‘A sea of stories’: Sea Narratives Symposium at Warwick, 24th January

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?

Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,

in that gray vault. The sea. The sea

has locked them up. The sea is History.

Fishermen at Sea, by JMW Turner, 1796
Fishermen at Sea, by JMW Turner, 1796

Derek Walcott’s poem “The Sea is History” was one of our starting points for the symposium on Sea Narratives organised as part of the Travel and Mobility Studies Network at Warwick. When we formed the idea for this symposium, we hoped to create an interdisciplinary forum that would generate multiple and intersecting perspectives on the rich histories, geographies, and narratives of the sea. We were certainly not disappointed, and the 6 speakers that presented throughout the day provided a fascinating array of insights into the places, practices, and politics that shape the sea.

“The sea is geography,” Jon Anderson began by asserting, and one of the central narratives of the day was a move towards understanding the sea not as the “perfect and absolute blank!” of Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark, but as a distinctly varied sea-scape: just as land-space is differentiated into regions and places, so too is the sea comprised of multiple constellations of lived and experienced  geographies. Imagine an inverted map of the world, where land becomes sea and vice versa, the latter now distinguished by mountains, valleys, rivers, forests, marked by routes of humans and animals, and variegated by clusters of social, cultural and economic activity; for many people, historically and today, the sea is experienced in just this way. Far from being the space-between points of departure and arrival, the sea here became re-centred as a site of activity, production and narration.

This came out richly in Will Wright’s (University of Sheffield) paper on sea, memory and community in south-eastern Sri Lanka, where the centrality of the sea to the everyday life was demonstrated most memorably in maps by local people delineating a distinct geography of the seascape, and quotes exemplifying a sense of oneness between self and sea. Wright’s research explores the impact of the 2004 tsunami, and he spoke about how the tsunami had disrupted this interrelation, but also that the sea played a vital role in memorialising and moving on from the after-effects of its destruction.

The everyday, embodied encounters that Wright spoke about were also the subject of Jon Anderson’s (University of Cardiff) paper about understanding the human geographies of the sea, which took surfing as its focus for exploring the connectivity between body and sea-spaces. Anderson posed the question “can only a surfer know the feeling?”, and in an evocative short film explored ideas around the affective knowledge of surfing as something beyond language or representation – as opposed to, or at least differentiated from, the ways in which surfing is represented, and commodified, to audiences through media and advertising. I was struck in Anderson’s paper by the idea of an embodied knowledge of the sea as relating to theories of embodied mobility posed by Tim Cresswell and others, and especially the unique feeling Anderson described of the effect of “combustion-free speed” in surfing; I spend a lot of time thinking about the relationship between speed, space and bodies, and the mobility of surfing seems to both evade and encapsulate these themes.

Peter Mel at Cortez Bank
Peter Mel at Cortez Bank via Wikipedia.com

These ideas resonated throughout Emma Spence’s (University of Cardiff) paper exploring maritime mobility in the context of luxury superyachts in the Mediterranean. Spence talked about the cultures of luxury yachting and particularly the experience of yacht crews, where she had conducted ethnographic research among crew members. Bodies were present here again, this time in the context of sea-sickness – another sea-experience that can only be known through feeling not description, although images helped evoke the extent of sea turbulence. What came out strongly in Spence’s paper was the gendering of sea cultures: the crews on superyachts strongly reflect historically gendered patterns of sea experience, the sailing crew comprised almost exclusively of men while the domestic interior crew are always female. This reflected and reinforced traditional gender patterns of understanding or knowing the sea – there was a sense, in some of the interview reflections, of the sailing crew being more readily at home or better understanding the patterns and movements of the sea. Gender was also resonant in Wright’s paper on cultural negotiations with the sea in Sri Lanka – where surfing and fishing are considered unfeminine – and in Anderson’s discussion of surfing, again heavily inflected by masculinist discourse of travel and adventure.

The language of the sea was another resonant theme throughout the day. Many metaphors are inspired by the sea (we drift away, float an idea) and yet it is near-impossible to talk about the sea without resorting to land-based language (to foreground, for example). The afternoon session took us further into ideas of narrating the sea. In Michael Harrigan’s (Warwick) paper on early modern French sea voyages to Asia – focusing on Jean Mocquet & Francois Pyrard’s accounts of 1617 and 1619 – I was especially struck by Harrigan’s noting of the punctuality in the written accounts of the voyages that plot, with exacting detail, the time and location of events described. This precision of chronology and space resonated with earlier discussion of the distinct geographies of the sea, a sense again that, far from the sea being experienced as a blank open space, there was here a similar impulse to narrate and map sea-spaces through known coordinates as a way of making sense of places.

Elodie Duché’s (Warwick) paper looked at narratives of capture at sea in the Napoleonic Wars, exploring the experience of capture and captivity in accounts by prisoners of war. Duché’s paper showed the aptness of the phrase “a sea of stories”, demonstrating how there is no one common type of capture narrative, but that certain tropes can be discerned within accounts: a narrative of sentimental separation from the sea, for example. Duché also highlighted how certain narrative conventions structure these texts, which are informed by obligations such as the duty of record-keeping and the need to write to families at home. Barbara Franchi’s (University of Kent) discussion of sea narratives in A.S. Byatt’s work looked at the influence of Victorian narratives of imperial sea navigation in her works Angels and Insects and The Biographer’s Tale. Franchi’s paper was a fitting finale to the theme of the symposium, drawing out the rich intertextuality of narratives of the sea from the myth of Ulysses to more recent imperial adventure narratives.

Paul Morstad, ‘High Seas Hobo Victrola’, 2012.
Paul Morstad, ‘High Seas Hobo Victrola’, 2012.

I found this to be a rich and stimulating day of discussion, generating many more thoughts than we managed to explore in the course of the sessions. At the end of the day I was drawn back to a passage from Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, in a chapter which reflects on a journey along an old sea road; I first read this a few weeks ago and it resonated all the more strongly after the papers we heard yesterday, so seems a fitting point on which to end here:

We think of paths as existing only on land, but the sea has its paths too, though water refuses to take and hold marks… Sea roads are dissolving paths whose passage leaves no trace beyond a wake, a brief turbulence astern. They survive as convention, tradition, as a sequence of coordinates, as a series of waymarks, as dotted lines on charts, and as stories and songs. ‘… as by Line upon the Ocean [we] go,’ wrote John Dryden of English navigators in the 1660s, ‘Whose paths shall be familiar as the Land.’ Along these sea paths for thousands of years have travelled ships, boats, people, objects and language: letters, folk tales, sea songs, shanties, poems, rumours, slang, jokes and visions.

These, then, were waters in which the geological and the theological mingled, zones in which ‘metaphor and reality merged one into the other over time’…

(Macfarlane, The Old Ways, pp. 88-96)

A storify of tweets from the day is available here.


2 thoughts on “‘A sea of stories’: Sea Narratives Symposium at Warwick, 24th January”

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