Does having a book on reserve at the library count as having read it? Probably not. So, I must confess to not having read Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield, the starting book for April’s Six Degrees of Separation Meme. A literary association game, Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best chooses the starting book, and participants name six books that spring to mind because of some association- no matter how obscure- with the starting book.
I could instantly think of many books about the sea, but I have chosen to stick to the idea of being under water.
The first book that I thought of is Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts (2012). I have no idea what happened in Armfield’s book, but I have always been attracted to books and films about selkies (I absolutely loved the film The Secret of Roan Inish).
It’s a beautifully told story, spun out over several generations. It is set on remote Rollrock Island, with its village of fisherfolk and small cottages. The chapters are of varying lengths, told in the first person in a curious, lilting accent. Each chapter focuses on a different character and time elapses between generation to generation. One of the longest and most compelling chapters is told by Missakaella, an awkward young woman, shunned by the villagers, drawn to the sea and especially the seals in the bay. They are attracted to her, too, and her mother forces her to wear an apron with crossed strings, that somehow keeps the seals at bay. It is through Missakaella that the age-old meeting between selkie and human is reconsummated. It is a powerful and evocative piece of writing that I found oddly, and breath-holdingly erotic. That’s quite a narrative feat: to not only be lulled into suspending disbelief about the physicality between seal and woman, but to actually stir a response to it as well. But actions have consequences: obsession becomes possession; love becomes loss; something taken can take in return.See my review here
I’m fascinated by lands under the sea- in particular Doggerland, which existed in the North Sea and English Channel 18,000 years ago, making what we now know as the United Kingdom a contiguous part of Europe. It was not a land ‘bridge’, which suggests a narrow and tentative link between UK and Europe. Instead it was a fertile plain, with its own coastlines and rivers, with humans roaming across it. It was not a route from one place to another, but a territory in its own right. Julia Blackburn’s Time Song (2019) is an environmental history, but it is more:
But it’s also a very human story because of the way she tells it. Her search is narrated almost as a conversational journey, as she meets with this person and that, and as she relates her own reminiscences of places and items she has herself found. Collectors and academics share their enthusiasms with her, and indirectly with us too. There is a lot of science in this book (and her list of acknowledgments at the back of the book demonstrates her debt to academia) but it’s written very much in layman’s terms. Her response to the academic literature is expressed in 18 ‘Time Song’ poems, which intersect the text, each preceded by a black and white drawings by Enrique Brinkmann.See my review here.
Doggerbank may be well and truly under the sea, but in James Boyce’s Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens (2020) we have man fighting against the encroachment of water in ‘The Fens’ in Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Norfold and the Isle of Axholme in Yorkshire. The Fens, he explains, are not a precise location, given that the creeks and waterways that constitute them have always been an ever-changing phenomenon. James Boyce is an Australian historian, so this book seems a bit of a departure for him. But his focus is ‘colonization’, which can occur within a country, as well as overseas.
It is this bi-focal approach to colonization, seeing it as a process wielded in Britain and well as by Britain that is the real strength of this book, prompted by Boyce’s deep engagement with Indigenous history here in Australia. I must confess as an Australian reader, I found myself wishing that I knew more British history and geography. … Boyce is an incisive and economical writer, carefully attuned to landscape and ecology, continuity and change. His book is only small, but it makes an argument about colonization and resistance with its feet planted in two different, widely separated continents.Read my review here
There’s plenty of water in Northern NSW and Queensland at the moment, and I’ve found myself thinking recently of Margaret Cook’s A River with a City Problem: A History of Brisbane Floods (2019). She takes as her focus the 2011 floods which devastated the homes and businesses along the Brisbane River, right into the CBC.
This book tells the story of the three major floods – 1893, 1974 and 2011 – from ecological, geographical and human perspectives. More importantly, though, it looks at the failure of policy as successive governments of both persuasions lacked the courage to say ‘enough!’ and prevent development on the floodplain. In the aftermath of a crisis, there’s a proud defiance in claiming that” we will rebuild” but often it defeats good sense.See my review here
Fish live under the sea. And people bob around in boats and stand on the river banks trying to catch them. Historian Anna Clark takes a bit of a detour here from her interest in the historiography and teaching of Australian history to tell the history of fishing in Australia in The Catch: The Story of Fishing in Australia (2017). She shares her own love of fishing not just in the “we” language that Clark deploys, but also in the carefully crafted ‘fisher’s-eye’ paragraphs that commence each chapter.
Its copious and beautiful illustrations mark it out as a coffee-table book, but the text ranges beyond the ‘whoa! look at that!’ response to a photograph of a big fish. Its author, Anna Clark, is well known in academic circles for her work on public history and history teaching and she brings to the book an awareness of sources and a keen sense of finding history in the everyday. Most importantly, she brings her own love of fishing to the text, and I think that this is what fishers will respond most to in this book.See my review here
Natural resources are under the sea as well. And as Bernard Collaery has found to his chagrin in Oil Under Troubled Water: Australia’s Timor Sea Intrigue (2020), governments are fiercely protective of the negotiations that govern their use by competing nations. Bernard Collaery is a former Attorney-General of the Australian Capital Territory and worked for many years as legal counsel to the government of East Timor. In May 2018 he was charged by the Australian Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions with conspiracy to breach the Intelligence Services Act of 2001, introduced in the wake of September 11. He, and Witness K, a former senior ASIS agent, have been effectively gagged over a claim that ASIS had bugged the offices of the East Timorese team during negotiations over Timor Sea oil. Actually, even though I am very interested in the legal ramifications of Collaery’s silencing, and the sorry tale of Australia’s treatment of East Timor in these negotiations, I found the book quite difficult to read.
This, then, is a history of Australia’s dealings with East Timor and Indonesia over the oil resources- and more importantly, the helium reserves- in the Timor Sea. It moves chronologically, but it is a lawyer’s argument rather than a historian’s….I did manage to finish this book, but I found it very hard to read. Inexplicably, there is no map until page 362 and in a book that bristles with acronyms, there is no glossary. It is meticulous, with every fact noted, but it groans under the weight of so much detail. My gut feeling all those years ago was that Australia was acting like a bully, and this book only confirmed it further.Read my review here
Well, with the exception of the Lanagan book, I’ve drawn on non-fiction books in this Six Degrees with a heavy dose of history.