Mining the Light: My Time in Orkney

 

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I always have this sensation, descending the steps at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, of narratives colliding. It’s a kind of acute deja vu, where several selves are pelting it down for the last train, or gliding idly at the end point of an evening, not quite ready for the journey home. The version that is me glows inwardly translucent, lets in the early morning light, as though she might photosynthesise. I remember this Roddy Woomble song, from his first album, the one that was sorrow, and was Scotland, through and through as a bowl of salted porridge, of sickly sugared Irn Bru. ‘Waverley Steps’, with its opening line, ‘If there’s no geography / in the things that we say’. Every word, I realise, is a situation. Alighting, departing; deferring or arriving. It’s 08:28 and I’m sitting at Waverley Station, having made my way down its steps, hugging my bag while a stranger beside me eats slices of apple from a plastic packet. I’ve just read Derek Jarman’s journal, the bit about regretting how easily we can now get any fruit we want at any time of year. He laments that soon enough we’ll be able to pick up bundles of daffodils in time for Christmas. The apples this girl eats smell of plastic, of fake perfume, not fruit. I’m about to board a train that will take me, eventually, to Thurso and then on via ferry to Orkney. I wonder if they will have apples on Orkney; it’s rumoured that they don’t have trees. Can we eat without regard to the seasons on islands also?

I needn’t have worried. Kirkwall has massive supermarkets. I check my own assumptions upon arrival, expecting inflated prices and corner shops. I anticipated the sort of wind that would buffet me sideways, but the air is fairly calm. I swill a half pint of Tennents on the ferry, watching the sun go down, golden-orange, the Old Man of Hoy looming close enough to get the fear from. Something about ancient structures of stone always gives me vertigo. Trying to reconcile all those temporal scales at once, finding yourself plunged. A panpsychic sense that the spirit of the past ekes itself eerily from pores of rock. Can be read in a primitive braille of marks and striations. We pick our way through Kirkwall to the SYHA hostel, along winding residential streets. I comment on how quiet it is, how deliciously dark. We don’t see stars but the dark is real, lovely and thick. Black treacle skies keep silent the island. I am so intent in the night I feel dragged from reality.

Waking on my first day, I write in my notebook: ‘the sky is a greyish egg-white background gleaming remnant dawn’. In the lounge of the hostel, someone has the telly on—news from Westminster. Later, I’m in a bookshop in Stromness, browsing books about the island while the Radio 2 Drivetime traffic reports of holdups on motorways circling London. Standing there, clasping Ebban an Flowan, I feel between two times. A slim poetry volume by Alec Finlay and Laura Watt, with photographs by Alastair Peebles, Ebban an Flowan is Orkney’s present and future: a primer on marine renewable energy. Poetry as cultural sculpting, as speculation and continuity: ‘there’s no need to worry / that any wave is wasted / when there’s all this motion’. New ideas of sustainability and energy churn on the page before me, while thousands down south are burning up oil on the London orbital.

When we take a bus tour of Mainland Orkney’s energy sources, we play a game of spotting every electric car we see. Someone on the bus, an academic who lives here, knows exactly how many electric cars there are on the island. There’s a solidarity in that, a pride in folk knowledge, the act of knowing. On the train up to Thurso, I started a game of infrastructure bingo, murmuring the word whenever I spotted a pylon, a station or a turbine. Say it, just say it: infrastructure. Something satisfying in its soft susurration, infra as potential to be both within and between, a shifting. Osmosis, almost. The kinesis of moving your lips for fra, feeling a brief schism between skin and teeth. A generative word. Say it enough times and you will summon something: an ambient awareness of those gatherings around you, sources of fuel, object, energy.

The supermarkets in Kirkwall seem like misplaced temples. This was me idealising the remoteness of islands, wanting to live by an insular, scarcer logic. The more we go north, the more scarcity we crave—a sort of existential whittling. Before visiting, I envisioned the temperature dropping by halves. On the first night, warm in my bed, I write: ‘To feel on the brink of something, then ever equi-distant’. The WiFi picks up messages from home. Scrolling the algorithmic rolls of Instagram, I feel extra-simultaneous with these random images, snapshots of happenings around the world. Being on an island intensifies my present. In Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (2016)a memoir of recovery and return on Orkney, Liptrot writes of ‘waiting for the next gale to receive my text messages’. On the whims of billowing signal, we wait for news of the south to arrive. Maybe I was an island and I wanted my life elsewhere to vanish, disappear in a wall of wind; I wanted to exist just here, in a hullabaloo of nowness.

I say an island, but of course Orkney is more an archipelago. And I’m on the Mainland, home to the burghs of Stromness and Kirkwall. Here for the ASLE-UKI conference, there wasn’t time to visit the harbour at Scapa, or the neolithic village of Skara Brae or the stone circle Ring of Brodgar. I spend most of my time in the town hall opposite Kirkwall’s impressive, sandstone cathedral, aglow by night with fairy lights strung in surrounding trees. Yes, trees. Orkney has trees. They are often gnarled-looking and strange, stripped by wind or held up inside by steel plinths. Anthropocene arboreal hybrids. But still they are trees. Using my plant identification app, I find hazels and birches. Autumn is traceable in the swirls of thin leaves that skirt the pavement, tousling our sense of a general transition.

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At one point in the trip, we visit the Burgar Hill Energy Project in Evie, alighting from the bus to stand underneath several massive turbines. The sound is wonderful, a deep churning whirr that feels like the air pressed charge on repeat. Under the chug chug chug of those great white wings we gathered, listened, moved and dispersed. I watch as our tight knit group begins to fragment; we need time apart to absorb this properly, little cells bouncing off and away from each other, quietly charged, loosening dots of pollen. Some of us finding the outer reach of the hill, looking for a view or panorama, leaning back to snap a photograph. I film the shadows windmilling dark the rough green grass. Capturing the turbines themselves seemed almost obscene. I don’t know why I was making them into idols, afraid to reduce them to pictures. It was easier to glimpse them in pieces, a flash of white, synecdoche. My friend Katy and I agreed the best photos were the ones out of focus, a bird-like blur against the blue.

Places I have been hit by wind:

  • The cloisters at the University of Glasgow, a wind-tunnel roar to blast out your thoughts post-exam.
  • The hills of Aviemore, my first and last time attempt to ski.
  • Ayrshire beaches in winter, icy particles of hail cast into my eyes and ears.
  • The last day of the Wickerman Festival, wrestling with tents that needed drying and folding, the wind blasting against my cliff of a hangover.
  • On the deck of a ferry, mascara stinging the black black veil of my lashes.

I am an air sign, Gemini, and there is something about losing your breath to elemental forces. I think I once finished a poem with a phrase like, ‘lashing the planetary way of all this’. We used to stand in the playground at school, brandishing our jackets like polyester wings, letting the wind move us forward, staggering in our lightweight bodies, our childish intuition of the way of the world. The pleasure in surrendering. Making of your body a buffeted object. Returning to Glasgow, I soon find myself hit with a cold, preemptive fresher’s flu; a weight on my chest, a diaphragm lag. A sense of my body heaving against itself.

On Orkney, I can smell the salt from the sea. Earlier in the summer, I was struck with wisdom tooth pain, the kind that requires salt-water rinses every half hour, not to mention agonised gargles of whisky. Wasting my precious bottle of Talisker. Amid the haze of those painkiller days, I felt closer to an elemental heat. Metonymically, I was inhaling islands. The taste of self-preservation, of necessary self-sustenance, is never as strong and unwanted as when you want a part of yourself to be wrenched out of you. Pulling teeth is an easy metaphor for lost love, or other forms of psychic distress. Breaking apart, making of the self an archipelago. There’s that song by The National, ‘I Should Live in Salt’, which always sticks in my head in granular form, occasional line. Refrain of refrains, ‘I should live in salt for leaving you behind’. I never knew whether Matt Berninger was singing about preservation or pain, but I saw myself lying down in a kelp bed, child-size, letting the waves lap over my body, salt suffusing the pores of my skin. Begin again, softer.  

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The rain here is more a tangential shimmer. I wake up to it, dreaming that my window was broken and no-one would bother to fix it. Fear of boundaries loosened, the outside in. The future as a sheet of glass, a shelf you could place your self on and drink. Salt water rinse and heat of whisky. We leave the hostel early and wander beyond the Kirkwall harbour, to the hydrogen plant bordering an industrial estate. Katy and I discussed our fondness for industrial estates as homely reminders. She would go running, and wherever she ran the industrial zones were inevitable. As if in any city you would reach that realm, it called you in with its corrugated fronts and abrasive loneliness. My love for the canal, biking up through Maryhill where the warehouses watch serenely over you, loom behind trees, barely a machinic rumble disturbing the birds. We traced the edge of a man-made waterfront, a crescent curving lip of land. The way it curled was elliptical, it didn’t finish its inward whorls of land upon water, but still I thought of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, or the cinnamon buns I bought from the Kirkwall Tesco. Finding a bench, we ate bananas for breakfast, looking out at the grey-blue sea, our fingers purpling with the cold. I like to think of the banana, Katy said, as a solid unit of energy. Here we were, already recalibrating reality by the logic of pulse and burn and calories. Feeling infra.

I love the words ‘gigawatt’, ‘kilocal’, ‘megabyte’. I like the easeful parcelling up of numbers and storage and energy. I am unable to grasp these scales and sizes visually or temporally, but it helps to find them in words.

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We learn about differences between national and local grids, how wind is surveyed, how wave power gets extracted from the littoral zone. My mind oscillates between a sonar attentiveness and deep exhaustion, the restfulness gleaned from island air and waking with sunrise. I slip in and out of sleep on the bus as it swerves round corners. I am pleasantly jostled with knowledge and time, the precious duration of being here. Here. Here, exactly. This intuition vanishes when I try to write it. A note: ‘I know what the gaps between trees must feel like’. Listening to experienced academics, scientists and creatives talk about planes, axes, loops and striations, ages of ages, I find myself in the auratic realm of save as…, dwelling in the constant recording of motion, depth and time. Taking pictures, scribbling words, drawing maps and lines and symbols. We talk of Orkney as a model for the world. Everything has its overlay, the way we parse our experience with apps and books and wireless signals. Someone takes a phone call, posts a tweet. I scroll through the conference hashtag with the hostel WiFi, tracing the day through these crumbs of perspective, memories silently losing their fizz in the night.

I grew up by the sea, in Maybole, Ayrshire (with its ‘blue moors’, as W. S. Graham puts it), but a lot of my thalassic time was spent virtually. I loved video games like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, where the narrative happened between islands, where much of the gameplay involved conducting voyages across the sea. The interstitial thrill of a journey. There were whirlpools, tornados, monsters rising from the deep. On Maidens Harbour, I could hardly reach that volcanic plug of sparkling granite, the Ailsa Craig, or swim out to Arran; virtually, however, I could traverse whatever limits the game had designed. The freedom in that, of exploring a world already set and scaled. Movement produced within constraint. In real life, mostly our bodies and minds constrain. What excites me now is what I took for granted then: the salt spray stinging my lips, the wind in my hair, the glint of shells bleached clean by the sea; a beautiful cascade of cliches that make us.

‘To wake up and really see things…passages from a neverland.’ Back in Glasgow, fallen upon familiar nocturnal rhythms, I find myself craving the diurnal synchrony I achieved in Orkney. Sleepy afternoons so rich in milky light. The vibrational warmth of the ferry’s engine, activating that primitive desire for oil, the petrol smell at stations as my mother filled up the car for journeys to England. My life has often been defined by these journeys between north and south, born in Hertfordshire but finding an early home in Ayrshire. Swapping that heart for air, and all porosity of potential identity. Laura Watt talked of her work as an ethnographer, interviewing the people of Orkney to find out more about their experiences of energy, the way infrastructural change impacts their daily lives, their health, their business. Within that collaboration, she tells us, there’s also a sense of responsibility: stories carry a personal heft, something that begs immunity from diffusion. Some stories, she says, you can’t tell again. The ethics of care there. I wonder if this goes the same for stone, the stories impregnated within the neolithic rocks we glimpse on Orkney. Narrative formations lost to history’s indifferent abstraction, badly parsed by present-day humans along striated lines, evidence of fissure and collision. All that plastic the ocean spits back, co-evolutions of geology and humans. Plastiglomerates along the shore. But Orkney feels pure and relatively litter-free, so goes my illusions, my sense of island exceptionalism. I become more aware of the waste elsewhere. The only person I see smoking, in my whole time there, is a man who speeds his car up Kirkwall’s high street. Smoke and oil, the infinite partners; extraction and exhaustion, the smouldering of all our physical addictions. Nicotine gives the body a rhythm, a spike and recede and a need.

We learn of a Microsoft server sunk under the sea, adjacent to Orkney. There’s enough room in those computers, according to a BBC report, to store ‘five million movies’. And so the cloud contains these myriad worlds, whirring warm within the deep. Minerals, wires and plastics crystallise the code of all our text and images. Apparently the cooler environment will reduce corrosion. I remember the shipyard on Cumbrae, another island; its charnel ground of rusted boats and iron shavings. The lurid brilliance of all that orange, temporal evidence of the sea’s harsh moods, the constant prickle of salt in the air. The way it seems like fire against all those cool flakes of cerulean paint. I wrote a blog post about that shipyard once, so eager to mythologise: ‘Billowing storms, sails failing amidst inevitable shipwreck. It’s difficult to imagine such disasters on this pretty island, yet there is an uncanny sense to this space, as if we have entered a secret porthole, discovered what was supposed to be invisible to outsiders…The quietness recalls an abandoned film set’. Does tourism lend an eerie voyeurism to the beauty we see, conscious of these objects, landscapes and events being photographed many times over? Perhaps the mirage of other islands and hills glimpsed over the blue or green is more the aura of our human conceptions, archival obsession—the camera lights left buzzing in the air, traced for eternity.

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I come to Orkney during a time of transition, treading water before a great turn in my life. Time at sea as existential suspension. There have been some departures, severings, personal hurts, burgeoning projects and new beginnings. A great tiredness and fog over everything. ‘Cells of fuel are fuelling cells’. At the conference, my brain teems with this rich, mechanical vocabulary: copper wires and plates and words for wattage, transmission, the reveries of innovation. There is a turning over, leaf after leaf; I fill up my book with radials, coal and rain. My mind attains a different altitude. I think mostly about the impressions that are happening around me: the constant flow of conversation, brought in again as we move between halls and rooms, bars and timelines in our little human estuaries. We visit Stromness Academy, to see Luke Jerram’s ‘Museum of the Moon’: a seven-metre rendition of lunar sublimity, something to stand beneath, touch, lie under. I learn the word for the moon’s basaltic seas is ‘Maria’, feel eerily sparked, spread identity into ether. We listen, quietly, in the ambient dark, taking in composer Dan Jones’ textures of sound, the Moonlight Sonata, the cresting noise of radio reports—landings from a future-past, a lost utopia.

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On Friday night, Katy and I catch the overnight ferry back to Aberdeen. Sleep on my cinema seat has a special intensity, a falling through dreams so vivid they smudge themselves on every minute caught between reading and waking. Jarman’s gardens enrich my fantasy impressions, and I slip inside the micro print, the inky paragraphs. I dream of oil and violets and sharp desire, a pearlescent ghost ship glimmer on a raging, Romantic sea. Tides unrealised, tides I can’t parse with my eyes alone; felt more as a rhythm within me. Later, on land I will miss that oceanic shudder, the sense of being wavy. I have found myself like this before, chemically enhanced or drunk, starving and stumbling towards bathrooms. We share drinking tales which remind me of drowning, finding in the midst of the city a seaborne viscosity of matter and memory, of being swept elsewhere. Why is it I always reach for marinal metaphor? Flood doors slam hard the worlds behind me. There are points in the night I wake up and check my phone for the time, noticing the lack of GPRS, or otherwise signal. I feel totally unmoored in those moments, deliciously given to the motioning whims of the ferry. Here I am, a passenger without place. We could be anywhere, on anyone’s ocean. I realise my privilege at being able to extract pleasure from this geographic anonymity, with a home to return to, a mainland I know as my own. The ocean is hardly this windswept playground for everyone; many lose their lives to its terminal desert. Sorrow for people lost to water. Denise Riley’s call to ‘look unrelentingly’. I sip from my bottle, water gleaned from a tap in Orkney. I am never sure whether to say on or in. How to differentiate between immersion and inhabitation, what to make of the whirlwinds of temporary dwelling. How to transcend the selfish and surface bonds of a tourist.

The little islands of our minds reach out across waves, draw closer. I dream of messages sent from people I love, borne along subaquatic signals, a Drexciya techno pulsing in my chest, down through my headphones. My CNS becomes a set of currents, blips and tidal replies. A week later, deliriously tired, I nearly faint at a Wooden Shijps gig, watching the psychedelic visuals resolve into luminous, oceanic fractals. It’s like I’m being born again and every sensation hurts, those solos carried off into endless nowhere.

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Time passes and signal returns. We wake at six and head out on deck to watch the sunrise, laughing at the circling gulls and the funny way they tuck in their legs when they fly. These seabirds have a sort of grace, unlike the squawking, chip-loving gulls of our hometowns, stalking the streets at takeaway hour. The light is peachy, a frail soft acid, impressionist pools reflecting electric lamps. I think of the last lecture of the conference, Rachel Dowse’s meditations on starlings as trash animals, possessing a biological criticality as creatures in transition. I make of the sky a potential plain of ornithomancy, looking for significant murmurations, evidence of darkness to come. But there is nothing but gulls, a whey-coloured streak of connected cumulus. The wake rolls out behind us, a luxurious carpet of rippling blue. We are going south again. The gulls recede. Aberdeen harbour is a cornucopia of infrastructure, coloured crates against the grey, with gothic architecture looming through morning mist behind.

Later I alight at the Waverley Steps again. Roddy in my ear, ‘Let the light be mined away’. My time on the island has been one of excavation and skimming, doing the work of an academic, a tourist, a maker at once. Dredging up materials of my own unconscious, or dragging them back again, making of them something new. Cold, shiny knowledge. The lay of the heath and bend of bay. I did not get into the sea to swim, I didn’t feel the cold North rattle right through my bones. But my nails turned blue in the freezing wind, my cheeks felt the mist of ocean rain. I looked at maps and counted the boats. I thought about what it must be like to cut out a life for yourself on these islands.

Home now, I find myself watching badly-dubbed documentaries about Orkney on YouTube, less for the picturesque imagery than the sensation of someone saying those names: Papay, Scapa, Eday, Hoy. Strong names cut from rock, so comforting to say. I read over the poems of Scotland’s contemporary island poets, Jen Hadfield for Shetland, Niall Campbell for Uist. Look for the textures of the weather in each one, the way they catch a certain kind of light; I read with a sort of aggression for the code, the manifest ‘truth’ of experience— it’s like cracking open a geode. I don’t normally read like this, leaving my modernist cynicism behind. I long for outposts among rough wind and mind, Campbell’s ‘The House by the Sea, Eriskay’: ‘This is where the drowned climb to land’. I read about J. H. Prynne’s huts, learn the word ‘sheiling’. Remember the bothies we explored on long walks as children. There’s a need for enchantment when city life churns a turbulent drone, so I curl into these poems, looking for clues: ‘In a fairy-tale, / a boy squeezed a pebble / until it ran milk’ (Hadfield, ‘The Porcelain Cliff’). Poetry becomes a way of building a shelter. I’m struck with the sense of these poets making: time and matter are kneaded with weight and precision, handled by pauses, the shape-making slump of syntax. Energy and erosion, elemental communion. Motion and rest. My fragile body becomes a fleshwork of blood and bone and artery, hardly an island, inclined to allergy and outline, a certain porosity; an island only in vain tributary. I write it in stanzas, excoriate my thoughts, reach for someone in the night. I think about how we provide islands for others, ports in a storm. Let others into our lives for temporary warmth, then cast ourselves out to sea, sometimes sinking.

Why live on an island? In Orkney we were asked to think with the sea, not against it. To see it not as a barrier but an agential force, teeming with potential energy. Our worries about lifestyle and problematic infrastructure, transport and connection were playfully derided by a local scholar as ‘tarmac thinking’. Back in a city, I’ve carried this with me. The first time I read The Outrun was in the depths of winter, 2016, hiding in some empty, elevated garrett of the university library. I’d made my own form of remoteness; that winter, more than a stairwell blocked me off from the rest of existence. Now, I read in quick passages, lively bursts; I cycle along the Clyde at night and wonder the ways in which this connects us, its cola-dark waters swirling northwards, dragged by eventual tides. I circle back to a concept introduced by anthropologists at Rice University, Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, ‘sister cities of the Anthropocene’: the idea that our cities are linked, globally, by direct or vicarious physical flows of waste, energy and ecological disaster. This hydrological globalisation envisions the cities of the world as a sort of archipelago, no metropolis safe from the feedback loops of environmental causality, our agency as both individuals and collectives. On Orkney, we were taught to think community as process, rather than something given. I guess sometimes you have to descend from your intellectual tower to find it: see yourself in symbiosis; your body, as a tumbled, possible object: ‘All arriving seas drift me, at each heartbreak, home’ (Graham, ‘Three Poems of Drowning’).

 

Short Story: Selkie

(A short story I wrote back in March, knee-deep in Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, handfuls of Romanticism and longing for the sea. It’s about an oil spill, a young boy’s strange obsessions and his very indulgent Daedalian poetry)

Selkie

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He’s become obsessed with making lists of optical properties. Qualities of light quantified on a complex scale he devised at midnight, drunk on a month of insomnia.

His father is very concerned. He comes home and pours amber from the bottle, watching his son pore over homework. Sometimes a storm shatters the sky through the window and they are both oblivious; the father is a terrible farmer. He keeps just a small herd of cows. A local girl comes to do the milking because he is incapable sometimes, and he won lots of money on the races which pays for her wages. He’s grown sick of the jelly-pink udders.

The boy draws lines, draws a series of overlapping ellipses. This is his expression of despair in the face of algebraic equations. He has grown quite fond of receiving those sweet red Fs.

The community is idyllic as any island could be. The school is offshore, on the main island. Every morning, he gets the ferry with the rest of them. They move as one great shoal of fish. Sometimes he watches it happen from afar, the torrent of school uniforms dissolving through the mouth of the big white ship. On such mornings he turns away and walks further inland, hoping to find comfort in the hills.

He never does. It is only the sea he loves.

[…]

Once, the milking girl tried to make a move on him. She used to wear her hair in braids stitched together across her skull, but that day she came in with it long and loose and wavy.

“Will ye not get it in the muck?” the father asked, secretly admiring her golden tresses. She smiled at him. She waited for the boy to come down from his room, eking out time with every pull of the milk. He saw her bent over like that, the hair dripping over her shoulders. He was holding a tattered textbook.

“I love that you read,” she murmured, to no one. The sound was drowned by the cow’s impatient grunt.

“Easy girl,” she said, thwacking its flanks. The boy stood there watching and she mistook that for desire. She turned to look him in the eye, letting the left strap of her top slip down her arm. That one white breast would haunt him forever, like an immature moon. He averted his gaze.

“What do you want?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. He sat in the straw, slumped to the floor, and wept. She had never seen someone so pathetic.

He would stand in the shallows of the sea and feel this ache that was deeper than any pain he had ever experienced. It wasn’t pain exactly, but it was a thing that gnawed at his chest, so much sometimes he could hardly breathe. The grey green waters would shlock around his ankles. In the distance they darkened to purple, to wine. His soul was scorched by sunsets. He picked up shells and held them to his ear, listening for the ocean’s distant, groaning radio.

The old woman in the village store told him she sensed his misaligned chakras. She had a bracelet for that, studded with seven power gems.

“You should wear it day and night,” she warned him.

“I have no money.” He studied the trinket with interest. The citrine and carnelian were pretty, but it was the clear quartz and amethyst he liked best. The tiny crackles inside reminded him of waves, preserved in time.

He hung it back up on the stand, alongside the crystal pendants and the celtic knots they sold to tourists.

“I’ll have a postcard instead.”

“A postcard? Who on earth do you have to write to?”

He sat on one of the picnic benches by the shore. The wind kept threatening to blow everything away so he had to pin the card down as he wrote. It was a picture of some white boats against a flaming sundown. Utterly cliché.

Dear mother, he began. What else was there to say?

Sometimes he would walk for an hour right round to the other side of the island. There was a cleft in the rocks you could find for safety at high tide; it was sufficiently above ground to protect one from the flailing salty waters. He would nestle in that cleft and compose lines:

The vitreous lustre of the sea turning starboard
in tidal cycles, an errant moon
throwing zephyrs across the still bright sound. 

Oh mariner, how you have travelled
so deep in the blood of the world! I miss
the sense of your stories, sharp as whisky

in bars where the girls did sing: how lovely
is the newborn day! There are precious
few elements as vast as you, I should

dream only of your strange motifs,
a darkening glass against turquoise air.
In the morning I plot 

my passage to the mainland, sullied
with the effluvia of island living,
drunk on the salt and the still bright rain. 

He would never show his words to a soul. He rolled the thick pages, torn from his father’s ledger, and stuffed them in the empty tubes that once held his teenage posters. The woman in the café served him strong black coffee, and never once asked him why he wasn’t at school. He left her a £1 tip, excess change gleaned from not eating lunch.

Sometimes he would stand on the edge of some cliff and let the wind buffet his body so hard it was perfectly possible that he’d be torn from his mount and hurled to the sea below, stirred up and strangled in its milky swirls.

A week after the milk girl quit, there was a terrible oil spill. Nobody was quite sure who was to blame. People skipped school and work to go down the shore and watch the slow undulations of the oil on the water. It reminded the boy of something oozing in his dreams, a black thick sweat that covered everything. He wrapped his father’s jacket tight around his shoulders. Flecks spattered the silt and shingle the way ink sprayed from a burst pen. They were waiting for experts to arrive.

Some of the islanders wore oilskins or workmen’s gear and went down the next morning to help clean up. The boy had spent half the night on the safety of his favourite rock, watching the oil thicken and coagulate in the shallows. A few birds washed up, unidentifiable. They looked like lumps of hematite, shining in the new full moon. Sometimes the sight of that black shining oil was so much that the boy could hardly breathe.

It was a job that went on for weeks. The oil just kept coming and coming. People from the news arrived with fancy cameras and started interviewing the locals. They said it was one of the worst offshore spillages in a generation. Old folks tutted and blamed the greed of the mainland.

“They might as well have fountains in shopping centres, spraying this stuff around, for all they abuse it.”

The boy kept a diary of the oil. He tried to write about it purely aesthetically. He wanted a thousand words for black, thick, inky, viscous.

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The words brought temporary distraction but deep down they sickened him. He longed to put his bare feet in the sea again. His father scorned him for not helping with the clean-up. He had to do double-shifts with the cows, now that the milk girl had quit.

“You lost your chance there my son.”

The boy started stealing his father whisky. He knew where the weak point was in the distillery warehouse. His father left him alone after that, asked no questions.

The boy noticed that the light on the island had changed with the coming of the oil. Before, it was all stained glass, watercolour: bright and airy. Greens and blues refracted through each other, sparkling. Now the oil cast strange shadows; there were colours on the beach that the boy could not name. He tried to make sense of them with numerical scales to measure the gradients and shades. He kept his notes in a new journal, whose edges were already curled with dried rain, spattered with sea oil.

The sea reveals its fleshly skin of jade,
the green that makes flickers of the water
shiver among those darkling fish, to fade
inexorably among its daughters,

the girls of the dawn with their wet sea fur.
Five generations have known such deep love
as to carve loud bones from the ocean’s whir,
still spinning the buoys at their broken hulls. 

We wait on the rocks for the siren’s call,
laying our bodies to waste on the sound
while the immature moon makes fools of all
who believe in the beautiful, who drowned

Easy as sailors on a summer’s day,
Bloated with salt, time’s lustful decay.

Sometimes his language was so cloying he literally fell violently ill. It was as if he were at sea on a ship, rocked back and forth by a bullying tide. His father found him curled over the toilet.

“Have you been at the whisky my boy?”

“No father. I’m sick at heart.”

“You’re in love?”

“No. It’s the oil.”

He could not eat. He could not sleep. Night melted into day, the hours sat atop one another with the stagnant sense of that oil on the water.

Once, walking along the shore at night, he fancied he saw the milk girl. She walked naked across the sand, her body waxen white, as if carved from the moon. He felt so dreadfully solid in her company. The gooseflesh prickled his neck. She was singing an old song they had learned at school.

From the old things to the new
Keep me traveling along with you

He’d once hated the song, finding it a trite and gooey hymn, but the way she sang it made his heart sting. He realised then that he was no longer a child, that he’d no longer have the innocent luxury of hating something the way he used to hate that song. He thought of the days when he played in the sea until the sun sank behind it, spilling its fiery peach light across the water. How he used to come home with jellyfish stings, salt in his pores, sunburn from the hottest June afternoons.

There was the flaking, turquoise paint on the hulls of abandoned ships. The colour of rust, the old iron chains that oxidised fast in the saline air. The abandoned, unravelled feel of the old yard where the dead ships waited to be repaired. The salt sped everything up, made objects fade eons before they should.

The sea howled. Storms came in quicker than they usually did at this time of year. There was a brief shortage of food as the boats struggled to get offshore, beyond the oil. People were irritable and the cows yielded badly. The boy found a beautiful starfish washed up in a cove. It was jet black, encrusted with oil. It looked like some kind of exotic ornament, worn by a rich lady in a Bond film. He kept it on his windowsill, admired it as the minutes ticked long and slow on the clock.

When the seals started washing up, choked and black and dead as bin-bags, things got serious. Their mouths were bloodied and dry and choked, splayed open as if caught in a final howl. Did seals howl? Could they?

Specialists from the mainland arrived in helicopters to help with the cleanup. There was talk of the island receiving huge subsidies and pay-offs from the petrol company responsible for the spill. Teenagers snapped pictures on their phones and posted them online, tagging them with things like: #shocking #awful #evil #gross #capitalism #darkaesthetic.

The boy realised his peers were wiser than he thought. But they did not know the real damage, the agony he felt sloshing in his chest every time he lay down. There was the sea. It was always there, but once it had been a brilliant cerulean, mottled with orange and heather, grey and jade. Everything smelled of dull and stinking petrol. He wrote in his journal:

It is our world’s first beautiful disturbance. All disasters must entice the eye. 

He thought of 9/11, watching the replays on the television screen while his father drank steadily on the sofa beside him.

“There’s evil out there, my boy.”

“But what about the evil in here?” The boy pointed to his own chest. His father laughed.

“I don’t think you’re going to take down buildings any time soon.” Clumsily, he helped his son with his tie. “Now get yourself to school.”

That isn’t what I meant; it isn’t what I meant at all. 

Sometimes on the rocky plateaus the remnants of oil ghosted the overflow of water, left swirling patterns of rainbows. He checked the internet and saw that people at school were posting lots of photos again. A girl in his class said she was doing her art project on the oil spill. He wanted to tell her to stop, to tell her she knew nothing about the changing colours and the way time was caught in the turgid undulations.

“Father, when will you tell me about mother?”

“What is there to tell? She left when you were still a babe.”

“But—”

“There’s things you won’t understand til you’re older. Now go and play.”

He had not played for five years. He was old now, he was wiser than anyone thought.

He lugged empty bottles across the road to the dumpsters. He now knew the clinking was conspicuous; he could feel the eyes on his back as he smashed each one through the hole.

Once, he dreamt of the milk girl, lying on one of the hillside fields inland, her hair plaited with cowslips. She was humming a tune because it was his birthday. She drank from a bottle of cherryade, the miniature Barr ones you got from the island store. He saw how her tongue was staining red. He woke up feeling very ashamed.

The raven-dark sea made a fool of me,
those tides of black crashing waves in the night
against the harbour wall. I miss the green
abstracted aqua light, playing so bright

amid those blues, those waters clear as glass
who sheltered the glossy ribbons of fish
to swim in the shimmers, burnished with brass
by an old sun that loves life like a wish. 

And now, if I were but a lonesome child
making his way to the soar of the sound
would my young mind find soon such passions wild
inside lagoons, whirlpools, tide patterns bound?

Son to the slippy, cerulean sea,
I rise forward in time to what will be.

When he saw the oil-stained peat of the rocks, the blackened beach, he kept thinking of those towers collapsing. It was like someone had the bright idea of symbolising how everything was falling apart with one fell swoop of a global, terroristic stunt. He asked his teacher if the sea could go on fire, now that it was coated with oil.

“Some folks say that’s the best way to deal with it,” she told him.

“So why haven’t they?”

“I’m sure they have their reasons.” But the boy was sick of not having answers. There were so many creatures out there, wailing with pain beneath the surface, and no one was listening. The ships went out but all they seemed to do was swirl the oil round and round, gathering it thicker. Nothing disappeared. Nothing. 

One day, he came home from school to find his father rifling through his papers. While his files were normally organised, shut tight in a drawer, now they were scattered all over his bedroom floor. His father had let a glass of wine spill on the carpet and now a horrid red stain accompanied the places where cigarettes had been stubbed, where coffee had seeped into a forest of fibres.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

“This stuff, son, what does it all mean?” his father looked at him with tears in his eyes, a sight which struck fear in the boy’s heart. His father only wept on Sabbath days, and even then, only in the early morning when he thought the boy was still asleep. But of course the boy heard him through the walls.

“It means nothing,” the boy said, furious, “absolutely nothing.” He swept up all the papers and slammed the door in his father’s face. That night he would burn the lot, then take a bath in the masses of ashes.

Dear mother, he wrote. He was in the island café and his tea had gone cold. It was three o’clock—the dead time—and the waitress hummed a lonesome song as she swept clean all the tables. He was writing on the back of another postcard. It showed the standing stones, the ones in the centre of the island. He’d only been there a few times.

I don’t know where you are or what happened to you. How many times is it now that I’ve written to you? I wonder if somehow your spirit catches these words from the ether, even as your body is absent from their possibility. I hate myself, I hate my words. 

He scribbled out the last line.

I want to get back to you. Father is worse. He drinks like a fish, a seasick sailor. I think he misses the sea more than I do. I think maybe he hates being a farmer, hates the land. Its demands. The sea demands nothing. It doesn’t need fed. But now we’ve fucked up so bad. We’ve poisoned the sea. And maybe you’re out there somewhere watching all of this on TV. The birds are so sticky with oil they lie down without flight and never get up. Some drown. Imagine that, drowning in the black black oil? The feel of it choking in your throat, sickly as molasses. I can’t help feeling it’s somehow my fault. My blood feels poisoned as the sea. Everything is slow and sluggish and heavy. I hardly want to get out of bed. I can hardly breathe. 

His handwriting grew increasingly minuscule, so that a passing glance would reveal more a black block of tiny, pressing shapes than actual words. There was something satisfying about seeing all that ink crushed together; it was a bit like the oil itself, taking over the whiteness of the page.

The boy left the café just as it was closing, as the dusk was settling into the sky over the sea. He took the winding path down to the beach, stones crunching beneath his feet. He took a detour to pass by the recycling bins at the end of the street. The café stood alone, its lonesome sign buffeted in high winds and often hurled across the beach, but it wasn’t far from houses. Each one painted a different shade of pastel, to hide the despair of the residents within. The bottle bank, as always, was overflowing. The boy chose a slender, clear bottle, labelled for gin. He picked up a lid from among the street rubble and luckily it fit. Down by the shoreline, he rolled his postcard tight into a tube and posted it through the bottle’s neck. Screwed the cap. Hurled it far out into the waves, where it bobbed for a moment, before the gathering night tides stole it from sight, swirling into darkness, distance.

Her milk-sweet cheeks…

He scratched that one.

 The open lungs of the still-breathing sea…

Trackings of light from west to east:
Time co-ordinates; forgotten detritus
Blended mermaid’s purses, lemoning
pale and lovely skeins of flesh
in the gloaming, a moon’s first milk
making cream of an evening,
the curdled settlements of a westerly tide. 

My mother, my mother.
Your presence vectoring the harsher
veins of the waves in clearer photons
which press their coastal scars on the canvased
skin of a virtual reality, electromagnetic
stirring of the heart. 

There is a scattering, a donut-shaped diagram
shedding the chintz of its skull off
in dullish flakes, blueish as fish food. 

(…What are you writing son?
Nothing.
It does pains to lie; come on, show me.
I can’t.
You’re always so far away when you write.
Like mother.
Yes, I suppose…)

I ask father, could the sea go on fire? Like,
if you struck a match to the black black oil?
He said the water was alcoholic, sloshing
with secret poisons, a formula
for ending its own incantatory eloquence
that spreads in the waves such messages
as to embrocate the flow of blood
diseased in the world’s great spleen.

He said nothing of the sort; he was cold
and mean. The tumorous lumps
puffed at the pores of his torso, unfurling
like chanterelles, yellowing the gorse
and scrub of a forest. I knew then
that his pain was utterly edible.

A molten pot of onyx, a knot
shaped like a pretzel, the twisted
wire that snarls in the dark
of his heart. Father,
he was a sailor once,
a man of the deep
black waves.

He remembered the milk girl used to sing to the cows. She cooed at them, sickly sweet, then struck up some old folk melody he recognised from the songs they sang in primary school. Songs about the changing seasons, the inevitable cycles of nature. She knew how to keep the animals still, to tame them to her softening will.

Once, he made eye contact with a seal. He was sitting on a rock on the island’s easterly side, hoping for shelter from the autumn wind. The black shape had rose, dark and smooth, from the choppy grey waves. Its eyes had flashed back at him, uncannily human, green as his own. Green as the sea in the sweetest shallows, made greener still by heaps of seaweed. His fingers brushed the briny rubber, popping the sacs of air. Is it time yet?

In the café again, he was listening to the old waitress as she stood by his table, hands beating powdery flour on her apron. Her accent had thickened over the years, congealing into the island’s broad dialect like salt crystals fattening in the cracks of a cliff.

“They say half the men on this island lost their hearts to the beasts of the sea. I could tell you many stories.”

“My father?”

“Torn asunder, you could say.”

“By whom? A childhood sweetheart?”

(and if the candied dawn brings tastes luxurious…)

“Yer mother, stupid.”

“He still loves her.”

“She found her skin elsewhere. A better fit.”

“Liquid.”

“Yes.” She rolled up her sleeve. He saw how her arms were covered with an elaborate craquelure of scars and burns and etched-in scratches, as if the flesh were readying itself for sloughing off, the mottled pattern of a snakeskin.

Of all the animals in the marble menagerie
I choose you, silvery moon wisps of limestone
streaking the fault-lines
of my sparkling heart, its sacred burial
beneath the midnight billows. Funereal,
sweetening the crumbling aura,
you see underwater, sharp as a seal’s
dilated vision. 

The love notes meant nothing, were for no one. Sometimes, he forgot the original purpose of everything. He kept quantitive records of the weather, the changing seasonal light, the pathways of the lighthouse beam as it cut across the bay, endlessly searching. He missed the special quality of innocence that the place had lost after the oil spill. Even with the cleanup, traces of the disaster remained. The sea birds had quit the agonised sea and even the crabs were shrivelled carcasses, washed up on litter-streaked beaches. The council had all but given up, now that corporate control was hardening its narratives of the wreckage.

What if the gin bottle remained, bobbing in one place, the current thickening around it, enriched by the stasis of oil?

the shadowy slosh of gelatinous babble /
like molasses i stretch long and sweet in your mouth /
i imagine the darkness inside you, a sable
annihilating the spill of me /
your gluey skin sticks to me with the tarry promise
of future absence / a terrible,
sickening lubricant

Sometimes, he wrote what he considered to be filthy, erotic poetry, forgetting to dot his i’s.

Everything he wrote brought him closer to the water. He felt his words surrounding him like cloying blots of oil, swimming in his sleep and spreading out through daily reality. His grades plummeted and his soul found solace only at twilight, bearing cold feet to the dusky waters.

He knew the milk girl came out sometimes to watch him. He saw her emanations from across the bay.

The cows were milking very badly. They grunted with inhuman fury whenever the boy’s father tried to draw from those shrunken teats. The boy ate very little and the father even less, chomping his way through stub after stub of cheap cigarettes.

“My gums are sore,” the boy complained.

“Lack of nutrition,” his father replied. He asked for a slice of lemon in his tea at the café. The waitress said fruit was scarce; she’d have to knock on 50p to his bill.

“That’s okay.”

A few nights later, he woke up to a pillow covered in crusted blood. His mouth was the same, darkened with black clots. A gap in his gums. The lost tooth reappeared beneath the sheets, a little white stump of ivory, knotted at its roots with a tangle of red, seaweed sinew.

“Goodness son,” the father said when he saw what had happened. “That’s one of your molars.”

Terrified he would lose the rest of his teeth, the boy ate only liquids, or else the slippery fish they served sometimes as specials at the café, depending on what the men could bring back from the boats, delicate in silver lamé. Sometimes the fish tasted of petrol, but nobody voiced this opinion.

The boy placed his tooth in an old spice jar and hurled it out to sea, an offering. Sometimes he felt the wind whistle through the gap it had left in his mouth.

The rock pools were finally back to a greener colour. Good healthy emerald sea lettuce, the tawny rust of cystaphora, tangles of Neptune’s necklace. Salt crusts formed round the edges. The boy dipped his fingers in to feel the warming water. Was spring coming?

There was the milk girl, ghostly in a tangle of cowslips.

“How are you, it’s been so long?”

I love the seals and the way their skin
is a rippling film of oil, the wrinkles
like sexy black outfits on tv
stretching and spreading for the flesh
of human hungriness. 

“These diagrams,” he told her, “chart the changing luminescence of the dying ocean. Tide patterns spread the moon to buttery swirls in different directions. See where this ellipsis meets the horizon’s curve?” But she had no interest in his geometries, his Venn, his equations. She wanted to talk about the people at school, the films you could see on the mainland cinema, the new dress she had made from an old white silk.

“Do you believe in mermaids?” she asked.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Women are not so callous.”

“If you come to the field I can show you my skin.”

“The strawberries will be out soon, a bed-sheet studded with dewdrops of blood.”

“My skin is white. I am white as the moon.”

“I believe sometimes people breathe underwater.”

“You’re so mysterious. You speak like somebody much older. I had an uncle once…”

“I’m not sure I love you.”

“That’s okay.”

He might have gone with her, might have watched as she shed the magnificent white dress, cast it into a crumple like the cape of an angel. He followed the trajectories of her limbs, watching the shadows move in rhythmic repetition against the pale grass, felt vaguely the rubbing of skin like the way it feels to walk barefoot through fresh, juicy mounds of seaweed.

“Do you miss her?”

“Well enough. I know she’s out there somewhere.”

“Is that really enough?”

“Sometimes it’s all there is.”

The island was gifted a grant as compensation for the oil spill. The village was cleaned up and the shopfronts repainted. The rusting boats in the old dock were going to be towed away to make room for new ones.

The boy and the milk girl started playing a game. They would jump off the harbour wall, hand in hand, utterly naked at the darkest point in the night. In the cold black water they would scrabble down as far as they could, holding their breath, waiting for the exhilaration to rush through their blood. They tried to prolong the time before resurfacing, scrabbling for weeds and stones to tug them downwards. Soon, however, the tide buoyed them upwards and they were gasping for air in the midst of pure darkness. A single light from someone’s cottage spilled gold on the water’s surface. The girl’s hair was blonde and the light was gold; everything else was blackness.

Our bodies slippery as bladderwrack
beating the tide in the stillborn black,
a bolt of cold struck deep in the veins
where poisons gather their listless death. 

Everything he wrote was awful now. Soured by the thing that had come between him and the milk girl. He slept all day, wrote by twilight, cast his notes to the wind on his least favourite side of the island. The place with the graves, the place where the air was warmly rich with spirits. It unsettled him.

“You’re missing a tooth,” she said once, poking her fingers round his mouth, where the gums were soft and rubbery.

“Yes.” He clamped down hard on her fingers and she yelped, playfully, like a pup. They went back up to the farm and helped out with the milking, so that it was done in triple time and the three of them could have a meal together, big cups of cider and a shared loaf of bread. She sung into the twilight and the men listened in silence.

The boy took down all his diagrams because the milk girl told him they were freaking her out. He wanted her to sleep in his bed but every night she insisted on going down to the harbour. What with the daytime milking and the nighttime swimming, the boy was growing very exhausted.

“What are we trying to prove?” he asked, folding her shining body to his in the moonlight.

“I want to know, I mean, I need to know.”

“Know what?”

“Can we be creatures of the sea?” He thought then of the seal who had stared at him long and hard, like it had known him forever. He shivered.

“Maybe it’s better not to. Then we can just pretend.”

“You miss her, don’t you?”

“Who?”

“Your mother.”

There are different types of orphans. Some are split irrevocably from their origins, by death or neglect. Others are tied to this primal region of their life by a gossamer thread of dreams. The milk girl seemed to have hatched from the sky, on a pure and cloudless night.

One time, they were night-diving down by the harbour and she disappeared. One minute, they were together, tangled in the gruesome depths of the harbour; the next, he could not feel her body at all. All was rock and weed and jellyfish. The tide was high, it had come sloshing up the walls and with it all manner of ocean debris. As the elders always said, the sea hurls back what gets hurled into it.

After swimming around in the churning currents, trying to make out a slender white shape, the boy gave up. He climbed the rusted ladder and promptly vomited onto the concrete, mouthfuls of seawater and silt and evening coffee. Shaking a little, he stood on the edge of the wall, looking for the gold-blonde head of his little seal. Maybe she just swam away from him, following some milky highway of moonlight back to her nebulous origins. But he could not help but think of how she had just vanished, torn away by some invisible current, her body ensnared by terrible kelp.

She never returned, and he realised that nobody noticed that she was gone. When he asked his father about the milk girl’s parents, he said something vaguely ominous and strange about how she was an outsider, “an immigrant to the island’s soil, born from luminous loins.”

Enough of the hoary midnight mist
that tricks me into feeling.
I am old as the sand, a grain
of the past, and I
am willing to die for that.

He found the dead starfish in his room, still crusted black with oil, as if it were a strange piece of jet or coral. He took it down to the beach one evening, when his bones were aching from all the walking he had done lately, scouring the cliffs for signs of the girl. The starfish looked so vulnerable, but in its black outfit seemed completely strange, a being from another world, resplendent in PVC. He returned it to the dark waters, slipping it under the shallow waves, waiting for it to be pulled asunder. He realised then what a fool he had been, to think he could take something from the deep of the sea, even to hold it and love it. The oil had gone and so had the sea’s suspension, now released into a churning, awful hunger, the cycling time and crazy waves that kept the boy awake—night after night, day after day.

Land of Boats & Rust & Sunset Metal

Eerie stillness, the still point of the stillest day. All of the western isles are supposed to be windswept, breezy, cold and white. The sky is never quite white, more a milky, ashen grey. An ink-stained clearness of upside-down water.

We’ve walked along the beach, along the shorefront of the town with its screaming islander kids on the green. The ice-cream diners lain quiet by winter. Daffodils swaying in terracotta pots, cats lounging on garden walls. Shop fronts of Easter displays, gold blue postcards and tall jars of sweets. We’ve walked ourselves back out of civilisation.

It’s so quiet here. The edge of the beach. You focus on the absolute intensities of nature, and that’s it.

The gulls, endlessly circling, squawking, cawing. The cry of a gull is always an echo.

The lapping of waves. A glassy, perfect, trickling sound. Clicking of our cameras. Metallic sound of rusted nails, grating against rocks as we walk upon them, crunching down matter. In the distance, dusk comes in colour, like someone cracked open a lump of cryolite, spilling its yellow fluorescence over the world.

A boy circles the road on his bike. We do not see his face; he is hooded, a messiah or a ghost. Later, he appears again on the ferry, then the train. Earlier in the day, we saw him meditating out on a rock, alone. He starts to embody some kind of fear, an omen. Like teenagers, we giggle.

You can drag your hand through the cold wet shingle and scoop out its shining treasures. We gather orange shells and red bricks which rub dusty colour onto the black of our jackets. Some shells are broken, yet still pearlescent. Nasty beasties quiver and squirm when we lift big rocks. We lift and scavenge and pillage, and then walk on. We are growing closer to the still place, the stillest place of the island.

An abandoned shipyard of sorts. Some of the boats are still in use: there are ‘For Sale’ signs and various parts of ship rigging, scattered haphazardly around. Lobster plots, lonely buoys, a trail of broken forks. A slipway coated in green sea slime. Some of the boats grow a strange, alien rust. It comes apart in circles, flakes away at the edges like millions of wrinkling eyes. A brilliant, ginger bronze. Piles of thick iron chains succumbing to the slow process of oxidisation, stung by exposure to the harsh salt air, harsh salt water. To drag a finger along a single link is to be cut with visions of a ship at sea. Billowing storms, sails failing amidst inevitable shipwreck. It’s difficult to imagine such disasters on this pretty island, yet there is an uncanny sense to this space, as if we have entered a secret porthole, discovered what was supposed to be invisible to outsiders…

The quietness recalls an abandoned filmset. Some unidentified source strikes the repeated sound of a gong, mixing with the steadily lapping waves. We wander this place for nearly an hour. We return to the quiet gloaming, the silver mist rising over the sea. The mainland is there to meet us, its blue shadows of mountain studded with lights. For awhile it seemed so far, but of course it isn’t. We find ourselves in Largs, then on the train back home to Glasgow.

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Tropical

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Tropical

You used to worry about the palms: there was something wrong,
you said,
if the palms weren’t sighing.

You relished the soft peel of the wind through those palms,
the ones by the hotel garden.
We’ve been here every year
since Dad died.

The white beach sand is a mouthful of moonlight.
We sit up late drinking crushed fruit
and you say strange things, as you always do—
have you ever eaten a mango in the bath?
You would live your life like that,
all the time you said, eating mangoes in the bath.

All that pulp and mess, all that flesh.
Dad died in the spring, when blossoms
of soft pink cherry gathered on my lawn.
The baby lolled around in it like April snow
and we watched her giggle, ribbon
flying out from her hair. He would’ve loved that,
seeing her there.

The cancer took the green out his eyes,
ate the skin of his face.
Even when they pumped him full of fat and creamy vitamins,
the bones kept poking, pointing.
His face was a mask of something;
I couldn’t let the baby near it.

I imagine you prefer it here
to back home. You like the ooze
of the days, the way the maids make the beds;
the emerald green of the parakeet,
early mornings where the tide sparkles. Still,
you saw signs in everything.

Dad used to come visit during monsoon season.
He wrote reams of prose,
lapping up slushfuls of rain. He wrote
in the small hours, when he wasn’t working.

We lost the notes.
We’ve only the stuff on his business trips,
lost code on his laptop.
We haven’t a sense
of what to him was sharp or clear, what it was
that brought him over.
Just the whispering palms, the sleepy tense—
one day I’ll take the baby here.

Reading the Eighteenth-Century

My degree programme requires you to take at least one ‘pre-1800’ course – i.e., anything that’s not Victorian or Modern, anything that stretches back into the depths of distant history. For some people, the prospect of reading up on Shakespeare or Medieval literature is a dream, but I chose a course which was dated 1660-1785 – the most modern dates I could get my hands on. I was at first pretty worried about studying the eighteenth-century, possibly sharing Esther Greenwood’s view in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: ‘I hated the very idea of the eighteenth century, with all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so dead keen on reason’. When my copy of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela arrived, reading one paragraph of the heroine’s gushing account of her virtue left me exhausted. I looked at the fat Collected Works of Samuel Johnson and my heart sank. However, with some surprise, I soon found myself enjoying the books I was supposed to read. The truth is that the eighteenth-century has a lot more to offer than stuffy old men and their commitment to reason. Of course, it was the time of the Enlightenment, but it was also the time of radical social upheaval: of the expansion of empire, changing gender roles, political turbulence, religious opposition, the loosening of sexual mores and of course literary innovation. The renewed critical interest in eighteenth-century post-Reformation literature in recent decades has meant that the canon is no longer confined to Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson, as I feared it might be. I’ve had the chance to study more ‘obscure’ works by women novelists, parodies, life-writing, vicious epistles and pastoral poetry that does more than merely sentimentalise the countryside. ‘Tight little couplets’ neatly encapsulates the idea of formal restriction, but the eighteenth-century was actually a period of literary experimentation, facilitated by the shift from a system of patronage to individual publication, and the more general rise in literacy which meant there was a wider market for more writing. It produced the phenomenon of the ‘peasant poet’, as well as the likes of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an aristocrat and ‘woman of letters’; it saw the merchant Daniel Defoe becoming a successful novelist in his sixties after years of prolific journalism, and Jonathan Swift penning sharp satirical pamphlets that criticised government policy (suggesting that the problem of poverty in Ireland could be solved by fattening up the starving babies and feeding them to rich landowners…ah, never mind, just go read A Modest Proposal – but bear in mind the irony). So yeah, I’m going to give you a walking tour of what I’ve learned from studying literature in the eighteenth-century. It’s funny how much we already know about eighteenth-century literature, often without realising it. Reading Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, for example, I was struck by how many of Johnson’s aphoristic statements have been absorbed into our general consciousness, such as that hardened phrase of pessimism: ‘Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed’ or the wisdom of ‘do not suffer life to stagnate; it will grow muddy for want of motion’ (these terms acquired greater significance to me proportionate to the amount of time I was spending in the library, where life certainly grows muddy for want of motion). I was struck too by Alexander Pope, whose poetry is generally written in heroic couplets, which makes them snappy and easy to remember. So many couplets from An Essay on Criticism and An Essay on Man will strike most people as familiar:

‘Good-Nature and Good-Sense must ever join; | To err is human, to forgive, divine.’

‘True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, | As those move easiest who have learned to dance.’

‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast: | Man never is, but always to be blest.’

At first, Pope’s couplets do sound smug, especially in poems where he’s satirically tearing shreds from literary critics, other writers and the artifice of dress and manner which ‘ladies’ must shroud themselves with in ‘Epistle to a Lady’. But you start to get a feel for them, and the neat syntax and rhyme scheme quickly becomes pretty satisfying, especially in his Pastorals and Windsor Forest. Windsor Forest is an interesting poem because it’s a panegyric (a poem written to commemorate a public event) written to celebrate the Treaty of Utrecht (which was basically a deal allowing Britain freer access to the slave trade), but its attitude to slavery is ambivalent, and with his vivid images of animals being cruelly hunted, Pope via synecdoche (‘if small things we may with great compare’) invites us to compare the treatment of the pheasant to the foreign subject, the slave:

‘Short is his joy! he feels the fiery wound / Flutters in blood, and panting beats the ground’.

I’m quite happy I remember this quote from my exam. Anyway, it’s a fairly distressing image, with all the assonance of flutters and blood stirring up this sense of entrapment and terror, raising our sympathy for this humble piece of ‘game’. The poem is a good one to start with because you learn a lot about history from it, and the poetry itself is enjoyable to read. Pope definitely falls into pompous patriotism, especially towards the end, but because it’s framed through delicious images of silver and gold and rushing rivers, it’s hard to put the poem down purely because of it’s subject matter. And there’s always a sense of unease to Pope’s ideology, as it’s filtering through mythical allusions always adds an ambiguous, extra dimension to the meaning. This is the sort of thing you have to grapple with: not only ‘getting’ the mythical and historical references, but being able to trace their ambiguities through a poetic tradition you’re not quite familiar with.

Windsor Forest ('Wood-Cutting in Windsor Forest') 1834-5, exhibited 1835 John Linnell 1792-1882 Presented by Robert Vernon 1847 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00438
Windsor Forest (‘Wood-Cutting in Windsor Forest’) 1834-5, exhibited 1835 John Linnell 1792-1882 Presented by Robert Vernon 1847 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00438

Then there’s Pamela, Samuel Richardson’s novel about a young servant girl who falls prey to her master’s endless and increasingly insistent attempts to seduce her, becoming more violent every time. While she does not suffer the terrible rape that Clarissa endures in Richardson’s much longer novel, Clarissa, Pamela goes through a lot and chronicles every scrap of it in her letters home to her parents. Pamela can seem a slog, especially with all those self-justifying lines about how pure she still is and virtuous in spite of everything. It’s frustrating that she never seems to do anything but weep and write and swoon. Still, there are some funny moments, like when she tries to escape but mistakes two innocent wee cows for scary bulls, adding a dab of Freudian psychodrama to the otherwise relatively static action. I guess the main thing we can take from this novel is its intense focus on the individual (something that wasn’t really available before in fiction, because romances were interested in characters as archetypes – princess, villain, hero – rather than real people), and the process of introspection, the attention to everyday detail. The same goes for Robinson Crusoe: part of what’s seductive about Defoe’s novel is not just the adventure and pirates, but all those long passages about how he sets up his little domestic fortress on the island; how he learns to cure raisins, build boats, grow corn. He goes into so much detail you think you’ll go mad, but when you go back and read it, there’s a certain satisfaction to it. You can imagine yourself in his position – Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously claimed that Robinson Crusoe’s success was that he represented human nature in general – and the novel becomes a sort of survival guide to living on a lonesome tropical island.

Crusoe, Friday & some goats. Source: www.nvcreview.com
Crusoe, Friday & some animals. Source: http://www.nvcreview.com

Incidentally, Crusoe’s story was loosely based on that of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish man who ran away to sea to escape punishment for bad behaviour back home. When he got into an argument with the captain of his ship, he asked to leave and go ashore on one of the South Pacific islands they were close to. Selkirk thought some ship would come and find him soon enough, but instead he was stranded there for over four years. Crusoe, by contrast, is on his island for twenty eight years. Part of the wonder of the story is how sane he stays. Crusoe rediscovers religion and his spiritual devotion is essential to giving his life order and meaning on the island. It’s the little things that matter, that give him a sense of self: carving the days into a wooden cross, having dinner with his ‘family’ of animals and writing in his diary. The whole novel basically celebrates the power of human reason and endurance, as Crusoe notes that ‘by making the most rational judgments of things, every man may be in time master of every mechanic art’. I guess in this way it’s very typical of the Enlightenment attitude of the time, but there’s also a very strong capitalist motive for Crusoe’s actions and attitudes. As Ian Watt points out in The Rise of the Novel, many of Crusoe’s behaviours prefigure that of the canny venture capitalist: his restless travels for more trade, his saving of supplies and investing of crops, his careful planning of time and stock, and the mythological story of the individual’s capacity for survival. In fact, it could even be read as a kind of Puritan spiritual autobiography, because Crusoe has all his capital successes rewarded supposedly by ‘Providence’ as a blessing for his religious (re)awakening. It’s funny how a lot of eighteenth-century texts like Robinson Crusoe are perhaps best known for their adaptations into children’s literature (NOT as the rather awful film versions which insist on adding an irrelevant romance plot to everything). I suppose it’s because Defoe’s novel is also an adventure narrative, encountering pirates and ‘educating’ his ex-cannibal slave ‘Friday’ with Western values (another problematic but critically rich part of the story is Defoe’s relationship to ‘my man Friday’, which sheds light on the colonial context of the time). Another example of an eighteenth-century novel being famous as a children’s book is of course Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift. The irony here is that Swift wrote this tale about fantastic worlds with tiny people, floating islands, people who could extract sunlight from cucumbers, giants and talking horses (Houyhnhnms) to deliver a harsh satire on the politics and Enlightenment culture of the period. Unless you have a canny eye or an edition rich with footnotes, you might miss all these references, and so revel along in Gulliver’s story and thus fall prey to the kind of naivety Swift critiques in Gulliver himself. Indeed, because the book was so cleverly prefaced and presented as a true account of a man’s travels, many people thought that the events and the strange places described were all true. In addition to lashing the follies of man’s claim to reason and pursuit of enlightened knowledge, Swift was attacking travel writing itself, albeit with lesser gall. He parodies the supposed objectivity of travel writing, and its attention to seemingly inane details. He gives very precise numbers, showing the reader how he cleverly carves up the worlds he encounters, noting ‘three hundred tailors’, ‘six of his majesty’s greatest scholars’ and so on. He also feels the need for self-justification, as when he describes how his excrement has to be taken away by two wheelbarrows by the tiny Lilliputians:

I would not have dwelt so long upon a Circumstance, that perhaps at first sight may appear not very Momentous; if I had not thought it necessary to justify my Character in Point of Cleanliness to the World, which I am told, some of my Maligners have been pleased on this and other Occasions, to call in Question.

Swift’s writings had been previously critiqued for their lewdness, as in A Tale of a Tub and ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’, where the human body becomes a site of grotesque revelry and disgust. Swift, therefore, is here fashioning his own self-defence with thick layers of irony, inviting critics to judge him against his own self-protection, his free reign expression on matters abject and bodily. Travel writing was a big thing in the eighteenth-century, what with the growth of the British trade empire and the trend for the ‘Grand Tour’. While they didn’t have access to a railcard, undergraduate (men) would often take the Grand Tour of Europe, learning about refined French manners and Greek culture to more fully develop their education. This of course also involved a lot of drinking and probably visiting prostitutes, but then again, such matters were perhaps necessary to a gentleman’s education – he could ‘get it out of his system’ overseas and come back to Britain enlightened and satisfied and ready to be a ‘good’ citizen. Hm. One of my favourite pieces of travel writing is James Boswell and Samuel Johnson’s account of their journey to the Western isles of Scotland. Their approach was slightly different, as they each wrote separate accounts of the time. Boswell focused mainly on Johnson himself (as he tends to do in his writing!) whereas Johnson spent much time critiquing the dreariness of the scenery and observing the primitive lives of the locals with some disdain, though respect for their hospitality. You can read A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland for free online via Project Gutenberg, and I think it’s worth a gander, if only to take a brief lunch-break holiday into the wilds of eighteenth-century Scotland. There is also a rather humorous article in The Telegraph detailing the author’s attempts to retrace the steps of Boswell and Johnson’s tour, though I am somewhat uncomfortable with his complaints about encountering a range of ethnicities rather than ‘native’ Scots on his tour…can Scottishness not finally now be defined as authentic through multiculturalism, as everywhere else in Britain, or must it still be hailed as a land of blood and soil nostalgia, pale skin and tartan…? just a wee grumble! I have only skimmed over the stuff we covered in our course on the eighteenth-century. Other things worth reading are the hilarious parodies of Pamela, which cast severe doubt on the veracity of Pamela’s ‘virtue’ and burlesque Richardson’s prose style – some good ones include Eliza Haywood’s Anti-Pamela and Henry Fielding’s Shamela. Also, Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City is a marvellous book which looks at how the countryside was often falsely represented in various examples of pastoral and Georgic poetry through the ages as an idealised contrast to the corruptions of the city. Millenium Hall by Sarah Scott is a very intriguing epistolary novel which has been dubbed a ‘feminotopia’, an early representation of a utopian community run by women on a country estate. I suppose what really strikes you about this period is the sheer diversity of works, and the strong political ties most of the literature displays. It was a time of experimentation, but because the novel in particular was still a nascent form, it’s possible to perceive all the strange incoherences, the little faults and cracks which allow us to reflect on the form in general and its relationship to ideology. Edward Said, after all, has argued that the novel is by definition born out of colonialism: it is ‘fundamentally tied to bourgeois society […] it accompanies and indeed is a part of the conquest of Western society […] the novel, as a cultural artefact of bourgeois society, and imperialism are unthinkable without each other’. The novel’s representation of social authority in the hands of the British, its focus often on middle-class life and relentless individualism are all part of this bourgeois basis of the novel. Whether we agree entirely with Said’s statement, it’s a compelling argument that challenges us to rethink how we consider what is probably the most popular form (other than celebrity biography) in the contemporary literary market. And I guess that’s one of the thing’s I enjoyed most about this course: returning to origins, understanding how modern literature came into being out of the cultural circumstances and experimentations of the long eighteenth-century. It is rather ironic that while Samuel Johnson characterised the typical novel reader as ‘the young, the ignorant and the idle’, reading novels is now one of those activities that mark you out as ‘cultured’, ‘educated’, perhaps even ‘bourgeois’. Not only in its form, but also in its critical reception, the novel has come a long way. Some extra info: 

Pope's Grotto.  Source: popesgrotto.org.uk
Pope’s Grotto.
Source: popesgrotto.org.uk

Alexander Pope was a dissenting Catholic during the time of Protestant monarchy, which meant he was barred from participating in many societal institutions, like university. In 1719, he retreated to Twickenham in the rural outskirts of London, building himself a villa and a grassplot garden whose verdant beauty was to imitate the Arcadian landscapes of much of his poetry. Pope’s residence is notable and pretty cool because he constructed a tunnel under the road connecting his garden to his villa. It led to the basement of his villa in which he fashioned his own grotto. He wrote a rather beautiful description of his delight in a letter to Edward Blount:

When you shut the Doors of this Grotto, it becomes on the instant, from a luminous Room, a Camera Obscura, on the walls of which all the objects of the River, Hills, Woods, and Boats, are forming a moving Picture…And when you have a mind to light it up, it affords you a very different Scene: it is finished with Shells interspersed with Pieces of Looking-glass in angular Forms…at which when a Lamp…is hung in the Middle, a thousand pointed Rays glitter and are reflected over the place.

You can visit Pope’s grotto at certain times of the year, and that area in Twickenham has been named after Pope’s Grove. More info can be found here: http://www.twickenham-museum.org.uk/detail.asp?ContentID=21