In the company of both seafarers and writers, poet and novelist Owen Sheers sets off to discover whether there is anything that unites the great British sea stories.
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The sea, the vast sea.
Exciting and challenging.
Or, as the writer William Golding put it, "beautiful, grand, tremendous...
"God, it's hateful!"
As an island nation, "This sceptr'd isle," to use Shakespeare's phrase,
"bound in with the triumphant sea",
it's not surprising that the British,
and British writers in particular,
have had such a close relationship with the waters around them.
The sea has been our farm, our highway, our playground
and, too often, our cemetery.
It's shaped our culture, moulded us as individuals,
and it's also fired the imaginations
of extraordinary writers since the earliest days of literature.
"The waves of the sea are mighty,"
says the Prayer Book, "and rage terribly."
Those words were written in the 1600s, but to me, they still seem
to tremble with the effort of trying to capture the sea's power.
And it's that, as a writer, which really fascinates me.
Words and the sea.
How do authors and poets find the right words to conjure up,
and to capture, all of this?
"Break, break, break, On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
"And I would that my tongue could utter
"The thoughts that arise in me."
"Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack
"Butting through the Channel in the mad March days."
The sea has been a muse
that's inspired all kinds of writers through the ages.
Lyric and epic poems,
stories of swashbuckling and piracy, dark tales of immorality.
From Shakespeare to Robert Louis Stevenson,
from Joseph Conrad to Patrick O'Brian, the list of British
sea writers features some of the best in the language.
But why exactly has the sea been of such enduring interest to them?
In this programme, I want to find out if there's something which
unites our sea literature, something that explains this fascination.
Is it because venturing out to sea is the ultimate test, perhaps?
Or because, once at sea, all pretence is stripped away
to reveal what we're really like?
Put bluntly, is it because going out to sea
in some way fundamentally changes us?
The library of sea literature is remarkably varied and huge.
So to give my research some clarity, I'll be focusing on how
British writers have described and imagined the sea.
At the heart of the British sea story is the sailing ship.
Square-rigged tall ships, built with thousands of English oak
trees, once came to symbolise Britain's maritime supremacy.
So many of the great battles of history, the battles that defined
Britain's imperial power,
have taken place on the high seas in ships like these.
So what better setting could there be for a gripping sea story?
That's why Patrick O'Brian chose the Napoleonic Wars as his backdrop
when he started writing his celebrated series of novels in 1970.
As a writer, Nelson's battles with the French provided O'Brian
with a ready-made theatre on an epic scale.
The hero of these stories, the most written about sea captain
in the whole of British sea literature, is Jack Aubrey.
O'Brien's series of 20 novels about Aubrey
sold over 3 million copies before his death in 2000.
He was once described as
the greatest historical novelist of all time,
a big claim, and one that rests on O'Brian's vivid evocation of life
on a Man of War in Nelson's navy.
He captures the period in in extraordinary detail.
The weapons, the food, the way people talk.
And, in Aubrey's botanist friend, Stephen Maturin,
the role of the sea and sailing in scientific exploration.
The stories are more famous for their characterisation
and their detailed description
of 19th century life than they are for their dramatic action.
So when they came to make the movie, Master And Commander,
Hollywood had to raid several of the novels
to create the action-packed film.
The harrowing flogging scene, for example,
was taken from the tenth novel, The Far Side Of The World.
This dramatic episode finds Jack and his friend Stephen locked in the
kind of moral debate a sea captain was frequently forced to encounter.
Do you not see? The only things that keep
this little wooden world together are hard work, discipline...
Jack, the man failed to salute.
There's hierarchies even in nature, as you've often said.
This is no disdain in nature. There is no humiliation...
Men must be governed.
Often not wisely, I will grant you,
but they must be governed none the less.
That's the excuse of every tyrant in history. From Nero to Bonaparte.
"The first stroke jerked an "Oh, my God" out of Nagel.
"But after that the only sound, apart from the solemn count,
"was the hiss and the impact.
"Near Stephen, those youngsters who had never seen
"a serious flogging before were looking frightened and uneasy.
"And over the way, amongst the hands, he saw big Padeen Colman
"weeping openly, tears of pity
"coursing down his simple, kindly face."
Cut him down.
So how does the screen version match up to the novels?
I'm meeting David Cordingly
maritime historian and devoted reader of O'Brian's work.
I wondered what he thought of the Hollywood treatment.
The best battle scenes, I don't think have ever been done better.
I've watched Errol Flynn's battles and
reconstructions of Trafalgar, and that sort of thing,
and they're always stagey.
But what Peter Weir did in this film was to create battle scenes
that are as vivid and as authentic as any that I've read about.
And I've read a lot about sea battles.
What he does is,
he creates that feeling of noise and confusion and limbs being torn apart.
And yet, in the midst of that,
the crew getting on with the job and the captain knowing
what commands to give, in spite of being blasted in all directions.
And that's quite an achievement, to do that in a movie.
-At least, sir.
We're going to have to get closer to poke his eye.
-Run-out the starboard battery.
Mr Allen! Come up on the wind.
-On the wind, sir?.
-Lay me alongside a pistol shot.
He's a very different kind of Aubrey in the film, isn't he?
Yes, he is. The Aubrey that Patrick O'Brian creates is a big man.
He's six foot, 16 stone, a rather burly figure.
He's described as having flaxen hair
and a sort of florid complexion and piercing blue eyes.
And he's a bit sort of clumsy on land,
but get him on a ship, and he knows exactly what to do.
And what is interesting,
comparing him with Russell Crowe, Russell Crowe does have what
Aubrey has, which is this sense of command and of leadership.
Lads! It's not good enough.
We had to fire two broadsides to her one.
Do you want to see a guillotine in Piccadilly? ALL: No!
Do you want to called that raggedy arse Napoleon your king? ALL: No!
Do you want your children to sing the Marseillaise? ALL: No!
'The great thing about sea novels, and Patrick O'Brien's more than any
'other, is that he creates a world of its own, that you believe in.
'I mean, that's his gift.'
O'Brian's novels powerfully illustrate how the sea can provide
a writer with an ideal setting for conflict,
and how people's natures tend to change at sea.
They can grow or shrink in stature,
become successes or failures, heroes or villains.
But it doesn't require a battle
between men to bring about this sort of change.
The sea itself can be the enemy.
"A big foaming sea came out of the mist
"It made for the ship, roaring wildly
"And in its rush it looked as mischievous and discomposing
"as a madman with an axe."
In any half-good sea story, there's nearly always a voyage on a ship.
The characters on board are often like a microcosm of society.
All sorts of people, of every class, who are going
off to war, or to trade
or to run some outpost of the British colonies.
Once on board, it soon becomes clear that,
in setting sail, they've entered a different world.
So, since a sea voyage is a fundamental part of sea fiction,
I thought I'd better get a taste of one myself.
Some writers describe the sea voyage as a transgression,
as if going to sea were not what man is meant to do,
and something for which he will perhaps be punished.
It's true that once the ropes are loosed and reeled in on deck,
and the ship begins to pull away from the quay,
there is a sense that all ties with the land are being cut.
Anything could happen now.
As I spend some time on this ship, I hope to get closer to the
physical and emotional experiences that sea literature draws upon.
I'm going to get you doing the hard work.
Thanks. That's what it should be about.
All right. That's tight.
-Do you need a hand with that?
The first thing you notice is that, once at sea,
you have to learn a new kind of language.
The novelist William Golding, had a name for it, "Tarpaulin".
Heave! Two six! Heave! And why do you call it the two six?
The two six were the men who hauled the guns, apparently.
So somebody would shout "Two six! Heave!"
and basically they had to pull the guns in at that point.
It's only when you get involved that you begin to realise that the entire
ship can only run if everyone does their job at exactly the same time.
You also realise that it's a lot more physical than it looks.
I suppose, for me, the writer who best understands the alien nature of
the sea, the sea as enemy, is the Polish-born Joseph Conrad.
He was a sailor himself,
serving in the British merchant navy for 16 years.
The Nigger Of The Narcissus,
a title few writers would feel comfortable using today,
is a story based on a real ship in which Conrad sailed in 1884.
The book is about the how tough, self-reliant sailors are transformed
by the plight of one of their comrades.
The focus of the story is a seasoned black sailor named Jimmy Wait
who, when he boards the Narcissus, appears to be dying.
Jimmy has a brooding presence,
and begins to acquire a kind of superstitious significance,
when a storm hits the ship.
"The coming wave towered close-to and high,
"like a wall of green glass topped with snow.
"The ship rose to it as though she had soared on wings
"and, for a moment, rested poised upon the foaming crest
"as if she had been a great sea-bird."
In Conrad's time, the heyday of sail,
a hurricane force storm could be a catastrophe.
Survival depended partly on the ship, but also on the crew.
"The men's feet flew from under them,
"and they hung kicking above the slanting poop.
"They could see the ship putting her side in the water,
"and shouted all together, 'She's going!'"
So to what extent did Conrad's personal history
influence his writing?
I've been joined on board by the president
of the Joseph Conrad Society, Laurence Davies.
How exactly does Conrad's experience as a sailor feed into his fiction?
It feeds in, because he understands so well how a sailing ship works,
how a crew works, or doesn't work.
The accidents, and so on, that can happen to a ship.
Again, all the stories that he has picked up and heard,
that all comes in there as well.
I think I'm right in saying that in writing the stories, one
of his aims was almost to provide a voice for these inarticulate seamen.
Yes, I think that's very much the case.
He talked about that in the preface of The Nigger, for example.
And he talks about rendering justice.
He's also tackling very big issues.
He's very interested in the vastness of the sea.
There are these moments where a character or characters
are terrified by the hugeness of the universe.
The sailors have come to believe that their own lives
are somehow tied up with Jimmy's.
So, when the storm strikes, and Jimmy is trapped under a bulwark,
drowning in a rush of stormwater, it's vital that they rescue him.
"We only heard the deep hum and moan of the wind above us,
"the mingled roar and hiss of the seas.
"Belfast clamoured," For the love of God, Jimmy, where are ye?
"'Knock! Jimmy darlint... Knock!
"'You bloody black beast. Knock!'
"He was as quiet as a dead man inside a grave,
"and like men standing above a grave,
"we were on the verge of tears."
The normally buried compassion of the sailors
is brought out by their own superstitious concern for Jimmy.
Conrad always claimed to be sceptical, but he certainly has some
moments where people are enormously worried,
by what seems to be uncanny and sinister.
It would seem to me that he was very aware
of the supernatural quality of the sea.
If you think of the importance of Jim Wait's life to the whole ship,
is it not fair to say
he was actually very aware of that superstitious element of seafaring?
He's aware of it but he always gives you an escape in some way.
There is the wonderful scene where James Wait is being buried at sea.
-They lift the planks and the corpse won't move.
-It won't leave the ship?
No. And people are looking at each other
and saying that he doesn't want to leave us.
But then a few pages later,
the captain and one of the officers are talking, and they are talking
about the nail that the carpenter has left in the board,
which is what the body is actually snagged on.
Conrad's one of those writers
that brings out the atheist in the atheist,
the believer in the believer and the agnostic in the agnostic.
And there's a bit of all those things.
It's intriguing how, despite the story's racist language,
this hardened crew share an almost
sentimental concern for their weakened comrade.
So does a drama at sea always bring out what we're really like?
Or is that the stuff of fiction?
It's easy for someone like me to assume
that the way literature describes crises at sea is accurate,
but I'd really like to know how authentic these stories are.
I've never been a sailor, so I can only imagine what it must
be like to be under sail in a hurricane force storm.
How do you overcome your fear when your boat is capsized?
How do you find the strength, not just the physical,
but the mental as well, to make the right decisions?
What does a storm at sea actually do to you?
So, in the real world of the sea,
is it every man for himself?
To get some idea of the reality of a storm,
I'm meeting up with round-the-world yachtsman, Pete Goss.
If you come right up here
and look at the sale, you can get a real sense of the power of the boat.
In 1996, a couple of days before Christmas,
Pete was competing in the gruelling
single-handed Vendee Globe Yacht Race,
when he realised that some truly atrocious weather
was about to hit him.
I was deep in the Southern Ocean, south of Australia,
and we had a very big storm coming in.
And the worst thing about a storm
is the anticipation as you watch the pressure dropping.
There's nothing you can do, there's nowhere to run away and hide.
And once you are in a storm,
of course, you are up to your ears in mud and bullets.
It dropped 36 millibars in 24 hours,
and I'd never seen that before.
I'd never actually heard of it.
The boat was knocked down three times. If you imagine a
big breaking wave picking up the boat and slamming it on its side.
We were twice nearly pitch-poled, which is cartwheeled.
The noise is incredible.
You get this scream, a very loud noise, and
a spume of water which is basically torn off the surface of the sea,
and it's bouncing and banging around, and you get very tired.
It's pretty full-on.
Yes, it sounds it.
I stumbled back down below
and came down to this very shrill alarm.
And it was a Mayday. There was another competitor in the same storm,
a guy called Raphael Dinelli,
who had gone down a huge wave,
the boat had cartwheeled and landed upside down and
he was trapped inside and it wouldn't come upright for about three hours.
It eventually came up and he let his emergency beacon off.
That sends out a Mayday, which means it is a life-threatening situation.
So that's the only information that had come off the boat.
So it was at that point that you made the decision to turn back into
the storm that you have already been in, to go back and try and save him?
Yeah. Actually, I don't think it was my decision. I think it was laid down
many years ago by a tradition of the sea.
-It actually took two days fight back to Raphael.
Two days, yes.
So when you got back there two days later,
what kind of physical state was Raphael in?
He was in a hell of a state.
It's funny, I fought all the way back,
and once I got to sort of close proximity of the raft,
suddenly this great sense of dread crept in.
Having got here, what am I going to find? Will there be a body in it?
Will he be badly injured? But this little head popped up.
I dragged him on board, and I knelt down
and we had this little hug.
I will never forget his eyes.
All you could see of Raphael was his eyes in the survival suit,
and you can see into somebody's soul in the right circumstances.
I kept close medical records,
they think he had about 10 hours to live.
And we only just got there in time.
Do you think that you were, in some way, a different person when you
came out of that storm experience to the man who went into it?
I came back with this great sense of inner peace,
and it sustained itself.
I don't really know where it came from, and we all like to think we'd
make the right decision, but I don't think you necessarily know.
And it seems to me that if you keep chipping away at life
you will eventually come to this clear and simple crossroads,
and that is that you either
stand by your morals and principles, or you don't.
The experience of rescuing Raphael in a Force 11 storm
clearly changed Pete,
and gave him a fresh perspective
both on life and the power of the sea.
In its changeability, its moods, the sea is almost human.
It can be gentle as a baby.
But when it's angry,
when it's pounding in your ears, it's the sound of all history.
For Joseph Conrad in literature and Pete Goss in real life,
the sea is a transformational force.
Characters real and invented are changed by being at sea.
So, has the idea of transformation
always been the backbone of stories about the sea?
Margaret Elphinstone is the author of nine novels,
including The Sea Road, which re-works a Viking saga,
and Hy Brasil, a story set on a mythical island in the mid-Atlantic.
She's continuing in the 21st century
a truly ancient tradition of sea writing.
It seems to me that there is an especially strong template
for a lot of sea literature.
There is often the voyage, the rites of passage.
Can you identify any early texts
that really lays down for us what a sea story would be?
Well, the Odyssey isn't a bad precedent, is it?
That's the earliest I can think of.
And it is the sea story par excellence,
because it is a whole thing of adventure, survival,
certainly a transformative experience
that you are going into this other element on this endless voyage.
There's an element of The Old Man And The Sea about it.
Are you ever going to get home? Or the Ancient Mariner.
You can see how it has informed the sea story since.
What do you feel the sea really gives you as an author?
I notice that I'm drawn to it again and again,
and I haven't written a single book in which the sea doesn't appear.
If I ask myself why this is, I think it is because
it makes it possible to have a journey
for your characters which focuses and changes everything for them.
Going to sea IS transformative.
It IS a rite of passage.
You actually go into another element.
Your life is the ship, being on board it, and all the clutter
of multi-tasking life has been left behind.
It's really come home to me now how isolated you are at sea
from the familiar things that make you feel safe.
The change can be challenging.
Stories of the sea suggest
that's certainly the case at the physical level,
but the sea can challenge your reason as well.
It can play tricks on your mind.
I think the story that deals best with that theme
of psychic transformation is one of the great
poems of English Romanticism,
The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
"Alone, alone, all all alone
"Alone on the wide, wide sea
"And Christ would take no pity on
"My soul in agony."
The sea is a wilderness.
Once you're out on the open ocean, there's literally nothing to see
except for a vast sky and an apparently endless expanse of water.
It's the kind of environment that can promote spiritual reflection,
but also despair as well.
And perhaps because of this, it's also been a place that,
from the very earliest stories,
writers have seen the supernatural occurring.
As Joseph Conrad would say,
"Trust the high seas to bring out the irrational in man."
Or in other words, it can drive you mad.
Coleridge published The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner in 1798.
It tells a story of psychic disturbance.
The mariner's ship is struck by a storm,
and as it's driven south to the Antarctic, an albatross appears.
In the cold and mist, amidst the growling ice,
the mariner shoots the albatross dead with his crossbow
and a curse then falls on the ship.
"And I had done a hellish thing
"And it would work 'em woe
"For all averr'd, I had kill'd the Bird
"That made the breeze to blow."
The mariner's ship loses the wind
and is becalmed in the heat of the sun amidst a rotting sea.
"Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down
"'Twas sad as sad could be."
Well, as you can see, I'm currently climbing the rigging,
but thankfully not in the old-fashioned way.
But even doing it like this,
you get a real sense of what it must have been like for
those sailors to have to climb the rigging on those tall sailing ships.
There are all sorts of creaking and squeaks
which you just don't hear from down there on deck.
To be honest, I thought
it would be
more frightening than it is. At the moment,
it's rather lovely.
I'm almost at the top,
at which point I'm going to have to work out exactly how I come down.
I'm doing this with no wind at all.
I mean, this is practically
Coleridge's image of "the painted ship on the painted ocean".
"Day after day
"Day after day
"We stuck, nor breath, nor motion
"As idle as a painted ship
"Upon a painted ocean."
The crew are stranded.
"Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink".
And then, out of the mist, a shape appears.
A ship, perhaps?
"Are those her ribs through which the sun
"Did peer, as through a grate?
"And is that woman all her crew?
"Is that a Death?
"And are there two?
"Is Death that woman's mate?"
As the men on deck begin to die,
cast down one by one by the Ship of Death,
the sea takes on a haunting, sinister quality.
It comes to represent the stark desperation
of being hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles from anywhere.
This ship is giving me a very strong memory of a trip I once
took on a cargo boat through the eastern islands of Fiji.
And on that trip we quite often
wouldn't see any land for days on end.
And I think, because of that,
there were lines from the Ancient Mariner
that kept coming back into my mind again and again.
I've also got a very strong memory
of waking up in the middle of the night,
more than once, and having a very sudden realisation
of just how incredibly isolated we were.
And how dependent we were on this somewhat ramshackle boat
for our safety, in the middle of nowhere.
It was an exhilarating experience,
but also a pretty frightening one as well.
The Mariner makes it safely home,
but he has been fundamentally changed by his experience,
and he's for ever doomed to tell and re-tell his harrowing tale.
"Since then in an uncertain hour
"Now oftimes and now fewer
"That anguish comes and makes me tell
"My ghastly adventure."
So, was Coleridge ahead of his time
in recognising that the loneliness of
the sea can distort our perception of reality?
I've arranged to meet Neil Weston,
a psychologist who studied the effects of stress and isolation
on people who have faced the perils of the sea.
I've been hearing stories from some very experienced seaman about
sometimes people hallucinating on board boats.
I was just wondering if you could tell me a bit about that,
because I assume that is a consequence
of that type of patterns of sleep deprivation and a change in diet.
Yes, I think so. The fact that they were away for long periods of time
with very little sleep in a very physically demanding environment,
and some individuals in the past
have not maybe taken as much food on board,
and therefore they have had to ration their food,
and as a consequence they are not
getting enough energy in to deal with the different demands that they have.
It is interesting that under conditions
when the weather is actually very good but there is no wind,
it is those conditions where the skippers
have less sleep, because they are continually trying to find the wind
to get the boat moving again.
So if you combine the lack of sleep under those circumstances,
plus the anxiety that is associated with that
and they don't maybe eat as effectively,
it results in them getting into an hallucinogenic state.
They begin to feel that somebody else is on board,
or hear somebody, or smelling coffee, for instance,
when they know they don't have any coffee on board.
Quite bizarre sort of sensory experiences
which their mind is telling them they
shouldn't be experiencing, but they feel that is a very real experience
that they are actually having.
I think Neil Weston's comments throw some light
not only on Coleridge's poem, but on the
changes in behaviour that seem to occur in most sea literature.
What's really starting to come clear for me
is that these great stories of the sea are often about people
who go through a significant change as a consequence of a crisis at sea.
They are characters are forced to face the type of challenges
that most of us on land would never have to.
You can't avoid a problem at sea.
You can't run away from it.
It's a great leveller, in that respect.
When a storm hits a ship, then everyone's in the same danger.
The crew of the Narcissus, the companions of the Ancient Mariner,
they're all in it together.
And to get through it, they're thrown back, not just on their own,
but on each other's innermost resources.
Of course, it's not just the crews of sailing ships
who face the challenges of the sea.
The passengers do too.
And it is the sea's capacity to unhinge an otherwise sane clergyman
that interests the Nobel prize-winning author
in his 1980 novel Rites Of Passage.
It's the first book in his acclaimed sea trilogy
To The Ends Of The Earth.
And it explores a modern and disturbing example
of the transformation theme.
It's a novel which, I think,
brings together two of Golding's most
personal preoccupations, the sea and morality.
The dominant metaphor in the novel
is that the sea is a theatre for dramatic events.
"Everyone was looking forward to the great, unknown part of the ship
"where the people were indulging in whatever sport was afoot.
"We were spectators and there, interruptedly seen beyond the boats
"on the boom and the huge cylinder of the mainmast, was the stage."
Rites of Passage is set two centuries ago
on a sailing ship bound for Australia.
It has two narrators,
Edmund Talbot, a young aristocrat about to take up a government post,
and the Reverend James Colley,
who records his voyage in a daily letter to his sister.
Talbot tells us about the ship's characters, a microcosm of the
English class system, a colonial servant, a governess, a farrier.
Typical, and unremarkable.
But the life of the ship changes when, to everyone's surprise,
Colley appears to get drunk and frolics around
half-naked with an ordinary seaman.
"This fellow was supporting Mr Colley,
"whose head lay back on the man's breast.
"As the curious pair came uncertainly past the mainmast,
"Mr Colley pushed back so that they stopped.
"It was evident that his mind
"had become only lightly linked to his understanding.
"He appeared to be in a state of extreme and sunny enjoyment."
Edmund Talbot sees Colley as a kind of carnival entertainer
and the ship as a theatre in which he plays.
But the next morning however, the mood is more sombre.
Mr Colley is a changed man and refuses to come on back on stage.
After several days immured in his cabin, Colley dies, at which point
Talbot discovers the letters he'd been writing to his sister.
In reading these letters,
he realises how badly he'd misjudged Colley,
how he was much more someone to be pitied than mocked.
Something about the sea voyage had turned Colley's mind,
and the drunken cavorting turns out to be much more significant
than Talbot had first thought.
Whilst drunk, Colley had performed a homosexual act,
the memory of which appals him when he wakes the next morning.
In the end, in his final scene in the ship's drama,
he dies from an overwhelming sense of personal shame.
Why did Golding zero in on this idea of a ship as theatre?
There's something very theatrical about ships.
The rituals, the conventions and so on,
about how you move, how you talk,
the captain on the quarterdeck, uninterruptible.
The ringing of the bells at measured intervals, and the actual
crucial episode, where the Reverend Colley is persecuted,
is based on the ritual of crossing the line,
which was carried on in the Royal Navy
and the Merchant Navy for centuries.
By the line you actually mean the equator?
Yes. And did you think about the way that anthropologists
talk about rights of passage, they use that
metaphor of the threshold, where the rules don't hold, and you misbehave.
And the one rule is that you must break the rules.
The story is also, a much more subtle, perhaps,
rite of passage for Talbot himself.
Because he begins as this objective observer,
as if he is watching the play.
But really, by the end of the novel,
he has become one of the players, hasn't he?
Yes, and there is a series of unveilings.
There's that extraordinary and brilliant turn
when we start to read Colley's long,
long, long letter and you realise that he is not simply this pathetic
victim, but a victim with great talent
and a great gift for seeing things,
and seeing things that Talbot hasn't seen.
There are extraordinary seascape passages, for example,
in that Colley letter. They are quite wonderful.
Which you feel very strongly
are coming from the core of Golding as a writer.
He was a writer who had a huge respect for the sea, didn't he?
Where did that respect come from?
It came especially from his service in the Navy in the second world war.
He was in charge of a rocket ship on D-Day,
and he was a keen amateur sailor after that.
I think he had a very significant experience
in the English Channel in that respect, when he was in real danger.
A boat he'd just bought was hit by a Japanese freighter,
and she sank, and Golding and his wife and the others
on the ship didn't know whether they were going to survive.
This is quite a difficult question,
but what do you think it is that the sea
really gives Golding as a novelist?
It seems to me that he wouldn't have been the writer
that he was unless he'd had that experience at sea.
The thing he couldn't stand about English society...
There were many things he loved about England, about English literature,
about English history, but for him I think it's
also a very constricting place, and the sea isn't,
because it is so unexpected and so unpredictable.
You never know what's going to happen next,
especially on this seemingly interminable voyage to Australia.
The books I've been looking at
have all been from a distinctly male perspective.
Most sea writers are men,
and their stories feature storms and battles and all-male crews.
Women don't seem to get much of a look-in.
A writer who seems to have been sensitive to this issue
is Charles Kingsley, who understood that the sea has many faces.
Kingsley had a real love of the sea,
which went back to his childhood in Devon and Cornwall, when he must
have been acutely aware of the sea's ambiguous character,
how it has both feminine and masculine qualities.
Standing here now, I'm really struck how a scene like this
can offer such a surprising union of beauty and violence.
I could feel my pulse start to quicken as I came down here to
see all of this conflict and power happen in such a confined space.
So, do men and women view the sea differently?
That's certainly the impression you get
from Kingsley's 1855 novel, Westward Ho!
True, it's really a swashbuckling romp, but for his time,
Kingsley shows a surprising interest in how women are changed by the sea.
Westward Ho! is another coming-of-age story.
Its hero is Amyas Leigh, who breaks free from the peaceful
village he's been brought up in to go off and fight the Spanish.
Once at sea, he's transformed from a raw Devonshire youth into a fiercely
brave sea captain who captures Spanish galleons by the dozen.
But Westward Ho! is not just a swashbuckling adventure.
We see a different side of the story when Amyas returns home,
bringing the news that his brother Frank is dead.
What I find especially interesting about Kingsley's story is the way it
shows so starkly how different the sea was for the men who went away
and the women who stayed behind.
For Amyas, the sea is an opportunity,
a chance to make his reputation and possibly even his fortune.
But for his mother Mrs Leigh
the sea is fraught with the anxiety of waiting.
For her, it comes to symbolise death.
"Every day when the tide was high
"and a red flag on the sand hills
"showed that there was water over the bar,
"she paced the terraced walk
"and devoured with greedy eyes the sea beyond
"in search of the sail which never came."
I would say that where Mistress Leigh
is at the beginning of that scene is more than typical, it's archetypal.
I mean, the image of the woman looking out to sea,
looking for a ship
that never comes or may eventually come, and waiting and hoping,
the rather passive role, perhaps, of endurance,
of having to bear the fact that your husbands,
sons and brothers are gone, may never come back...
And when I read that scene, I was thinking of how many fishing towns
and villages or ports I've been in,
like I was recently in St John's, Newfoundland,
and there's the Lady's Rock up on the hill above the town,
where, traditionally, the women used to watch for the men coming home.
And Kingsley - a Devon man - what he's showing there
is what you actually do have in every place where men go to sea.
So I think it's interesting that Kingsley, who, after all,
was a proto-feminist, in his way,
actually does include that scene,
and quite often he shows us what's going on
through the eyes of the mother.
It strikes me that women hardly ever appear as central characters.
Why is that?
I think mostly because women weren't at sea.
And I think women readers of sea fiction
have to be positioned very often as men, i.e. when you're
reading a book about the sea, if you start worrying too much
about gender and "Where are the women?", you can't get into it.
So, in effect, you have to become a reading man, if not a physical man!
When women do come to write about the sea, do you think that they do
so in an inherently different way to their male counterparts?
If you think of the greatest novels
that women have made about the sea, they're on land.
In Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse,
until the very end of the book, nobody goes to sea.
And right at the end, where Mr Ramsay, James and Cam, the survivors
of the major text of the novel,
actually get to go in a boat and go to the lighthouse,
it can only be after the main character, Mrs Ramsay, is dead.
And I think
her relationship to the sea, the sea is also sort of feminine
in that it's inchoate, it's other, it's surrounding them all.
It's always there, it's an element.
Mrs Ramsay's almost like an element
against which the other characters move.
The setting for To The Lighthouse is Cornwall,
and that's where Robert Louis Stevenson introduces
one of the most frightening themes in sea literature,
the power of evil let loose on a ship on the open sea.
Treasure Island is a story I feel I've always known and always loved.
Written in 1881, it's a tale that's been thrilling people for centuries
in which a bunch of grotesque pirates
transform the life of a young Cornish lad.
This is the Admiral Benbow in Penzance in Cornwall.
Stevenson took the name of this pub
for the inn where his central character lives, Jim Hawkins.
It's at the Admiral Benbow
that Jim meets his first buccaneers, and from there that he sets out
to join the Hispaniola,
the ship that will sail him and his companions to Treasure Island.
Her crew are a pretty motley bunch, but they sing a familiar song.
"A little before dawn, the boatswain sounded his pipe,
"and the crew began to man the capstan-bars.
"'Now, Barbecue, tip us a stave,'
"cried one voice.
"'The old one,' cried another.
"'Aye, aye, mates,' said Long John, who was standing by, with his crutch
"under his arm, and at once broke out in the air
"and words I knew so well.
"'Fifteen men on a dead man's chest.'
"And then the whole crew bore chorus.
"'Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum.'"
# Fifteen men on a dead man's chest
# Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum
# Drink on the devil Have done for the rest
# Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum... #
The early part of the sea voyage is cheerful enough,
but unlike other sea tales, in which the ship's company pulls together,
those on board the Hispaniola are pitted against each other
as the treasure becomes the focus of their greed.
Slew around the point!
Mr Trelawney, will you please pick me off one of those men?
So, how did Stevenson come up with his story
of a hunt for buried treasure?
We know exactly how he came to write it, and it was all because of a map.
And what happened was that Stevenson was staying at Braemar,
in Mr MacGregor's cottage, with his
stepson Lloyd Osbourne, who was aged 12.
And Lloyd was drawing in watercolours one day,
and Stevenson came up and he drew
the outline of an island, and he filled in detail - Spyglass Hill,
Skeleton Island - and he put in some nautical lines and a compass.
And underneath it he wrote "Treasure Island".
And he said something like he could see a lot of brown men
with cutlasses in the woods
and he could see a mutiny, and above all he could see a sea cook
with one leg and a parrot on his shoulder.
And we all lays in ambush, waits for 'em.
Nice and quiet.
Ah, 'tis a fine day, lads!
And I think Stevenson really is responsible
for our belief that pirates had parrots and
wooden legs and earrings and buried their treasure,
which of course is a load of nonsense, really.
-They didn't bury their treasure.
-So where did all his come from?
I mean, would Stevenson have actually met any pirates?
No, he wouldn't have met any pirates.
I think it unlikely.
But he read, certainly,
and got a lot from Captain Johnson's History Of The Pirate.
That was the great, classic book on pirates.
It was written in 1724,
which was at the height of the pirates of the Caribbean problems.
And Captain Johnson had interviewed pirates and
had followed their goings-on,
and the book is an amazing series of biographies of famous pirates.
And Long John Silver, who is both humorous
and scary, and murderous
but scheming, is really the archetypal pirate.
And the only one, really, who competes with him is another
-fictional one, which of course is Captain Hook in Peter Pan.
And it is ironic, I think, that the two most famous pirates,
Long John Silver and Captain Hook, should both be fictional.
There's a scene in Treasure Island in which Jim is hiding in a barrel
of apples when he overhears a voice speaking nearby.
Now, Dick, me young friend.
Ship's ours already, you fool. Always has been.
Be parts of the crew hand-picked by me, innit?
-Well then, let us attack!
-No, here's what I say, here's what I say.
'It was Silver's voice, and before I had heard a dozen words,
'I would not have shown myself for all the world,'
but lay there,
trembling and listening, in the extreme of fear and curiosity.
'For from these dozen words I understood that the lives'
of all the honest men aboard depended upon me alone.
Squire and Captain's got the map.
Now, best is,
let 'em find the treasure for us,
help us bring it aboard, then
-we does what has to be.
-Maroon 'em, eh? Maroon 'em!
No, Dick, no.
And I've only one maxim -
dead men don't bite.
That's the long and short of it.
This is Jim's awakening to the truth about the one-legged cook.
Long John Silver is planning to seize the ship.
By hiding Jim in the barrel, Stevenson
makes him the secret audience when this crucial turning point
in the voyage is played out before him.
It's pure theatre. Like William Golding's trilogy,
Treasure Island has a strongly theatrical character,
which Stevenson uses to emphasise the moment
when the whole life of the ship is about to change
and the desire for treasure
begins to split the ship's company into two rival camps.
Robert Louis Stevenson clearly believed that a ship at sea was
a dramatic gift to a novelist and a likely place for human crisis.
In his 1886 novel Kidnapped, he explored another important aspect
of the transformation theme, the shipwreck.
And to investigate that,
I have to leave the Spirit of Fairbridge
and head further up the west coast
to my final destination, the Isle of Erraid.
This is where Stevenson set the shipwreck in Kidnapped.
David Balfour, the central character,
is held prisoner on a ship called the Covenant,
which is trying to sail past Mull
when a storm blows in, and David is thrown overboard into a boiling sea.
"The sea was here quite quiet.
"There was no sound of any surf.
"The moon shone clear,
"and I thought in my heart I had never seen
"a place so desert and desolate.
"But it was dry land."
The sea throws David back on his own resources.
It's another twist in the maritime tale.
The books I've been reading have had characters battling
with the violence of the sea, characters
bonding together in the face of its dangers
and characters fighting each other as it roars around them.
But in Stevenson's masterpiece, David faces the ultimate test.
He's stripped of all pretence
and left fighting for survival on his own.
Stevenson could not have chosen a bleaker spot for it.
And this island was known to him,
because his father earned his living building lighthouses.
Well, this is the tiny island of Erraid, just one mile across.
It was here that the 19-year-old Robert Louis Stevenson came with his
father to observe the building of the Dubh Artach lighthouse.
He often went out on sailing trips with his father and,
in later years, he used to say that
whenever he smelt salt water,
he knew he wasn't far from the work of his ancestors.
"At last I came to a rising ground, and it burst upon me all in a moment
"that I was cast upon a little barren isle
"and cut off on every side by the salt seas.
"Instead of the sun rising to dry me,
"it came on to rain, with a thick mist,
"so that my case was lamentable."
This is a surprising moment of comedy in Kidnapped
after all of the grim hardship on board the Covenant.
What David Balfour lacks the imagination to work out
is that the stretch of water
that separates him from Mull is tidal,
so that at low tide he can actually cross it on foot.
Eventually, some passing fishermen point this out to him,
and, elated, he dashes over.
What I especially love about this passage in the novel is that,
in effect, Stevenson is poking fun
at his own character and his psychological attachment
to the idea that he will always be a prisoner.
"Even I, who had the tide going out
"and in before me in the bay and even watched for the
"ebbs, the better to get my shellfish,
"even I, I say, if I had sat down to think instead of raging at my fate,
"must have soon guessed the secret
"and got free."
This bay is now known as Balfour Bay, after David Balfour,
and it's the end of my journey.
So, what have I learnt over the last few weeks
about the sea and its literature?
What it's taken me a while to appreciate
is just how alien the sea is in literature.
We expect it to be depicted as dramatic or dangerous or majestic,
but I think that authors who write
stories about the sea also see her as an entirely other realm.
Just as Hell was another realm for Milton or Dante,
so Conrad calls the sea, "another planet".
What we're reminded of in these stories is that once out there,
everything changes, it's another world, and that if we do choose
to venture out onto her waves,
the sea is just as likely to punish us as she is to inspire us.
But then, the lure of a sea voyage is tremendous,
both for the characters in a novel and for us, the readers,
about to embark with them.
And I really do think that if we choose to make that voyage
and to steep ourselves in the sea literature of Britain, then we will
return not just with a different perception of the sea itself
but also with a different perception
of our relationship with her, this other element which, as islanders,
both surrounds us and defines us.
E-mail [email protected]
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Novelist Joseph Conrad described the sea as another planet. Majestic, dramatic and sometimes terrifying, the sea has held a real fascination for British writers. From Shakespeare to Coleridge, Robert Louis Stevenson to Patrick O'Brian, it has inspired some of our most gifted authors.
Poet and novelist Owen Sheers sets off to discover whether there is anything that unites the great British sea stories. In the company of both seafarers and sea writers, he explores the transformative effect that the sea has had on the human mind.