A writer in conversation, in education, in intrepidation, and in adoration of his subject: the hauntings, hazards, and surprising humility of seafaring
When assigned a nonfiction book about shipping, I’ll admit I was a little sceptical and somewhat uninspired by the subject. Yet, Down to the Sea in Ships, the true story of Clare as a writer-in-residence aboard a container ship, is a work that quickly steers us past the decks to be scrubbed and engines to be oiled, but crucially without forgetting those practicalities, and dives into the hauntings, hazards, and surprising humility of seafaring.
Clare writes in Down to the Sea in Ships that ‘ships are models of their times in miniature’, and his talk captured that microcosmic sentiment, sat beneath the spotlights like sailors beneath the stars, listening to a storyteller tell stories of other storytellers. The book seems much like the man: truthful but deeply touching, candid but never damning, and alive with the voices of many a man. For life at sea, like life on land, is more about the man than it is the machine. His readings from the book were accompanied by accents that made characters likely far away at sea in an ocean of unimaginable immensity feel as though they were right there in the room, something to be revered despite Clare’s somewhat self-deprecating response when complimented.
A favourite character that came to life in his reading was John the Geordie. A figure that reminded me so much of one of my own grandparents, everything from the slightly bended knee stance for ‘stability’ on deck, to his preferred soundtrack of Queen and Dire Straits: his horror stories sprung from the page in Clare’s North-East-accented delivery with such vivacity it was hard not to revel in them with him. And it is these small details, however trivial they may seem in a book about shipping, that bring both the book and his talk to life, and I can only think it would be a very different tale without them, even if a departure from what I might have considered traditional travel writing.
Clare is specific: something he is questioned about but attributes to the diary-like logging of his experience. These men, ‘remarkable’ and ‘monumental’ though they are, are not sentimentalists, but Romantics, and he beautifully illustrates this with the image of a sailor with swallow tattoos on each shoulder, there to carry his soul home should he die at sea. This is something else Clare makes sure not to forget: the fragility of life. Men who aren’t friends are forced together for months without their families, before moving on to the next container with a new crew, a new captain, and a new cabin to live in in order to sustain life on land. The speed with which they must settle into each new voyage is demonstrated by Clare’s own adoption of seafaring superstitions, as he remembers once catching himself whistling and hastily turning it into a hum, and then hearing someone else whistle and being sure his own demise were on the horizon.
Clare is persuasive in his opinion that it is not that the sea has no memory, but that it is all memory, and its depths are there to be discovered, like the empty bars aboard now that the ships are dry. Through his work and words, he has turned the tide of my uncertainty. After his Conversation, the waves have washed away the last traces of scepticism in the sand, and, with his insight, brought ashore intrigue and inspiration. This wasn’t only a writer in conversation, but a writer in education, in intrepidation, and in adoration of his subject: oceans so deep you’ll need more than ships to discover them, but Clare’s words will let you set sail.