“Great God, where is the ship?” by Philip Hoare

Over the coming days and weeks The Clearing will be publishing Lie of the Land, a series of responses to the Referendum exploring what leaving the EU could mean for conservation, wildlife and our relationship with the land. Please add your voice by posting comments below or submitting a longer contribution – either in images or words – to The Clearing editors.


It might sound over-dramatic, but as we count the human cost of the EU referendum, I’ve been wondering how many birds and animals will die as a result of the ‘Leave’ vote? How many of us will breathe dirtier air, swim in dirtier seas? The EU gave us cleaner seas and beaches, wildlife protection, better air quality. It has attempted, honourably, to conserve fish stocks – albeit with mixed results (see Callum Robert’s piece).

But it has had certain successes. It was only when Portugal joined the EU in 1986 that the hunting of great whales ended in their island dependency of the Azores. We have the EU to thank for the cessation in this trade, in which magnificent sperm whales were once ground up to produce rose fertiliser. Today, as I was lucky enough to experience, people swim with sperm whales instead of killing them.

There are many ways in which the EU has failed the natural world, of course. Another island dependency, the Faroe Islands, still culls hundreds of pilot whales each year. But generally, the united European nations have been a force for positive environmental change. Last year a Friends of the Earth report, addressing a then notional British exit from Europe, noted that ‘in the field of environmental policy, perhaps more than in any other area, the EU has had an overwhelmingly positive effect’.

All that disappeared on June 24. Earlier this year, as the ‘counter-factual’ prospect of leaving became a more tangible possibility, 13 members and former heads of the RSPB, the National Trust, the Environment Agency and Natural England joined in an unprecedented appeal to the environment secretary Liz Truss. ‘The case is clear: we will be better able to protect the quality of Britain’s environment if we stay in Europe’, they wrote. ‘ Britain’s membership of the EU has had a hugely positive effect on the quality of Britain’s beaches, our water and rivers, our air and many of our rarest birds, plants and animals and their habitats‘.

Environmentalists have been appalled. I’ve heard it be called a ‘dark day for conservation and internationalism. Caroline Lucas of the Green Party noted, ‘This decision could be devastating for the environment’. And Sir David Attenborough employed the fragile symbol of an iconic summer migrant as he called for the UK to enact the EU Birds and Habitats Directive. ‘Swallows aren’t members of the union’, he said, pointedly.

Yet of all the negative effects a vote may have, it is the sea which presents the most freighted – not just because of its surprising fragility and its susceptibility to misuse and pollution, but because of its symbolic power. We presume the sea surrounds us, here on the British archipelago, our island state. Apart, defined, unlike the amorphous continental mass beside us. We’re always one step away, surrounded by a cordon sanitaire, to keep the rest of the world at bay.

But the sea also connects us. It doesn’t confine us, it defines us. It opens us to the world. We are a bird runway for avian migrants, just as we are united, too with the people who cross the sea, promised by their smugglers that they will step from shore to land and into our cities of gold.

In our interconnected age, there are no boundaries. Gender, race, species: the old classifications and hierarchies must disappear, if we’re to survive. The sea is the great leveller, the conduit of trade and culture and ideas and life. It’s our ultimate connection; not a division, not a defence. It opens us up to the new, rather than closes us down to the old, forever renewed with every tide.

If this sounds Utopian, I do not apologise. Utopia was conceived in Britain, 500 years ago, by Thomas More, currently being celebrated, with extraordinarily ironic timing, by the Utopia 2016: A Year of Imagination and Possibility festival at London’s Somerset House. Utopia has a noble tradition, in England’s dreaming, from the Diggers and the Levellers to William Blake and John Ruskin, to punk and New Age travellers.

‘Is this Utopian?’, Ruskin’s erstwhile disciple, Oscar Wilde asked a century ago, in The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891). ‘A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias’.

When the news came in with the dawn that Friday morning, I went down to the sea to swim. Suddenly the English Channel seemed a lot colder, and the oystercatchers seemed to be flying faster over my head. I thought of Herman Melville, who warned the readers of Moby-Dick in 1851 and the rest of us now, ‘God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return‘. Melville’s chapter, ‘Does the Whale’s Magnitude Diminish Will?‘, was the first piece of fiction to address the notion of extinction; it seems more prophetic than ever in the 21st century.

Back home that morning, I looked again at the end of his book – itself a portrait of a ship of fools, led by a mad captain in pursuit of an impossible threat, into disaster. ‘For an instant, the tranced boat’s crew stood still; then turned. “The ship? Great God, where is the ship?”


Philip Hoare (@philipwhale) is author of Leviathan or, The Whale and The Sea Inside. He is co-curator, with Angela Cockayne, of the Moby-Dick Big Read, www.mobydickbigread.com. His film with Jessica Sarah Rinland, We Account the Whale Immortal, is showing at Utopia 2016 from 1 July-30 September, with a live performance on 14 July, with panel discussion with Richard Sabin, curator of vertebrates at the Natural History Museum.

Stephen Grimes (1927 – 1988) made the illustration featured above while preparing John Huston’s 1956 film of Moby Dick. Grimes was an English production designer and art director who later worked with Sydney Pollack, David Lean, Mark Rydell and Ulu Grosbard.

Read more Lie of the Land articles.

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