Enjoy the sea view. Don’t fall in
At the end of 2012 I started this blog. I don’t know quite what I planned to do with it at the time. The heading says “Travel, science, books Whatever I feel like, really.” Which is more or less how it’s panned out. It’s been an eclectic mess of pieces covering everything from lentil recipes to politics. (Quite a lot of politics, actually.)
I realized that some of the pieces were beginning to fit a pattern. I would become interested in some topic or event, and gather books about it – then use them to write a piece on that particular subject, examining the different angles and accounts. I don’t think this format was a new idea. Punch did this in its book-review pages when I was growing up and I believe The New Yorker (a magazine I like) has as well. It lets you swoop down upon some incident or time that has piqued your curiosity. In my case, they included such varied topics as the philosophy of science, the world’s worst shipwreck (no, not the Titanic), the postwar occupation of Germany, the extraordinary life of Marie Curie’s daughter Ève, the fate of Chinese labourers on the Western Front, the way novelists have seen Fleet Street, a writer’s memoirs of Imperial India, the last great sailing ships, and the Golden Age of crime fiction.
At some point I saw that, strung together in the right order, the pieces would be a review of the 20th century through its memoirs and literature. At that point my new book, On the Rim of the Sea, began to take shape.
The book’s title was inspired by a passage in the splendid Instead of a Letter, by the late Diana Athill. In it she describes how, as a child, she shocked her grandmother by talking of life as being in a bowl, floating on the sea; provided one stayed at the bottom of the bowl, one might be serene – but every now and then the motion of the sea flung one up the side and forced one to a view of “dangerous, cold grey water” that would be unbearable. That, she said, was the origin of madness. Is it? The years covered by the pieces in this book (roughly, 1912 to the present) certainly showed us more of the sea than we should have liked. As I write (May 2022), the cold grey water is back with a vengeance. But it has not always been that way. This book has its darker bits, but there were lighter times.
This book is, in part, a self-indulgence – I acknowledge that freely; it’s the result of years spent reading books on a whim. But there is also a purpose. The books of a time, especially its memoirs and reportage, do hold up a mirror to a period or incident when it has long passed. I’d strongly disagree with the critic Cyril Connolly, who wrote in The Unquiet Grave (1944) that: '"The more books we read, the sooner we perceive that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence." This is, frankly, bullshit. Most writers will not produce a masterpiece – I won’t – and we don’t always aspire to. Rather, we provide a lens through which others can better see the world. This is not always an art; quite often, it is just a craft.
If On the Rim of the Sea shines a light on unfamiliar corners of the past century, I shall be happy. If its readers enjoy it, I shall be very happy indeed.
Where to buy On the Rim of the Sea
The book is available as both an ebook and a paperback. If you’d like to support independent bookshops (as many people do), they can order it; you will need the ISBN number (978-0991437481).
To buy online: