Friday, 24 August 2012

The new history of the sea: the surge continues


 It's interesting. Every once in a while, historians seize on a topic - apparently without co-ordination - that brings them all together.

At the moment, it's the sea. Now I know that every time you start reading about something yourself, you see the same topic everywhere - I've done the same myself, on (for instance) Scandinavian influences on public policy, or the effect of the apparently impressive performance of the Russian economy in the 1960s. Other authors look at the influence of the Cold War in domestic politics. Or whatever.

But the sea has a new-old fascination - especially for the British - that's now come around again.

I've been thoroughly re-reading David Abulafia's The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (above) and looking for the first time at Philip Marsden's imaginative The Levelling Sea, a personal and touching account of the history of Falmouth, in Cornwall. Both contain exactly the elements familar from the new histories of the waterborne world: imaginative reconstruction of what life on and around the seas was actually like; acute political and cultural judgements about the role of geography; a sense of the inward-outwardness of places Marsden says have their 'faces turned to the water'; a really visceral feel for people moving; and the influence of war, conflict and political upheaval on average people's lives.

Why has this relatively novel fascination taken hold? Well, I've always argued myself that a new age of globalisation makes us think about previous ones (in the Roman era, just as much as during the late nineteenth century rivalry of maritime empires). How did regionalisation work, rather than just the one-dimensional or 'flat' globalisation of the technophile web enthusiasts amongst us? What happened to class in an era of greater mobility? Did people act or feel different about nation, gender or sexuality once out of sight of dry land, rather like they do today in (clears throat) liminal tourist environments like Las Vegas (hello, Prince Harry)? How much do people really travel when they can, when it's cheaper than it was before? And do they travel in straight lines, to destinations afar, before coming home? Or do they move around these new globalised spaces in a more constant and chaotic manner? What's the effect back 'at home', for instance in Marsden's Cornwall, when people move around so much?

Take note about one thing you might not have known: per capita, there was much more 'churn', and much more migration, in the 1890s, than there is now. Globalisation? We don't know the half of it.

A lot of questions. And assertions. But also a lot of answers, in these two very different but also fascinatingly similar works which are, above all, hauntingly sensitive about real people experiencing, fighting and often surmounting real crises and dilemmas. As Abulafia puts it in an Introduction that lasts long in the mind: 'the roulette wheel spins and the outcome is unpredictable, but human hands spin the wheel'.

It all amounts to a new geographical turn - and it's a refreshing change from the post-modern turn of the 1980s and 1990s, the class-based history of the 1960s and 1970s, and the statist and traditional writings that dominated the mid-century. Long may the seasonal flood and the storm surge continue.

Please note: I am now away again until at least Monday 3 September. Even historians have to have a break sometimes! Full service will resume then, but for now - Happy Holidays! And thanks for reading - I'll get on with talking about the deficit, about economic growth, about the American Presidential election, over-fishing and about the crisis of care in our ageing society when I get back. I promise. For now, adieu.

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