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Why Philip Hoare is reclaiming the romanticism of the sea

Philip Hoare. Photo/Dennis Minsky

We need the beauty of the sea, says English nature writer Philip Hoare, who's coming to New Zealand for the WORD Christchurch Festival. 

“I often find it’s only at the end that you discover what you’ve been writing about,” says English writer Philip Hoare. “And what I’m writing about is the compulsion we have for the sea. The sense that this element contains 90% of the life on this planet and yet it’s not an element we can easily enter or study or observe or chart. It’s a poetic symbol of our disconnection, but also our connection, to the world.

“As you know in New Zealand, an island is ultimately connected by the sea to everywhere else. You’re not isolated; the sea is everything. I just went off on a voyage and started thinking about the whale, because the whale is the animation of that life: it leaves the ocean to briefly become part of our life. To be held there, stilled in between the two elements, the human, gravity-bound, land-bound life that we lead, and the oceanic life of freedom that a whale lives. I don’t apologise for my romanticism because we must reclaim that romanticism. There is so much awfulness about our reaction and the way we treat the natural world that we need that romantic notion, we need the beauty of the ocean.”

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Hoare is talking about his latest book, RisingTideFallingStar, but it could be any of the last few, including Leviathan, which won the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction. Much the same as the earlier books, RisingTide is poetic, deeply researched, and difficult to categorise, though something akin to essay meets nature writing meets memoir. “I try and avoid all categories if possible.” How humans categorise things is part of the problem, he says. “A lot of nature writing is about appropriation, about giving names to things, bringing them into our experience.”

It’s a human desire to dominate, he says, speaking to the Listener days after an Icelandic fishing company slaughtered a blue whale, an act he condemned in a piece for the Guardian, and just before southern right whales delighted locals by visiting the harbours of Wellington and Dunedin.

“I really want to reconnect us to the fluid way we really relate to one another and to the natural world. To stories. The way they are endless, cyclical. John Berger, the great art critic, talks about how stories began in the stars, the pictures we saw in the stars with the constellations.”

Hoare swimming with sperm whales in the Azores. Photo/Andrew Sutton

Everything is subjective

We enter RisingTide by way of Pat, Hoare’s landlady in Provincetown, Cape Cod, where he spends a lot of time. Pat, who’s 88, is a wonderful artist of the sea, he says, an “eccentric, wilful, ferocious” woman who feeds flounder to orca from a kayak so as to better draw them. Hoare takes us on a looping journey that embraces John Keats, Oscar Wilde, The Tempest and David Bowie, and explores mortality in Virginia Woolf, Jack London, Percy Shelley, Sylvia Plath – “for whom that impulse to the sea can be a fatal one”.

When embarking on a book, Hoare never has a particular goal in mind. Rather than the captain of the ship, as in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, he’s more the narrator. “I’m not Ahab going off on a hunt. I’m more like Ishmael, I suppose, who’s always asking questions, always looking at things from different angles.”

His experience is central. “What I’ve realised over the years is that you can’t be objective about things; everything is subjective. And to exclude emotion from ‘factual writing’, which is what I do, ostensibly, is ridiculous. Because you and I relate to everything in an emotional way; it’s what powers us; it’s why you got up this morning.”

Hoare swims daily in the sea regardless of the weather, “sometimes at 4 o’clock in the morning from a snowy beach”, only wearing a swimsuit if he has a human audience. Every swim is a little death, Hoare writes in an earlier book – he’s afraid of deep water and didn’t learn to swim until he was almost 30, “an elderly lady in a boned swimsuit and floral cap” – but it’s also a reminder that we are alive. “Because, when you swim, you’re giving up your humanness, your sense of dominion, your sense of gravity, your sense of control, and you’re allowing yourself into this element that could kill you. I think we are far too concerned with being safe and careful. I want to be free of care, care-free, not care-full. [Death] is the one thing we can’t escape, and the sea is the one thing we can’t escape.”

This intrepid man was a timid, shy boy, perpetually worried about his mother dying. Then it happened. “She died in my arms, at 3 o’clock in the morning in a hospital room, and it was the most glorious thing. I left her and I went straight and swam in the sea. And I laughed to myself, because I realised all this time I’d been worrying about this thing that was going to happen, and actually all it did was remind me of what she gave me, of how I came into being. I was born in the salty amniotic fluid of her belly. Our mothers, all the people we love, are with us all the time.”

An illustration from Moby-Dick. Photo/Getty Images

To digress

His writing influences, unsurprisingly, include Melville. Moby-Dick is the “wildest, maddest book”; it took him three goes before he finally read it. “It’s a prophetic book. He actually envisions the extinction and crises of our time; the ideas of the cult of personality, which lead to dictatorship. It’s one of the first episodes in modern writing of looking at nature for its own sake, for its own intrinsic beauty.”

Melville is fond of following a diverting tangent and forgetting the story entirely, a peccadillo Hoare shares. “I got frustrated writing footnotes where the footnote was more interesting than the actual text. I do love a good digression.” Another influence is the German writer WG Sebald. “He talked about his writing as being like taking his dog for a walk in a field and letting it off its leash; it wanders off and goes and sniffs in one corner and cocks its leg in another, and it comes back with this kind of composite meandering story of the field.”

So RisingTide is full of many, often surprising watery resonances. Wilde, this “precious, pomaded dandy”, was a very physical person. “His son said he swam like a shark.” Wilfred Owen, the war poet, was obsessed with swimming, Hoare says, always ensuring he was posted next to a river or the sea. “For a lot of people, the sea is a surrogate lover, it holds you in its embrace. Baudelaire spoke of swimming as like being kissed a thousand times every minute. There is a sensuality to it.” With whales, you see that sensuality in the water and, similar to us, they appear to engage in sex for its own sake, he says. “For me it seems leaving the sea for the land was our original sin. And the whales have kind of retraced that and gone back.”

Having been with the same publisher for the past five books, Hoare, who’s also a professor of creative writing at the University  of Southampton, no longer really pitches his books. Rather, he provides a synopsis and a contract is signed. “We both know it’s not going to be like that. They’re sending me off on this adventure. Like Sebald’s dog, I come back with the stories. It may not be the story that I intended to write, but it’s what’s happened.” He’s not one for a launch party. “People say it must be amazing publishing your book. It’s not, it’s awful, because the adventure’s stopped.”

Philip Hoare will be appearing at several events during WORD Christchurch from August 29, including a whale-watching trip.

This article was first published in the August 18, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.