Monday, February 11, 2013

Water - the Sea Roads

"Invert the mental map you have of Britain, Ireland, and Western Europe. Turn it inside out. Blank out the land interiors of these countries - consider them featureless, as you might previously have considered the sea. Instead, populate the western and northern waters with paths and tracks:  a travel system that joins port to port, island to island, headland to headland, river mouth to river mouth. The sea has become the land, in that it is now the usual medium of transit: not barrier but corrridor." (p. 93)
Britain as a whole has had a long history of seafaring. Daphne du Maurier decribes in Vanishing Cornwall how Phoenician ships would trade with the earlier inhabitants of Cornwall for tin. The earlier Irish story of Deirdre described how she and her lover fled over the sea to Scotland to escape her unwanted husband, the King Connor Mac Nessa. An Irish monk, St. Brendan, legendarily sailed from Ireland to America on his leather boat. The early Celtic saints frequently sailed on boats to remote islands and founded monasteries. The Vikings invaded Ireland, Scotland, and northern England by boat, and Viking kings ruled England. Even the Norman king, William the Conqueror, was a descendant of the Vikings and invaded using longboats.

In the Water section, Macfarlane sails around the Scottish Hebrides with a seafaring poet named Ian Stephen. Ian, who thinks of and describes himself as a poet, also sails the sea roads in order to support himself and because he genuinely loves doing so. As well as being a good poet (I prefered the excepts of Ian's poems to those of Edward Thomas) he also seems to be a fascinating man. He knows a wide variety of people, is an excellent sailor, and is as knowledgable about the history of the sea roads as he is of sailing on them.

I found this section of the book disappointing as I was more interested in Ian Stephen and his life and writings than I was in Macfarlane's experiences on the boat and on an island. The narrative stalled and became dull when Ian was gone from it. I wished that Macfarlane, who is not a sailor, had focused more on his companion.

To me, the best part of the Water section was when Macfarlane suggested that we look at an atlas in reverse and concentrate only on the parts of the world that are connected by water. As a result, the Hebrides, for example, become no longer remote islands cut off from the rest of the world, but way stations in a busy sea travel hub. Reversing the map shifts the perspective to one that is less land-centric.


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