Philip Hoare is a man obsessed. He’s quite open about it – “everything I write is the product of obsession” - and offers each of his books as proof of his claim. “If one is to spend five years of one’s life working on a book, one has to be utterly fascinated with the subject. I want to live my books. I want to be Stephen Tennant, Oscar Wilde, a whale.”
Writing under a pseudonym, (“when I was growing up, I got tired of people making jokes about my ‘real’ name, since it also belonged to a famous and eccentric astronomer”), Philip has published six books of non-fiction. The first, ‘Serious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant’ (1990), was about the 1920s aristocratic aesthete. He followed this debut with ‘Noel Coward: A Biography’ (1995) and ‘Wilde's Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy and the First World War’ (1997). He is also the author of 'Spike Island: the Memory of a Military Hospital' and ‘England's Lost Eden: Adventures in a Victorian Utopia’ (2005), a book about 19th-century sects. His most recent book ‘Leviathan or, The Whale’ (2008) won the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize and in it Philip explores his lifelong obsession with whales alongside his love for Herman Melville’s novel ‘Moby Dick’.
Philip tells me he is looking forward to visiting Sri Lanka, having heard much from his brother-in-law Dishan Goonetillake, who runs the HelpLanka charity in Sri Lanka (www.helplanka.co.uk). But there’s an even older family connection – a distant ancestor owned a tea plantation in Ceylon. “So you see, I come in hope of finding my own roots, too – if not an entire tea plantation. I also come in Coward’s footsteps – his brother, Erik, worked on a plantation at Matale, outside Kandy in the early 1930s. And Noel himself loved the island – especially the Galle Face Hotel. He met Cole Porter there – what a stunning combination that must have been.” And will he head out to meet the whales? “Well, what do you think? You’d have to drag me back to the airport if I haven’t seen them. I just hope someone has told them, too.”
What are you reading
Moby-Duck. It’s the true story of an American teacher, Donovan Hohn, who goes in search of thousands of toy ducks that spilled out of a container ship in the Pacific, and are still drifting around the world. Hohn uses his voyage to highlight the plight of our oceans and the threat that our industrialised society places on them. Having just finished Michelle de Kretser’s startlingly beautiful historical novel, set in Sri Lanka, The Hamilton Case, Hohn’s book has come as an abrupt re-introduction to the precarious state of our present day and the near future.
Where do you like to read?
Well, I read for my work all day, so I’m always dipping in the towering piles of books that lie in every room of my house. The problem is that often the one book I want is at the bottom of the pile, thus threatening a suitably literary demise for this particular writer should the tower come tumbling down. It wouldn’t be the first time. I do most of my reading in bed – just as I do most of my writing in bed.
I love reading on trains . I can’t read on planes – there’s something about the weird ambience that ruins the experience for me and destroys my concentration. My mother always said I took after her father, who was so passionate a reader he’d miss his bus stop because he was so deep in his book. I can’t bear not to read – ingredients on a cereal packet will suffice if nothing else is at hand. Unlike many people, I don’t read on the beach – the sea is too much of a magnet for me!
You have been described as a ‘whalehead’ – for those who share your passion, could you name two books that are must reads?
Of course, Moby-Dick, for its sheer subversive wit and ironic allegory. Herman Melville foresaw almost everything that has happened in the years between the publication of his book (in 1851) and now – from imperial arrogance to environmental threat. But the great thing is he invented his own style – he even invented his own words: if one didn’t exist, he’d create it to do the job he required it to do. I often wonder if Melville had been writing his book nowadays and he had access to a search engine, if he’d ever have finished Moby-Dick at all. He was a wonderful plagarist, too, copying whole chunks out of other books – the equivalent of a modern journalist cutting and pasting from Wikipedia.
My other book, which I never fail of recommending, is W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. In fact, I’m envious when I find someone who hasn’t read it, because they are in for a real treat. Sebald’s imagination was as unbounded as Melville’s. He too ranges across genres, and is impossible to catergorise. If Moby-Dick is a voyage into the world of the whale, then The Rings of Saturn is journey into the recent and troubled history of humanity – specifically, the mid-twentieth century. It’s only as you venture deeper and deeper into Sebald’s book – again, like Melville’s – that you realise you are being drawn into an ever darker story. I don’t want to say much more – for fear of spoiling the experience. Suffice to say, it is one of the greatest books – fiction or non-fiction (and like Moby-Dick, one is never quite sure which it is) – of the modern era.
n You have written critically acclaimed biographies of Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde – both playwrights of considerable charm and wit. What do you imagine each man would have liked most about the other?
Well, Noel Coward was very cutting about Wilde, whom he saw as the architect of his own downfall. He was, in Noel’s opinion, just too clever. Coward mediated decadence for the middle classes – gave them a little frisson of naughtiness. Wilde actually did the same. But in both you will find that same sense of subversion that always attracts me (as a former punk). Coward satirised his era in ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ and suggested new moralities in ‘Private Lives’ and ‘Design for Living’. Remember that ‘Brief Encounter’ is in fact about adultery. Wilde did the same, in The Importance of Being Earnest, and The Picture of Dorian Gray.
They were intensely amusing dinner guests; both men sang for their supper, and knew that that was their role. They both played it, elegantly. Having interviewed many people who knew Coward – from Gore Vidal to Katharine Hepburn – I realised that he had that remarkable, innate ability – almost a genetic trait – to say the things that occur to us mere mortals only after the event. Coward’s doctor, Patrick Woodcock, told me it was because Coward was always ‘on’ – on stage, that is. He thought Coward’s brain was wired differently to the rest of us. I imagine Wilde was exactly the same. Put them in the same room, however, and I think you would have had fireworks! I can imagine trying to outdo each other’s bon mots. It would have been a dangerous, if highly entertaining, place to be.
You have strayed far and wide with your choice of subjects - from whales and playwrights, to 1920s aesthetes, electronic dance music, military hospitals and obscure Victorian cults. Have you discovered your next obsession yet?
I think it will be the Pacific. I spent some time in Australia and New Zealand earlier this year, and I became fascinated by the way that great ocean is a kind of vacuum to us. Look at the globe from outer space, from a point mid-distant in the Pacific, and an arriving alien would assume our planet was entirely water. In our land-born arrogance, we assume that such a space is almost empty, of no interest. The reality is that the Pacific is home to 25,000 islands, and thousands of species which we have yet to discover.
I love, too, the notion of those island people, such as the Maori, who followed the whales’ migratory routes to New Zealand, and who believe they are directly descended from whales. Indeed, when whales strand on the beaches there, a Maori elder will sleep next to them, so that his relatives do not die alone. Such stories are, to me, deeply emotional. They seem to summon my interest eastwards… We shall see.