writes Hoare, is “the sea inside of me”.

The book is not all smooth. Sometimes I’m lost: there are references and names that are dropped in like pebbles, and sink without me knowing who they are, and a hazy half-chapter, which I understood only with the help of investigative journalism. (Wikipedia. And, it’s Bowie.) Perhaps it is an almanac, to be dipped into now and then, and savoured periodically. There are riches enough that you’ll finish it with a bit more of the sea inside you. 

Rose George’s books include “Deep Sea and Foreign Going” (Portobello)

Philip Hoare
Fourth Estate, 416pp, £16.99​

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions

Show Hide image

At best, The Confession Tapes makes you feel unease. At worst, despair

Netflix billed the show as a true-crime binge-watch – but its narrative arc is the opposite of cathartic.

Would you confess to a crime you hadn’t committed? For some days now, I’ve been asking myself this question. Furious and punchy, my gut tells me immediately that I wouldn’t, not in a million years. But then comes a quieter, less certain voice. Isn’t guilt, for some of us, a near-permanent state? Apt to apologise even when I’m not in the wrong, I cannot believe I’m the only woman alive who tortures herself in the small hours by thinking she has unknowingly done something very bad indeed.

All this was provoked by The Confession Tapes, billed on social media as “our” next Netflix true-crime binge-watch. In this instance, however, the breathless excitement is misplaced: binge-watching would seem to me to amount to a form of self-harm. Yes, it’s compulsive. Stoked by bloody police photographs, the atmosphere can be suspenseful to a queasy-making degree. But like Making a Murderer and The Keepers before it, its prime concern is not with crimes committed so much as with the American justice system, for which reason its narrative arc is the opposite of cathartic.

At best, it will leave you feeling uneasy. At worst, you may find yourself sinking down into something akin to despair.

Director Kelly Loudenberg tells six stories over the course of seven episodes. Each involves a brutal murder (or murders) for which a perpetrator (or perpetrators) has (have) since been safely (unsafely) convicted. All are linked by one factor: the conviction was secured primarily thanks to a confession extracted by the police under extreme circumstances. Lawyers were not present; mind games were played; interviewees were exhausted, unstable, traumatised. In one instance, the authorities took what’s known as the “Mr Big” approach: undercover officers, playing their roles with all the gusto of a local am-dram society, pretended to be gangsters whose criminal networks could save the accused from death row if only they (the accused) would provide them with all the facts.

Why did juries believe these confessions, unaccompanied as they were by forensic evidence? Here, we go back to where we began. “No,” they told themselves. “I would not admit to a crime I had not committed.” Either such citizens have no softer inner voice – or, more likely, the idea of listening to it is simply too terrifying.

Predictably, the majority of the accused are poor and ill-educated, and perhaps this is one reason why the case of Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay, two articulate middle-class boys from Canada, stood out for me (the pair were found guilty of the 1994 murder in Bellevue, Washington, of Atif’s parents and sister; at the time, they were 19). Or perhaps it is just that I still can’t understand why an American court considered “Mr Big” evidence admissible when the technique is illegal in the US? (The “gangsters” who encouraged Burns and Rafay to indulge in the most pathetic teenage braggadocio I’ve ever witnessed belonged to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.)

The saddest part of this tale: hearing Burns’ father, David, describe his prison visits. (Burns, serving a life sentence without possibility of parole, has exhausted all his appeals.) The strangest part: the way James Jude Konat, like all the prosecutors in this series, was so happy to perform for the camera, more game-show host than lawyer.

It feels obscene to move on, but move on I must. W1A (18 September, 10pm) is enjoying a bewilderingly long life (this is series three). Is the joke still funny? I think it’s wearing thin, though this may be born of my own recent encounter with the BBC’s bizarre machinery (humiliating, in a word).

Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) and her team of media morons have been bought by a Dutch company, Fun, where good ideas are celebrated with silent discos. One idea is a YouTube-style platform, BBC Me. Meanwhile, Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) is helming – nice BBC word – a group that will deliver the corporation’s “More of Less Initiative”, and a cross-dressing footballer has successfully plonked his bum on the Match of the Day sofa. Business as usual, in other words. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left