Angel of the Ocean: An Interview with Philip Hoare

Professor Graham Huggan and Dr Pippa Marland (Land Lines team) are delighted to share with you today an original interview with Philip Hoare, one of the UK’s most fascinating and gifted writers, and a chronicler par excellence of the planet’s oceans and shorelines.  The interview was carried out by email in late February and is published here for the first time.  Graham and Pippa are currently co-writing an article on Philip’s work.

Andrew Sutton PH
Philip Hoare in the ocean (Photo by Andrew Sutton)

GH:  Much of your work seems to be a play on resemblances, not necessarily physical ones but figures whose lives, half-real half-mythical, are used as projection screens for your own desires. Would you agree with this?

PH:  I suppose I see my imaginative self in that way, and have done since I was a child.  I was always an Indian, not a cowboy.  I was always dressing up as other people – a super hero, an Aztec, even into teenage, as the starman.  He was merely the culmination of those desires, as if I’d invented him, rather than the other way around.

GH:  Animals, too, seem to act at times as projection screens: birds, for instance, or most prominently, whales.  Human and animal worlds often merge in your work: is that because you want at a certain level to become an animal even though you’re aware that non-human animals are nothing like ourselves?

PH:  Well, I think animals are very like ourselves in ways we don’t care to acknowledge.  The perfectible other, streamlined, unconfined – by gravity in the case of birds, by land in the case of whales.  Because I feel unaccepted by humans – not having a family or a close relationship, not operating technology (cars, phones etc), not being part of a community – ironically, returning to my suburban origins has allowed me to continue this. It as if the preserved back garden of a semi-detached house becomes a last resort, much as the inland sea beyond the hedges is – as though this removal can only go one way, towards another species.

Philip Hoare whales
Philip with sperm whales (Photo by Andrew Sutton)

PM:  Along with that recognition – that animals are nothing like ourselves – is the sense that they exceed any meaning or interpretation we can give to them. You also demonstrate a keen awareness of being, in turn, scrutinised by those creatures – that just as you are trying to make sense of them they are trying to make sense of you. How does that idea of mutual observation inform your understanding of these animals?

PH:  I believe in a kind of communion with other species.  I have no evidence for this other than the way I feel.  A whale echolocates me so that she can describe what I am.  I echolocate her with my knowledge to do the same.  We sense one another.  I feel this, in the way that water intensifies the senses and provides a physical, actual connection between our bodies.  This is why the sea has become my only solace, the only time I feel real.

GH:  Whales are subjects for melancholy in your work, especially though not exclusively Leviathan; would you describe yourself as a melancholic writer?

PH:  I am now writing about Albrecht Dürer, having been drawn to his work both by his depiction of animals – ones that he saw and ones that he did not see – and the connection with his depiction of melancholia (which Sebald describes and reclaims as a positive, rather than a morbid state). The angel in Durer’s Melencolia I is, I think, an androgynous being, caught between states, one source of their dilemma.  I suppose I have been made melancholy by my life, but I was ever thus.  My mother told me so.  The first boy I ever loved told me I looked like an angel in the classroom.

Philip as a young boy

PM: An intense thalassomania emerges in your work – an obsessive love of the sea which is both erotic and haunted by an awareness of your mortality, even by a kind of death wish.  What, in a nutshell, does the sea mean to you?

PH:  It is real, tangible, mortal.  In The Mirror and the Sea, Conrad said ‘the sea is not a navigable element, but an intimate companion’.  It bears witness to my nakedness, it is sensual, a suspension.  It is the wildness at the end of the street. A dead end which is also the opening up of everything else.  It is the biggest thing on the planet, animate, uncaring, terrifying.  I am scared every time I enter it.  It’s an absolute that is always there and often is not.  It is eternal but the most profound victim of our dominion.  I feel as though it needs a champion.  It is my surrogate.

GH:  The confluence of cultural history and natural history in your work is immediately noticeable.  What difference does it make to bring these two kinds of history together, and what might it tell us about our relationship to the past?

PH:  The one does not cancel out the other. We know this now, surely? As a writer I became frustrated by the pressure to keep my self out of the story.  The restriction of non-fiction – indeed, the negativity of that definition, as if it were a lesser art than fiction.  I started my book publishing career by writing biographies purely as an extension of my dressing up.  Of becoming other people – more glamorous, special people – by putting on the clothes of the facts of their lives.  What I realised is that it is as interesting, if not more so, to look at what that does to one’s self.  But also to look at what is created by that merging.  So writing the biography of the whale becomes another merging.  I have to admit to my place in that fantastical mechanism, a dream process.  The facts of natural history are no more and no less uncertain than the facts of human nature.  What fascinates me is what lies between.

James Balla PH
Philip with framed images (Photo by James Balla)

PM:  In RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR you write that as you shook hands with Stephen Tennant you were ‘conscious of what was passing between us: a secret world, and all the people I had never met’.  The idea of ‘six degrees of separation’ seems peculiarly applicable to your work, since you reveal at every turn extraordinary synchronicities that link people who are separated from each other by time and space.  What does it feel like to come across (or perhaps to forge) such unexpected connections?

PH:  By shaking hands with Stephen I was physically connected to his lover, Siegfried Sassoon, who was the lover of Wilfred Owen, who was the intimate of Robbie Ross, who was the lover of Oscar Wilde.  Being queer and not reproducing one’s genes physically is counterbalanced by a cultural reproduction, passed down hand to hand.  It is a way of assuring one’s identity which the straight world seeks to obscure or ignore or prohibit.  The shape-shifting of Virginia Woolf and Herman Melville meld more vividly than if they were somehow genetically related.  We are drawn to the likeness of our selves.  The animal is unrestricted, unlegislated; and so becomes another magnetic other, another, non-human role model.

To write about whales, for instance, is to be irrevocably in the story, part of the narrative, because we know so little about them, for all that they are so like us, or vice versa.  This story is not bookended by the birth and death dates of a biographical study – especially as most great whales have a longevity that outspans ours.  Their occupation of an alien environment makes them the ultimate embodiment of a queer nature.  Especially as they are defined by their emotional attachments – as collective individuals – who may be more emotionally mature than us as a result, exhibiting social behaviour which is, of course, not defined by heteronormalcy – or homonormalcy, for that matter.

GH:  You say at a couple of different points in your work that ‘nature is queer’.  How does that sense of queerness – nearly always there, but so rarely accepted or acknowledged – inform your own work?

PH:  Nature is of course queer because other species do change shape and sex.  The 19th century definition of the homosexual was balanced by the ‘nature lovers’ who sought solace in the natural world – Percy Shelley, Melville, Edward Carpenter, Thoreau, Whitman, Wilde (the original wild swimmer), etc. – escaping the industrial categorisation of people in order that they be organised.  Hence Derek Jarman’s retreat to Dungeness.  The single person – female or male – is not challenged in the natural environment.  One is not separate there, but whole.  Last week a young student of mine wrote an extraordinary short piece of memoir in which he addressed his sexuality and pronounced himself ‘pure and complete’ – not defined by what people presumed to think he did with his dick.  To me that is a beautiful, transcendent phrase.

PH in 1976
Philip in 1976

GH:  Some of your work – The Sea Inside, for instance – is global in its scope, but other work seems more transatlantic, in its sensibility as well as its range of reference.  Can you comment on this?

PH:  As a teenager I hated being told ‘travel broadens the mind’.  I said it did the opposite.  Until I was in my thirties I had hardly ever left the country.  My discovery of America – specifically the USA, specifically New England – proposed an entirely different way of being.  There I could be someone else, without all the baggage.  I felt far more accepted as an artist.  It is why my meeting with Pat de Groot, my sea muse / landlady in Provincetown – about whom I write in RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR – was so important.  (It is odd to note that my literary godfather might be said to be John Waters, perhaps one of the US’s most notably queer figures, who first invited me to Provincetown after he reviewed my first book for the New York Times and established my career there, and who then was responsible for my whalish rebirth).  It was crossing the Atlantic that empowered me, as if I absorbed the energy of the ocean as I passed over it. I might as well have gone to the Moon. It is why Melville became so important to me.  He took me there, via Billy Budd, to the whales, then to Moby-Dick, and circles back to my childhood love of animals and fearful love of the sea.  The natural history and human history connections seem almost invented in retrospect.  In 1609, Stephen Hopkins sailed from Southampton on the Sea Venture which wrecked off Bermuda and prompted Shakespeare’s The Tempest (a very queer nature work, perhaps its founding fable)  in 1620 Hopkins made it back to Southampton (whose earl was the playwright’s lover) only to sail back, on the Mayflower (his son, Oceanus, was born on the voyage) to Provincetown…

GH:  There’s a utopian strand in your work; also a rebellious streak, and the two come together in the stories you tell about larger-than-life men and women who either reach out for alternative worlds or try (and inevitably fail) to escape from the world altogether, only to fall back to the Earth.  How important is utopian thinking to you, and what does it say about the possibilities of change?

PH: …which is my utopia.  Punk, which defined much of my attitude, and allowed me to live out the precepts set by the starman, is an essentially utopian impulse – although ironically my political awareness, engendered (ha!) by punk, also made me virulently anti-American – to the extent that I refused to wear blue jeans – until I got there.  (I still refuse to wear blue jeans).  America still retains, against all the odds, its utopian origins, as far as its European settlement is concerned (although it is also its precise opposite too).  An exercise in being.  Although of course as a summer resort for the Pequot, the Nauset and Wampanoag people, Cape Cod was also a kind of utopia.  That may be why it appeals to the Indian in me.  Wilde wrote of the coast of utopia to which we were always setting sail. Like stars seen from the gutter.  Like the man who fell to earth and into my back garden.  If we don’t believe we can change, what is the point of any of it?

I’m thinking of changing my name to Oceanus.

Philip Hoare, 21 February, 2019

Dennis Minsky PH
Philip with a gannet (Photo by Dennis Minsky)


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