Image source: Flickr / Ouistitis
In 1996 I was a newly-qualified lawyer with a glass box of my own, somewhere high above the rumble and chime of Bourke Street Melbourne. It had been made clear to me by various backslapping beer-breathing types that if I could manage to sit still and sell enough of the hours of my life to the Big Four banks and other sacred clients, I could do Very Nicely Indeed.
I had a vague sense it was all a con, but after years of grinding student poverty, I was at least half seduced by the idea. The problem, as I saw it, was that the things I wanted out of life weren’t very expensive – they were just hard to attain. I wanted to see the ocean, to feel it and to immerse myself in it. I didn’t want a resort holiday where some poor bastard brings you scented face towels on a deck chair by a flat bay. Nor a holiday house shouldering the holiday houses of my glass box-dwelling peers. I didn’t want adventure touring or noisy petrochemical toys.
I wanted to be alone and engrossed in the intricate silent world of the sea. I wanted to be in places that were difficult to reach and which rewarded that difficulty. Places where possibly no-one else had thought to go. I wanted to see the tiny creatures and giant, and to find the splinters of history that wash around in the littoral zone. Weeks and months into my new career, a nagging voice was mumbling stuff about all of this being irreconcilable.
At Alice’s Bookshop in North Carlton one grey Saturday, whilst carrying all this mental and emotional baggage around under an overcoat, I picked up Seven Tenths: The Sea and its Thresholds by James Hamilton-Paterson. I’d never heard of it, but the cover art was intriguing, and I’ll pick up anything about the sea. Alice’s is the finest of secondhand bookstores, but it’s a secondhand bookstore nonetheless. Therefore someone had seen fit to let go of this little treasure, which at that stage was only about three years post-release. It looked entirely unread. To this day I wonder if that first owner knows what they missed. Like child in a fable, I blew the dust off the magical book, and nothing was ever the same again.
Hamilton-Paterson’s little volume is a history, of sorts. Each chapter is prefaced with a part of an ongoing story about a boy who has become separated from his raft on the open sea, and fears he is going to die. The progressive instalments in this tale are unsettling, but they are not the substance of the book.
The bulk of each chapter is devoted to a theme: Charts and Naming, Islands and Boundaries, Reefs and Seeing, and so on, subtly referencing the structure of an old mariner’s guide of some sort. Under these loose mandates, the author wanders through human history – literature, science, pop culture and his own memory; pieces in a mosaic that glitters and glows from afar. The book is nothing less than a meditation on the very meaning of the sea. The task is hugely ambitious, but somehow successful.
His narrator’s voice is elusive; by turns authoritative (“Underwater photography naturally has to take account of the absorption of light energy by water.”), philosophical (“The idea of “The Deep” is so powerful that if we listen to the word as we say it a shiver may pass through…by comparison, ‘heaven’ is blank and thin, even faintly unserious.”), and even caustic. It’s intensely personal: the author laments the fact that his body, unable to reach the depths on a single breath that he had once achieved, is subtly telling him he is ageing. He can measure that age by the metres of depth he has lost.
Perhaps it was that passage more than any other that suddenly imbued me with a sense of urgency. I needed to set fire to the fake façade I had created, and I needed to do it quickly. Within weeks I had resigned and moved to the coast, still clinging to a legal career, but at least now within reach of Reefs and Seeing. Over ensuing years I started to write part-time about the ocean (and other things, but the pull was inescapable), and eventually I let go of the law altogether and slipped below the surface.
I got in touch with Hamilton-Paterson by email recently. I wanted to acknowledge the role of the book in my life - to thank him, I suppose. He is notoriously reclusive, but to my great surprise he wrote back, and we began a brief correspondence. His prose, even in the unlovely format of the email, was luminous. But he was sad, worried about the human race and its contempt for the oceans, its ever-repeating stupidity. He didn’t say it directly, but I sensed he felt his exquisite work of devotion to the sea had been trampled under our hubris and greed.
I’m now editing and publishing a magazine about the ocean, and every time I read new work from contributors I reflect on the idea that great creativity derives from the unknowable – from lust and death, good and evil, the cosmos and the earth. And the ocean.
Jock Serong lives and works on the far southwest coast of Victoria. He was a practising lawyer when he wrote Quota and is currently a features writer, and the editor of Great Ocean Quarterly. He is married with four children, who in turn are raising a black dog, a rabbit and an unknown number of guinea pigs. Quota is his first novel.
Join us next Thursday for Writers' Other Jobs, as we hear from ex-designer and spoken word poet Anthony WP O'Sullivan.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.