The Turbulent Giant

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A British sailor signaling a merchant ship as it passes the naval control base in the Thames estuary, November 1939

Simon Winchester has often written of great events that have been largely forgotten, of remarkable human beings who have quietly changed the world, and of places the rest of us wish we had seen. He is an adventurous and indefatigable traveler as well as a brilliant explorer of arcane problems and archives.

His last book, The Man Who Loved China,1 was a masterly portrait of the life and times of Joseph Needham, a protean British academic and biochemist who wrote a twenty-six-volume encyclopedia, Science and Civilisation in China, which showed in great practical detail that China, far from being the backward country that Westerners liked to patronize, had actually preceded the Western world by centuries in a vast range of scientific discoveries, inventions, and ideas. Winchester’s present book, Atlantic, is a portrait of the ocean that has been the theater of a dramatic and essential part of human history.

To read Winchester is to share the excitement of his travels and adventures. In Atlantic we first find him in the far north sailing a small boat in “a lumpy and capricious sea” among the great black basalt slivers of the Faroe Islands. More than four hundred pages later we leave him on the deserted and treacherous shore of the Skeleton Coast in Namibia, where he has gone in search of the memorial to Angus Campbell Macintyre, the lost first mate of the tug Sir Charles Elliott, which, in 1942, on the way to assist the stranded British Motor Vessel Dunedin Star, was itself wrecked on a reef. (Winchester left a message on the memorial and has dedicated Atlantic to Macintyre’s memory.)

In between we have approached Cape Town at dawn on a Greek freighter, shared Winchester’s delight at his first view of Jamestown, the tiny eighteenth-century capital of St. Helena, and nearly got stuck for the winter on an inaccessible, prematurely ice-bound beach in Greenland. We have sympathized with his frustration at being jailed in Patagonia as a suspected spy during the Falklands War, been stopped while on a former Russian research ship in the South Atlantic by a British warship on fishery patrol (“by chance the captain of the navy ship was an old acquaintance of mine”), and gone through a score of other adventures. Winchester’s travels recall C.P. Cavafy’s wish in his poem “Ithaka”:

May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time.

Winchester has chosen as a frame for his gigantic subject Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, but Atlantic is really on a different scale from that famous passage. It is about the relationship of human beings to the might and mystery of nature and the contrast between our puny efforts and ephemeral presence here on earth and the vast majesty of …

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  1. 1

    Harper, 2008; reviewed in these pages by Jonathan Spence, August 14, 2008.