Book Review: The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange

“But if journeys always turned out how we planned and provided answers only to the questions we knew to ask, there would be little point in taking them at all. “

Upon reading this last sentence in the introduction to The Frayed Atlantic Edge, the reader sets out with David Gange in his kayak from the Shetland Islands only to end at Seven Stones, the mythical land of Lyonesse, situated off the southwest tip of Cornwall.  Gange’s interest is to view the edge of the Atlantic from the sea – but close up and personal. In a kayak. Gange set out from Shetland in July, and onto Orkney, the Western Islands of Scotland, the western coast of Ireland, and on to where the Atlantic reaches the coasts of Wales, and finally, to end his journey 12 months later off Cornwall. So, yes, the weather was brutal at times. In January he was kayaking in the waters off Scotland only to be followed by March in the wicked seas off Northern Ireland.

Gange makes numerous stops, as he is eager to interact with the people who live on these rugged coastlines.  In this way, the reader discovers that Shetlanders have an unusual tradition with small boats, in that a boat is more than a way to get around.  Gange shares a poem in a Shetland dialect that notes that naming a boat is “naming a way of life, naming an attitude”. Shetlanders further make the point that a man without a boat is “a bound man.” My father once explained to me that you can tell a lot about a person by the name on the stern of their boat.

A senior lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham, Gange is adept at sharing with his reader insights he has acquired due to his voracious appetite for books.  When Gange leaves his kayak for a trek up a mountain that catches his interest, he shares a story about Charles Pilkington, a renowned Alpine mountaineer who warned that an inexperienced climber should not be where Grange was at the time, alone. Of course, David Gange IS alone. However, Pilkington went on to add that when a climber is on this summit, called Sgurr Alasdair, the climber must give the fine views “at least an hour of a misspent life”. I have lost count of the times I have been on a summit of a mountain and, transported by the view, vowed to change my priorities upon my descent so as to avoid another minute in a misspent life.

As Gange proceeds along the frayed Atlantic edge, he has intense interest and knowledge of the languages and dialects spoken along the rocky coastlines. When he comes to Connemara, an area nestled in the wild west of Ireland famous for its tensions between the old and the new, I was not surprised when this author found a soul mate. Gange looked up Tim Robinson, a famous writer and maker of maps, and a resident of Roundtree on the shores of Connemara. A visit that was to last an hour stretched to nine, as they swapped stories about maps, and prints, and dolphin skulls. But, writes Gange, it was Robinson’s rejection of a shore as a boundary, but rather a place where land and sea “entwine their twisted fingers” that, says Gange, transformed his kayaking. It was a few days later that Gange pulled ashore in the city of Galway and stayed for an unplanned week of revelry.  Gange had never been so “instantly enamored of a city on first visit.” I once visited friends in Galway over a spring break while in college. A friend picked me up at Shannon Airport, and we stopped at her place to drop my luggage. I never saw the luggage again till I was on my way back to Shannon a week later….that was a week of revelry, as well.

As he nears the end of his adventure, Gange suggests that when he returns home, he should throw out all the history textbooks lining the shelves in his office. He senses that these books hold only the “inland ascendancy and are read as progressive, with other geographic places having little importance.” He feels that historical change is understood as the human conquest over nature, and that these stories are incomplete. The history professor comes to understand:

“Recovering the voices of the small-scale fisherman, the coastal crofter, and the leaders of threatened communities are among the best methods we have of building histories that are nottriumphalist propaganda for the events that created the problems of our present.”

David Gange returns to his office in a red brick building in the heart of England. He confesses that at times, he takes to a sleeping bag in his back yard among foxes and woodpeckers. After travelling beside him on his incredible journey, I understood completely. I am also drawn to the headlands, and to the sea, and to that place where the sea touches the land. David Gange’s book, The Frayed Atlantic Edge, helped me to understand why. If you are drawn to these places as well, I suggest you read his book.

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