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‘A Kind of Sensory, Strange Thing to Experience’: Speaking Environmental Disaster in the Sea Empress Project Archive

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This article explores embodied encounters with the Sea Empress oil spill of 1996 and their representation in oral narratives. Through a close reading of the personal testimonies collected in the Sea Empress Project archive, I examine the relationship between intense sensory experiences of environmental change and everyday interpretations of the disaster and its legacy. The art­icle first outlines the ways in which this collection of voices reveals sensory memories, embodied affects and narrative choices to be deeply entwined in oral representations of the spill, disclosing a ‘sensory event’ that created a powerful awareness of both environmental surroundings and their relationship to everyday social processes. Then, reading these narratives against-the-grain, I argue that narrators’ accounts tell a paradoxical story of a disaster that most now wish to forget, and reveal an ambivalent legacy of environmental change that is similarly consigned to the past. Finally, I relate this social forgetting of the Sea Empress to the wider history of environmental consciousness in modern Britain.

Keywords: Sea Empress disaster; embodiment; everyday life; oil spills; oral history; senses

Appeared or available online: December 7, 2021

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