Interview: Horatio Clare on Down to the Sea in Ships

Cargo ship
The cargo ship Rio de la Plata. Picture: Glen/Flickr/Creative Commons

By Sorrel Watson

Horatio Clare will not be defined by a particular literary genre. His work spans moving and insightful memoirs of youth, tales of drug addiction and mental health, adventure stories of the highest calibre, and most recently a children’s book.

Raised on a sheep farm in the Welsh Black Mountains, Clare was immersed in the wilderness from a very young age. With no telly in the house, he and his brother relied on their imaginations, games and books for entertainment – sparking his appetite for adventure.

His latest book, Down to the Sea in Ships – an exploration of the lives of the crew on a 115,000 tonne cargo ship – is the product of such an adventure. Clare spent months onboard, learning about the beauty and power of the sea, loneliness, definitions of masculinity and the dangers and injustices faced by the people involved in this un-regulated and extremely treacherous industry.

So what inspired him to embark on this journey? The author quotes one of the opening lines of Moby Dick: “Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet… I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

The draw of the sea is irresistible for many – and in particular for Clare, who worked as a lifeboat man on the Bristol Channel and Rhone barges in France. So as the writer roamed the streets of Verona “one dark, dank and misty day, lashing out, waiting for the next idea to come” it struck him that the most logical thing to do was head back out to sea.

As with travellers on other monumental voyages, Clare found himself gaining unexpcted insights: the most powerful of which were the new definitions of masculinity he discovered among this almost entirely male-dominated trade. “The crew often proudly described theirs as a man’s job,” he notes. But for many it also consists of appalling conditions, very low pay and sometimes years at a time away from their families. According to Clare, the phrase “a dollar for loneliness” rang true with the majority of the crew.

“Everybody is judged on what they do, not on what they say. You don’t want to rub anybody up and the enemy of harmony is anything out of the ordinary so you get what becomes an ordinary maleness which is very kind, sensitive, considerate and quiet. No swagger, competition or aggression.”

As Clare talks of his journey and its most awe-inspiring moments, tales of the ship itself emerge, such as its remarkable engine room that stood eight or nine stories high. It soon becomes clear, however, that what really inspired him was the ocean itself and the activities he witnessed “taking place out of the sight of land.”

“I remember speaking to the captain one day and he said: ‘People will ask you what it was like and they’ll imagine beautiful sunsets over the water but they will never understand.’”

Several of Clare’s descriptions get you pretty close. He describes “the moon’s broad path” as “Cut with shadows like phantom ships. The air is milky and hot. The sea lies right down, darkest silver blue and alive…”. Just one example of how his exquisite imagery transports you to the deck.

We talk about whether his affinity with nature makes it easier for Clare to describe this stream of seascapes without becoming repetitive or cliched.

“If you can get into the right places it becomes tremendously easy or tremendously more easy because you can take dictations from what you’re seeing, directly from nature,” Clare explains. “The difficulty comes from writing something new and fresh each time”

It is a difficulty he has managed to overcome in this latest work, in which the reader is swept along by a narrative that reflects the ocean in its inspiring unpredictability.

• Horatio Clare speaks at North Cornwall Books Festival on Saturday 25 October at 1.30pm

Picture: Glen/Flickr/Creative Commons

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