The idea of approaching maritime history through the stories of eleven vessels is as novel as it is appealing. Why, I wondered, had no one come up with it before? The trouble, as Tom Nancollas acknowledges, is that barely any of our old seafarers have survived in tangible form. Eyes may light up in recognition at mention of J M W Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, which, in Nancollas’s words, shows a ‘vessel of … pomp being towed for scrapping by an impertinent steam-tug’. But of the ships of the line, brigs, traders, liners and other sea creatures that made Britain a world power, there are lamentably few traces.
His solution is to use the remains of eleven vessels from around the country to structure his own. The scraps and relics include the prow of a Bronze Age boat, timber from various discarded or wrecked ships, a mast from Brunel’s Great Eastern and a propeller that went down with the Lusitania. Nancollas brings them together to create the Asunder, a lyrical embodiment of the fate that befell her predecessors.
The Asunder carries us across three millennia of seafaring, but the book covers coastal life too, particularly the shaping of port towns and communities, from Dover, the ‘very front door of England’, to Merseyside. Nancollas is an admitted romantic and good company, writing elegant prose as well as having