by Cormac Walsh
In ‘The Frayed Atlantic Edge’ (William Collins, July 2019) historian and experienced sea-kayaker David Gange recounts his journey along the Atlantic coasts of Britain and Ireland, from Shetland to the Channel. In travelling by kayak, Gange immersed himself in the rhythms of the sea and coast and sought to gain new perspectives on the history and geographies of Britain and Ireland, from the perspective of the sea. Drawing on archival and literary sources, he weaves together an account of these Atlantic coasts which challenges head-on dominant narratives of the peripherality and marginality of coastal and island places. He begins with the conviction that British and Irish histories ‘are usually written inside out’, based on the false premise that the ‘land-bound geographies’ of today have existed forever (p. ix).
Image source: https://frayedatlanticedge.wordpress.com.
In this, he follows writers such as Barry Cunliffe, Michael Pye, Katie Ritson and others who have sought to refocus attention on the historical centrality of oceanic and maritime worlds. Indeed, in comparison to the above the authors, his work perhaps stands out in its explicit call for new geographical as well as historical perspectives. Gange calls for a radical rewriting of British and Irish (and presumably European) histories, arguing that taken-for-granted narratives of historical progress are ‘ethically unsuited to today’s world’, triumphalising events which have created the problems of the present (p. 340). In particular, he views the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a time of rapid change where concerted efforts in the name of ‘modernisation’ led to the undermining of the North Atlantic worlds of previous centuries. From this perspective, otherwise invisible connections between the suppression and clearing of the Highlands, the great famine in Ireland, the suppression of the Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Welsh languages and the decline in small-scale fisheries become clear.British history, he contends, has not just been landlocked and urban-focussed but almost exclusively centred on London to the neglect of alternative geographies and narratives. The Scottish region of Argyll, for example, is reinterpreted as a bridge between the Gaelic lands of Ireland and Scotland, a region where today teenagers living on remote islands hitch lifts with fishing boats to party in Donegal and Belfast. The contemporary remoteness of Skellig Michael is placed within the perspective of a flourishing early Christian Atlantic culture, centred on Ireland’s western seaboard.
The book masterfully brings local, situated perspectives and embodied evocations of place together with attention to the immensity and relationality of past and (to a lesser extent) present Atlantic geographies. He documents the richness of maritime and coastal wildlife and challenges human-centred perspectives on land and the sea and the agency of historical process. In this, he echoes much of recent scholarship in the environmental humanities with its focus on decentring human narratives. Although he set out expecting what he saw as his naïve romanticism to be displaced through his immersive engagement with the wild ferocity of the Atlantic coasts, this displacement does not occur and he maintains his sense of wonder and curiosity in his exploration of the diversity of both nature and culture at the coast. For Gange, writing history involves the ‘imaginative exploration of unrealised past potentials’ (p. 346). He argues that the coastal places marginalised by the dominant cultures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are full of such potentials, places where alternative, locally-embedded practices of living from the land, the coast and the sea are still possible. Travelling by kayak, he adopts the most common mode of transport of past coastal communities who relied on small boats for fishing, travel and transportation of goods, tracing vernacular geographies of the coast and sea which for the most part have been erased by the shift to road and rail in modern times. In this sense, he follows in the tradition of Tim Ingold and others who have written of the need to walk landscapes to know them. Journeying by kayak, and arriving onshore wet and bedraggled, significantly also provided an opening for conversations with coastal residents and islanders which may not have taken place had he arrived by more conventional means.
In the preface to the book, Gange writes the chapters were written sequentially ‘on the go’, so the author’s learning process parallels the reader’s experience in delving deeper into the significance of coastal places. He reflects that the balance gradually ‘shift towards ‘historical research, literary criticism and argument’ (p. x). Certainly, the later chapters rely heavily on literary criticism in their explorations of the historical geographies of the Welsh and Cornish coasts. This reader had the impression, however, that archival work played a larger role in the early sections of the journey (Shetlands and Orkney in particular) than was the case in later chapters. Each chapter is, of necessity, quite selective, in terms of the places and themes addressed and the reader constantly has the impression that a lot more could be said if it were not for the practical necessity to stay within manageable word counts. Indeed, while the project of bringing together the Atlantic geographies of Britain and Ireland within one volume, is commendable, a certain tension remains between the evocation of place specificity and local, historical narratives and the need to skim over relatively large sections of coast in lesser detail to prevent the project becoming unwieldy. Against this background, the inclusion of the Welsh coast, does not quite convince. The book, however, most importantly, mounts a substantial challenge to established historical narratives and geographical imaginations and will surely provide a point of departure for further interdisciplinary explorations of histories and geographies of coastal change.
Dr. David Gange is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham. Additional material from the Frayed Atlantic Edge project including extensive photo galleries is available here.
Dr. Cormac Walsh is a geographer at the University of Hamburg and keen kayak paddler in his spare time.