Grave Goods – David Gange.
Welcome to Grave Goods, a series of interviews in which the interviewee selects five items they’d like to accompany them to the afterlife.
On this outing, we’re very happy to receive David Gange. David is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Birmingham. His current work aims to be to history as experimental archaeology is to excavation, taking small boats on long journeys along historic sea routes to see what historical knowledge can be gleaned from vantage points low in the water.
His most recent book, The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel (Harper Collins, 2019), recounts one such voyage by kayak.
He can frequently be found over at Twitter, and is well worth a follow.
Tools of the Trade – a tool/implement without which you’d be lost, whether it’s a pen, trowel, notepad, bottle-opener or scanning electron microscope.
‘If this had been asked a year ago, I would’ve chosen my kayak. But, since my next project involves abandoning the kayak for a selection of traditional small boats, that wouldn’t feel right any more. One thing without which I’d be lost is my waterproof sleeping bag (a Mammut Shield): it’s the cosiest place to settle for the night, even in light rain, and prevents the need to carry a tent or find a grassy pitch. I love this thing so much that I own two, and frequently sleep in the garden in one even when not on a coastal journey. There’s little I like more than waking up to see the wildlife that’s landed, or wandered up, around you as you slept. How better to sustain a 24/7 immersion in the coastline than without a layer of goretex inserted between face and sky?’
Food for the Journey – a favourite portable snack, or a portion of something from your funeral feast.
‘This is the easiest answer for me. I don’t much like stoves when out at sea, so rely heavily on simple things like bread and cheese (and gin). One of the most unexpected kinds of knowledge I’ve picked up, by experiment, is which cheese stays nicest through the changing weathers of the North-East Atlantic. The answer is simple, and not even a close-run thing: it’s Yarg. It doesn’t go too salty in heat, nor does it fall apart. So I’d like to be buried in Yarg please. It’s also Cornish, which maintains the coastal theme; it comes wrapped in nettle leaves to prevent the need for any plastics; and it’s the perfect accompaniment to experiments in baking with heritage grains such as Orkney bere.’
Memento Vivere – a memento of a companion/event to bring you cheer (can be an image).
‘The person I learnt to kayak with (who was my partner for twenty years and is still a good friend) is the most ridiculous kayaker imaginable and also the person who introduced me to the rich literatures and politics of Welsh, Irish and Gaelic languages. I’ve always been a much more cautious kayaker than her – tempted to give up at ferocious headlands. So whenever I find myself wishing I was at home with cake and a cup of coffee rather than in some messy tiderace while seeking out click mills, illicit stills and seal shooting stations, it’s the memory of how she’d handle our trips together that spurs me on. There’s one particular photo I took that’d be my memento. We’re 7km off County Mayo in rising winds and seas, and I’d risked a landing to climb a sea stack while she paddled through breaking waves as seals surged up at her through foam. I took one picture straight downwards, and I think it’s the most dramatic shot I’ve ever taken but whether it’s as terrifying and bracing to anyone who wasn’t there I’ve no idea.’
Ex Libris – the book or text you are least likely to tire of reading.
‘There’s a small selection of books that are candidates here (not one is by a historian though). Tim Robinson’s Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage is an inspirational deep study of a small stretch of coastline, and is definitely the prose book I most wish I could emulate. Then there’s Rachel Carson’s seashore trilogy, especially the first and most overlooked volume, Under the Sea Wind. That volume is particularly interesting for the way it borrows, in a scientific text, techniques from fiction, and also for its insistence that if we’re to understand the sea we need to see it not from a bipedal, terrestrial perspective, but as a mackerel senses it.
‘Ultimately, though, I don’t think I could take a book of prose. Poetry has been so much richer and more insightful than prose in its approaches to the indeterminate spaces of shorelines. The Scottish greats, whether Norman MacCaig or Kathleen Jamie, would be obvious choices, but I’m going to take the Selected Poems (if I die before there’s a Collected) of Christine Evans, the bard of Bardsey Island. Her work is full of intimate evocations of a single place: closely observed and vigilant against cliché and stereotype. Even the parts that are four decades old are beautifully fresh, in part since the world has recently turned so much towards an outlook that values locality, close seeing and linguistic diversity, which Evans has championed since the ‘60s.’
Lucky Deposition – a bonus selection chosen by the guest – can include transport.
‘My training wasn’t as a historian but as a musician. Unfortunately, my instruments aren’t ones I can take out to sea with me; nor are they ones that usually fit into coastal folk traditions. Small boats have always been intensely social settings where a family, or a group of two or more would tell stories, sing and play, which is perhaps why coastal regions around the world are renowned for their folklore. One of my favourite albums of land- and water-inspired music is Starflowers by the wonderful Norwegian singer and instrumentalist Sinikka Langeland. It’s an album full of gloriously close instrumental collaboration, much like the togetherness of paddling or rowing an umiak, sixareen or trybekkur. If I choose her string instrument, the Finnish Kantele, as my lucky deposition, then perhaps I’ll gain the impetus to learn to play it, and have something more to contribute to a communal voyage in this life or the next. ‘
A Message from Beyond the Grave – an entirely discretionary option – leave a note for a future generation to find.
‘I can’t do any better than words from children on the Orkney Island of Papa Westray. There are several places in which ‘the last great auk in Britain’ supposedly died (depending on such things as whether migrant or only resident birds are counted). One of the last two, by any measure, was at Papa Westray, and was slaughtered on the whim of a London impresario (who wanted the stuffed body in a display that soon also included Napoleon’s carriage from Waterloo). The Papay kids helped set up a monument to the auk on the windswept cliffs at the north of the island. They wrote a note to be interred inside the statue of the bird:
‘We wish there was still a great auk to see. We hope that people won’t have to build more cairns like this to remember things we see alive now. We humans gave a name to this bird, now only the name is left. If you who are reading this message are not human, remember us with kindness as we remember the great auk.
When the heroic figures championing the cause of rivers, lakes and seas as well as seabirds (people like Autumn Peltier) are almost all children and teenagers, it would seem wrong for anyone over 18 to be leaving a message to the future without a cross-generational act of ventriloquism.’
Praise for The Frayed Atlantic Edge.
‘The strength of Mr Gange’s account is his generosity. His own wry persona never overshadows the voices of past and present inhabitants … [his] prose is itself poetic and precise … His enthusiasm for snoozing in soggy sleeping bags is infectious … A dunking in the freezing sea, off the coast of County Mayo, leaves the author shivering but “ignited, elated”. Surfacing from the book, the reader is invigorated, too.’ Economist