De­tours into a vast and strange world

The Sea In­side

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Bradley James Bradley

By Philip Hoare Fourth Es­tate, 350pp, $32.99

SOME­WHERE in the mid­dle of his mar­vel­lous and mar­vel­lously idio­syn­cratic jour­ney into the in­ner space of the ocean, The Sea In­side, Philip Hoare de­tours briefly into the life of TH White.

White, per­haps best known as the author of the Arthurian ro­mance The Once and Fu­ture King, was also, as Hoare notes, a mem­ber of ‘‘ a par­tic­u­lar breed’’, a man whose re­jec­tion of mid­dle-class life in favour of a ‘‘ feral state’’ in the woods and fields of ru­ral Eng­land (and later the Chan­nel Isles) is part of a pe­cu­liarly English reaction against moder­nity.

Th­ese days the kook­ier trap­pings of the tra­di­tion have faded but its in­flu­ence re­mains. In con­trast to the more sober Amer­i­can tra­di­tion, Bri­tish na­ture writ­ing re­mains rooted in ro­man­ti­cism, em­pha­sis­ing a fas­ci­na­tion with a prelap­sar­ian past of farms and forests and hedgerows and — as Hoare’s coun­try­man Robert Mac­Far­lane’s cu­ri­ous pas­sion for swim­ming in lochs and rivers demon­strates — an ex­al­ta­tion of phys­i­cal en­gage­ment with the land­scape.

This ex­al­ta­tion of phys­i­cal en­gage­ment is present in The Sea In­side (plung­ing into the sea at Southamp­ton in De­cem­ber, Hoare ex­pe­ri­ences an ec­static strip­ping away of care he de­scribes as ‘‘ cap­il­lary clar­ity’’) but mov­ing along­side it is some­thing deeper: a sense of the mys­te­ri­ous­ness of the ocean, and of the way it re­flects and trans­fig­ures us. The sea, Hoare wants us to see, is a place where we may re­dis­cover some­thing we seem to have lost, a sense not just of won­der but of con­nec­tion to some­thing more pro­found and less eas­ily un­der­stood.

In this sense The Sea In­side can be read as a se­quel of sorts to Hoare’s pre­vi­ous book, Leviathan, which wove to­gether science, mem­oir, his­tory and per­sonal re­flec­tion to cre­ate a work that was a cul­tural his­tory of the whale and whal­ing, and an at­tempt to tease out the con­tra­dic­tions of our re­la­tion­ship with the nat­u­ral world.

Like Leviathan, The Sea In­side is un­clas­si­fi­able, a med­i­ta­tion dis­guised as a se­ries of jour­neys and di­gres­sions that move in a widen­ing gyre from Hoare’s home in south­ern Eng­land to the Isle of Wight and Lon­don, and on to the Azores, Tas­ma­nia and, fi­nally, New Zealand, shift­ing ef­fort­lessly from fas­ci­nat­ing ephemera (ap­par­ently the bite of the grey seal can cause a se­ri­ous bac­te­rial in­fec­tion, ‘‘ seal fin­ger’’, which can re­sult in the loss of the af­fected dig­its) to his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives such as that of Tru­ganini, or Maori war­rior Te Pehi Kupe, who trav­elled to Eng­land to buy guns from Ge­orge IV and may well have served as the in­spi­ra­tion for Her­man Melville’s Quee­queg. And while at times the con­nec­tion be­tween the sub­jects un­der dis­cus­sion and the book’s os­ten­si­ble sub­ject mat­ter can seem sur­pris­ingly dis­tant, each has a part to play in the book’s larger de­sign.

De­spite th­ese many di­gres­sions there are still a lot of cetaceans in The Sea In­side: off New Zealand’s South Is­land Hoare swims into a su­per­pod of dusky dol­phins and finds him­self sus­pended in ‘‘ an ed­dy­ing mass of swoop­ing, div­ing cetaceans’’, their bod­ies ‘‘ exquisitely air­brushed black and white and pearl-grey’’; in the Azores he swims with sperm whales, los­ing his sense of the lim­its of him­self in the prox­im­ity of their vast bod­ies.

Hoare’s de­scrip­tions of th­ese crea­tures are im­bued with an of­ten star­tling beauty. Seek­ing sperm whales in the At­lantic he is sur­prised by ‘‘ how in­vis­i­ble they are; like birds that van­ish in mid-air, they of­ten seem to dis­ap­pear in the sea’’; later, off New Zealand, he de­scribes the way an­other sperm whale’s sonar buzzes are so pow­er­ful they can be seen as per­tur­ba­tions in the ocean’s sur­face, ‘‘ cre­at­ing lo­calised cir­cu­lar patches, as if a ray gun had been trained through the wa­ter’’.

Yet Hoare’s in­ter­est in the whales is not merely de­scrip­tive. For writ­ten through the fab­ric of this re­mark­able book is a more elu­sive at­tempt to make sense of the way our glimpses of whales and their in­ner worlds de­mand we en­gage with ways of be­ing that are rad­i­cally un­like our own.

There is some­thing ap­po­site, of course, in so peri­patetic a book ask­ing this of us. Af­ter all, as ce­tol­o­gist Hal White­head ob­serves: ‘‘ Sperm whales are no­mads, al­most con­tin­u­ally on the move. Their most sta­ble ref­er­ence points are each other.’’ Or, as Hoare puts it, ‘‘ home to a whale is other whales’’. Yet run­ning be­neath this is an­other idea, one about the trans­for­ma­tive power of the imag­i­na­tion and the ways in which the ocean asks us to give our­selves over to it, one Hoare glimpses when, float­ing in the open At­lantic, he comes face to face with its vast­ness. ‘‘ The whale’s en­vi­ron­ment would mean death for me. But it rep­re­sents life in such a vast di­men­sion it takes all the fear away.’’

Maori war­rior Te Pehi Kupe trav­elled to Eng­land to buy guns

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