At once historical narrative and environmental manifesto, The Paradoxal Compass is a portrait of the Tudor navigators, packed with surprising insights. It also asks how, and why, so much about these great explorers came to be lost from view for centuries.
As the modern world continues to plunder the ‘infinite store’ of the earth’s riches, Morpurgo explores how our abusive relationship with the natural world began. He asks what the Age of Discovery might have to teach us in the current environmental crisis, as we too reappraise our place in the world.
“My case here is that this is a story we avoid because we think we know it. But we don’t really know the story. There are other ways to tell it.” – Horatio Morpurgo
The Paradoxal Compass compares our own tipping point with the ‘great unsettling’ lived through by the Elizabethans more than four centuries ago. Morpurgo dramatizes the perilous hours during which Drake’s Golden Hinde was stranded on a reef off the coast of Indonesia and asks what was really at the heart of Drake’s violent quarrel with Fletcher, the ship’s chaplain.
Morpurgo, with his own deep connections to the West Country and its coastline, goes on the trail of little-known figures like Stephen Borough and John Davis, or their instructor in navigational science, John Dee, inventor of the ‘Paradoxal Compass’. He beguiles the reader with his descriptions of the South West Peninsula, first home to so many Tudor explorers, and follows them on their journeys in search of the North East and North West passages, to Moscow, Greenland, Iceland and beyond.
There is a longer story, Morpurgo argues, that we need to tell now more urgently than ever, about our relationship with the oceans in general and the Arctic in particular. He asks the difficult questions about our treatment of marine wildlife over the centuries but also suggests how we might, belatedly, make amends. He campaigned for the first Marine Protected Area of significant size in UK waters, established in Lyme Bay in 2008. He has since written extensively about the sea-bed’s dramatic recovery. He discusses here a new campaign to protect the bay’s dolphins. Withdrawal from the EU could jeopardise the progress that has been made – or it could, just, open a hopeful new chapter in England’s long and contradictory relationship with the sea. It’s up to us.
Horatio Morpurgo’s essays on the environment and on European affairs have appeared in many publications including Arete, PN Review, London Magazine, Quarterly Review, Resurgence and the Ecologist.