Horatio Clare: capturing the beauty and wilderness of the sea

By Anna Cathenka

Before going to Horatio Clare’s talk about his new book Down To The Sea In Ships I catch a quick bite to eat with my fellow student-journalists in the festival’s mess tent. As I sip my silky coffee, I spy a tanned, bearded man in a blue, Nordic jumper eating his lunch. I come over all fan-girl: “That’s Horatio Clare!” I whisper.

I discovered Horatio Clare when I was given his first book Running For The Hills about his childhood which, much like mine, was set amongst the smell of bracken and sheep’s wool in the deep, dark valleys of Wales. His writing is lyrical, delicate, moving.

Clare is a picture of coolness as he takes to the stage, changed out of his jumper into a t-shirt and dinner jacket, stealing our attention away from Jill Murphy’s beautiful deerhound, Flora, who kindly introduces the talk (with the help of Patrick Gale.) Down to the Sea in Ships was written after a stint working as writer in residence for the Maersk shipping company. I was initially jealous of his experience, but after sinking into the salty depths of the book, the jealousy turned to admiration. 

This is the closest Clare has been to the sea when giving a talk on his new book, and he apologises for his relative nescience on the subject, in comparison with many Cornish residents. Giving a talk about shipping in Cornwall, he suggests, is like giving a lecture on the French in Paris.

Clare speaks in a measured, soft voice, inviting roars of laughter from the crowd with humble jokes and gentle self-abasement. He takes us to “right-wing, snobbish” Verona, where “the fogs smell like burnt metal,” and explains his desire to go to sea, brought about by the not-so-famous second line of Moby Dick. So, quite simply, he emailed Maersk to see if they needed a writer in residence. And they did …

Clare gives a little history of Maersk, of global trade, and of the world at sea so different from our own ordered, still, small one. He reads us a passage from his second voyage, deftly and energetically impersonating the Danish captain, himself and, most importantly, “John”, a Geordie crew member described by Clare as: “a shambling sea tramp and curator of appalling stories.” Through John, Clare opens up a world of storms and unlawfulness, bringing the room alive with John’s energy and enthusiasm, with his stories, jokes and amalgamated accent: part Geordie, part salted-sailor.

After this wild storm of a reading the author calms us down with a passage from earlier in the book when he is crossing the Pacific – a moment of calm contentment when the sea seems to have forgotten “it can be anything but kind.” He talks of the captains, of their absolute authority on-board: “You can’t fake a good captain.” Clare’s captain tells him he will never be able to write the vastness of the oceans. As Horatio brings his talk to an end his first Captain brings his ship into Los Angeles, on-schedule to the very second.

Finally Clare recounts his encounters with wildlife; the whales and the dolphins, the bittern who caught a ride with them to a Chinese fish farm, the families of gannets, the migratory birds of the med. To me this reflects the depth of ‘Down To The Sea In Ships’. Part-travelogue, part exploration of masculinity, it also deals with the sometimes hideous effects of global trade and capitalism on our oceans. But as Clare himself reminds us, he is really a nature writer, and the book abounds with stunning imagery, capturing the beauty and wilderness of that other world – the sea.

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