J D Davies

Blind Spot

There was an interesting thread on Twitter a couple of days ago which attempted to pinpoint the first use of the term ‘sea blindness’, referring to the perceived ignorance of the sea and maritime affairs in modern Britain. This got me thinking about some of the other ramifications of the term, and about the potential causes of it. First, I should say I’m taking it as a given that such a malaise actually exists, something that I know some might deny. Others dislike the way in which the term has sometimes been hijacked by the ‘bigger navy’ brigade, including certain retired admirals, who’ll be satisfied with nothing short of a new fleet of Dreadnoughts steaming majestically through the Solent. But from my own experience, I think that proof of ‘sea blindness’ can be found throughout British life, and I’ve already referred to some of these in previous posts: for example, the shocking failings of journalism’s reporting of maritime matters (and its sequel here), far and away the most popular post I’ve ever produced. Then there was the increasingly dispiriting evidence of my teaching career, such as the ‘guest lecture’ I once delivered to a year group of eleven year olds at one of England’s most prestigious public schools, only to discover that hardly any of them had ever heard of a Nelson who wasn’t also called Mandela. (Insert as many links as you like to Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail shock-horror questionnaire results about the historical ignorance of the British public and/or schoolchildren.)

Of course, many people much more qualified than myself have pontificated on the causes of ‘sea blindness’. It’s undeniable, for example, that as a proportion of the population, far fewer people nowadays have served at sea in any capacity, or are related to somebody who has. In many of Britain’s once-mighty port towns, such as the great fishing ports like Hull and Grimsby, in Cardiff, and even in London, where the ‘port’ is now far distant from the city, the direct connection with maritime industry has largely been lost. It’s easy to find stats to back up all of this, such as those for the declining numbers in the Royal Navy and the merchant service. It’s also easy to find the stats which demonstrate just how much Britain still depends on the sea, i.e. in terms of the amount of material imported (especially from China). This process is brilliantly described in, for example, Horatio Clare’s Down to the Sea in Ships, but it is certainly true, as Clare says, that the vast majority of the British public are wholly ignorant of the almost exclusively maritime means by which they acquire their shiny new pieces of tech, white goods, and so forth. But in this post, I’d like to suggest a few less tangible reasons for the weakening of Britain’s connection with the sea. I should stress that none of this is based on rigorous academic research: rather, it’s based on a combination of my own recollections and prejudices, the Interweb-thing, and what some bloke might once have said in a pub.

On the other hand, this constitutes a significantly stronger research base than that of several PhD theses I’ve read…

First, a simple and undeniable observation: other than for fleeting day trips, many of the British simply don’t go to their own seaside anymore, at least not in the way they used to. This is anything but an original or revelatory statement, as the decline of the traditional seaside resort, undermined by cheap foreign package holidays in locations with, ahem, somewhat more consistent weather, has been very well documented. Indeed, over the Christmas period I read one of my presents, Bill Bryson’s hilarious The Road to Little Dribbling, which chronicles this decline wittily but also poignantly; and my own experience bears out his bleak analysis. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, my parents always went on holiday to the likes of Bournemouth, Torquay, Southsea and Eastbourne, as did I in my childhood. (Indeed, my mother only went abroad for the first time when she was seventy!) In such places, Brits went on ‘all aboard the Skylark!’ boat trips around the bay, or strolled on piers or proms in those balmy days before hordes of homicidal chip-thieving seagulls turned both into war zones. And if the Brits of those times were driven off the pier or the prom by Atlantic storm waves breaking over the latter, at least it demonstrated to them, at first hand, the power and danger of the sea. It’s difficult to get a sense of that when lying all day on a sunlounger several hundred crowded yards from a sun-drenched millpond-sea in Ibiza, or streaming Captain America versus The Wombles on a 52-inch screen in a darkened room. Similarly, those Brits who did venture to the Continent largely went by ship, and thus many learned at least a little about the sea at first hand (being unable to dock at Dover for five hours or so because a gale is whipping the Straits into a maelstrom should be a compulsory part of every Briton’s life training). Of course, many still do take ferries – but many more head through the Channel Tunnel or fly, barely registering the fact that they’re entering or leaving an island at all, while several of the classic, longer ferry routes (Newcastle to Esbjerg and Gothenburg, for instance) have fallen victim to the Curse of EasyRyan.

Let’s turn now to explore some aspects of popular culture in more detail. Another of the most popular posts ever on this blog bemoaned the loss of many ‘naval pubs’ – either those that had direct connections with the navy, or had some sort of a naval theme to them. As I implied there, the opportunity to literally and subconsciously soak up a maritime ambience has disappeared entirely from many towns and villages. This time, though, let’s consider those even more pervasive media, TV and film. When I was young (sorry, tried to avoid typing that, know it makes me sound 95), TV was full of programmes set at sea, even if they were actually filmed on dodgy studio sets in Elstree. I grew up with Sir Francis Drake et al before graduating to Warship in the 1970s, soon followed by Sailor, the iconic fly-on-the-wall documentary about HMS Ark Royal IV. There was The Onedin Line, of course. Then, in the 1980s, came Howards Way and even the dreaded Triangle. But when was the last time a major, successful drama series was set at sea, or in a maritime environment? (And no, Poldark doesn’t count.) Making Waves, ITV’s 2004 attempt to set a series in the modern Royal Navy, was a short-lived, catastrophic flop. Nowadays, audiences have such a detailed knowledge of the NHS via the likes of Casualty and Call the Midwife that one suspects many people would quite fancy their chances of delivering a baby or carrying out brain surgery, while significantly more members of the public would be able correctly to lay a table for a banquet in a stately home in the 1920s, or to solve unfeasibly complex murders in Oxford, than would know the meaning of the term ‘lee shore’. True, there are occasional documentaries about aspects of the sea, maritime heritage, or naval history (take a bow, Sam Willis), but they tend to be few and far between, and have to treat their subject matter in much the same way that David Attenborough presents a programme about yet another endangered species.

Talking of endangered species, the British-made, maritime-themed film certainly fits into that category. In the 1950s and 1960s, films set at sea came along at very regular intervals, varying in quality from the sublime (The Cruel Sea) to the ridiculous (Up the Creek). Indeed, the naval comedy was a staple of the cinemas; I made reference not so long ago to the mythic Carry on Jack, but one could add, inter alia, several Norman Wisdom films, Baby on a Battleship, and The Navy Lark (recall, too, how the original radio series on which that film was based was once as much a staple of ‘the wireless’ as The Archers). But the genre seems to have died a sudden death after Doctor in Trouble hit the screens in 1970. Since then, as far as I can see, not one British comedy film has been set at sea. Just to clarify, I’m not counting The Boat That Rocked – either as being set at sea, or as a comedy – and anyone who went to see Submarine expecting a jolly if somewhat claustrophobic romp aboard a Trident boat would have been sorely disappointed.

True, every now and again Hollywood will produce something that at least introduces popcorn-munching teen audiences to such concepts as ‘the sea’ and ‘ships’: the current In the Heart of the Sea, for example, and before that the likes of Captain PhillipsMaster and Commander, Titanic, and even, God help us, Battleship. But in terms of the main issue I’m discussing here, namely raising the British public’s awareness of the importance of the sea to national life, these sorts of films make only a marginally greater contribution than Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And don’t get me started on Pirates of the Caribbean (again).

So is this just a litany of despair? Not entirely. The numbers of boats in marinas around the British coast, and the number of visitors to maritime museums and historic ships, suggest that there’s still a strong appetite for contact with the sea and Britain’s maritime heritage. But the simple truth is that the sea remains largely invisible in schools – the new National Curriculum for History has only one avowedly maritime topic specified within roughly ten years of study, and that, inevitably, is the transatlantic slave trade – and on TV, or at least populist TV, too. Roll on the day when the BBC commissions a soap opera set on a trawler, chronicling the crew’s daily battles against foul weather and overly bureaucratic fishing quotas.

They could call it Nor’easterlyenders.