Wednesday 5 October 2016

The Atlantic Ocean

In August, briefly, all my descendants were back home and I asked them to do triage on the 3,000 books in the house to see if any could be decluttered and put back into circulation where they might a) raise money for a worthy charity b) be read. The kids were very good and filled 3 or 4 fruit boxes of discards. I wanted to put them in the Cheekpoint Book Exchange, but that venerable and super handy institution had sustained a fatal encounter with a falling tree-branch. Nevertheless I took a modest handful of discarded nautical books down to my A1 pal Russ the proprietor. For luck I threw in A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, Simon Winchester's rather ripping story about the San Francisco Earthquake. Cheekpoint is round the corner from Dunmore East, where my grandfather was harbour-master from 1922 and 1947. Before he was The Gaffer of Dunmore's quayside, he'd restlessly travelled the world, serving in the army in the 2nd Boer War and then seeking his fortune in America.  He made, and lost, several fortunes out in the Wild West. At one point, he won a section of the Hollywood hills in a card-game, but he could never hold on to assets; he was always buying drinks for pretty women or everyone in the bar and he really wasn't very good at poker.

The grandfather could never pass a beggar in the street without giving something, remarking "I've been like that myself, m'boy, and may be again".  Between bouts of top-hat-and-tails, Grampa had indeed been a hobo, riding the rails to the next adventure. He was in San Francisco in 1906 when the city was destroyed by the earthquake and subsequent fire. We don't know if he was living it high at the time or currently without funds, but you may be sure he was kind and made himself useful in the disaster. My father was an only child and idolised this charismatic chancer. I'd love to know more about Grampa but you could see His Boy get sacked by the wrench of loss whenever he talked him, so we didn't like to press. My father is dead 15 years now, so that gate is closed.

ANNyway, in return for those books, I got the loan of Simon Winchester's Atlantic: a vast ocean of a million stories [reviewed Guardian, WaPo and everywhere else: Winchester's books will always get reviewed because he is One of Us]. I have finally finally finished reading this worthy tome after six weeks of titanic struggle. In the peculiarly fractal world of research and writing you can spend a couple of years and deliver 500 pages on the month of April 1906 in a few square kilometers of California  OR the same effort can be spread over 300 million years and a fifth of the Earth's surface. The hook and connexion between these two books is Geology, which Winchester read at Oxford [St Catherine's College] and which found him employed briefly in Uganda looking for copper and out in the North Sea looking for oil. He reckoned he could write at least as well as, say, James/Jan Morris, and blagged himself a job as Junior at The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne's local rag. That experience was parlayed into a post with the Guardian, covering The Troubles in Ireland and wars and scandals elsewhere and thereafter.

I'm sorry but I think that Atlantic is too big and wet a mouthful to be easily chewed and digested. And the title of Winchester's book includes <snit alert!> a woeful Arts Block hyperbole: ocean of a million stories? It's only 160,000 words, so does not even cover 1000 stories.  It reads a little scrappy because the scale transitions don't always work: the switches between, for example, the vast sigmoid curve of the mid-Atlantic ridge and Amerigo Vespucci bobbing about, or HMS Sheffield incandescent, on the surface too often come over as and now for something completely different. I suspect that the medium is wrong. Winchester is old school, older even than me, and has had a successful career writing chunky books. They get reviewed [see catty remark above] and that attention gets them sold and he makes a modest living on the royalties. We've been wrenched from that, essentially Victorian, model of writing and reading by Twitter, the blogosphere and the 6 minute youtube clip. It's much more difficult to monetise that medium, but it's even more, unsurpassably, difficult for a creative person in their 20s to get a contract to write a 500 page book. At least the index for Atlantic is reasonably comprehensive and functional.

It's like a bag of ideas and snippets that Winchester has been filing away for 30 years:
  • Greenland, Venezuela, Namibia, 
  • Halifax, Cadiz, Cape Town
  • Ailsa Craig, Martinique, Nantucket
  • Cod, murex, silver
  • Cabot, Maury, Cassius Dio
  • Challenger, Beagle, Mary Celeste
  • Hatteras, Bojador, Horn
. . . has been decluttered into a single book. Any and all of those, ringingly romantic, words could get 500 pages and none of them are allocated more than 5. YMMV, read real reviews in the papers? Nevertheless, I picked up one new name - Penny Chisholm - and that alone has made it worth reading the whole book.

No comments:

Post a Comment