Maritime Literature across the Centuries

A summary of a talk Julian Parker OBE FNI FRSA in November 2016

A report summarising the talk given by Julian Parker to the Society on 22 November 2016. This was first published in the Society's Newsletter 134 in March 2018.

Introduction to literature

Julian first went to sea in the Merchant Navy in 1958 as a deck apprentice. While serving as a junior officer he undertook a four-year correspondence course with the College of the Sea. He commented that, as things turned out, studying literature was one of the best decisions he could have made. He obtained his Master Mariner’s Foreign Going Certificate in 1967 and went on to study Ship Technology graduating in 1970. Soon after he was appointed Secretary of the newly established Nautical Institute where effective writing was an essential and valuable skill to have.

After his retirement he became the chairman of the Maritime Media Awards judging committee and head of the panel judging books for the Mountbatten award for ‘best maritime literary contribution’.

Local connections to the sea

Photo:Odysseus and the Sirens - Greek vase

Odysseus and the Sirens - Greek vase

British Museum - Wikipedia

Julian introduced his talk by explaining the enduring nature of Homer’s Odyssey, a work which remains captivating as an allusive voyage through life disrupted by testing circumstances which are coloured by love and conflict. The saga gives expression to endurance, heroism and the power of beliefs.

He went on to say that even though we live on the land, the sea is woven into our culture. Devils Dyke in Wheathampstead is testimony to that, for it was a major centre for the Catevellaunie tribe who built their fortress there having emigrated across the North Sea from Belgic Gaul. The story is expanded in Michael Pugh’s illuminating book (2015) The Edge of the World, How the North Sea made us who we are.

Julian pointed out that there are many other maritime connections in the area, for example Haileybury College founded in 1808 was the training establishment for the East India Company; the chapel and green at Childwickbury was built and laid out by Henry Toulmin, a prominent shipowner and trader and John Bennet Lawes founder of the Rothamsted agricultural experimental station established a factory at Deptford on the Thames into which raw materials like guano from Chile were received and processed into fertilisers to be transported by ships around the coast.

Julian stated that in one talk it was simply not possible to cover all maritime literature and for those interested in wider horizons he recommended one of the Mountbatten prize winning books The Sea and Civilisation by Lincoln Paine. His review of more recent literature started with Tobias Smollett who was born in 1721 and who wrote Roderick Random based on his experience as a surgeon on HMS Chichester. Smollett was to set a new and emotionally charged trend, blood and guts included, about life at sea in the Navy. A trend that has been followed by C S Forester, Richard Woodman, Patrick O’Brien and Julian Stockwin.

Nautical words and images

Julian reminded us that many nautical terms are embroidered into the English language. Thwarted, scuppered, between the devil and the deep blue sea, overhaul, hard up, bluff and taken aback were just some of the words mentioned. Similarly the sea has an immensity and fascination which has inspired poets through the ages. Some like Henry Newbolt’s Drakes Drum, Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Masefield’s Cargoes he had to learn at school, but there are many others like TS Elliot who relies on maritime metaphor in his Four Quartets. Sylvia Plath wrote about the sea when holidaying at Cape Cod and more recently Samantha Newbury presented one of her poems entitled Sea Dragon after the talk. Carolyn Carver was stimulated to express her deepest emotions when she wrote this very short evocative poem:

"Each time we take a newborn in our arms
we cradle the Ocean."

Maritime literature is not just about great stories. Wilberforce through his pamphlets campaigned against slavery, but it was the Navy that was assigned the task in an endeavour which took nearly a hundred years. More recently Matt Lewis in his book Last Man Off, shook sensibilities by describing the appalling conditions endured by migrant seafarers trawling in Antarctic waters.

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Maritime Literature across the Centuries' page


Julian commented that Maritime literature continues to flourish and rounded off his talk with describing some of his favourite reads. Lord Jim by Conrad and Moby Dick by Melville remain classics to which he returns, but The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine is a wonderfully crafted book also. Two world wars dependent on supplies by sea and ferocious naval engagements have produced many naval narratives like The Cruel Sea by Monserrat and an astonishing number of historical tracts. That genre continues to expand as more information becomes available from the records of our enemies. Maritime literature enables us to grow by revealing the extraordinary achievements of those who have conquered their fears and mastered the impossible. Unassailable is Sailing Single Handed around the World by Joshua Slocum. Ellen McArthur became deservedly famous for her accomplishment described in Taking on the World.

Julian devoted the last part of his talk to describe three outstanding examples of contemporary literature which included Pincher Martin by William Golding, The Life of Pi by Yan Martel and Down to the Sea in Ships by Horatio Clare. He concluded his talk by stating “Awareness of the sea in an enrichment of our understanding; yes in many ways we have learnt how to conquer and exploit this watery expanse for our own purposes, but we must also understand how the sea responds to global warming, pollution and over fishing. It would be tragic to blame Poseidon for our misery when the real culprits are found ashore”

This page was added by Rosemary Ross on 01/05/2018.

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