Sea Fog

As memoirs go, there are worse premises than that of looking back on years of enjoying some remote islands, right before passing them on to the next generation. A good premise isn’t everything, though, and if not carried out right, even the best can become mired in sentimentality. Halfway through Adam Nicolson’s ‘Sea Room,’ I don’t know if I’ll finish it, and not only because of my initial scepticism at his ownership of the Shiants. (Having finished since writing the first draft of this post, I can say it was not much improved by the end.) Given the opportunity to explore the question of private ownership insightfully, he finishes by returning to the same stance, that he owns the Shiants and wants to continue passing them down through his family (the male line only), because he loves them and he trusts his son to do the same.

The trouble is, apart from doubts about his argument for ownership, I don’t exactly disagree with anything he says. True enough, that islands are unique, interesting places, which feed the imagination and awaken corners of the soul heretofore unexplored. Absolutely right that one must get to know the seas around them well, before trying to claim some kind of kinship by familiarity. No disputing that they have awakened fascinating questions, historically, about trade and cultural exchange that make for lively chapters in the past. And yet I can’t warm up to Nicolson’s writing, because there is more to writing a convincing book than not being wrong.

On matters where we do disagree, it is by degrees of taste, rather than fact (apart from his astonishing translation of ‘Landnámabók’ as ‘Placenamebook.’ Why translate it at all, if you’re only going to do it by half, and get it wrong?). The description of landscapes as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ is so firmly lodged in binary oppositions as to appear lazy — as though the author couldn’t be bothered to think of something more original. To write, of an island, ‘This is not a female place,’ citing the lack of curtains over the windows, the hard rock and rough ground, is bafflingly simplistic and inaccurate. His later assessment, that women tend to dislike the Shiants because ‘they are so much more adult than men,’ blithely and utterly excludes female readers, who might otherwise have gained something from the book, an appreciation or affection for the islands, which appears to be his goal: perhaps he thinks that only men will read it. It’s a wearisome and ill-founded assumption, but the inaccuracy that I perceive is based on experience, while he no doubt would cite the same basis for forming his conclusion in the first place.

The histories over which Nicolson goes into rhapsodies do not leave me cold; I find the question of the Bronze Age torc just as fascinating as he does. But his interest in the thing itself, in its actual historical circumstances, is lost in the mist of poetic language he wreathes around it, in the giving way of curiosity before desire for a pretty image. Nicolson remarks lightly on the willingness of many to assign Viking origins to anything they possibly can, but shows, in the naming of his boat and the foggy notions of northness he sometimes displays, the same tendency towards idealisation. In some ways, this is useful to my own writing: recognising these flaws, and how they occur, makes me aware of the need to avoid them myself. I have favoured style over substance on enough occasions to take notice, and as I am resolved never to write anything that I wouldn’t want to read, this ought to be a suitable warning.

I was never expecting the book to be an academic work, nor did I want it to be. It sounded sufficiently interesting to spend some time on, and if I was wrong in guessing how well I would like it, at least it was never recommended to me by a friend or given as a gift outright. I have loved nature writing — Robert MacFarlane springs to mind — but if I have learned anything from ‘Sea Room,’ it is that such work must be handled wisely. The danger is in the usual spot: an author taking themselves too seriously, an enthusiast believing that their feelings will naturally translate to eloquence. There’s no denying that Nicolson is fond of the islands, nor that he feels that he belongs there, but for all his efforts, he never quite brings us there with him.

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