Can Europe Make It?

Manchester's imaginary Polynesian

The personal, historical and mythical lives of James Wharram: review of a rare autobiography.

Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
18 Jan 2021 - 1:06pm
Pahi 63, Eigenbau-Katamaran, James Wharram Design.
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Wikicommons/ originalausgabe. Some rights reserved.

The "People of the Sea" (published by Lodestar books) is the story of an extraordinary and emblematic life in post-war Britain. The best (auto)biographies work on three levels – personal, historical, and mythical – and this one ties all three into a gripping knot. The headiness of liberation in 1945; early experimentation with alternative lifestyles, free love, and an astonishing appetite for adventure on the high-seas; intellectual obsession, ecological awareness and the founding of a tribe – the People of the Sea.

James Wharram was 17 in 1945 and will be 93 next year. His autobiography, co-authored with one of his long-term partners and associates, Hanneke Boon, begins in Manchester. The only son of a working class builder father who is rising in the world and a feminist mother, he gets the most important parts of his early education from the public library. Wharram discovers William Morris, the Fabians, Keynes, Marx, and, most importantly, perhaps, an obscure French sailor-adventurer, Eric de Bischopp (more later on him). He travels to liberated Europe, where he talks – and walks – Freud, Jung and sexual liberation with young demobilised groups all wondering what to do with the great gift of a future before them. Within a few years, he performs the first Atlantic crossing in a catamaran (he prefers the term "double canoe") as a self-styled "marine archeologist". He returns to found a William Morris-like boat-building commune/cooperative on various estuaries of the Irish Sea where free love, boat-building and the early seeds of The People of the Sea are sown.

Floating dreams

By the 1990s, he had launched a huge ocean-going double-canoe, The Spirit of Gaia, aimed at studying natural ocean environments as well as fulfilling a childhood dream of bringing ocean-going canoes back to Polynesia. This is one of the two most poignant moments of the book – the Polynesia of his imagination was on an imaginary journey of its own that excluded him. Throughout, he and his partners create and nurture the "People of the Sea" – a ragtag group of ocean sailors, boat-builders and alternative livers. Like him, they are people who have heard the call of the ocean, and, lacking financial means, they self-built to his expert designs simple, tough and – at least in the world of yacht-clubs and marinas – eyebrow-raising double canoes. Thousands of these boats have been built and criss-cross seas and oceans, each a floating dream for a different and better world.

The personal stories – the loves, the tragedies, the adventures at sea, the personal snubs and victories, the tribulations of alternative communal living – are simply and movingly told. His first attempt at ocean-sailing, for example, has him abandoning a roughly-converted lifeboat in the upper reaches of the Rhine. Ruth, his German elder lover, who had privately resisted Nazism in small, private ways, like giving up a university career, asks Wharram what he plans to do now. Put on the spot, he replies with a boyhood vision: he is going to build a Polynesian double canoe and cross the Atlantic with it. She says that as long as he is serious in this, she will help him. They remained together until her death at the age of 90.

Another personal story that particularly sticks in my mind is the highly creative period of the 1970s, when Wharram and commune are based in Ireland. He wants to win races with his unorthodox boats and the commune builds two for entry into the annual Round Britain race. They are ambitious and novel. One of them, over-powered, capsizes early. The boat was captained by a young woman, and both for her and for Wharram, the disappointment is severe. The strains within the commune created by Wharram's drive, by the racing failure of the boats and no doubt by what must be hard, uncomfortable living in a soggy field on a river bank South of Dublin lead to the break-up of the commune. Wharram writes of this with sadness and self-criticism. He seems full of regrets to this day. A small core of the group – Wharram (together with the ever-faithful Ruth and a new partner, Hanneke, who co-authored this book) – rebuild the business and the William Morris workshop atmosphere in Wales and then in Cornwall, where they remain today.

Throughout the autobiography, the social and historical context is woven through the personal. There is, for example, the early decision for Wharram – politics or adventure? Both callings seem to come from the same underlying question: what is the real potential in the European rebirth of 1945? Wharram has a keen sense of the need for a different world – freedom and justice. As a schoolboy, he had been chairman of his local Labour Party Youth Group and he had enjoyed lecturing to womenś guilds and cooperative societies. His life choices always tended on the side of actually living that different world, not just the politics of asking for it. We see this in his early embrace of sexual liberation. A Pathe newsreel of his departure for the transatlantic catamaran crossing in 1955 coyly (and condescendingly) refers to the crew of "two pretty German girls", and the first book he wrote on returning from that journey was more explicit about their troilist household.

Strong women

The autobiography dwells further on this. He writes about the tragic death of one of his companions, Jutta, arising from her untreated PTSD from witnessing, and perhaps suffering directly, the Red Army's vengeful violence towards women as they marched across Germany in 1945.

In reading about the male experiences of early post-war advocates of sexual liberation, there is, from today's perspective, a concern that these represent a reversion to highly patriarchal and oppressive experiments for the women involved. That is not the impression one gets from Wharram. He is very candid about his youthful fragile masculinity, even in the 1960 book, and of his need to be surrounded by strong women. He cites his mother's feminist activism as foundational.

There is a touching episode when, in the 1980s, his young assistant Hanneke does some complex and innovative stability calculations on trimaran designs and demonstrates that they can be unstable if wave-action is taken into account. The design establishment do not take these self-building sea-nomads seriously, let alone mathematical calculations from a young woman. Wharram is indignant on her behalf and expresses the satisfaction of her being proved right.

Community-building

Nevertheless, despite apparently avoiding the worst of 1960s patriarchal communes, it is hard not to see the narrative arc from liberation to the break-down of the commune, as emblematic of the setbacks and unsuspected challenges suffered more generally by radical social libertarianism in contact with harsh environments of the late 70s and 80s.

Wharram's overall project is sustained through these difficulties because his self-build boat design plans continue to sell well. He captures the spirit of the times in this too: leisure is growing, but dreams of escape and alternatives are often presented as available only for a gilded jet-set.

He is an enormously creative naval architect, and his plans are based around ways of being as a group at sea.

Wharram knows from his own experience that this need not be the case. He is an enormously creative naval architect, and his plans are based around ways of being as a group at sea. They combine both large communal areas – for eating and cooking – and small but very private spaces inside the hulls for personal retreat. Long before "community-building" became a buzzword of internet marketing, Wharram and Ruth nurtured the community of DIY-builder-sailors who built to Wharram's plans. The community is still visible through its archive of magazines - Sailorman, first published in 1967, and then the Sea People Magazine, from 1983. Read them today and they are just like the forums and facebook pages that have more recently replaced them – people all over the world captivated by the same dream, and empowered by Wharram’s designs to realise them.

Sea nomads

This community is still thriving as "The People of the Sea" of his title. But one of the most poignant threads of the book is the story of Wharram's relationship – first imagined, then actual – with a different, Polynesian, Sea People. It starts back in that public library in Manchester, with the discovery, amongst a corner-shelf of tales of adventure, of an obscure book of the pre-war ocean-going exploits of Eric de Bischop, who had built and sailed a double canoe from Hawaii to France. Wharram steeps himself in what is known about Polynesian society and sea-faring. It is easy to see how this dovetails into his imagined better worlds for the post-war generation: in the European counter-cultural imaginary, Polynesia stood for free love and simple living in touch with nature. For Wharram, this imaginary Polynesia was linked to "establishment" Europe's inability to recognise Polynesians as a great sea-faring culture. Colonisers and missionaries, he came to believe, had suppressed indigenous canoe-building and long-distance seafaring because of their inability to concede any agency or valuable know-how to the people they were there to exploit and to convert. A people that had lived as sea nomads across a huge expanse of Pacific had been reduced by Europeans to island-bound lives deprived of the knowledge that had once made them masters of their ocean.

In 1947 the Norwegian marine archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl had made headlines with his KonTiki expedition, to prove his theory that the Polynesians had migrated to Polynesia with wind and current from South America on Balsa rafts. Though a great voyage, and the first successful attempt at experimental archaeology, it was again on the premise that the Polynesian double canoes were not capable of migrating to windward from the Western Pacific. For Wharram, this was just another attempt to deny agency to a colonised people. He had read de Bischop and knew that double canoes could sail upwind – the prerequisite for active ocean-travelling. The injustice to ancestral Polynesia together with their imaginary place in European minds launched the 20 year-old radical Mancunian onto his life's work to right the balance.

The injustice to ancestral Polynesia together with their imaginary place in European minds launched the 20 year-old radical Mancunian onto his life's work to right the balance.

Great Gathering of Canoes

Wharram visited museums and studied canoes; he built modern versions to what he took to be their design principles, using deep v-shaped hulls rather than the then popular circular-bottomed hulls that were derived from European paddling canoes; he corresponded with scholars and enthusiasts around the world and made genuine contributions to understanding ancestral Polynesian settlement patterns. And, in 1995, Wharram was officially invited to a "Great Gathering of the Canoes", in Polynesia. The government of Raiatea, he is told, would be honoured to welcome a double canoe from England. His huge boat, the Spirit of Gaia, is ready for the journey, and it is clear that he does not think twice about accepting. This should be a sort of homecoming. Here is someone who has devoted his life to countering a pernicious falsehood about an oppressed people, and he is being invited to join in their celebration of seafaring. Of course he must go.

And yet the occasion is a bitter disappointment. The great canoes he joins in the South Pacific were, from the point of view of seafaring, a sham. They had to be towed for photo-events and were not capable of proper sailing. The Spirit of Gaia, a truly ocean-going craft, was relegated to an outsider rank. What should have been a sort of life-long crowning, a return to a spiritual home, had turned into a brush-off. It must have been a huge disappointment. Wharram and Boon recount the episode with tact and restraint, but the emotions of it are nevertheless clear. Of course, what Wharram does not go into, is the story of the revival of great sailing canoes amongst Pacifc islanders. Traditional seafaring, noted by Cook's expeditions, was dismissed and discouraged by Europeans, and eventually it died out. So the canoeing revival is a political project to restore amongst westernised young men from Hawaii and Tahiti a sense of the glory and power of their own ancestral heritage. Just as Wharram has his own imagined Polynesia that drives his vision, so some Polynesians are involved in a self-conscious attempt to re-imagine their history and identity.

It is clear, with this hindsight, that Wharram's properly sea-faring canoe melding traditional design and modern DIY building methods could never insert itself into the political narrative that the gathering aimed to orchestrate: it would simply have been another episode of the European superiority the political project was trying to exorcise. The disappointment for the Spirit of Gaia and its dreams of an equal global humanity are palpable in the descriptions.

It would simply have been another episode of the European superiority the political project was trying to exorcise.

CODA: the Lapita Voyage

The coda to the story of the gathering is happier. Wharram and Boon visit a museum in New Zealand where they find a traditional canoe that, unnoticed by others, clearly has the hull-shape to sail to windward. They discover that it was a late nineteenth century gift from the people of Tikopia and Anuta, and so they sail to the very remote islands from where the canoe came. They find a thriving sea-based culture, but no canoes of the size or seafaring ability of the one in the New Zealand museum. Some years later, Hanneke Boon develops the conviction that Wharram & partners should build two ocean-crossing double canoes inspired by the one in New Zealand, that they should sail them to Tikopia and Anuta, and gift them back to the islanders. The beautiful story of this vision's realisation can be enjoyed in the film that Boon made of the project, The Lapita Voyage. There is none of the pomp and ceremony of the Gathering, but also none of the complex contemporary politics. A simple gift exchange, separated by a century and a half; a symbol of the common humanity, equality, justice and the spirit of freedom that unites real and imagined Polynesias; a symbol that pulls together the many threads of this extraordinary life.

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