The Sea Inside, by Philip Hoare, Fourth Estate, RRP£18.99, 384 pages
“I probably think too much about whales,” writes Philip Hoare in The Sea Inside, his discursive exploration of the enduring allure of the sea and its creatures. Hoare’s last book, Leviathan, or The Whale (2008), won the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction. In it he went in search of his hulking obsession, exploring the literary, scientific and cultural facets of cetaceans. In this new book, he often ends up back with whales. For Hoare, they are “a symbol of the ineluctable past, the present and the future”.
The Sea Inside begins, not with some exotic ocean, but with the muddy local waterway in which Hoare swims alone one freezing December morning. Lonely and grieving for his mother in her now empty house in Southampton, Hoare listens to the familiar mantra of the shipping forecast before dawn: “Dogger, Fisher, German Bight ... ” He then cycles to the unappealingly muddy spot along the edge of the estuarial Southampton Water where he strips off and plunges into the icy water, hoping, one suspects, for a revelation or a release.
The book’s early chapters evoke something of the style of WG Sebald, who wandered the bleak coastal ways of East Anglia, using buildings and the landscape as triggers to delve into great repositories of national and personal memory. Hoare uses the sea in much the same way, turning up ceaselessly fascinating asides on animals, people and collections such as the Hunterian Museum in London, with its melancholy assortment of bones both human and cetacean.
From Southampton it’s a short trip to the Isle of Wight, where he wanders the cliffs thinking dark thoughts about ravens and crows, considering these portentous birds and their beady intellect. Each page is soaked in grief and death and loss, and the fear of loss. There he tells the story of Julia Margaret Cameron, the great female photographer who pestered famous men for their portraits and whose images now hang in the waiting room at Brockenhurst station in the New Forest, and considers the work of Tennyson who, like Cameron, was another hole-up on the Isle of Wight until fame and its attendant sightseers forced him to retreat.
But, like a swimmer in a strong current, Hoare’s interest is finally caught and snatched away to the Azores where he swims with sperm whales. This section feels culled from his previous book (the same scientists and whale-watchers are credited in the acknowledgments) but the writing is luminous and elegiac. One cannot help but feel the talismanic power of the whales, suspended in the dark blue gloom beneath Hoare as he snorkels.
In flowing, liquid prose, Hoare is drawn back and forth from story to story, place to place; it is hard to make out patterns or purpose in the gathering flotsam. The whole comes fully into focus when he arrives in Tasmania. Here, the river at Hobart was clogged with whales when western settlers arrived. Such was the scale of the subsequent whaling industry that by 1840 few whales remained.
The comparison between their fate and that of the island’s aboriginal inhabitants is not hard for Hoare to draw. Whale specimens were gathered by the Hunterian Museum in London – some sent from Tasmania. The bones of the last Tasmanian aboriginals, William Lanne and Truganini, were also publicly displayed. It took 100 years for Truganini’s bones to be, as she wished, cremated and committed to the sea.
As Hoare’s circumnavigation returns him to his late mother’s house, his quest emerges with greater clarity: “The sea sustains and threatens us, but it is also where we came from.” We are “aquatic apes”, who – some scientists claim – evolved not for the savannah, but for the shallow coastal waters where our brains grew large and thoughtful on the fatty acids of shellfish. We are always drawn back to the sea that links us with our ancestors, across time and space. This is a magnificent book.