Manchester's imaginary Polynesian

The “People of the Sea” 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 addventure? 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.

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