Dr Laura Ferguson
Queen’s University Belfast, UK
Nicholas Allen, Nick Groom & Jos Smith (eds), Coastal Works, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017; pp: 320; RRP £55.00
Coastal Works explores the culture and heritage of the coast of Britain, Ireland and the north Atlantic edge, as represented through literature and art. The book is presented in the form of a series of essays that employ a range of methodologies to explore the relationships between space, place and culture at the edge where land and sea meet. It is concise and densely packed with thoroughly researched content that is of the breadth and depth expected of an academic work, yet remains engaging and accessible on a general level.
The inspiration for Coastal Works is the work of author, artist and map-maker Tim Robinson, famous for his exploration of the Galway coastline. There are frequent references to the work of Robinson, but not so many that distract from the abundance of others whose work receives critical attention, including writer Erskine Childers, poets Norman Nicholson and Louis MacNeice, artist Zarh Pritchard and naturalist and prolific writer Ronald Lockley, among many others.
Despite being a collection of separate works covering widely varying disciplines within the humanities, the series of case studies are bound together by themes of coastal dynamism, transnational spaces and a timeless association between people and the edge of the ocean so that they flow without disjoint. Neither does the frequent relocation disturb. Whether the in the Devon seaside or the Aran Islands, the common attachment to the Atlantic holds stronger than the separation of distance.
As Coastal Works demonstrates, there are a myriad of cultural values that define coastal areas to people, and the rich heritage of human interaction with the sea has, over the years, changed as much as the coastlines themselves. The conceptualisation of the coast as a place perpetually in transition both physically and culturally is one of the dominant themes running through the text. Fiona Stafford, for example, describes the Solway Firth as having "a history as shifting as the sands" (p.43), and Daniel Brayton writes of Erskine Childers developing the notion of "the shifting sands at the edge of the sea and their eponymous riddle" (p.119).
Taking an ecological perspective of the coastline as an ecotone – defined as a transition area between two biomes – Coastal Works pays particular attention to the interfacial aspect of coastlines as borders where the land meets the sea. However, the coast is represented as a place of connection more than separation throughout the book, as it unites the land and the ocean. The sea also unites islands and nations as a fluid transnational bridge by which they are connected and people are transported between their coasts. Adopting this perspective, it is less of the barrier or edge it has been regarded in some contexts, and more of an enabler to those who interact with it. Nick Groom, for example, describes the Irish Sea as a medium of communication with and interaction between Britain and Ireland in his consideration of the colonial politics of water and the implications of the satirical proposal to drain the Irish Sea. The past conceptualisation of the coast as an edge, John R. Gillis argues, has "obscured the reality of its betweenness" (p.267).
The timeless association between people and the coast is another cross-cutting theme arising throughout the text, but is particularly evident in Kyriaki Hadjiafxendi and John Plunkett’s chapter Science at the Seaside which examines the Victorian fascination with the seaside and the construction of the Devon Coast as a place of science. Influenced by volumes of writing about the Devon coastline and a growing interest in popular science, Victorian natural history enthusiasts explored Devon’s rock pools and beaches on a mission to observe their rich biodiversity.
One final chapter worthy of special note is Andrew McNeillie’s In the Labyrinth: Annotating Aran, in which McNeillie visits the Aran Islands, uncovering the stories of those who featured in Robinson’s books. His encounters with the living and the dead flit seamlessly between the past and the present, and between the land and the sea, weaving a timeless depiction of Aran identity. This is a moving account that tells as much about McNeillie’s own past experiences on the Aran Islands as it does about Robinson’s, and is certainly a chapter to savour.
Coastal Works is an excellent contribution to the growing field of the blue humanities, yet has sufficient breadth of appeal to reach audiences with general literary, artistic or coastal and maritime interests. A treatise on the human perspective of the sea, it demonstrates the significance of the role of the literary and visual arts in articulating the value of heritage in the dynamic coastal environment where the extreme edges of land and ocean meet.
Dr Laura Ferguson
Queen’s University Belfast, UK