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Review: Down to the Sea in Ships by Horatio Clare

I’m interested in the sea and maritime matters. It’s in the blood, or something. Horatio Clare’s Down to the Sea in Ships is one of very few contemporary books about merchant shipping, and I’ve just read it.

It has, we can probably all agree, a great title. The language of the 1611 King James Bible still echoes in many people’s minds and the title comes from Psalms 107:23-24:

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.

Clare sails as a supernumerary on two Maersk ships. The first was the Gerd Maersk, Felixstowe – Suez (where he had to disembark as only essential crew are carried in the Indian Ocean), and then Tanjung Pelepas – Los Angeles. The second vessel was the Maersk Pembroke, Antwerp – Montreal.

Using these two voyages as his framework, Clare ranges across a fair number of seafaring issues: birds, bunkering, containerisation, fire and rescue, the wages and conditions of officers and crew (particularly Filipinos), pilots, pirates, plastic, rigs, sex and violence, superstitions, wartime convoys – and more.

We read some excellent descriptions of the sea in its different colours and moods, and there are some passages from literary works (Coleridge’s The Ballad of the Ancient Mariner, and Conrad’s The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, for example). In a few embarrassing places Clare lets us into his imagination.

There are also some inconclusive ruminations about men and their work which appears to be one of Clare’s underlying interests. Later, we also see a female cook (‘a seafarer like any other, her demeanour says, and a good one’) working on the intensely cold and difficult job of unlashing containers on the St Lawrence Seaway:

‘Annabelle is hard at it, wrapped in a heavy-duty orange jacket and a yellow helmet. Everyone is wearing as much as possible, overalls, balaclavas, goggles, hard hats and scarves.’

We hear no more about men’s work after this.

Almost all the book was interesting, bar the embarrassing bits, so why was I left uncomfortable and slightly disappointed? Yes, the sea and maritime matters are frequently uncomfortable. No, real life doesn’t always fit together neatly. So what might explain my reaction?

My first thought was that the recipe is too obvious: take two different voyages, tick off the main issues, add a bit of description, and remember to tell the reader about some seafaring ‘characters’.

Then I began to wonder whether I simply wasn’t sure what kind of book I was reading. It’s not easy to write up your findings as a participant-observer. The structure of an academic monograph can help with this and will support the author and their voice. This, though, isn’t a monograph: it feels like a rag-bag and the author’s voice often seems unsure and lacking in confidence.

Finally, I asked myself ’Is this creative writing?’ and more understanding dawned. ‘Creative writing’ is something that’s only just crossed my field of vision and I don’t seem to like much written under its rubric. A little research indicated that Clare is, in fact, Creative Writing Fellow at the University of Liverpool.

QED, perhaps. At any rate, these reasons go some way towards explaining my discomfort and disappointment with this book. Now I’m starting to get the hang of ‘creative writing’, and I’ll probably be avoiding or reading it with caution in the future. I’ll still be reading books about the maritime world, though.

(As so often, editing could have been tighter: twice we hear, for example, that Filipino crew have a union-negotiated right to a karaoke machine, and there are also a number of omissions and typos.)

Clare, Horatio Down to the Sea in Ships. London: Chatto & Windus, 2014.