Books
The Oldie Magazine|July 2021
Books

Pools win

LUCY LETHBRIDGE

The Sea Is Not Made of Water: Life Between the Tides

By Adam Nicolson

William Collins £20

The great Victorian naturalist Philip Gosse is remembered in Adam Nicolson’s new book not for being the unbending religious fundamentalist of his son Edmund’s memoir, but as the godfather of rockpool wonderment.

These shoreline cups, nourished by the in and out of the tides, are teeming miniature theatres of life. ‘Never more great than when minutely great’, Gosse said of the tiny glories of the rockpool.

In The Sea Is Not Made of Water, Nicolson describes how he created three pools near his Scottish home, Ardtornish.

He then lets the contemplation of these ‘micro-Arcadias’ take him on fascinating voyages through history, science, philosophy and literature. Over the course of several summers, he finds hosts of inhabitants in his pools, including winkles, whelks, sea urchins, starfish – and, in one, ten different kinds of seaweed.

There is nothing that can’t be illuminated by the examination of life at its tiniest, of the ‘flitter and skitter’ of flux and flow. Nicolson finds in his pools ‘the cupping of reality in several layers of itself’. It is an experience akin to gazing into fractals with their dizzyingly infinite spirals: ‘The closer you look, the deeper it dives.’

Nicolson quotes from William Golding’s review of Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water: ‘We stand among the flotsam, the odd shoes and tins, hot water bottles and skulls of sheep or deer. We know nothing. We look daily at the mystery of plain stuff. We stand where any upright food-gatherer has stood, on the edge of our own consciousness.’

Take the sandhoppers, those glossy little amphipods to be found on beaches all over Britain. We learn that they have sophisticated grooming rituals for keeping grit from their shiny carapace, and complicated social systems, and, most fascinating of all, that they have inner compasses that guide them across their territories, as they navigate by sun and moon.

Could prawns be considered conscious? wonders Nicolson. Their meaty tail which makes them so delicious is actually a giant muscle which enables the prawn to flip out of danger at a sudden movement. But what are they thinking, if they are thinking? Scientists, we learn, have found that crayfish, similarly equipped, are sometimes flippers and sometimes freezers – and the circumstances they are in make no difference to their reactions.

Then there is the ruthless, survivalist efficiency of crabs. In one of Nicolson’s rockpools, there is a stand-off between a colony of small, green crabs and an old matriarchal mussel attached to the side. She is too old for the crabs to eat but they gobble her tiny offspring – and she eats theirs.

Crab copulation takes place over two or three days – it can happen only when the female has moulted and her new shell is soft. Sometimes the male, seeing she is almost ready, will embrace a female in his pincers and hold her there for several days to keep her safe and out of range of the competition.

Female crabs, like most rockpool crustaceans, lay millions of eggs over their lifetime, releasing their larvae into the deepest swell of the sea – because that is the safest place for them until they are ready to float inland on the tide and into a brimming rockpool of their own.

Nicolson writes beautifully of how the tiniest organisms carry within them a cosmic echo. Everything is bound to the universe by the eternal push and pull of lunar gravity on the tides. In the 17th century, Johannes Kepler, rationalist though he was, saw the ebb and flow of the oceans as expressions of longing by the moon for the earth, that ‘the universe is filled with mutual but unchecked desire’, as Nicolson puts it – a kind of planetary ‘I love you, I love you not.’

The book makes deep dives into Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Iris Murdoch and Socrates among others – and because he is such a gloriously lucid writer, each of Nicolson’s discursions is perfectly illuminating.

He touches on human sacrifice to the sea; on the superstitious tradition that suicides should be buried on the shore at low tide; on Scottish legends, fairies and sea people. Mesolithic man roamed the intertidal regions gathering shellfish and hunting cormorant and otters (you’d need to eat 31,000 whelks to get the protein fix of a single cow) and the oil spills from modern supertankers cause ‘wild oscillations’ in the natural turbulence.

But turbulence is what rockpools and life are all about; Nicolson sees that the pool, with its seawater cycles of birth, change and death, is the microcosm of the mystery and unity of all things.

Gorgeous Georgian

MATTHEW STURGIS

Hogarth: Life in Progress

By Jacqueline Riding

Profile £30

Hogarth (1697-1764) holds a special place in our cultural landscape: the first really distinct, distinctive British artist.

His images – paintings and prints, portraits and ‘conversation pieces’, ‘modern moral subjects’ and ‘comic history pictures’ – teem with the life of mid-18thcentury London: theatrical, unidealised, raucous, comic, tragic and human. They still have the power to engage and divert.

But what of the man who created them? Here is an entertaining new biography of ‘the father of English painting’. In the terms of Hogarth’s own practice, it is perhaps less a formal ‘portrait’ than a richly worked and varied ‘progress’. I am not sure that it adds anything to the record of his life. Nevertheless it enhances much of the colouring.

Among the scant biographical sources that have survived, the one contemporary document offering a sustained view of Hogarth in his own time is a mock-heroic account of an impromptu five-day Grand Tour taken by him, and four friends, from Covent Garden to, and around, north Kent.

The Peregrination is a delightful jeu d’esprit, and Riding uses it as the framework for her book, breaking up its incidents into eight ‘interludes’, to sit between her more formally ‘biographical’ chapters.

It is a happy conceit. We are plunged directly into the world of drinking songs, and Thames wherries, of shaving barbers and blind fishermen, of raw shrimps and naval dockyards. We see Hogarth, taken short in the churchyard at Hoo, trying to relieve his bowels on one of the graves in a most ‘unseemly manner’ – only to be interrupted by a companion chastising his exposed posterior with ‘a bunch of nettles’. Each stop and incident along the way – from breakfast at the Nag’s Head to the tour of the HMS Marlborough – is glossed and expounded upon.

And the same approach is carried over into the biographical chapters where Hogarth’s pictures come into focus. Charles Lamb said, ‘Other pictures we look at; [Hogarth’s] we read.’ And Riding offers detailed readings of the various works – pointing up their contemporary concerns and resonances. Having written previously on the subject, she is particularly good on the lurking threat of Jacobite rebellion behind the growing stability of Hanoverian rule.

The incidental detail is profuse – so profuse, indeed, that there are moments when the person and personality of Hogarth are in danger of being lost in the crowding context. But then he reappears again – ambitious, practical, irreverent, patriotic and combative – as we follow him from his straitened London childhood (his father ended up in the debtors’ prison, following the failure of an ill-conceived Latin-speaking coffeehouse venture) – through his early triumphs (artistic, commercial and social) – to his later, often misguided battles with critics and rivals.

There are fresh perspectives. Drawing away from the familiar images of Gin Lane and A Rake’s Progress, Riding offers a good account of Hogarth’s exalted (and much ridiculed) ambitions as a ‘history painter’. He was the creator of large-scale religious scenes for St Bartholomew’s Hospital and St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol.

She spends time, too, elucidating his boldly idiosyncratic, aesthetic inquiry – The Analysis of Beauty. With fine, practical aplomb, he eschewed the abstract and idealising tendencies of foreign art theorists and self-styled connoisseurs and sought to discover what actually most pleased and entertained the viewer’s eye.

Standing out for variety against symmetry, and nature against art, he came to the conclusion that the ‘the line of beauty and grace’ was an S-shaped arabesque. Both his views and his method provoked some merriment and derision among the critics – and much defensive energy from the author. It was a pattern that recurred throughout his professional life.

But, amid the displays of wounded vanity and cantankerous self-assertion, there remains something hugely impressive, and rather attractive, in the Hogarth who emerges from these pages.

He was a man of remarkable energy and vision. He was always ready to reach beyond the actual business of picture-making to enhance the status and the quality of his profession. He sought to secure the artist’s copyright and establish proper artistic training and independent exhibiting spaces. He had a moral vision, allied to a practical stamp. He did many good and generous things. And also he loved pugs. His was called Trump.

An American Dreyfus

ANDREW LOWNIE

Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy

By Anne Sebba

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