Magazine article The Spectator

Revistiong Troubled Waters

Magazine article The Spectator

Revistiong Troubled Waters

Article excerpt



by Alan Ross

Harvill, L14.99, pp. 152

Before Winter Sea I had never read a travel book by Alan Ross, indeed any book about the Baltic, let alone visited it. Ross, returning to the scenes of his wartime service in the navy, proved the perfect companion-cum-guide for me: observant, informal, amusing, interested in people and curiosities, and a phrase-maker with a gift of vividly conveying sights and sounds and smells. Approaching Tallinn by sea, he notes

spires and towers breaking out as if from surf, and nearer the water's edge the frieze of cranes in mid-pirouette like a frenetic corps de ballet, the bloated white shapes of the ferries, the nosing tugs . . . and recalls the city's `smell of sour bread and old boots, of flapping mackintoshes and woolly hats' which had haunted him 50 years before.

Winter Sea is part travel book, part memoir, part pilgrimage to places connected with writers who hold a special interest for the author, and thrown in for extra measure are some of his own accomplished, sharply focused poems. The route runs from Estonia (Tallinn, Haapsalu), Norway (Oslo, Bergen), to Germany (Buxtehude, Hamburg, Wilhelmshaven). He has gone to Tallinn to discover what he can about Richard Schlemmer, a German naval captain who became a postwar friend, whom he'd first met when he'd been escorting Schlemmer on the German's own ship, to be handed over to the Russians, and entered his cabin to find him in bed with a Polish stowaway. He doesn't find Schlemmer's grave, but the memory of his friend leads him to a sketch of the Estonian poet, Kaplinski, who retreated to the eastern end of the country during the Russian occupation and wrote stoically minimalist verses which, in translation at least, fail to excite me. More fun is his account of `the bald man with walrus whiskers', Arthur Ransome, who acted as a diplomatic gobetween with the Soviets in brokering Estonian independence in 1919 and later sailed the Baltic waters on his second honeymoon in an 'unprepossessing' boat which he christened Slug. It was Ransome who recorded in 1913 that the Russian equivalent for `An angel is passing' when there is an awkward pause in conversation is 'A policeman is being born'.

In Oslo he retraces the hungry steps of Knut Hamsun, that Nobel Prize-winner I feel I should, but can't, admire. …

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