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Nature & Environment

The best books on The Sea

recommended by Philip Marsden

The travel writer casts his net over books about the sea and comes up with a haul including Moby Dick and a naval history of Britain.

Philip Marsden

Philip Marsden is the author of seven travel books and dramatic histories, including “The Bronski House” and most recently “The Barefoot Emperor”. His first novel was “The Main Cages”, which adopts the only template for a seagoing romance available since “Moby Dick”: man meets watery nemesis.

Philip Marsden on Wikipedia

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Philip Marsden

Philip Marsden is the author of seven travel books and dramatic histories, including “The Bronski House” and most recently “The Barefoot Emperor”. His first novel was “The Main Cages”, which adopts the only template for a seagoing romance available since “Moby Dick”: man meets watery nemesis.

Philip Marsden on Wikipedia

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Philip, we’re talking about the sea and I notice that your list includes lots of different sorts of book. You’ve got a grand sweeping history of the British navy. You’ve got memoirs. You’ve got Moby Dick on the one hand and on the other a polemic against overfishing. Which would you like to start with?

Let’s start with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It’s an extraordinary novel in all sorts of ways, and the scale of it reflects the scale of the sea. Melville had this great wealth of experience from his own whaling days and he wanted to express that in some way, but came up against the same problem every writer who tackles the sea faces. You have this huge subject, but not a lot of contours; not a lot to differentiate it all, with which to forge a narrative. The sprawl of Moby Dick reflects that, the apparent randomness of the chapters, the jumble of fiction and non-fiction. Like all writers on the sea, he’s intrigued by the practical problems, seamanship, fishing techniques. But underlying it all is this great, undifferentiated mass. One of the interesting things about the sea as a subject is that it doesn’t hold history. As soon as a ship passes through the water the water closes up and that’s it, whereas the land, whether it’s urban or rural, has great layers of history visible to the eye…

Moby Dick is obviously a psychological drama too, isn’t it? The pursuit by Ahab of a white whale – a terrifying sort of ghost whale. Ahab is a very proud man and in a sense he seems to be attempting to destroy his own death. But is this a theme you see running through other books about the sea? A sense that man simply shouldn’t be there at all? That he’s out of his element?

Yes, Ahab pits himself against this infinite element which will never be conquered or changed by man. That’s what the story’s all about. I wrote a novel about the sea some years ago and watched it form itself into a shape similar in some ways to Moby Dick. I realised then that it was perhaps the only story you could write about the sea. A man is drawn to it, is seduced by it, gets a living by it but is eventually destroyed by it. That’s the basic plot structure of Moby Dick. It’s also that which Peter Benchley chose when he wrote Jaws – he famously took Moby Dick as a template. That’s part of the novel’s power – it established a great myth and that’s why it endures.

Let’s move on to your second book, which I suspect might be Conrad.

Yes, Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea – which again suggests the inscrutable blankness – in this case reflecting man back at himself. It was his first memoir, written in 1906, and a bit like Melville he was drawing on personal experience. Conrad was a sailor and of course the sea is the context for many of his stories, but I was particularly interested in this non-fiction book. He’s fascinated by the psychological patterns: departure, how a captain feels when he first goes out to sea, how he refers back to the land. It’s the only book I know that really addresses all those issues head on.

Conrad’s also very good on the language of the sea, which is endemic to sailing books. Anyone who’s read the Patrick O’Brian books always comments on the language and is either put off by it – this arcane nautical lexicon – or intrigued by it. I’m intrigued. In fact one of the great pleasures of the sea is that it requires a different language. A ship’s not just different to a land vehicle in shape, it’s different absolutely. And the language reflects that. There’s a phrase Conrad picks up when the anchor is dropped. The captain asks the man at the head, “how did it grow?”, referring to the way the anchor warp goes out from the bow of the ship – at what angle, at what speed. Conrad says no one who hasn’t actually seen the way an anchor warp goes out would understand why the term is used. It’s absolutely precise.

Precise because it refers only to one thing or because it’s a good metaphor for what’s happening?

Well, both. I mean, you can’t talk about a rope on a ship, because there are sheets and halyards and warps and hawsers and they all do different things. So it’s technically precise. But the reason Conrad’s interested in that particular example is that it has a certain poetry to it. It has the precision of experience. And of course the question itself – “how did it grow?” – has in it the anxiety of seamanship. Anchoring a ship is an anxious business. You’re close to the shore, you don’t know what ground you’re on. It’s a very difficult moment. It’s interesting that in “The Mirror of the Sea”, the concerns and the style are little different from Conrad’s fiction – he’s simply placed the sea and seamanship to the fore.

Hamilton-Paterson’s is a strange book isn’t it? Because again it’s so many different things generically: a memoir, a poetic essay, a discourse on cartography. A nightmare to know where to place it in a book shop.

Yes. This is a much more recent book, but you find the same themes. Hamilton-Paterson’s life has been peppered with maritime journeys, and when he thought, “I want to do a book about the sea” he came up against the usual problem – the sheer scale of his subject. It’s a wonderfully baffling book. There’s a lovely opening passage of a swimmer – presumably him – diving down through the water. It’s a beautiful description of entering the water. Of light coming down through it – and from then on he drifts from one great sea-subject to the next. He recreates various expeditions – maritime expeditions – including the Challenger Expedition which in 1872 set out to circumnavigate the globe. She took four years and carried a team of scientists and one of their objects, simply, was to find out how deep the water was. They discovered that in many places it was very, very deep. They scooped up all sorts of samples from various levels of the water and after 20 years and 50 written volumes analysing these specimens, they still weren’t finished.

I’d put those books on my list if they weren’t so unwieldy. They have in them these wonderful pictures of phytoplankton and diatoms and dinoflagellates. And you realise looking at them – as Hamilton-Paterson points out – that you’re looking at a completely strange world. An exquisite but very alien world. He touches also on the notion of conservation, [with] wonderful elegiac sections on what has happened to the sea, what man has done to it.

This is something I wanted to talk about later on. Because you’ve chosen at least one book, haven’t you – The End of the Line – that talks about this specifically: man’s overfishing of the sea. Something which obviously is radically opposed to the notion of infinite space, of inexhaustible quantity and so on. That man’s impact on the sea could be decisive and utterly destructive. But would you like to go to that book now, or to another one?

I put a naval history on the list, a two-volume history by NAM Rodger.

Let’s talk about that first, shall we? Because this is a hugely ambitious book of a very different kind to the others. An enormous, overarching history of the British navy, from the [actually he begins earlier, with the Vikings] dubious first efforts of Edward the Confessor in the 11th century until 1815.

That’s right. Two volumes – The Safeguard of the Sea – up to 1649, or the execution of Charles I, the other – Command of the Ocean – stopping in 1815 with the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. He divides up his chapters into operations, administration, and ships. It’s quite an unwieldy structure because it’s both chronological and thematic. But it works brilliantly. At the one end there’s the political side of things, the operations, the battles. And at the other there’s the technical development of the naval ships and gunnery. Sometimes these two aspects of naval history run in parallel and sometimes not.

But it’s a wonderful history. If you go to earlier naval histories they’re very jingoistic. Much more so than military histories would allow.

Why do you think that is?

Well in part of course, that it really was the navy that enabled the rise of the British Empire, and its defence. There’s also something seductively heroic about naval campaigns and engagements. And the image of a fighting ship seems to stir the nationalist spirit. Like a little country on their own. Like sailing in a little England.

Rodger is much more measured. Because of the jingoism of old, there was a long period when naval history wasn’t really considered serious history, which is why his work is so important. He’s very good on the negative side – the almost laughable corruption at times in the naval dockyards, and the piratical origins of English seafaring, the extent of privateering. The sea allowed privateers simply to go and rob other ships and take them as prizes. That was perfectly legitimate and a great deal of England’s wealth is based on that. If a Spanish ship attacked a British ship then Spanish ships were fair game. So you have men like Drake waiting around for Spanish ships returning from South America freighted with gold. There’s tremendous licence. The ocean’s out of sight of land. You’re allowed to do what you like.

It’s extraordinary, isn’t it, this conflict between the lawlessness of the sea and the discipline that’s required to survive there at all? As though the discipline replaces any other moral question. As though it’s the only moral code you need.

Yes, it’s almost as though, if you can manage to navigate a ship, to sail it over the horizon, then you’re free to act as you wish. When you read this book you feel that patriotism was just a loose overlay on the ship. I mean, they were tremendously patriotic. But really it was just an excuse for action. And the action’s all you need. It doesn’t refer to anything else. So it’s a kind of extreme militarism, often entirely removed from national politics. The technical aspect of things is fascinating too, the development of ship design and gunnery and how throughout the age of sail, history could turn on a wind-shift, on who held the weather-gauge. I find that very compelling.

So a sweeping nautical history of the last thousand years of the British Navy. A really huge project, and by the sound of it, a fascinating read. But what’s next? We’ve talked about the sea as an enormous place. We’ve talked about lawlessness and discipline…

Let’s talk about Longshoreman by Richard Shelton. A lovely, personal book. He’s a marine scientist, and the great thing about marine scientists as he shows in this book is that they really have to get their hands dirty. Quite a lot of it is in laboratories, but an awful lot, too, is on ships trawling things up. Just being at sea. What I love too is the source of his fascination, as a boy, playing around in streams and pools. His story is really how that boyish love of nature developed into the rigours of professional science.


So is it an emotional memoir or a taxonomy of lots of different types of fish?

It’s very much an autobiography, but he is a scientist of course. He spent a lot of time for instance in the Thames estuary looking at the impact of London sewage on the sea bed. Finding, for example, huge swathes of tomato pips that had passed through the colons of millions of cockneys. But it all goes back to Melville. The beginnings are in wonder, but quite quickly that wonder moves into the technical arena. He became a scientist. He writes about being at sea but also about the taxonomies of micro-organisms in sediments.

Which takes us, doesn’t it, to your last book? A hard hitting conservation book by Charles Clover called The End of the Line. We’ve been talking, up to now, about man’s great adventure with the sea, which has been, in many ways, a remarkably irresponsible adventure. And a wildly exciting one. But now we’ve come to the end of the line in lots of different ways, hence the punning title of this book. We’ve come to the point where we have to take responsibility – remarkably – for the sea, which previously we’d thought was so enormous, so infinite, so unfathomable, that all we had to do was to survive on it long enough to get what we wanted. Now we discover that it is exhaustible and we’re actually on the verge of exhausting it. Of destroying what has sustained us.

It’s the technology again. What comes out of Clover’s book – apart from the reckless politics, the greed and destruction – is the triumph of technology. We’ve become much too efficient at fishing. In Melville’s day it was hard enough to get a ship into the whaling grounds, let alone to skewer a whale. It would have astonished him – and gone against his whole grand idea – to imagine that man could have had such an effect on the sea. What he was interested in was the effect of the sea on man, its Old Testament divine power, but this book is full of evidence that over the last hundred years the tables have turned. And the plundering is made easier by the fact that the effects are usually invisible.

In 1870, T. H. Huxley, looking into existing fisheries, famously said that you could go on fishing for ever. And that it was actually a good thing, because by fishing you encouraged the stocks to grow. But he was writing just as steam trawlers were taking over from sail.

So that was the tipping point?

Yes, from then on it’s been a steady retreat for the fish.

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