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Published On: Sun, Aug 6th, 2017

RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR by Philip Hoare review a love of the sea

In the third of a remarkable trilogy, Hoare tells stories of people and water, from Sylvia Plaths love of the Atlantic to submariners trapped in an air pocket

A storm sends waves as tall as houses rushing up a beach near Southampton. They breach the sea wall, pushing aside blocks of stone. Spray reaches the tops of trees. Philip Hoare, faced with flying shingle and a wall of water, decides after some consideration not to take his morning swim. But the following day he is out in the water amid floating doors and tree trunks. Heswims every day if he can. Anxiety builds up if he is not sure how he can get his daily fix. He swims with sperm whales. Deep down, one twists to look up at him. Tohear the song of a nearby humpback whale, he hangs upside-down in the water, imitating the whales posture. His body throbs with the sound. In harbour waters, he touches ahuge seal, its back green with algae. At Cape Cod, he swims as the air drops to minus 20. In Bantry Bay, clouds of jellyfish surround him, and he swims into them, feeling their stings as tiny penetrating caresses.

Leviathan, published in 2008, established Hoare as a leading writer about the ocean and its creatures. That book moves between Hoares love of whales, their place in industrial history and the western imagination, and his encounters with them in the water. Like many new nature writers, Hoare entwines genres that have traditionally been separate. His books mix personal memoir with science, history, cultural commentary and poetic description. It is a method that recognises our need, in this time of ecological crisis, for bridges between the immediate stories of our personal lives and the great processes described by scientists. Howcan the two connect?

Hoare is interested in how people fasten on to the things that become their focus. A person feels adrift in the open world. Something takes their attention, immediately or with gathering force, and the person becomes fascinated. Their interest is asingle field, which they can explore, becoming expert, but it also has paths that lead in all directions. In finding this interest, theindividual has begun to create apersonal poetry, a source of images that grow in meaning as the person changes. This fastening on to asubject often occurs in childhood, but Hoares passion for the sea and its animals was ignited later.

In his teens, he had developed adifferent fascination. He loved DavidBowie, and other male pop stars,actorsand models who wore makeup, spoke wittily and dressed beautifully. Bowie was the most important. In the church where Hoare kneeled as a boy, glass altarpieces and Stations of the Cross featured pale, androgynous figures in the style of Aubrey Beardsley. Hoare loved and feared them. Later he learned that theycamefrom the Dublin studio founded by Henry Patrick Clarke, a Celtic twilight decadent artist whose sexually suggestive designs included mermaids, creeping tentacles, jellyfish,seaweed and barnacles. Hoares first books wereabout male aesthetes and dandies, self-fashioners such as OscarWilde (another strong sea-swimmer), Nol Coward and Stephen Tennant, whose artful compositions ofpersonal style playedwith gender identity and challenged conventional masculinity.

These men made themselves into exquisitely stylised works of art that seemed to stand apart from rude nature, too fragile for its touch. But this is another traditional separation that Hoare rejects. He finds no incompatibility between loving wild nature and loving ironic artifice. In his own life, and in the art and literature he values, the two experiences are intertwined. They ask each other questions. The old separation is one we can now ill afford.

Landscape
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel Photograph: Alamy

More than any book he has written before, RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR brings Hoares two fascinations together. The image that presides is the fall of Icarus. Sky and sea mirror each other, as the small figure flashes from one to the other. Above and below, there are depths into which we can vanish and from which strange visitors emerge. Hoare reproduces Bruegels painting, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, in which, famously, the splash and the disappearing legs are a detail in the background, hard to find scenes of workaday life. Just before that, we have Hoare swimming in Walden pond and describing Henry David Thoreaus efforts to plumb it. Then, after the Bruegel, comes the story of Nicolas Roegs film The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which Bowie Hoare calls him the starman played an alien in disguise. The book moves from story to story like this.

There is The Tempest, with its imagined transformation of the bodies of drowned sailors into coral and pearl. For Hoare this vision is deeply Bowie-esque. He turns from Shakespeares play to real-life disasters and revelations at sea, and to his own encounters with sea creatures. Interspersed with these, throughout the book, are stories of writers touched by the sea. The practice of combining memoir with short biography has recently become familiar. It gives the memoirist a foil, someone in the past who had similar concerns yet important differences, which the comparison reveals. Hoare goes further, giving us a procession of lives, each of which fills the foreground, seems spacious, and then, like Bruegels Icarus, recedes into the crowded world. With its joined words, Hoares title enacts this process, naming great motions of life but making them into one stream.

There are many Icarus figures: we have Virginia Woolfs watery suicide; Shelleys death in a sudden storm; Sylvia Plaths love of the freakish Atlantic; Elizabeth Barrett, whose brother drowned when his yacht sank off Torquay; and Wilfred Owen, tentatively beginning to know his sexuality on a series of beach holidays, bathing in the fair green Channel in his last hours before leaving for the war, and dying on a raft crossing a battlefield canal. This last story, especially, is told with a moving, lyrical care.

Herman Melville and Thoreau thread their way through the book. Many stories turn from the vast openness of the sea to a catastrophic opposite, when history or personal story narrows to no space at all. In 1927, a submarine sank off New England after a collision. Six men lived on for three days in an air pocket, receiving and tapping out messages. Part of the horror is the paradox, the combination of time passing slowly and time running out. We see the immense world and the sealed trap together. Throughout, without avoiding such horrors, Hoare conveys a redemptive sense of the wide, continuous and beautiful world, in a remarkable book that sometimes feels rather loosely fitted together, but is always rich andstrange.

RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR is published by 4th Estate. To order a copy for 14.44 (RRP 16.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/aug/05/risingtidefallingstar-philip-hoare-revuew

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RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR by Philip Hoare review a love of the sea