Tuesday's book: Winter Sea by Alan Ross (Harvill, pounds 14.99)

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Wrapped in their atmospheric Paul Nash dust-jackets, the fragmentary and delightfully idiosyncratic memoirs of Alan Ross - poet and writer, editor and publisher, sailor and cricketer - have provided some of the most evocative autobiographical writing of the past decade. This latest volume has a distinctly maritime flavour, and the wartime memories recalled after 50 years mostly concern North Sea or Baltic cities. The book opens with Ross aboard a steamer bound for Tallinn, contemplating the scatter of islands, "wooded and rounded like porcupines", or which "loll like submarines or seals". He casts his mind back to a visit in 1945 and remembers a dead friend, the mysterious and elegant Korvetten-Kapitan Schlemmer, who had retired to Estonia. The smell of the Baltic, he writes, is "a fusion of salt, sand dunes, pine trees and tar".

Wherever Ross travels, he has a book in his pocket, and more often than not his reading is by way of homage to a native poet or writer. In Estonia he reads Jan Kaplinski; in Norway, Nordahl Grieg and Knut Hamsen; in Germany, Ernst Junger. Tantalisingly brief pieces of information abound. We discover that Arthur Ransome once played chess with Lenin; and we hear of Nordahl Grieg writing to Graham Greene and inviting him to Estonia where "for a few pieces of chocolate we could certainly buy what native girls we wanted to".

Wartime memories also form the background to Ross's visits to Oslo and Bergen, in pursuit of the shades of Grieg and Hamsen, the protagonist of whose novel Hunger he tracks through the streets of the Norwegian capital. As in his earlier volumes, the narrative is punctuated with Ross's poems, which provide a subtle, lyrical coda to each section. Alan Ross writes particularly memorably about the sea. One of several high points is his vivid poem about Operation Charcoal, the crucial 1942 raid on St-Nazaire in which the sacrificial HMS Campbelltown rammed and destroyed the Normandie dock, the only space large enough to accommodate the German battleship Tirpitz.

We then move to Buxtehude and to Hamburg, where in 1945 the young Sub- lieutenant Ross appears to have spent 18 months doing little else but read Ernst Junger, ride around in Admiral Donitz's chauffeur-driven Mercedes and drink "Horse's Necks". Wandering about the ravaged seaport, he became a "connoisseur or rubble, a fantasist about what had been and what would be, guided only by etchings and old maps". Fifty years later, he roams again through the city's rebuilt, prosperous streets and its louche bars before boarding a train for Bremen and Wilhelmshaven. You can almost smell the rope, the tar and the salty breeze.

The symphonic quality of this wistful and, at times, very moving collection is maintained with a final section of 15 new poems, mostly relating to the author's more recent travels. Winter Sea is a book to savour; Alan Ross brings history to life as only a poet can.

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