Six Questions: Philip Hoare about the Sea and Swimming

My interview for The Island Review with British writer Philip Hoare, author of “Leviathan; or the Whale”, “The Sea Inside” and RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR. All these books you can borrow from the Sea Library.

Photo above by Andrew Sutton.

British writer Philip Hoare is a shape-shifter. Born under another name, that of a famous astronomer, he became Philip Hoare when he started to publish his writing in the 1980s. In his youth, Hoare inhabited an alternative underground scene in London. Nowadays, he dwells mostly in an underwater world: he swims in the ocean with whales, dolphins, seals and spirits of drowned artists, and writes about them when the tide sweeps him ashore. His last three books form a watery trilogy, a love song to the sea: Leviathan or, The Whale won the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction; The Sea Inside was published in 2013 and his most recent book, RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR, came out last year.

Has Philip Hoare changed that much over the decades? I wonder. His performances are still nocturnal, just as they were back in his clubbing days. He prefers to enter the sea at night, even in winter or  during storms. When he writes about life, he sounds like a curious boy; when he writes about death, it sounds like a lullaby. He’s an orphan, adopted by the sea.

On November 4 the John Hansard Gallery, in Hoare’s hometown of Southampton, will host I WAS A DARK STAR ALWAYS, a film installation written by Philip Hoare and directed by Adam Low, the BAFTA and Emmy award winning director of BBC films. Dedicated to the war poet and soldier, Wilfred Owen, who died one hundred years ago, on November 4 in 1918, aged just 25, it incorporates readings — by Ben Whishaw — of both letters and poems by Owen, and was filmed at key locations from Owen’s life, including the beach in Torquay where he swam as a child, and the canal in northern France where he died. The installation will be on view till January 25, 2019.

What role does water play in I WAS A DARK STAR ALWAYS and the life and death of the beautiful young man, Wilfred Owen?  

Wilfred’s love of water came from his father, Tom, who’d dress up as captain and roam Liverpool Docks. As a teenager, Wilfred swam in the great arc of a shingle beach, Meadfoot, in Torquay. Even during the war, when the Western Front where he fought turned into an evil sea, he dreamed of swimming. He was shipped back, shellshocked, to the beach at Netley, on Southampton Water where I live. His last act, like Icarus, was to fall into the water, in the canal at Ors, Northern France. I have swum at all these sites. At Meadfoot, I felt him standing next to me. At Netley, he swims with me in the darkness. As I approached Ors, I imagined a Stygian dark canal, a place of death. It was strange to stand in the vaulted brick cellar where Owen spent his last night. The claustrophobic space felt like some underwater cavern or medieval dungeon. But standing by the water, which I had so dreaded, the dawn mist rolled down, the leaves dropped in the still water like stars, and I slipped in too, and sang to him. Then I went to the village cemetery where he now lies, and I lay down on the turf above him, feeling his bones below. They had turned into something rich and strange.

I WAS A DARK STAR ALWAYS reclaims Owen from the terrible fatality and restores him to the sensual, ambitious, brilliantly modern artist he was, and would become.

A friend of mine commented that reading RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR is like having sex. Your relationship with the sea is very sensual, physical and tactile. You swim in the dark in every season, naked and liberated. But it also feels like a religious act, you sacrifice yourself to the sea gods every night under the moon and stars. Through your voice the sea is seductive and purifying at the same time. Sea is life and sea is death. Are these paradoxes a crucial part of the sea’s spell on you? And does the sea offer an escape of some sort?  

Every swim is a challenge to my mortality and my stupidity. They become ever more extreme with every season and every place. Last week I was in Madrid, 200 miles from the sea. But I went to the royal hunting ground and swam in a seventeenth-century lake. The water was thick and green, an inland sea. Later I was told there were vicious biting carp in it. I doubt they would have found me very tasty.

The sensuality of the sea is absolute. It receives like a lover and disdains like a lover too. I sometimes wonder if it has a memory, if it remembers me. But then I remember: the sea does not care. I was conceived by the sea; I was nearly born underwater (my father took my mother on a tour of a submarine when she was heavily pregnant with me, and she went into labour down there). I was born by the sea. But I didn’t reconcile myself to it until I learned to swim, aged 29, in an echoing Edwardian public swimming baths in the East End of London. Recently I saw a photograph of it, for the first time in thirty-five years. I realised it was ribbed and arched like the belly of a whale.

Ariel sang about sea-change in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, where the drowned father turned “into something rich and strange”: bones became corals and eyes became pearls. How sea has changed you and your world view?  

Despite what some people in our country thought they had voted for two years ago, the sea is not a barrier keeping people out. It is what connects us to the rest of the world. As an island we depend on it for everything, and always have. If this were a dry planet, where would we invest our souls? Where would we find our poetry? Where would I swim? I was connected to the sea by learning to live with it. But it is the shape of the whale that breaches that barrier, breaking through what Herman Melville called the ocean’s skin. It demonstrates the life down there, where 90% of the biomass on this planet resides. The sea is the biggest thing on Earth. It has sacrificed itself to our progress. We try to deafen and poison its organisms. Yet somehow it abides.  I don’t know whether it will survive. But we certainly can’t without it.

Herman Melville wrote in Moby-Dick that we all are watergazers. It’s the 21st century, and we still go down to the beach just to stare at the horizon. What draws us to the land’s edge?

Evolution: it’s where we came from. We first experienced life through the salty sea in our mother’s bellies, we heard the world through that ultimate inland sea. The magnetism of the water is both life-giving and taking. Nowadays people life in fear of it, as if it might drag them in, merely to walk beside it. It is the greatest disconnection between our arrogant selves and a greater power (the only earthly one to which I bow). We physically and psychologically turn our backs on it. Why should it bear such disrespect? When I was in Haiti a few years ago, a young Haitian man said that when he was a boy throwing stones into the sea, an old man suddenly appeared on the empty beach and said, Why are you doing that? You are disturbing the people who live down there.

Warming oceans and rising seas hit the headlines every week. Are you a pessimist or an optimist when talking about our swollen planet? What hurts you the most and what wings you with hope?  

I could list all those things here but I’d rather anyone reading this went out to their nearest water and prayed.

What ‘sea books’ would you save from flood to reread on the ark?

My bible, Moby-Dick. I read it as I would a missal or the Qu’ran.  You don’t even have to read it sequentially. It is a work of futurism before futurism was invented, as D.H. Lawrence said. Melville is the greatest poet and seer of the sea. He was also a great thief. Not only did he copy bits of other books into his own, he actually stole the books from the New York Public Library. When he addressed the heretical notion of extinction and the possibility that the whale might be wiped out by the relentless human hunt, he concluded that no, the world would be flooded anew, and the whale would swim over the Kremlin and the Tuilleries and spout his frothed defiance to the skies. If you haven’t read the book, shame on you — you haven’t grown up yet, to reach your inner child. Angela Cockayne and I curated an online reading of the book from Tilda Swinton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry, Mary Oliver, Fiona Shaw and many others — http://www.mobydickbigread.com — which is free, so you don’t have any excuse: it is read for you.

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Philip Hoare in Ors, Northern France, photographed by Martin Rosenbaum.