The Ship Asunder examines the declining relationship between Britain's people and the sea. It will certainly provoke discussion down the yacht club, says Julia Jones
The Ship Asunder
Particular Books, £20
This book is subtitled ‘a maritime history of Britain in eleven vessels’. They are in fact eleven relics, fragments even.
Tom Nancollas is a conservationist rather than a sailor and has selected these eleven items both for their intrinsic interest and their symbolic value.
His overall thesis, which he expresses passionately and often beautifully, is that Britain’s relationship with the sea has now become ‘threadbare’.
Trade is concealed off shore in vast container ships, fishing fleets are decimated, shipbuilding has slowed to a trickle.
Many sailors will agree with his feeling for what’s been lost, though we might have a few more positive fragments to offer.
What’s striking about Nancollas however is his belief that this matters equally to land-dwellers and that British people can’t understand their history without understanding our relationship with the sea.
His approach is highly individual.
He structures his book as if he is putting parts of a boat together – except that they don’t fit at all, and he therefore names her Asunder.
That’s appropriate to the scattered and physically incompatible nature of his chosen artefacts while also reinforcing his message that our essential maritime relationship may be falling apart.
The prow of Asunder comes in Nancollas’s imagination from the Dover Boat.
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Dating from 1500BC it’s the earliest known prehistoric vessel in Northern Europe but was only discovered in the 1990s when an underpass was being dug.
As I read his account I feel ashamed that I wasn’t aware of such a significant find.
The account moves swiftly on to the Roman invasion, and the quite different shape of the prow of a warship.
Anther telling detail is the Roman habit of cutting off the beaky prow of captured galleys to provide platforms for triumphal speeches in the forum.
It’s the derivation of the word rostrum, Nancollas claims. His narrative focuses on England’s relationship with France.
He describes the prow of the Dover Boat as being not unlike the structure of a Second World War landing craft and wonders whether it too was a people carrier?
As he leaves Dover he sees an abandoned rubber people carrier of today and adds modern migrant channel crossings to the mix.
It’s Nancollas’s skill to leap about in narrative making unexpected connections.
Occasionally he can be almost too quick for his reader leaving one wondering whether one’s witnessing a conjuring trick rather than a verifiable historic link.
A conservationist needs imagination as well as a range of practical skills and this is certainly stimulating.
The Ship Asunder is a narrative to enjoy, to ponder and return to. It should certainly stimulate discussion and a new awareness – whether or not his ship floats.
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