The Ship Asunder – A Maritime History in Eleven Vessels
Tom Nancollas, Particular Books, 2022, hb.. 336 pages, £20
An ocean of clichés surrounds Britain’s maritime history – from Chaucer’s Shipman to Drake, and Nelson to the ‘little ships’ at Dunkirk. Tom Nancollas, whose 2018 Seashaken Houses treated lambently of lighthouses, now navigates debris-strewn territorial waters, sounding their depths.
He examines eleven fragmentary craft, from Bronze Age boats to ironclads, that epitomise Britain’s complex compact with the waters that fray always at its edges, and waft unsettlement far inland. Ships, so sturdily island nation-shaping, are themselves evanescent – daily exposed to danger and decay, discarded ungratefully once defunct – but their traces can be found almost anywhere. Even ships now only names – the Conqueror’s flagship Mora, Cabot’s Matthew, Grenville’s Revenge – are ‘ensouled’ to this author, ‘lost characters of British history’ cresting oceans of his imagination, as meriting of salvage as the Mary Rose.
The sunken cargoes he seeks are not necessarily treasure. He emphasises the uses of British ships in oppressions, from imperial conquests to slavery. Ships with gleaming top-gallants also have bilges, and every plucky thalassocracy its Edward Colstons. Lloyds’ Lutine Bell, long rung to warn a ship was missing, should sound out now, he says, to signify national complicity in old cruelties.
He starts, almost inevitably, in Dover, entrepôt of England from prehistory to today’s immigrant dinghies, with a 3,500 years-old prow found in 1992, one of the earliest vessels known in northern Europe. Prows have always been talismanic; Romans capturing an enemy vessel would destroy everything except its prow, then stand at this rostrum to give orations.
Another windy instrument is the Billingsgate Trumpet – a two-metre flaring brass tube used by fourteenth-century captains to send blaring signals to crews or fleets. This ‘buisine’ looks landlubberly, but then the medieval British were not quite at home on the sea, something suggested by the castle-like superstructures of their craft. Rare representations of buisines being blown afloat, Nancollas notes, have ‘a simple, dream-like quality,’ as archetypal tars haul eternally, aboard ships of state beneath a panoply of stars.
English sea-longing was first embodied in Drake, in whose capable and grandiloquent persona romancers have since discerned a national exemplar. Nancollas dutifully takes us to Plymouth in Drake’s wake, thence to Deptford where he was knighted, and the Golden Hind slowly rotted – except some planks that ended in unlikely guise, an impractical chair in the landlocked Bodleian Library. As Cowley’s verse on its reverse notes, ‘A Seate of endless Rest is giv’n / To her in Oxford, and him in Heav’n.’
Drake is presently in more of a limbo, but he launched an armada of emulators, not to mention a pleasantly vicarious literary genre, from Hakluyt’s Voyages on. As David Mathews noted in The Naval Heritage (1944), ‘The sea has a satisfaction for leisured letter writers.’ This particular epistolist happily takes time considering often-scanted marine accoutrements, from ropes like those still spun at Chatham, to ships’ timbers repurposed ashore, loaning creaking resonance to everyday interiors, and Liberty’s in Regent Street.
On the Thames Embankment stands the Duke of Buckingham’s showy but stranded water gate – symbolic of Jacobean naval ineptitude – near the more modest memorial to the more useful Samuel Plimsoll, who devised the lines painted on hulls to show how low in the water a fully laden ship should be for safety. On the otherworldly Isles of Scilly, a museum called ‘Valhalla’ holds the figureheads of craft cast up on local rocks, crude charms in antique style carved in vain propitiation of the vasty deep, now assembled surreally up close.
The nineteenth century sea lost much intimacy – figureheads forsaken, ‘hearts of oak’ turning to hulls of steel, and the Deptford wharves that hosted the tiny Golden Hind dwarfed by the ‘riveted cliff-face’ of Brunel’s Great Eastern. Turner’s Fighting Temeraire being steam-tugged to the breaker’s yard summarised an ending era, and the onset of a new, stressing safety, science and speed – less colourful, yet retaining a vestigial sense of the sea as national highway, and the English as natural seafarers.
Great Eastern‘s wave of the future is now itself history, the leviathan’s last mast dwarfed in its turn, by adjacent Anfield stadium. The Lusitania, another marvel of an age, is almost equally lost, with one of its propellers flaking sadly on a Liverpudlian plinth. The disjecta membra of the Newlyn trawler Rosebud are difficult to find, yet such craft sparked that town’s resplendent school of art, and Rosebud helped preserve its character by sailing to Westminster in 1937, to protest planned erasure of Newlyn’s historic fishing quarter.
Nancollas anchors in the end at Portmeirion, Clough Williams-Ellis’s nostalgic confection on the Welsh coast, treading the ‘decks’ of a concrete ship, Amis Reunis. It seems a fitting place to sign off from a frequently fascinating voyage of discovery – a faux-ship in a fantastical port, cemented to the shore yet, like everyone in these islands, always straining seawards.
The review appeared in the 2 April 2022 issue of The Spectator, and is reproduced with permission