Revisiting the Mary Rose
When you live in the country, the surrounding cities are part of home and yet not quite where you belong. Portsmouth was such a place when I was growing up in Selborne. As a child, I enjoyed pantomimes at the King’s Theatre. As a teenager, I took the train to Portsmouth with friends to spend hours trying on clothes in Debenhams and the boutiques on Commercial Road. The ferries to France and the Isle of Wight sparked the anticipatory thrill of travel. Portsmouth represented happy self-indulgence, until divers began to excavate the underwater wreck of Henry VIII’s ship, the Mary Rose.
Her female identity and the allure of her mysterious sinking came to pose a threat to my relationship with my first love. How could an ordinary woman vie with Mary Rose’s magnetism, romance, tragedy? One half of her was preserved under silt while the other had slipped away into the Solent. She was half ghost, half rival, half other woman communing with the sea. I’m ashamed to say that the events and deaths of 1545 seemed fictional to me then, obsessed as I was with my own life unravelling.
In the prologue to Giorgio Bassani’s novel, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, the narrator accompanies his friend’s family on a visit to Etruscan graves. The daughter asks why old tombs are less sad than new ones, and her father replies that ‘the recent dead are closer to us and so we care more about them. The Etruscans – they’ve been dead such a long time … it’s as though they’ve never lived, as if they’ve always been dead’. The child replies, ‘as you say that, it makes me think the opposite, that the Etruscans really did live, and that I care about them just as much as about the others’. That comment releases Bassani’s narrator to enter again the tennis courts of the Finzi-Continis in pre-war Ferrara before his friends were murdered in the Holocaust and to tell their story of first loves and friendships. The visit to the Etruscan museum enables Bassani to ask how closely we share the human condition with the almost mythical dead and the closer recent dead and whose history will be commemorated in years to come.
In 1981, there was no Mary Rose Museum. The ship was still under the sea, but operations were underway to bring the ship’s contents to the surface. These objects include prune stones, baskets, arrow shafts, dice, kitchenware, carpenter’s tools, surgeon’s implements, fragments of the lives lived on board, touched and used by those sailors, cooks and cabin boys, which I now find so poignant and evocative in the Mary Rose Museum.
R was one of the volunteers diving to raise these artefacts from the Mary Rose. There were about five hundred volunteers, and five hundred men on board the ship in 1545. A strange historical symmetry, perhaps, and the kind of consonance that worried me. R and I had recently graduated and then married too young. We assumed we could keep our relationship going at weekends, having moved both geographically and emotionally apart to study for PhDs at different universities.
In those days, and for some time later, I suffered from an inability to speak honestly because family troubles had closed me down. I was quite inhibited and silent when I met R in the sixth form. I now appreciate how he and his family helped me grow. I hope I contributed to his growth too. But in 1981 we were both struggling to become adults after unhappy events. The fact that I feel friendship for R now and an appreciation of his life doesn’t change the truth – that in 1981, I was torn between a guilty interest in other men and an intense suspicion of R’s female friends in the sub-aqua world. Anyone who dates a diver knows the colour of anxiety, without sexual jealousy being thrown into the mix.
One evening, I wandered around Portsmouth Harbour and Southsea Common in a state of hellish tension, returning to the dock regularly to check whether they were back. The hours went by with no news. I can’t remember now why they were so late. Of course, at first I feared that R had an attack of the bends and was in a recompression chamber. I don’t think that could have been the case, but the even worse fear of him drowning then completely possessed me. Nowadays R (still diving) can text his wife to say he’s above water, but then there were no mobile phones. Even before the Mary Rose excavation, I was already withdrawing from diving trips. I had grown up with crises and expected them to happen. I was so aware of late returns when I was waiting on shore that it was easier to be elsewhere.
Now, in the Mary Rose Museum, I wonder which arrow shafts R picked from the seabed and carried to the surface or whether he’d handled these wooden plates or shone his diver’s torch on that basket or this leather shoe. Now, I can see his enterprise as something bigger, part of the drive to commemorate our ancestors and to respect and reconstruct their lives.
Poetry is not a museum, but it too is a remembrancer, a rhythmic capturing of time, love, and experience. The hand that had so often held my hand had pulled some of these items from the sand, had touched the wood or leather that a hand from 1545 had touched, forming a kinship between us all through time. In the museum, the lives of the crew are ably imagined and reconstructed through the very finds that R and his friends brought up from the seabed. Though I found it hard to empathise with the drowned men or consider them real people then, I think my black moods of jealousy, fear and possessiveness were tuning in to the anxieties felt by the invisible fearful onlookers on shore.
In terms of memory shaping poetry, I associated the divers’ work with a time of unhappiness, where I felt in retrospect that I hadn’t dived deeply enough into my history and affections to be a good life partner. Thinking at all had become hard. It was difficult to sit in the Bodleian trying to finish my PhD on the influence of Ovid’s Heroides on sixteenth century poetry. In the Heroides, Ovid gives voice to abandoned women from myth in a series of dramatic monologues. This wasn’t the fit emotional subject for me at the time, though I feel very fortunate as a poet to have read Ovid’s works so closely in the original language, and now I’m older, I understand better the psychological and concrete brilliance of the Metamorphosis, the wit of the love poems and the understanding of anger and passion in the Heroides, where the women are often left on shore as the men sail away.
In the Mary Rose Museum, so many years later, I thought about what it’s like to be under the surface, to be in the sea or trapped under ground. I thought of the sinking of the Mary Rose almost as a metaphor for societal depression, for the having-no-choice.Sir George Carew, commander of the ship, is quoted as saying that he had knaves on board he couldn’t rule. This version of the story has an infuriating contemporary ring to it – ordinary people being blamed for their own demise (think Hillsborough or Grenfell Tower) rather than authorities taking responsibility. I came to understand that the bringing up of objects of daily usage was a kind of celebration of past lives as they were lived in the quotidian moments of cooking, making, carving, healing, shaving, drinking or lacing up shoes.
These ideas fed into ‘When you are under’, the final poem in my second collection The Blue Den (Bloodaxe Books, 2012). The whole collection deals with connections between the human and the non-human as the voices of people and nature elide into one another. This poem plays around with images of detritus under the earth or sea, or the abandoned traces of other cultures, as emblems of how we fight depression or oppression – here is the stanza based on the Mary Rose:
Remember the men who went under
Cooks stewing plums. Midshipmen playing blackgammon.
Their linstocks, lions, griffins, alligators,
hung above the hammocks, carved from boredom and lulls.
Knees of trees in the hulls. Silt half the timbers,
then let the rest ghost away.
The contents of the Mary Rose speak to creativity, from the carpenter’s tools to the ointment jars of the surgeon, to the cooking implements, the making of the weapons and the decorative carving of the linstocks. The ship is made of a forest, part of nature; tree branches sit in its hulls. In the poem’s conclusion, a return to nature creates a new sense of equilibrium.
In my solipsistic mythology, which the poem helped me to disrupt, the halving of the ship (as I saw it probably not quite accurately), with one half becoming invisible seemed to speak of my split with R because yes, he did form a relationship with a fellow diver and, reader, he married her. My jealousy wasn’t madness though it sometimes felt like it, when I was tempted to behave as angrily as a Medea or Ariadne from the Heroides.
Towards the end of our relationship, I was due to meet R when he was on a diving rota. My train, delayed by several hours, went slowly all the way from London, as if reluctant to reach Portsmouth. Further along the carriage, a man marked time by making loud violent comments about women. We were the only ones in the carriage, and I became too terrified to move in case he saw me. Trembling from the journey, I rushed off the train early at Portsmouth and Southsea, while R was waiting for me at Portsmouth Harbour. Our missing of each other seemed symbolic.
For many years, I admit, I didn’t particularly want to go to Portsmouth at all, but poetry, as so often in my life, helped me reclaim a positive place. I started going to poetry workshops in Southsea. I read at Tongues & Grooves (run by the amazing Maggie Sawkins) and enjoyed work by other poets and musicians. Poetry and Portsmouth began to overlap optimistically. The friendliness, humour and edginess of the Portsmouth I knew before R and I split, regained its positive associations.
Russia invaded Ukraine while I was writing this, which makes my diving for the past seem irrelevant, selfish, egotistical. Does my story of a broken relationship matter? Does any individual story matter in the face of war? Yet we want to know who carried that basket of plums onto the ship. Which orchard they grew in? Were they an offering of love? Bought in a market? Sent by a parent? Which of the arrow shafts did R touch? Which of the crew longed for their lovers on shore? How did Henry feel as he saw the ship go down? What does the sea or the earth record about our tiny individual lives? That we lived, ate plums, and spat out the stones, carved beasts in wood, that we played backgammon, drank wine and ale, that we cried, that we petted a dog, smoothed ointment on sores, pulled teeth, stoked the fire, and that, if we were lucky, we lived to come up safely from the sea or come back from war.
As the girl in Bassani’s prologue says, ‘The Etruscans did live, and I care about them just as much as about the others’. As we’ve seen in recent political debates about history and curation, cemeteries and museums are as much about living empathy as they are about past civilisations. I’m grateful to the Mary Rose Museum for reconstructing hunger, friendship, medicine, and the everyday efforts we make to experience our lives. The fragments R and his friends salvaged contribute to this narrative. And these days, I’m proud of R risking himself to take part in that work and so grateful to the sea for not swallowing him. But before I could make this emotional journey, I had to conjure with it in notebooks, recollect events in fragments, note down the grey-violet clouds over Southsea common and the sea-kale along the beach even if none of this has yet found its way into finished poems.
Stephanie Norgate is a playwright, poet, and educator. Her collections include Hidden River (shortlisted for the Forward First Collection and Jerwood Aldeburgh prizes), The Blue Den, and The Conversation (2021). Her novel, Storm, was shortlisted for the Cinnamon Award 2019 while her plays have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She ran the MA in Creative Writing at Chichester University and was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Southampton University until Summer 2021. She is now an Associate Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund.