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)
Fourth Estate, 416pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 12 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions