by Philip Hoare
374 pages, Fourth Estate
Review by Pat Black
The Sea Inside was an impulse buy – a symptom of the book-hoarding instinct I have which puts me in the same bracket as shoe addicts, philatelists and kleptomaniacs. Philip Hoare’s award-winning cetology book, Leviathan, was ready to topple off the shelf and plop onto my bedside table. Teetering, it was. Then I saw the follow-up in Waterstone’s, with its lovely green and white cover and quirky animal drawings, had to have it, and… yeah (whale whoop).
I’m getting help, honest.
The book doesn’t fit readily into any category. It is part travel book, part memoir, part natural history document. Its rough structure sees the author examining several different seas, figurative and literal, starting with the drizzly English Channel before heading to the cerulean waters of the Azores and Antipodes.
We begin with the author taking a swim in the sea off Southampton in a scene out of Turner, chilled in the gauzy dawn of a cold morning. From there he examines the wildlife he meets on the beaches and cliff tops, from seals to oystercatchers to squawking ravens. The latter creatures enthral Hoare, and he pays particular attention to their Encephalitic Quotient, determined by their high brain-to-body ratios (“my favourite animal”). We look at the raven’s mythological background, that great favourite of writers throughout the centuries in all her gothic finery.
This might then spin off into a quick biographical sketch of less-well-known naturalists of the past, all the way back to St Cuthbert on the Farnes, who loved the birds with the ardour of St Francis of Assisi while dodging Viking arrows.
Hoare also looks at the lives of people who collected or sought to document animals, and the occasionally immoral methods employed to help advance the boundaries of scientific knowledge. He takes us through early efforts at setting up animal menageries in Victorian London, and our hearts break at the plight of poor Chunee the elephant, kept in a cage equivalent to a human being “cooped up in a coffin”, for the great unwashed to gawp at for the price of a penny or two. In scenes lovingly rendered in the newspapers of the day, the giant pachyderm accidentally crushed an attendant, and was peppered with bullets and skewered with spears for his trouble. In scenes that foreshadowed a similar miserable end in George Orwell’s “Shooting An Elephant”, the big guy didn’t die until hours later, and his very flesh and bones suffered further indignities. Compassion is not always our strong suit when it comes to our relationship with the natural world. But there were some people outraged at Chunee’s treatment, and attitudes slowly changed as a result of this great wrinkly martyr.
Cruelty, cultural superiority and immorality also extend to our fellow humans, and Hoare also examines the disgusting treatment meted out to the Australian aborigines, with collectors offering big prices for their skeletons to display in polite society.
Forgotten creatures are sketched for us, too, including the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, as well as the monstrous giant Moa bird of New Zealand – real creatures thought to be extinct, but still rumoured to be living in forgotten parts of the world. Hoare tempts us with titbits of cryptozoology, examining encounters with these supposedly long-gone animals (but never within reach of a camera, unfortunately). Hoare’s reasoning in including this material is that we know a narwhal exists, though we’ve never seen it, while people dismissed the first specimen of platypus as a hoax. Life contains infinite possibilities, he suggests.
The author can’t stay away from his beloved whales, and there are numinous encounters with these great flesh-bergs, from sperm whales off the Azores to the gargantuan blue whales surfacing near Sri Lanka. Hoare’s fine prose reaches a crescendo in encountering these surreal, unhurried giants, and I viewed the prints of him snorkelling near a sperm whale and her calf with some envy.
There’s also time to examine the hilariously over-sexed world of the dolphin, some of whom form teeming erotic frescoes that would rival the walls of an ancient Roman brothel. Hoare’s curiosity also delves into the very guts of whales – the sea inside them – and efforts to classify these great beasts in the 19th century when carcasses were very difficult to come by for dissection.
The Sea Inside doesn’t follow any conventional lines. Perhaps that’s a big reason why I loved it so much. It cuts across the dimensions, a feeling akin to going snorkelling or Scuba diving with dull gravity’s anchor lifted, and the joy this immersion can inspire. Although we’re never far away from the author’s thoughts and feelings, his past does not take up too much of our time compared to his experiences above and below the surface of seas around the world. It’s a wonderful piece of work, in terms of its scholarship as well as the sheer pleasure it invokes of time spent in commune with the natural world.
It’s a strange journey, and a pleasant surprise. It reaffirmed the idea that, no matter how brutal it might seem to us, the consolations of the natural world, like art, are endless. I would place The Sea Inside in the same pacific place as Tim Ecott’s Neutral Buoyancy - an indispensable piece of work for people with an interest in the natural world, particularly the element that covers most of our planet.
Onwards now to Leviathan.