Determinism by sea-area – review of The Edge of the World by Michael Pye

DETERMINISM BY SEA-AREA
The Edge of the World – How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are
Michael Pye, London: Viking, 2015, hb., 394 pps., £25

 

I see the North Sea every day, and am used to its humours. In summer, I wade its frisping margins or swim surrounded by seals and terns. In the winter I complain and turn up my collar against the winds that have winnowed all the way from Siberia across shuddering Russian, Kamchatkan, Prussian and Netherlandish plains, and carry home lumps of boats to burn. I often range the wide beach and curlew-piping marsh by moonlight, watching far-out lighted ships heading to the Humber and wondering what and who they carry. I have traversed the Sea myself in ships like those (listening with necessary attention to the BBC Shipping Forecast), read histories about it, and even set a novel partly in it and along its edges. I naturally feel a proprietorial interest in The Edge of the World (Pegasus, June 2015) which aims to elevate the Mare Germanicum to the same world-historical status long ceded to the Mare Nostrum. As the author avers with brimming confidence, “This cold, grey sea in an obscure time made the modern world possible”.

Oceans are paradoxical, both barriers and highways, sealing off or allowing access, storming or smiling, indifferently casting up corpses or cargoes. Always astir, the air above them always ozone, they are a natural metaphor for restless change. And thus Pye sees the scanted story of this Sea, where Angles, Celts, Danes, Flemings, Frisians, Germans, Irish, Jutes, Norwegians, Saxons, Scots and others conflicted and commingled over the centuries from around 700 AD, in the process giving rise to all kinds of things we take for granted. These include, according to the author, the “reinvention” of coinage, commodity capitalism, joint-stock companies, market towns, the middle classes, abstract ideas of law, notions of freedom and rights, modern science and mathematics, even landscaping, fashion and the notion of romantic love.

His list of modern givens will give pause even to those who feel the North Sea is too often overlooked as a matrix. Surely capitalism long antedates the ‘Dark Ages’, and began in Sumeria or somewhere equally un-hyperborean? How does the trade of Baltic amber or Grimsby cod differ in principle from, say, trade in Cretan wine or Peloponnesian olives? Weren’t there codices of Roman law? Weren’t the first scientists, philosophers and mathematicians mostly Greek? Haven’t people in all cultures always competed to have the costliest clothes? Don’t ideals of romantic love stem from Provençal troubadours? The author is asking us to believe a great deal of what a twelfth-century Arab geographer dismissed shiveringly as “the sea of perpetual gloom”.

Pye has an easy writing style (although he is overly fond of the historical present tense). He raises all kinds of intriguing ideas, and amasses piquant anecdotes which alone make this book worth owning. His cast of colourful characters operating at this “edge of the world” ranges from saintly navigators and bloodthirsty berserkers via medieval alchemists and Antwerpian merchant-adventurers to Dutch drainers and chivalric hunters of harts. He cites texts ranging from Tacitus to The Heliand and the 16th century moralizing tract An Anatomie of Abuses. He succeeds in showing how this marginal body of water was gradually drawn into the European mainstream. He has read widely—but has he read deeply enough?

According to Goodreads, Michael Pye “has published ten books, and is proud of some of them”. The ones of which he is proud include a psychological thrillera Hollywood history and a book about New York. Whatever their qualities (I have not read them), they do not obviously qualify the author to be a marine historian. The books he is less proud of include Exposed, Uncovered & Declassified; Ghosts, Spirits, & Hauntings: Am I Being Haunted? and UFOs and Aliens: Is There Anybody Out There? The answer to both of these questions being so obviously “No”, readers of The Edge of the World might reasonably ask whether his vessel is watertight.

Sadly, it has as many holes as the most vermiculated wreck lolling on the sandy shelf of the Dogger Bank. The author claims much too much. Try as he might, he never succeeds in proving that there is anything uniquely Northern about the cultures that emerged around the Sea and subsequently exported themselves from Vinland to Byzantium. All of them are outcroppings of European civilization, albeit tempered by exigencies of distance and climate. All were affected in differing degrees by classicism and Christianity, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, although clearly the peoples surrounding the North Sea were more open to Protestantism and consequently individualism and liberalism. The author would have been in safer, if already well-charted, waters if he had focused on the connections between the ‘Protestant work ethic’ and our present idea of modernity.

Adam Nicolson torpedoed many of Pye’s central assumptions in his Spectator review:

A professionalised, urbanised and commercialised world is the grand legacy of the Mediterranean […] The success stories of early modern capitalism, from the Hanseatic League to Venice, Antwerp and Genoa, are all part of the same set of understandings. Everything about them is European; nothing in that list distinguishes north from south, except perhaps for the lateness with which it made its way north.

Nicolson furthermore notes that the author does not understand such key factors as how square-rigged ships could sail, nor how North Sea currents and winds swirl through the seasons. The truth is that North Sea natives, world-shaping though they have been, never had and do not have a monopoly on innovation—let alone gardening, town-planning, the fashion industry, or such annoying intangibles as “show and debt and bluff”.

Oddly for a would-be celebrant, the author seems not to be fully in love with his subject. He feels excluded from and personally slighted by the Nordic culture which has always dominated these latitudes, saying bitterly that

[…] it all too easily degenerates into a claim on Northern superiority, one in which […] long, thin, blond people are meant to rule short, stocky, dark people. As a short, stocky, dark person from the North, I am unhappy with this; the fact that Nordic saga-writers made all their thralls and slaves look like me is infuriating.

He does not even much like the idea that Nordic cultures formed distinct communities:

Instead of the dark mistakes about pure blood, racial identity, homogenous nations with their own soul and spirit and distinct nature, we have something far more exciting: the story of people making choices.

But while Nordicist notions led to horrors between 1939 and 1945—to the disgust of J. R. R. Tolkien—this does not mean there are not unique genetic clusters cemented by culture circling the Sea, and that these often acted as especially dynamic tribes. And even if it were true, is the idea of insular individuals “making choices” really “exciting”?

Pye’s un-magical underlying assumptions nearly render this superb subject bathetic. Intending a tribute, his approach in fact runs the risk of instrumentalising this imaginative expanse. A less ambitious thesis would have been more convincing, and more numinous.

This review was first published at Quadrapheme.com, and is reproduced with permission

 

 

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