Is this the great era of non-fiction? Every time I want to curl up with a big fat book and be taken off into a world of adventure, it always seems to be in the company of a non-fiction author. Fiction often disappoints, but the quests of writers such as Jared Diamond, David Quammen and Mark Kurlansky still have the power to excite the imagination.
British author Philip Hoare is the best of this new breed of author. Though he scours the world in search of exotic traveller’s tales, he also discusses his life in suburban England. Eccentric to the last, Hoare begins each day by swimming in the filthy outlets to the sea near his home in Southampton:
I stand over the water, and wonder why anyone would want to enter it. The surface is pressed flat by the cold. Slow and viscous, it wrinkles like setting jam. An oily sheen spreads over it. Rafts of unusually active herring gulls float as if frozen into place.
It is clear to see the influence on Hoare of the late Roger Deakin. There are paragraphs by Hoare that could almost have been written by Deakin in Waterlog, an account of his ‘wild swimming’ adventures around Britain.
Like Deakin, Hoare has boundless enthusiasm. His previous book Leviathan was a marvellous history of cetaceans, wrapped up in a quest to learn more about Hermann Melville and Moby Dick. In The Sea Inside, Hoare continues his exploration of the world of the whale, but looks more at the sea itself and other coastal areas. At times, it’s a social history of environmental devastation. Shockingly, much of the damage has been done by very few individuals:
In just one season in 1824, eighty thousand fur seal pelts were taken from South Island [in New Zealand]. Their numbers remain a fraction of what they once were.
Don’t get the impression that The Sea Inside is a hectoring tome. Hoare remains an optimist, not least in his faith that the supposedly extinct ‘tasmanian tiger’, the thylacine, may still be alive (you can see a picture of this animal in the bottom left corner of the cover):
Nor does Hoare restrict his story to natural history. He is interested in everything. I loved the vignettes of ancient and medieval figures:
it was once thought there was another ocean over our heads. One medieval chronicler related how a congregation came out of church to find an anchor snagged on a gravestone. Its line ran taut to the clouds, from which a man descended, only to be suffocated by the dense air as if he were drowning.
I wonder what Eric Von Däniken would make of that.
It is also packed with the sort of trivia that you can trot out at parties to look intelligent:
Conveniently, cetaceans could be eaten on fast days: the porpoise itself got its name from the French, porc-poisson, pork fish.
The Sea Inside is a beautifully written book. However, I would recommend reading Leviathan first. The new book is much more autobiographical and so slightly more self-indulgent than his previous offering.
Philip Hoare has the ability to show the world in a new light. After reading this book, you’ll never look at the sea, “the wilderness at the end of your street”, in quite the same way again.
To catch a sense of Hoare’s passion for his subject, check out this video on his website.