Every so often a book comes along that defies expectations – Salt on Your Tongue is one such book. Charlotte Runcie pre-empts her story saying: “I’m not a maritime historian, and this isn’t a history of tall ships…It’s a story of women and water and love, with a birth and death, songs and tall tales and the wind blowing high on the waves.”
Who couldn’t be captivated by this one time Foyle’s Young Poet of the Year? Part memoir, part rumination, the book takes in childhood memories of the seaside, myths, sea shanties, notions of running away to the sea and much else. “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier or not having been to sea,” wrote Dr Johnson. This throws up the question: is the sea more connected to men – the Navy, fishing, sailing, the merchant marines, pirate marauding, mapmaking, world exploration, solo-transatlantic crossing, explorers – than to women? Do women really have a special affinity with the sea?
For centuries the sea was “a place of mystery, wonder and the unknown,” writes the author. The sea was seen by monks as the evil unknown and land the stable, ordered realm. Women in the sea come to the fore in fiction; from Greek myths to Gaelic folk tales. “Women who knew a thing about water or displayed any unconventional relationship with it, were undoubtedly magical beings. In the ancient mind, there was a clear link between women’s suspicious affinity with the sea and the ebb and flow of the tides, rhythmic yet chaotic and uncontrollable, in step with the moon. Men were creatures of the sun and the earth … while women were … profoundly and essentially in touch with the ever-moving water, moon and stars.”
“Longing for the sea is the longing for adventure and the longing for home, all at once,” writes Runcie whose book is a little like a Christmas cake – brimming with delectable ingredients but a tad indigestible at times. You certainly won’t want too much at any one sitting. In the space of a few pages we have Norse myths, medieval maps, Tennyson, Beowulf, Georges Méliès, the planet’s largest invertebrate and Angelina Jolie. The book is beautifully written but often quite dense (an index would have helped navigation for anyone wanting to dip in and out). Her personal reminiscences too are rather pedestrian and often get in the way.