The Atlantic ocean might not be the world's largest. But it is, writer Simon Winchester tells Stephen Jewell, the centre of the world and deserving of its own "biography".
Usually you would expect a biography to be devoted to a famous actor or politician, not a body of water. But that is what The Surgeon of Crowthorne author Simon Winchester has done in his latest book, Atlantic, which chronicles the history of the world's second-largest ocean.
"It's not a person but I feel that it can be thought of as alive," says the London-born author, who divides his time between New York and a remote farmhouse in the Berkshire Hills in western Massachusetts. "It had a birth and it will have a death, so it has a lifespan. But what I concentrate on telling is the story of not so much the physical ocean but humankind's relationship with it. The ocean is the outer nut, if you like, and the human relationship is the kernel."
As he recalls in the preface, the 65-year-old first traversed the Atlantic in 1963 as a passenger on one of the last voyages of the ocean liner Empress of Britain. Shortly afterwards, sea travel was superseded by the introduction of jetliners that could fly across the vast ocean without the need for refuelling. "I've had the idea for this book in the back of my mind for a long time, because I've made that crossing so many times since then," he says.
"It struck me that the strengths of the Atlantic are hidden in plain sight as it were. The Pacific is seen as a more romantic ocean with its tales of Polynesian navigators and famous explorers like Magellan and Captain Cook, while the Atlantic is more of a workhorse ocean. It's been central to the making of the modern world in the same way that the Mediterranean was central to the making of the classical world."
As Winchester writes, the Atlantic's drabness is epitomised by how it is "gray and slow-moving and heavy with a steady heaving." In contrast, the Pacific "is dominated by the colour blue" and is "overwhelmingly fringed with leaning palm trees and coral reefs." He first wrote about the Pacific in 1991's Pacific Rising: The Emergence of a New World Culture, an "unsuccessful, juvenile book" that he now dismisses as the work of a young author.
"Back then I was so captivated with how the Pacific was the ocean that the world was looking towards for the 21st century because it had all the new economies like Japan and California grouped around it," he says. "Whether or not that has now happened is open to question but since then I've become much more interested in history than futurology."
According to Winchester, the Atlantic has played a more significant role in history than the Pacific. "You've had important events happen along its shores like the birth of democracy, the regulation of trade, the establishment of early telecommunications with the first radio transmissions and the development of aviation," he says. "It's almost as if the Atlantic is big but not so big that it made things like crossing it impossible."
Winchester cites the case of British pilots John Alcock and Arthur Brown, who made the first non-stop transatlantic flight in 1919. "After that it became a possible achievement," he says. "Whereas it would have been impossible to imagine doing that in the Pacific in the early days of aviation. The Atlantic was just the right size for the abilities of mankind to be constantly tested and to regularly achieve a certain number of steps. It's a highly important ocean in a way that the Pacific and Indian oceans are not."
While the Atlantic is the world's most ancient ocean, it wasn't even recognised as such until the 16th century. "That didn't happen until Columbus realised that there were continents either side of it and not just a bunch of islands," says Winchester. "It meant that there was a far side of it that was possible to be reached for trade and commerce with ships, aeroplanes and so forth."
Christopher Columbus is famously celebrated in the United States, with the District of Columbia, Columbus Ohio, Columbia South Carolina and the national holiday of Columbus Day all named after him. However, Winchester points out that it was the outer cays of the Bahamas that were sighted on that auspicious day in October 1492. He never actually set foot in North America itself, only getting as far as Central America, when he landed in Venezuela during his third voyage in 1498.
In fact, the first European to reach the American mainland was Leif Eriksson; a Norseman who founded the Norse settlement of Vinland in what is now the Canadian province of Newfoundland, around the year 1000.
"I'm sure I will take a lot of heat from Italian Americans when the book comes out," laughs Winchester. "Columbus was not a particularly gentle, kindly soul, whereas nice Leif Eriksson, who got there almost 500 years before Columbus, is almost totally forgotten. I would like to reinstate Eriksson and give him a bit more of the spotlight but I don't think that's going to happen."
Unlike the more aggressive Genoan, Eriksson and his people enjoyed a peaceful relationship with the local Inuits, refusing to sell them weapons and bartering useful goods like milk instead of beads and trinkets. But they never ventured very far and returned home after a few years. "Their failing was that they didn't realise where they were," says Winchester. "They didn't realise that they were in North America but neither did Columbus, who thought he was on an island off Japan. They were all a bit misguided."
Inspired by David Owen's poetry anthology Seven Ages, which adopts a similar device, Winchester based Atlantic's structure around the seven stages of a man's life that Shakespeare lists in As You Like It's famous "All the world's a stage..." speech. Beginning with Infant, it takes in Schoolboy, Lover, Soldier, Justice and Slipper'd Pantaloon before concluding with Second Childishness.
"Once I'd made that decision, it all started to fall into place," he says. "I then had to decide what goes into each chapter. With Justice, I don't just write about law, I also write about everything else that relates to law. Commerce regulates society so commerce goes into that chapter. With chapters like Soldier, that means war and battles but I also put in other acts of violence like piracy and slavery."
Winchester found the chapter on art and culture, which fell under the auspices of Lover, the most difficult. "It was the only one where you're slightly detached from the ocean," he says. "It's fine if I'm writing about ships and trading, Marconi sending out the first radio waves or battles being fought on the ocean. But if I'm writing about Shakespeare writing The Tempest or Ezra Pound translating 9th century poetry, then the reader is slightly distanced from the ocean itself. It was a little easier to write about the music and the architecture but it was particularly challenging to write about the literature of the ocean. I thought it might become a little dry and the one thing the ocean is not is dry. I wanted the reader to feel the sea throughout the book."
Winchester is currently preparing to embark upon his next book, which will chart the history of the United States. "I've lived here for quite a few years now and I'm still fascinated by America," he says, revealing that it will be modelled around another classic text.
"It's not another Shakespeare, you'll be relieved to know, but Gray's Anatomy. Henry Gray divided the human body into different themes and I want to use those themes as ideas to explore America. I will look at the 12 areas that Gray did like America's heart and America's veins but I also want to uncover the one thing that Gray didn't look at in his book, which is America's soul."
Next week Winchester returns to New Zealand, which he first visited more than 20 years ago when David Lange was Prime Minister.
"I was writing an essay about the country for an American travel magazine and I thought it would be rather nifty to get him to recommend where I should go, as he was quite well known internationally at the time," he recalls. "So I turned up at his office at the Beehive and told him what I wanted to do. He said 'better than that, why don't we go together?' So he cancelled all his weekend appointments and we met the next morning at Auckland airport. He rented a car and we drove right up to the very northern tip of the North Island and had the most extraordinary adventures together. I was very fond of him and have been fond of New Zealand ever since."