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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

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

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 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue