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Saturday 26 November 2011

The need to see

Embarrassing Situation 1 - Fly undone

Rachel: And your fly's still open...
[Ross looks down.]

Rachel: Ha, I made you look....
– Friends (The One with All the Poker)

How do you say things? Do you get right to the point or are you a shillyshallier, pussyfooting around the issue? Or is there another way?

I’m thinking here, in broad terms at least, about the difference between prose and poetry. As I said, in broad terms. Prose states things, poetry not so much or when it does it’s usually saying one thing and meaning another. In cinematic terms we’re talking about the difference between Alien and Alien Resurrection. In the original film more is suggested than anything else but in Alien Resurrection metaphorically-speaking (and literally) the lights are all up full. (I’m thinking about the scene in the lab with the three aliens behind glass.) We all know what the monster looks like so let’s get to see him up close and personal. But which is the better film? Okay, Alien, hands down, but if we’d never had the first three films to compare Alien Resurrection to it might have received better reviews than it did.

What I’m saying here that there is nothing more powerful that what we imagine. As soon as we get to see something we can step back from it and go, as in Aliens: “Oh, that’s just a couple of guys in rubber suits.” (I’m thinking this time of the scene where Ripley sees them crawling through the space above the ceiling.) Aliens was clever film though in that it suggested an army of creatures but I don’t think we ever get to see more than two or three onscreen at any given time.

Am I saying that it’s never appropriate to show things in surgical detail? What is this need to see all about? Here’s a photograph from Naked New York by Greg Friedler. The whole book is made up of diptychs like this, one clothed, one unclothed:

Admin Asst

The first photo is intriguing. I wonder how many men have seen her floating around the office and thought to themselves, I wonder what she looks like naked. And now we all know. Yay! Next page, please! What more is there to see? Oh, we’ve not seen her bum. Maybe she’s got a cute bum. She looks like she might have a cute bum; pert. But do we really need to see her bum? Haven’t we seen enough? When is enough enough? Would we have been happier if the photo had been in colour? Or bigger? There’s not exactly a lot of detail here, is there? The thing is, one seen we can’t unsee:


I've exposed myself too much
and embarrassed you.
I'm sorry:
I thought we were that close.

Can you pretend
it never happened?

And you only imagined
my weaknesses?

28 August 1989

I picked this photo because of the expression on her face. It’s almost identical in each picture. There are a few more online if you’re curious. Just type ‘greg friedler’ into Google.

Truth is often described as being naked. Personally I’m not a big fan. Of truth. I quite liked nakedness, just not my own especially. What I really don’t like about the truth is the fact that I find nothing is ever true enough for most people:


What do you do when you've seen?

Look again. See more. It pays to be sure.
Of course, third time's the charm,
three points make a straight line
and we all know where they lead.

It's always the same though,
always in familiar places.
always doing the same old things.
There's a certain comfort to be had in that.

It's different though, every single time,
each time, the same but different,
a revelation or a kick in the teeth.
That's what's kept us coming back for more.

Curiosity crippled the cat
and all cats are peeping toms.

25 December 2002

This is the last in the Sweet William sequence and I think after nine years we can call it a day. I’ve said all I can about William but when you read the whole sequence (which I will publish one day – promise) what’s pretty clear is how little I actually say. I leave much to the imagination of the readers.

Here’s an early experiment:


Old Walt used to watch the cleaning woman –

Through the spy hole.

Breasts hung as she scrubbed.

In the monochrome passage.

One day...
            ...and the neighbours
            talked about it for weeks...

29 May 1979

So what happened? Did he kill her? Rape her? Flash her? Shout obscenities through the letterbox? Propose? I don’t know. I never knew. And even if I did I can’t remember and if I could I wouldn’t say. That’s not what the poem is about. It’s about you. What do you think happened?

There are two styles of writing: explicit vs. implicit:



Are you busy tonight?

If you’re not busy tonight, would you go out with me?

Is that seat taken?

Can I sit beside you?

I wouldn’t if I were you.

You will die.

Does my bum look big in this?

If you say it is you will suffer.

which means there are two ways of acquiring knowledge:

Implicit (or Tacit) Knowledge

Explicit Knowledge

subconscious, internalised
spontaneous, automatic
typically procedural

controlled (processing)

Of course we use both all the time. In the poem above I implied that something happened, Walt did something and probably to or with the cleaning woman. You may infer that something bad happened based on your knowledge of voyeurs who’ve got tired merely looking and escalate to doing. In my poem ‘The Rapist’ which was written about the same time as ‘Old Walt’ this is all I say about the actual assault:

Then in the wood:
Stains and not simply on clothes.

I suggest what happened, where it happened and how it affected the victim (and possibly the perpetrator) but I really don’t say anything very much. I don’t need to.

I used to want to know everything, every gory detail. Does this ring any bells with any of you?

Where did he touch you and how did it feel
And why did you let it begin?
What did he whisper and when did you cry
And where do you think it will end?
How long did you do it and why did you stop?
Did you get to try anything new?
How good was he honestly and where did you go
And who made the very first move?

Jim-Steinman-Bad-For-GoodIt’s from the spoken introduction to Jim Steinman’s song ‘Left in the Dark’ in case you wondered. These are all facts. The two that’re missing are probably: Who was he? and Was he better than me? although I’m sure you could think of lots more. But this is all explicit knowledge – names, dates, places – and it’s ultimately dissatisfying because what he wants to know is how it felt. And not just the physical act, the emotions, before, during the act and after. He wants to know how she felt and how the guy felt.

We want the truth – we say we want the truth – but no matter what we get it’s never true enough:


We start off looking for truths
but end up just looking
not seeing even what we thought
we wanted to

or hoped we might
because, at the end of the day,
nothing could ever come
close to our expectations.

Especially the truth.

21 June 1997

I’ve always acknowledged the role of the reader in a work of fiction and the thing about voyeurism (all writers are voyeurs and, let’s face it, so are all readers) is that no matter how much you concentrate on looking at whatever it is that you’re fixated on at that moment, you cannot not look into yourself and see yourself for who you really are:


Before we start, gentle reader
tell me what you're looking for;
it helps if I know beforehand.

(Because poems are whores;
they become what you want,
but there's always a price).

Or we could just talk if you like.
What do you want to hear?
Surely not the truth?

Oh, I see: you like mirrors.
Well that's quite all right.
I have just the thing here.

All it takes is a little imagination.

19 August 1996

We all know the story about Adam and Eve. Whether you accept it as fact or fiction it doesn’t really matter. It makes its point beautifully:

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying: 'Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.' – Genesis 2:16,17

The key expression here for me is ‘Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat.’ It’s not as if he was depriving them of food or anything so Eve didn’t eat of the fruit because she was ravenous and although the Bible never actually states explicitly what the fruit was (it’s a misnomer to think the first pair ate the first apple) doubtless there were dozens of other trees with the same fruit close by. But Eve’s curiosity got the better of her. Curiosity is not a sin but it led to her sinning.

There are lots of things I’m curious about. Even without acting on that curiosity much is revealed about me but once I’ve acted on it there’s no going back. And if I’m disappointed well I’m always going to be disappointed. I like Christina Ricci. It’s okay, my wife knows. I like lots of other actresses but let’s just stick with her. I 99-christina-riccithink she’s sexy. I don’t quite know when she got sexy. One day she was Wednesday Addams and kissing Casper the Friendly Ghost and the next she’s falling out of her clothes in Buffalo ‘66 and The Opposite of Sex. And I would be lying if I’d never wondered what she looked like without her clothes on. I have. There I’ve said it. And then one day I watched After.Life and well, now I know. If you’re curious just type ‘christina ricci After.Life’ into Google. Try and not. Go on. And even if you don’t I still make you wonder.

I wrote a poem about this once. As you all know I keep my poems in a big red folder. One day, a good few years ago, a friend was over with her daughter and her daughter was flicking though my poems when she came across a poem entitled ‘Do Not Read This Poem’ at which point she said, out loud, “All right,” and turned the page without reading it. Of course every adult who’s ever come across the poem has read it. It’s like anything that says ‘Don’t press this button’ or ‘Don’t eat this’ – we want to. It suddenly becomes desirable. Knowledge is, let’s put no fine point on it, alluring. We want to see Truth naked so badly. We’re scared we might be missing something. I assure you Christina Ricci has exactly the kind of body that you would expect from a slender thirty-year-old. It’s quite like the one of the thirty-one-year-old Friedler photographed in New York – no extra nipples, no appendectomy scar, no blemishes. So, if you’ve seen one naked about-thirty-year-old woman have you seen them all?

There are times when you want to be explicit. Giving evidence in a court of law is a good time. I don’t think writing poetry is one of those places. I don’t honestly think that prose is either but because you can routinely get away with writing 90,000 words in a row about a particular subject it’s tempting to say more than you need to and IMHO most novelists do.

The salient characteristic of the tacit knowledge approach is the basic belief that knowledge is essentially personal in nature and is therefore difficult to extract from the heads of individuals. – Ron Sanchez, “Tacit Knowledge” versus “Explicit Knowledge” – approaches to Knowledge Management Practice, p.3

This is why savvy businesses move people (“knowledge carriers”) around rather than retrain staff because not all knowledge is transferrable. That doesn’t mean that tacit knowledge isn’t transferrable:

The process of transforming tacit knowledge into explicit or specifiable knowledge is known as codification, articulation, or specification. The tacit aspects of knowledge are those that cannot be codified, but can only be transmitted via training or gained through personal experience. – Wikipedia (italics mine)

I repeat: some things have to be experienced, which is why I wrote this last poem:


You mustn't read this.
Turn the page, please.

You don't want to see
            the home truth here.

Because when you peer
            in this darkness

            you'll discover a
            side to yourself

            you didn't want to.
Just like right now.

I do hope you think
            it was worth it.

13 July 1997

This is my version of Genesis 2:16,17. I think we as writers should be more aware of the limitations of our craft. We encode and readers decode but this isn’t maths and there’s always something lost in the translation. We may get to see the words naked on the page but we never get to see them with anyone’s eyes other than our own. I cannot put into words how I feel about Christina Ricci. I think I know how I feel but I’ve never tried to articulate it. Why would I want to? They’re my feelings. When I say, “I think Christina Ricci,” is sexy I am sure there will be people out there nodding and thinking, I know exactly what he means (there will be others going, Eh?), but how do they know what I mean by ‘sexy’? That knowledge will go to the grave with me. Unless my wife gets it out of me first.

Is the purpose of writing to pass on knowledge? It can be a purpose. Maths textbooks pass on knowledge. Atlases pass on knowledge. And telephone directories. But the remit of fictional writing (both poetry and prose) should be to make people think and feel not to teach; education is a by-product. Someone told me that 2+2=4 (most likely Miss Kettle) and someone probably told that someone but once upon a time someone worked out that all for themselves and in theory all of us are capable of working out that 2+2=4 on our own. Would I care more about knowing that 2+2=4 if I’d worked it out for myself without any assistance? Yes, probably. Just as I feel a certain possessiveness towards poems that I’ve read in the past that I’ve made my own.

Good teachers don’t just tell. They will explain what numbers are, what the concept of addition is and then they will allow you to (literally and metaphorically) add two and two together for yourself. And sometimes their pupils will get five. And that’s not as wrong as it seems.

Monday 21 November 2011

The People of the Sea

The People of the Sea

‘We believe what we believe,’ said his father, getting up and moving to the door. ‘And there’s no way to ken is it right or wrong.’ – David Thomson, The People of the Sea

On the surface, if I can begin with an appropriately aquatic metaphor, The People of the Sea is a work of non-fiction; a journal kept by one man recording his experiences travelling through Ireland and the farthest islands of Scotland, but unlike Heinrich Böll’s Irish Journal, a book which has also quite rightly been reprinted many times, David Thomson’s interest in talking to the locals, the crofters, fishermen and travellers, was not to produce some kind of tourist guide but to document for posterity the stories that have been passed down orally from generation to generation, specifically those concerning the selkies, ‘selkie’ being the word for ‘seal’ in the Orcadian dialect. Thomson was not a naturalist or even a conservationist; that was not where his interest stemmed. At the time of writing The People of the Sea he was employed by the BBC as a writer and producer of radio documentaries, a post he held between 1943 and1969. The writing of the book might have been facilitated by the fact that many of the programmes he worked on were to do with natural history but his personal fascination with seals dates back to the time when, aged eleven, he sustained an eye injury playing rugby which nearly blinded him and unable to continue his schooling in London he was packed off to Tigh na Rosen, the home of his maternal grandmother, in Nairn, an ancient fishing port and market town close to Inverness in Scotland; this would have been circa 1925 but it was not his first trip there; that would have been when he was five along accompanied by his parents and sisters.

The opening chapter to The People of the Sea sees Thomson, now a grown man, recalling that time with obvious fondness. It is also worth noting that his last memoir, published in 1987, a year before his death, was Nairn In Darkness And Light which won the NCR Book Award for Non-Fiction in 1988. The place must have had some effect on him for him to be drawn back to its memory over sixty years later but that’s not the book that he’ll be remembered for. His legacy will undoubtedly be The People of the Sea which, although autobiographical in tone, has Thomson taking on the role of folklorist recording for future generations some of the many tales told around the fireside of an evening and also, in passing, presenting a snapshot of a way of living that has all but died out.

To a zoologist a seal is a pinniped (from Latin pinna, wing or fin, and ped-, foot), a fin-footed semiaquatic marine mammal; the majority – those known as true seals or earless seals – being members of the family Phocidae. But what do scientists know? They might very well be the descendants of a man called Kane or “the souls of drowned men” or fallen angels like the fairies, except that they had fallen into the sea and became seals or they might simply turn out to be fur-clad Finns, travelling by kayak: it depends who you’re listening to and how good a storyteller they are. And there are not a few contained within the pages of this book.

But let’s start when he was eleven. In the pantry one day he innocently asks Mina, their nurse, who he describes as “the mildest and kindest and probably the weakest woman in the world,” and La, his mother’s cousin who happens to be there at the time, about Mrs Carnoustie’s legs; he had heard mentioned that she was deformed. And it wasn’t only her legs; no. La explains:

‘You must remember. You must. I remember her arms too. It’s perfectly true. They only came down a little below where they should be and they were supposed to be flattish, but you never really saw them because she wore big sleeves, big full ones, and I think they were sewn up at the ends. But they looked flattish, like flippers, and she held them against her sides or across her chest and she moved them rather awkwardly. But you could never see her legs. We always wanted to. We wanted to see her in the bath and of course we couldn’t, and it was terrible. I remember, never being able to know, and of course we couldn’t ask her or anyone else really – anyway we couldn’t get proper answers from anyone. And, you see, she was always in the same kind of dress – a long, long grey shiny dress, silk I think, that fastened at the neck with a close collar and came right down to the ground and hid everything.


‘[H]er face was round and plump too, with a small nose sort of flattened and a big wide sort of mouth. And I think she had a moustache.’

Don’t laugh. I was once served in a bakers in Ayr by an ancient crone who had the most impressive ‘tache – put the few whiskers I was sporting on my top lip well and truly to shame. More details follow concerning poor Mrs Carnoustie, descriptions of her hair and her eyes which “were very big. Enormous. And brown.” “Were they as big as horse’s eyes?” asks the boy but, no, he is told, “[t]hey must have been as big as a seal’s eyes … [b]ecause she was supposed to be a seal.” Well, not exactly a seal but the daughter of one:

‘People said her mother was a seal. They said her father met a woman wandering about on the beach somewhere on the west coast, and he got married to this woman. But people said the woman was really a seal – disguised as a woman. And when they had a baby it turned out to be half a seal and it grew up to be Mrs Carnoustie.’

scotland_mapNow you might have been forgiven for thinking the ladies were just having a bit of fun at the expense of a gullible wee lad and when she learns of it his grandmother dismisses what he had been told as nothing more than “an old wifie’s tale … there’s no truth in those tales.” Truth is not the only reason to listen to tales being told though. Many years later, on a return visit to South Uist, Thomson runs into an eighteen-year-old girl who he had encountered on his first trip there. Like the majority of her generation she dreams of moving to the mainland – in her case to go into service – and she can’t understand Thomson’s interest in all the old stories:

‘It is all lies,’ she said. ‘You know well it is lies.’

‘What do you mean, Mairi?’

‘It is well for you to come and ask about the seals. And away home with you then, to the mainland.’

‘But I don’t think of the stories that way – as lies or truth. I like to hear them; that’s all.’

She stared.

‘Like reading a Western?’ [Her preferred reading matter.]


‘But the old people believe them.’

‘Well, I don’t see any harm in that, do you?’

‘On the mainland they wouldn’t believe them.’


‘Not even the old people?’

‘Very few of them would. But they believe lots of other things, just as strange.’

Lies they may well all be despite the assertions of those telling their tales that what they are relating is the God’s honest truth, but, as Thomson said, the veracity of the tales he is being told was not an issue.

You might think that this will be a book steeped in nostalgia and although I can't promise that it won't make you nostalgic for times past, what I can say is that Thomson will not be the one to start you down that path. In his introduction to the book, the poet Seamus Heaney, who was friend of Thomson’s, has this to say:

What delights is the absence of nostalgia. Even as the men in a cabin give themselves up to an eerie tale of child-kidnap by a seal, one of them is talking about remedies for the warble-fly: "I tried motor oil and sulfur powder mixed." Even as a storyteller invokes the ancient glamour of the Celtic ceo draíochta [magic mist], he resolutely de-mystifies it: "So the seal set up a magic fog, or what is called in modern parlance a smoke screen . . ." And yet, for all the up-to-dateness of the idiom, the fundamental understanding of these characters is shaped by what the poet Edwin Muir once termed "that long lost, archaic companionship" between human beings and the creatures. Plainly, memorably, repeatedly, instances of this old eye-to-eye and breath-to-breath closeness between living things appear in the narrative. Michael the Ferryman judges the strength of the current he is rowing into by watching the toils of the big seal in heavy water adjacent to the boat; a child escaped from drowning is warmed back to consciousness in a "Black House" in South Uist between the generous bodies of two cows; on Papa Stour in Shetland, in an old cowshed, the author himself gradually attains a state of almost animal consciousness:

I heard a raven croak twice. I felt the autumn coldly on my face, but because this old cowshed had been lately used for dipping sheep there was a smell of dung as though the warm life of the farm lingered on.

You can read his entire introduction in The Guardian from 2001, here.

outer-hebridesOver the years Thomson travels far and wide and becomes well-known for his interest in tales about seals. Chapter 2 sees him in South Uist in the Outer Hebrides; in chapters three through five he visits Ireland, counties Mayo and Kerry specifically; chapter six finds him on the tiny Island of Papa Stour off the west coast of Shetland; in chapter seven he ventures to the northernmost of the Orkney Islands, North Ronaldsay before, in the final two chapters, revisiting South Uist and Ireland. All in all it must have taken him the best part of twenty years to compile this collection, discounting his time in Nairn. What I was particularly impressed with was his ability to capture the subtleties of the various dialects. One thing that surprised me was that he didn’t visit Norway or Iceland; perhaps he planned to but could never quite manage it.

To illustrate, on South Uist Thomson meets two young children, Angus and his sister, Mairi, whom I mentioned above from his last visit. They take him home (everyone in the book makes a point of offering hospitality to “strangers”) where he meets their father, Ronald Iain Finley. During the subsequent conversation Ronald asks his son, “What is the strongest type of rope, boy?” When Angus suggests hemp or cotton his father replies:

‘He is right for the mainland maybe, but the strongest rope on the islands is a rope made of horsehair. Your factor has rope, but he’ll never know the strength of it till a boy like yourself ties a three-year-old and the three-year-old breaks away. But if I or my father used a rope of horsehair we would surely know the strength of it, and how to use it, because every inch of that rope would be made by ourselves. That is the difference between myself and the factor. That’s where the old island ways is better. That’s how you’ll learn more with myself than ever you’ll learn with school or the factor.’

In Ireland many of the stories he gets told are in the convivial atmosphere of a pub or someone’s home with all of those gathered contributing stories and adding to the stories told by the others. On his first trip Thomson finds himself in the home of Sean Sweeney, an octogenarian seal-killer, along with Tadhg Tracy, the bilingual schoolmaster who acted as his translator since Thomson, as they would put it, “had no Irish.” During this particular evening the conversation found its way round to the peripatetic tailors that used to frequent the land:

‘They went from house to house making clothes for the people,’ said Tadhg, ‘and whatever house they went to, there they would stay until the work for that house was finished, and they’d get their bit to eat and a place to lie down for themselves every night, for what time they stayed in that house.’

‘They would, they would. That’s true,’ said Sean, puffing.

‘And a great number of tailors were great storytellers,’ said Tadhg. ‘I remember ’twas a thing we’d all look forward to, the visit of the tailor, because of the long stories he’d tell by the fire at night. ’Twas a thing you’d expect of a tailor, to be able to tell stories, for when he was able to make clothes and travel, he was surely well able for that.’

‘If he wasn’t able for stories,’ said Sean, ‘the people those times would hardly think him fit to remain in the house making clothes.’

On Papa Stour Thomson finds himself accepting hospitality from Thomas Charleson and his son, Gilbert, of whom he inquires where the best place to see some of the local seals:

‘I think Hamna Voe is your likeliest bay for the seals,’ said Thomas, after we had finished eating.

‘Is it for photographs?’ said Gilbert.

‘No. It’s …’ I never know how to explain my obsession. ‘I am interested in them,’ I said. ‘I have heard strange things about them in Ireland and places.’ The two men laughed.

‘There are strange things here,’ said Gilbert. He searched his pockets for a cigarette. There was only one. I had tobacco and cigarette papers, so I made one for myself and one for the old man. He examined it carefully.

‘What is the name of the maker?’ he said.

‘Lucky Star.’

‘Na, na. I mean the maker o’ the cigarette.’

I told him my name.

‘Ye are the first factory that ever was on Papa Stour.’

‘Did ye ever hear about the man that was lost on the Ve Skerries?’ said Gilbert.


‘Now there’s a strange thing for ye. What was his name, Father?’

‘I never kent his name. But the names o’ the two selchies with him were Geira and Hancie.’

Mrs Charleson looked at me apologetically. ‘It is only a story,’ she said. ‘It’s no true.’

‘We canna tell is it true or no,’ said Thomas. ‘It is long, long syne it happened.’

And when visiting Orkney, whilst in conversation with lanky Osie Fea – and his even lankier wife – Thomson is distracted by “a weird and mournful sound”:

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I thought I heard something.’

[Mrs Fea] stood still in the middle of the room with the teapot in her hand. ‘It is the selchies,’ she said. ‘I dinna care to listen to them crying.’

Osie laughed. ‘Ye should be used to them by now,’ he said. ‘Ye’ve lived beside them a’ your life.’

‘There’s times I wouldna heed them any more than I’d heed the cock crow in the morning and there’s times –’

‘Did ye never hear yon sound afore?’ said Osie to me, interrupting.

‘Yes. I’ve heard it – often. But I’m never sure at first what it is.’

‘There’s whiles it sounds human,’ said Osie. ‘There’s something unco strange about the selchie. Did ye ever look close at their eyes?’

‘Not very close,’ I said.

‘They are able to weep,’ said Osie. ‘There’s no other animal does yon.’

‘And they’ll kiss one another,’ said his wife. ‘I wonder Osie, is that true?’ She laughed.

And they’ll throw stones, predict the future, guide men to lost children, strip off their skins and mingle with humans (in one of the stories a herd of them are heading off to a fair) and, as we have heard, even marry men and bear children to them. Needless to say there are rules. They cannot shapeshift at will – some maintain it was once a year on Midsummer’s Eve, while others say it could be every ninth night – but once fully transformed if their sealskin was lost, or stolen, the creature was doomed to remain in human form until it could be recovered even if years had orkney-islandspassed. Selchies are not to be confused with merfolk or finfolk though; in Orcadian folklore, a mermaid was traditionally thought to be the daughter of a finman, a member of a race of dark and gloomy sorcerers.

Although killing seals was a part of their culture, I was very interested to see how unlucky they regarded the practice and many of the tales told to Thomson relate how things went badly for those who did, especially those who killed a pup. They, unlike most mythological sea creatures, are generally regarded as gentle, magical and often benevolent. Or at least in the old days they were. Now all that remain are the stories.

This could have been a dry textbook and, indeed, as Stewart Sanderson says in the book’s afterword, “Some of the material has been published in scholarly monographs and journals [and] more is to be found in the collections of folklore archives in Ireland, Scotland and the Scandinavian countries in particular,” but what works for me about this collection is the fact that real people tell the stories. That Thomson writes himself into the book is one thing – and a good thing – but he doesn’t simply retell the tales as A S Byatt chose to do, albeit eloquently, in her recent Ragnarok: The End of the Gods; instead we feel the presence of the various storytellers exactly as in Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s novel The Storyteller of Marrakesh. As Heaney puts it:

David Thomson's achievement is pre-eminently stylistic; his writing combines a feel for the "this-worldness" of his characters' lives with an understanding of the "otherworldness" they keep a place for in their consciousness.

I found this a thoroughly-engaging book, quite a delight to read, in fact, and it doesn’t feel like non-fiction in the slightest because so much of it isn’t.

At the end of the book there is an additional section, ‘The Music of the Seals’, in which Thomson talks about the many songs that have been written about the seals, the most famous of which is probably ‘The Grey Selchie of Sule Skerrie’ which Thomson incorrectly states was first written down in 1938 by one Dr Otto Andersson, who had heard the song sung on the island of Flotta by a man called John Sinclair. It appears, however, that the words at least had been written down long before that, by F.W.L. Thomas, a Captain in the Royal Navy, from the dictation of a "venerable lady of Snarra Voe, Shetland." He published it in 1852, and Francis Child included it in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads as number 113. Thomas didn't note any melody, but remarked that it was “sung to a tune sufficiently melancholy to express the surprise and sorrow of the deluded mother of the Phocine babe.” The original pentatonic tune is no longer used. I’ll leave you with The Corries performing their version. There’s a wee bit of preamble but it’s worth waiting for the music – quite, quite haunting. Judy Collins also recorded the song and you can hear her interpretation here. Her vocals are cleaner but I prefer the Corries.


David ThomsonDavid Thomson was born in India of Scottish parents in 1914 but returned to the UK shortly thereafter. During and after university, Thomson took tutoring jobs, staying with one family in Ireland for almost ten years. These Scottish and Irish experiences were explicitly translated into his writing, most particularly in Nairn in Darkness and Light (1987), and Woodbrook (1974). From 1943 Thomson spent twenty-six years working for the BBC as a writer and producer of radio documentaries, writing many distinguished programmes. He met his wife in 1952, whilst working for UNESCO, and continued to write fiction, children’s fiction and non-fiction until his death.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Death of a Naturalist

Death of a Naturalist

The naturalist is obsessed with transience – Harry Hayden Clark

On its original appearance in 1966, over forty years ago, Seamus Heaney’s first major collection, Death of a Naturalist, won the Cholmondeley Award, the Eric Gregory Award, the Somerset Maugham Award and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. I would have been seven at the time and so I can relate strongly to the title poem’s narrator who I cannot see as being anything other than a boy about that age then, maybe a year or two older. I’ve written before about my lack of interest in nature poetry but I was not always disinterested in Nature. I was born in a city, about as near to the heart of Glasgow as one can get, just a short walk from George Square, but when I was nine-months-old my parents moved house and I spent the rest of my childhood in a little Council estate on the edge of town. Across the road was a small run-down farm, a river with a salmon leap which we enjoyed running across as kids and then you were in the countryside. In the early sixties parents didn’t feel the same need to cling onto their children for fear of what might happen to them and so it wasn’t uncommon for me, alone most often or with some of the neighbourhood kids, to traipse through the fields, long grasses and trees all around looking for adventure. There were plenty of old buildings to explore, too, the sand quarry, the golf course and just beyond that the frog pond.

I’m not sure when a pond turns into a lake but this was quite a big pond, completely enclosed and artificially created I’m sure. It’s main attraction were the pipes that had been tipped there, big concrete affairs, wide enough to walk through and shelter in when it was pouring down, that tumbled down a steep slope and ended somewhere underwater. Who knows, perhaps there were more underwater than above it. Some kids would drag a pallet and a couple of oil drums from the local industrial estate and construct a raft but I was far too afraid of water at that age to suggest or agree to anything so reckless; I didn’t learn to swim until I was a teenager and I wouldn’t call myself a good swimmer now but I could probably save my own life.

The pond had its seasons. There were times we went there looking for brambles, other times to play on the ice when it froze over (not that I ever risked going out any great distance), it was a good place to find caterpillars and then there was frog season. In the British Isles, common frogs typically hibernate from late October to January. They will re-emerge as early as February if conditions are favourable, and migrate to bodies of water such as garden ponds to spawn. February still sounds cold to me. Back then the seasons felt like proper seasons, like the seasons in the rhymes; I don’t feel that now.

I know I collected tadpoles as a kid but I have to say I can’t ever remember scooping frogspawn into jars and carrying it home nor can I remember any of my tadpoles ever surviving long enough to turn into frogs.

Later in the year we’d return to the frog pond and there would be tiny froglets everywhere on land. As we trudged through the grass – usually following a rabbit path – it’s hard to say how many we ended up treading on but over the years I bet I’ve killed hundreds although never deliberately; I wasn’t that kind of kid. The atmosphere was always a bit different once the frogs were out and about. I always found the place a bit creepy then as if I was outnumbered, which I was, by thousands to one, but I couldn’t say that I was afraid, not in any real sense (they weren’t interested in us in the slightest) although there was a . . . I’m going to go with ‘potentiality’ . . . a potentiality in the air, a sense that something might happen. Put it this way, when I read what Heaney wrote in ‘Omphalos’:

Around that badger's hole there hung a field of dangerous force. This was the realm of bogeys.[1]

I understood exactly what he meant.

Toads were rare but I’ve run across a few in my time. I remember driving home and noticing one in the middle of the road and this fellow must have been six inches wide – a wonderful specimen. I stopped the car and carried him over to the riverbank. There was one in our back garden a few years back which I dashed upstairs with to show Carrie. She says she’s rarely seen me as delighted over anything. And it’s true, I was. It was like being a wee boy again and we all know the wee boys we once were never die; they get swallowed whole by the adults we are forced to become but they never disappear completely.

As most of my regular readers will know I’m very poorly read when it comes to poetry. Lots of reasons for this but even more excuses. Anyway a few times my friend Dave King has mentioned his fondness for the poetry of Seamus Heaney amongst others and so I thought I would give him a try. And, as I could only name one poem by him (even though I’d never read it), I thought I would start there. The only other thing about him I’d actually read was an essay talking about his Bog Poems when I was researching Milligan and Murphy:

Death of a Naturalist

All the year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampots full of the jellied
Specks to range on the window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bull frog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.

Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

I find Heaney’s take on events an interesting one, clearly a very different one to mine in some ways and yet at the same time one I find I can relate to, too. Once the frogs were fully-grown my frog pond was a different place in fact you had to search to find a frog on land and I don’t recall being deafened by the croaking of a thousand frogs either. They must have been there – where else would they go? – but it felt like they’d all just vanished. I suppose if aliens abduct humans and cows they might have an interest in frogs, too.

Heaney is twenty years older than I am but I don’t expect his childhood was that different from mine. It’s only in recent years that there’s been a real change in how kids spend their time.

He was born in Mossbawn, just outside Derry in Northern Ireland; he later moved to the Republic of Ireland but he has moved back and forth a few times in his adult life. His parents were Catholic farmers and he was the eldest of nine children. His father, Patrick Heaney, owned and worked a small farm of fifty acres, but his real commitment was to cattle dealing with his brother, Heaney’s uncle. Heaney initially attended Anahorish Primary School but when he was twelve-years-old, he won a scholarship to St. Columb's College, a Catholic boarding school situated in Derry. In Lupercal1957, Heaney travelled to Belfast to study English Language and Literature at the Queen's University of Belfast. During his time in Belfast he found a copy of Ted Hughes' Lupercal – published in 1960 – and this was a revelation to him:

I remember the day I opened Ted Hughes’ Lupercal in the Belfast University Library. [There was] a poem called ‘View of a Pig’ and in my childhood we’d killed pigs on the farm, and I’d seen pigs shaved, hung up, and so on . . . Suddenly the matter of contemporary poetry was the material of my own life. I had had some notion that modern poetry was far beyond the likes of me – there was Eliot and so on – so I got a thrill out of trusting my own background, and, I started a year later, I think.[2]

I didn’t read ‘View of a Pig’ until probably about 1972 and it failed to move me. The same went for ‘Hawk Roosting’ and ‘Pike’ which were the other poems we were made to read in English. Now, if they’d made me read, ‘Bullfrog’ that might have been different but none of these other poems had anything to do with my life which is perhaps why Larkin’s take on ‘Toads’ was more to my tastes although to be fair I’ve always nurtured a similar fondness for work as for toads.

From what I’ve been reading it looks as this poem might not have been the best place to start off reading Heaney. The work is clearly indebted to Hughes but there are worse poets to emulate; I was always fond of Hughes’ poem ‘The Jaguar’ especially the final stanza:

More than to the visionary his cell:
His stride is wildernesses of freedom:
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
Over the cage floor the horizons come.

which reminds me of Blake; perhaps his poem ‘The Tyger’? You can compare both poems here. That said ‘Death of a Naturalist’ was once described by George MacBeth as:

A poem dense with the mucky thickness that is often the trademark of a Heaney poem...reading Heaney is like trudging through clay.[3]

so maybe this wasn’t such a bad place to start either.

One thing is clear from this particular poem and that is that Heaney is less interested in technique – by that I mean showing off – than he is in communication. He, however, has a broader definition that I have. I found this quote by him from the essay ‘Feeling into Words’:

Craft is what you can learn from other verse. Craft is the skill of making … Technique … involves not only a poet’s way with words, his management of metre, rhythm and verbal texture; it involves also a definition of his stance towards life, a definition of his own reality … And if I were asked for a figure who represents pure technique, I would say a water diviner.[4]

This doesn’t mean the poem is not riddled with poetic techniques – alliteration (‘wait and watch’), metaphor (‘gauze of sound’), simile (‘like clotted water’), oxymoron (‘gargled delicately’), pararhymes (‘fill jampots full’) and onomatopoeia (‘slap and plop’) – but these are used to enhance communication, to make the real more real. Heaney is interested in what he calls "a musically satisfying order of sounds"[5] and it’s clear even in this early poem that he has chosen his words with care; it’s not enough for them to mean, they also have to evoke, and as such I find it hard to understand Larkin’s criticism of Heaney’s poetry. To his credit Larkin wasn’t one for publicly criticising poetry he didn’t like but in private he told Anthony Thwaite:

[Dunn's] things seem heavy to me, no lilt, no ear, no tune. Of course that goes for lots of people – S. Heaney, for one.[6]

Heaney, to be fair, also struggled with Larkin’s verse. His discussions of Larkin's work are apparently marked by an undertone of concession and reservation. He wrote:

He offers "the melody of intelligence," refusing to allow "the temptations of melody to chloroform the exactions of his common sense" (GT 17). These judgments oddly parallel Larkin's criticisms of Heaney for being "too-clever" and having "no tune."[7]

Apart from Hughes, there is another poet who, not surprisingly, influenced Heaney: William Wordsworth. It’s worth noting what he writes in his introduction to a new selection of Wordsworth's poetry that was published in 2006:

As a child, William Wordsworth imagined he heard the moorlands breathing down his neck; he rowed in panic when he thought a cliff was pursuing him across moonlit water; and once, when he found himself on the hills east of Penrith Beacon, beside a gibbet where a murderer had been executed, the place and its associations were enough to send him fleeing in terror to the beacon summit.

Every childhood has its share of such uncanny moments.[8]

Frogs never really bothered me but there were another couple of “uncanny moments” of suddenly becoming aware of Nature that I do remember. The first, although I have no idea which of these two events actually came first chronologically, was when I was walking home from the river one evening and suddenly I realised that I was surrounded by slugs. Big, black, sticky slugs – hundreds of them easily. They were on every plant and blade of grass it seemed. Now there was no way they were all going to rise up and have at me but it was nevertheless an unforgettable experience. The second was with my dad. We’d been out for a walk and as the sun was starting the sky began to fill with birds. They used to gather on the roof of one of the factories over the hill from where we lived and just as we were approaching the foot of the hill they took off and the sky went black for several minutes. I have never seen that many birds in my life. There must have been millions of them, tens of millions, I don’t know, the numbers are meaningless. And there were other less dramatic encounters with nature like coming face to face with a fox in a railway yard so I have to wonder why I never connected with the poetry of Ted Hughes but I never did.

This poem by Heaney though seems to straddle what I loved about Larkin and . . . I won’t say ‘hated’ but failed to connect with in Hughes, at least the Hughes I read as a teenager. There is a strong morality to ‘Death of a Naturalist’, not so much a moral per se, but it leaves me hanging in the same way that much of Larkin’s poetry does, though, especially ‘Mr Bleaney’.

frogspawnSo what do I see in the poem? Okay, he’s split the piece into two sections. The first stanza is twenty-one lines long and the second is twelve. Had this been my poem I might have been tempted to divide it into three parts, the first at the pond, the second at home and school and the third back at the pond although I have no objection to his choice to split it into light and dark, innocent and not-quite-as-innocent, before and after – whatever way you want to look at it. It’s not as simple as pretty and ugly because from the very onset the imagery is far from pretty with words like ‘festered’ and ‘rotted’ painting a picture of the decay from which life rises. The poem begins with the death of nature: “In the midst of life we are in death.” A true naturalist would be well aware that this is the way of things but unexpectedly this is not a poem about a naturalist but rather a young boy. I suppose he could just as easily have called the poem ‘Death of a Herpetologist’ but if we ignore the dictionary definition of ‘naturalist’ and take the word literally it suggests a person who does things naturally, a natural-ist. It’s unnatural to put frogspawn in jam jars. Before that he may well have been content simply to be a part of nature but once he assumes the role of the Naturalist of the title the natural-ist – if I can distinguish between the two – dies. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the title. There is also the possibility that what dies are the boy’s aspirations of becoming a naturalist once he starts to realise what’s involved in the job.

Collecting frogspawn is not something new. He’s done it “every spring” but this year it’s different. This year when he returns he hears something in the croaking of the frogs that he has not heard before, a malevolence towards him. Of course the frogs are just croaking as they have always croaked, the change of tone is purely in his own head. I have often wondered about the expression ‘loss of innocence.’ I get the idea but if innocence is lost what replaces it? Guilt? In this poem the boy returns to the scene of the crime – why do so many criminals feel the need to do that? – but he returns with an awareness that he has done something wrong. In many respects the scene is the same, dirty and smelly, but what are missing (at least what the boy fails to notice) are the “bluebottles … dragon-flies [and] spotted butterflies;” the only sound in the second stanza is the chorus of the frog army. He uses words like ‘cocked’ (as in cocking a gun) and ‘grenades’ – weapons of warfare (do the ‘sails’ belong to warships?) – and he talks about his presence as an invader who has to make his way across a minefield covered in cow pats; the frogs are now kings and prepared to war with him if their ‘threats’ don’t scare him off. Some people have tried to impose a political reading on this piece – he’s Irish and therefore must be political! – but I think it’s stretching a point too far frankly although certainly growing up in the kind of environment he did would have meant that military imagery would have been something he would have thought of easily.

I’m not sure what to make of the name ‘Miss Walls’ but the language used here suggests she’s talking to very young children, perhaps as young as five and yet if he’s been already collecting frogspawn for years that feels incongruous, not right. Also the fact that the second stanza begins “one hot day” and not “one year” suggesting the passage of a decent amount of time makes me wonder just what age the kid really is. The loss of innocence is something we tend to associate with the move from puberty to adolescence but perhaps it is really something we lose gradually over many years. When the teacher talks about the frogs she anthropomorphises them – they become ‘mummies’ and ‘daddies’ – and perhaps this is the moment when the fact that he has captured and imprisoned their children hits home although we never learn what happens to the tadpoles it should be noted.

Or perhaps trying to pin this all down to a single literal year is wrong. Read metaphorically the imagery in the second stanza reflects changes that he has (or would very soon) experience as his own body matured and although the language used to describe how the frogspawn comes into existence is simplistic it does Toad Frog Pencilmean that Miss Walls has to introduce the children to sex and procreation. Heaney only can devote a few words to what goes on in the class but doubtless this lesson took some time. Growing up has been compressed into a single summer which is all the frogs need to move from frogspawn to adult frog although it’s normal for the common frog to live for up to eight years; toads usually manage up to ten to twelve years. This, incidentally, is where the poem is inaccurate in its description of frogs as having ‘blunt heads’ as this is a characteristic of toads. Or perhaps, as was occasionally the case with my frog pond, these were actually toads and he didn’t know the difference yet; it was a long time before I could.

I decided research if there was a deeper meaning to ‘flax’ and, more importantly, ‘flax dam’:

When grown for fibre, flax is harvested after the pale blue flowers have fallen, but before the seed ripens, and because it is the stalk that is being harvested it is not cut, but pulled up by the roots. ... The beets (sheaves) are carried as soon as possible to be steeped (drowned or dubbed) in the flax dam or 'lint hole' where soft peaty water has been standing for some days to warm up ... The process of retting (rotting) takes from seven to twelve days and is soon advertised by a foul and penetrating odour as the core or 'bone' of the stalk decays.[9]

This is far different from my experience. I can see mucking around a flax dam as something kids might set out to endure – kids love undergoing trials like that – or it might be that youngsters aren’t as offended by bad smells as are adults and the prize of the frogspawn was worth putting up with the malodorous pong. Certainly there were some reeds around my pond but I can’t recall any particular odours.

I’ve managed to find a few more of Heaney’s poems from that time. I don’t have any books by him but he appears in a few anthologies. ‘Blackberry Picking’ is a very similar piece and, as I mentioned above, this is something we did annually. I can even remember my whole family going out blackberry picking though I think most of the berries that survived the trip home ended up being eaten with sugar – just imagine how bad that was for us – because I can’t see my mum making jam; perhaps once. ‘Blackberry Picking’ is also a poem about transformation, the key lines being:

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too.

In ‘The Barn’ the familiar becomes inexplicably menacing:

The dark gulfed like a roof-space. I was chaff
To be pecked up when birds shot through the air-slits.
I lay face-down to shun the fear above.
The two-lugged sacks moved in like great blind rats.

However in ‘An Advancement of Learning’ the narrator has grown up a little and proves it by facing down a rat:

This terror, cold, wet-furred, small-clawed,
Retreated up a pipe of sewage.
I stared a minute after him.
Then I walked on and crossed the bridge.

In much the same way as sailors personify the sea Heaney treats nature as a living entity, not just a variety of living things something that might “clutch” him and drag him under. Perhaps this is where his fascination developed around 1970 for the Iron Age bodies that had been found in bogs throughout Ireland and Denmark.[10] As much as Heaney could be described a nature poet what strikes me here in this collection is Heaney’s fear of nature and the ways in which the commonplace can become threatening or evil. This is exactly what I got from ‘Mr. Bleaney’ in which the ordinary and everyday becomes menacing. I have to wonder just what Heaney’s experiences of nature were growing up. As the eldest child it must have been anticipated that Seamus might follow in his father's footsteps and yet he chose to reject that lifestyle. This is probably evidenced in the first poem of the collection, ‘Digging’ in which he sits in his room writing whilst his father digs outside:

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.

You can see the transformation by comparing the first and last stanzas of ‘Personal Helicon’:

As a child, they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.


Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

In his 1995 Nobel acceptance speech Heaney noted that his writing, like his life, has been “a journey where each point of arrival … turned out to be a stepping-stone rather than a destination,”[11] but every journey has to start with a first step, a stepping away from some place and that place is one we have likely been used to calling ‘home’. I don’t know where Heaney’s poetry goes from here. I do know he becomes more of a political poet but that’s about it. Suffice to say that this exercise has been a worthwhile one and I think I might be keen to see where he goes after this. What I do find interesting is that the metaphor of “stepping-stones” was one he used as far back as 1974 in his essay ‘Feeling into Words’ talking about his early attempts at poetry:

I was in love with words themselves, but had no sense of a poem as a whole structure and no experience of how the successful achievement of a poem could be a stepping-stone in your life.[12]

I get that. I get what he means when he talks about a poet as someone who reveals “the self to the self.”[13] I can look back on my own early poems and see myself testing to see if the next ‘stone’ is stable. What I found myself appreciating about all the poems I read from Death of a Naturalist is what Paul Hurt calls “matter-of-factness is raised to an inspired level.”[14] It makes me a little sad that I wasn’t introduced to Heaney a long time ago.

Let me leave you with the film On Nostalgia & On Reality which is a dramatisation of the poem and includes a reading by Heaney himself.


Pilar Abad García, Heaney’s Poetic Mind and Practice: From ‘Feeling into Words’ to ‘The Government of the Tongue’ and ‘The Redress of Poetry’

Paul Williams, Critical appreciation of the works of Seamus Heaney


[1] Seamus Heaney, Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001

[2] Seamus Heaney quoted in Terry Gifford, Green Voices: Understanding Contemporary Nature Poetry, pp.98,99

[3] Ed. George MacBeth, Poetry 1900 to 1975, p.345

[4] Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations, p.47

[5] Heaney, Seamus, ‘Crediting Poetry’, Nobel Lecture

[6] Philip Larkin, Selected Letters: 1940-1985. Ed. Anthony Thwaite quoted in James Booth, ‘The turf cutter and the nine-to-five man: Heaney, Larkin, and "the spiritual intellect's great work." - poets Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin’, Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 1997

[7] Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue, p. 17 quoted in James Booth, ‘The turf cutter and the nine-to-five man: Heaney, Larkin, and "the spiritual intellect's great work." - poets Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin’, Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 1997

[8] Seamus Heaney, ‘The triumph of spirit’, The Guardian, 11 February 2006

[9] E. Estyn Evans, Irish Folk Ways quoted in Michael Parker, Seamus Heaney: the Making of the Poet, p.65

[10] See Anthony Purdy, ‘The bog body as mnemotope: nationalist archaeologies in Heaney and Tournier - Seamus Heaney, Michel Tournier - Critical Essay’, Style, Spring 2002

[11] Heaney, Seamus, ‘Crediting Poetry’, Nobel Lecture

[12] Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations, p.45

[13] Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations, p.49

[14] Paul Hurt, Criticism of Seamus Heaney's 'The Grauballe Man' and other poems

Friday 11 November 2011

The Next Stop is Croy and other stories


It is much easier to become a father than to be one.  ~ Kent Nerburn

The first time I heard the word ‘understated’ used I thought is was a bad thing or at least a negative thing like ‘underwhelmed’ or ‘underhand’. The dictionary’s definition doesn’t really help:

un·der·state [uhn-der-steyt]
to state  or represent less strongly or strikingly than the facts would bear out; set forth in restrained, moderate, or weak terms: The casualty lists understate the extent of the disaster.

The context where the word was used more than any other was in reference to actors. Critics would talk about an “understated performance” as if it was a good thing – it can be a good thing – and there are numerous performances that I could cite but here are three: Robin Williams in One Hour Photo, Colin Farrell in Ondine, Steve Martin in The Spanish Prisoner – three actors renowned for their over the top antics who dialled it back to deliver pitch perfect performances. And all a long way away from Croy.

Croy is a village in North Lanarkshire), Scotland. A former mining community, Croy is situated some 21 km (13 miles) from Glasgow and 60 km (37 miles) from Edinburgh on the main railway line between the two cities, with a frequent service to both. Croy station is also served by local trains between Glasgow and Stirling. – Wikipedia

I’ve been to Edinburgh a few times and Stirling once and so I must have passed through it, but if you’d asked me a week ago where Croy was I wouldn’t have had a clue; the Inner Hebrides maybe. Croy is understated – it gets its mention over the intercom but, unless you’re going there, I’m sure most regular commuters pay it little heed; it just looks like any one of a thousand local railway stations: nowhere in particular on the way to somewhere you need to be.

It’s unfair to generalise but I’m going to anyway. As a race the Scots can be a terse, laconic, inexpressive bunch. We’re getting better but when I started to read the first story in Andrew McCallum Crawford’s e-book, The Next Stop Is Croy and other stories, there was something awfully familiar about the relationship between the father and the son and I’m sure that there will be readers all over the globe who feel the same because there are men like Alan’s dad the world over. All I have to do is think about the early plays of Dennis Potter, the two featuring Nigel Barton, and we have a similar dynamic, the working-class father with an educated son he can’t quite decide whether he’s proud of or ashamed of, a bit of both most likely.

In the foreword to this collection Andrew says:

The stories in this collection were not written in the order in which they appear here; they certainly were not conceived as part of a continuous narrative. However, I have decided to bring them together because of the chronology and themes which, it turns out, run through them. Please bear in mind that this is in no way a novella or novelette. It is a collection of short stories, and each story stands or falls on its own, as short stories must.

The word count is just shy of 12,000 words so if this were a single piece of text it would be a novelette and although Andrew is keen to emphasise that each story should be able to stand on its own, and as some of them have appeared separately in print and online before this, there are three editors out there who obviously agree with him; I, on the other hand, read them straight through from beginning to end in the order in which they appear in the book and it is very hard not to see the stories as chapters: they follow a natural chronology and all revolve around the same three characters, Alan and his parents, Robert and Jean. Because of that it’s impossible not to feel a bit cheated as the narrative lurches forward through the years from Alan’s boyhood to manhood. There is much unsaid. There is much unsaid within the stories too. This is what started me thinking about how to describe the collection and I kept coming back to ‘understated’.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part comprises of ‘Golf Balls’, ‘Saw Set’ and ‘The Watchmaker’s Wife’; the second contains only two stories, ‘Teeth’ and ‘Norwood Junction’ leaving only, ‘The Next Stop Is Croy’, to bring up the rear.

When my wife first arrived in Scotland – Carrie is an American for those who don’t know her – one of the things that took her aback a bit was the aggressiveness of the language and not just the tone, the actual words we use to talk to each other. We know when we’re being serious even if the words are exactly the same. So non-Scots readers when they open up this collection might think that Alan comes from the most dysfunctional of families. He does, but all Scottish families are dysfunctional – that’s how we function. For me Andrew hits the nail on the head in the title story. Now a grown man and living in Greece, Alan’s returned home for his father’s funeral at which he gives the eulogy. Later he finds himself in the pub with his mate Cliff:

Laphroaig-10-CSAAlan ordered a Laphroaig, but Cliff spotted a porcelain bottle on the middle shelf. The barman took it down and uncorked it. ‘Try this for size,’ he said, and passed it to Alan. ‘Smell the peat? Ten pound a nip, mind.’

Alan laughed and handed the bottle back.

‘Make it a double,’ said Cliff. ‘And a double Balvenie for me.’

They returned to the table. Maybe now’s the time, thought Alan. Maybe this was the way. The Scottish way, over a dram. He took a deep breath. I gave the Eulogy at my father’s funeral, he didn’t say. He wanted to, though. Why did he want to? He wanted to tell Cliff, this stranger who wasn’t. He wanted to share something with him. He had told everyone in the church that he loved his father, which was more than he had ever told the man himself. He had wanted to say it so often, but had been unable to bring himself to. What was the point? Love is a feeling. You feel it, you don’t have to say it. Not in Scotland, anyway, not to your dad.

Was that true? Alan had been away a long time, and had exotic ideas of how sons talked to their fathers. He’d been away so long that Scotland was exotic. Maybe things had changed. Maybe nowadays Scottish fathers and their sons were all over each other, smothering one another in kisses and words. But that didn’t matter. It didn’t matter what other people did or didn’t do. What mattered was how he felt, here and now, this. And it was too late. It was done, it was finished. Too late for anything but inner monologues and regrets. At least he had kissed him. He had laid his fingers on his father’s forehead, which was cold, like glass, as he knew it would be. He had leaned and placed his lips on the flesh where his fingers had been.

I never gave the eulogy at my father’s funeral. I never even went to the funeral director’s to view the body. My dad wasn’t a Scot; he was a Northerner (i.e. from the north of England) and they’re every bit as bad. Once you understand the culture, though, each of these stories opens up like, as Steve Alker, an Amazon reviewer put it, “a flower sprouting out of cracked concrete.”

I’ve written a few stories set in Scotland and it’s hard to know where to draw the line when it comes to dialect. Some authors like Irvine Welsh take it to one extreme – I’ve lived my whole life here and yet I struggle with his prose – whereas others include just enough touches to give us the feel without burdening the readers. For my tastes Andrew is a little light on the Scotticisms. I would have written part of the above as:

Love’s a feelin’. Ye feel it, ye don’t have to say it. No in Scotland, anyway, no to your da.

but it probably sounded more like:

Love’s a feelin. Ye feel it, ye don hufftie say it. No in Scoatlan oanyway, no t’ yer da.

It’s a hard call. He includes the odd word like ‘skiting’ (which means ‘skidded off’ – if your dad hit you on the head he’s given you a skite), ‘chittering’ (which means something different in Scottish as opposed to English, it means freezing) or ‘cludge’ (meaning toilet) but I would have spelled it ‘cludgie’ to stop their being any confusion with the word ‘kludge’ which can also be spelled with a c. I would have preferred a bit more consistency over the whole volume, but I don’t think anyone outside Scotland will bother; if anything they’ll probably be grateful for his restraint.

Golf BallI used to live beside a golf course when I was young and so the idea of looking for lost balls is not new to me. Although there was a pond close to one of the holes that must have contained a decent supply of lost balls, I would never have dreamed of getting my feet wet to recover them, let alone diving for them, but that’s what the story ‘Golf Balls’ that opens the collection is about. When Alan announces his intention to go looking for them one day the following interchange ensues:

‘I’ve told you not to go up there by yourself,’ said his dad. ‘There’s a pipe at the bottom of the Resi. It pumps water down to the BP. There’s an undertow. I thought you knew.’

Of course Alan knew. Everyone knew the story about the undertow. There was no need to tell him. He wasn’t a baby. Anyway, it was just a story.

‘Is this you being precocious?’ said his dad. Precocious. He sneered the word like he’d just learned it. Sarcasm. ‘Golf balls? How many?’

‘Loads,’ said Alan. He regretted telling him.

His dad folded his newspaper and put it on the table. ‘Can you swim?’ he said.

‘Aye,’ Alan lied.

‘Tomorrow morning,’ said his dad. ‘We’ll get up early.’

The ‘Resi’ is the local reservoir. It would be easy to read this as an attempt to belittle his son but that’s really not the intent. Robert is constantly throwing down the gauntlet hoping that Alan will rise to the challenge. The second story, ‘Saw Set’, begins:

He didn’t want to be there. Morning sunlight was struggling to penetrate the dust on the front window, but the shop was still dark. The place had been stripped bare. He couldn’t explain the shadows – there seemed to be corners where in fact there was nothing. All that was left was a huge counter running the length of the wall. He felt as if he were in a cave. A long, dark cave. With a counter in it.

‘It’s like something out of Malamud,’ he said.

His father looked up from the saw he was sharpening. ‘Eh?’ he said.

Alan wiped the window with the side of his hand, to little effect. The outside was dirty, too. The sun disappeared behind a cloud.

‘Pay attention to this,’ said his father. ‘You might learn something.’

When I read this I thought of the many, many hours I spent standing beside my father in our garage handing him spanners and hammers and tools with daft names like torque wrench and needle-nose pliers. My dad was a proper dad; a dad that worked with his hands; a dad who’d started “in t’mill” (remember he was a Lancashire lad) when he was something like thirteen and never had a day off discounting his National Service and a few weeks following his heart attack Saw Set(probably caused by overwork). Before I read this story I had no idea what a saw set was but I bet my dad had one. He had all kinds of saws. He wasn’t a joiner by trade but he’d have a crack at anything: bricklaying, plumbing, electrics, you name it. I can change a plug and I can change a tyre but that’s about my limit.

The third story is the only one not to feature Alan. In it we get to see what his mum’s life is like, creeping out of bed early in the morning so as not to wake Robert and then heading off to the local school where she works as a cleaner. When Robert was made redundant for a while she was the sole breadwinner but now he’s taken a course and decided to set up shop in the High Street fixing watches and clocks. Like most of the pieces in this volume there’s not much of a story here but that’s not the kind of story Andrew writes; these are slices of lives which is another reason why this feels like the skeleton of a novel but I won’t labour the point because I like this style of writing very much. It feels less contrived than more carefully structured pieces; more real. Lives aren’t neat and so stories about people’s lives shouldn’t be neat either.

In this story we get Jean’s insights into her husband:

She would have stayed longer, but she had to be back here again for 4 o’clock and her afternoon shift. It was tiring, but it was worth it. Anything to keep him happy. He hadn’t been very happy lately. Something had happened. It shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. They’d spent a few evenings making display mats for the window, nothing fancy, just small sheets of plywood covered in green felt, stuffed with tissue paper. It was her idea. They’d laughed about it. It would do for a beginning. Then on Monday that woman from the fancy Jewellers had come in for a nosey. ‘You must have had a good time making your wee mats for the window,’ she’d said. Robert had clammed up there and then. He was still in the huff. Three days; it wasn’t a record. She knew the signs. He needed time to work through things, until they were worked out. And his temper. But his late nights were back – the ashtray that morning had been full to the brim with cigarette ends. God knows what time he had come to bed. She knew he wouldn’t sleep in, though. He had an alarm on his watch. He slept with it under his pillow.

The book’s dedication reads: “For sons, and for their fathers.” I’m not saying that daughters and mothers won’t enjoy the book but the mother-daughter dynamic is different to the father-son dynamic. Andrew didn’t ask me to review this book; I offered. He’s from Grangemouth on the east coast and the only thing that connects us is the Forth and Clyde Canal – literally.

In a recent interview he was asked who his literary heroes were. This was his answer:

Literary Heroes – got to be Bernard Malamud, JP Donleavy (both American, interestingly enough). James Kelman – ask any Scottish writer, and they'll mention James Kelman. John Irving for the way he crafts a tale.

He’s right, Kelman is an obvious choice, but the sad fact is, as elsewhere, when you start to look for outstanding Scottish short story collections there aren’t that many to pick from – Alasdair Gray’s Unlikely Stories, Mostly and AL Kennedy’s Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains jump out for me. While The Next Stop Is Croy and other stories is not substantial enough to knock these two and Kelman off their perches, it is well worth the read. The great thing about the recent changes in technology is that we would likely never have seen these six stories collected like this under any other circumstances because it wouldn’t be financially viable. And that would have been a crying shame because this is a good (albeit slim) collection. The asking price on is £2.42 which you might think a wee bit steep when there are so many e-books out there for 99¢. It’s like everything in this life: you get what you pay for.

If you fancy having a read of some of Andrew’s work free and for gratis – we Scots love a bargain – there are a number of his pieces online including two from this collection:


AndrewAndrew McCallum Crawford grew up in Grangemouth, an industrial town in East Central Scotland. He studied Biology and Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh and went on to take a teaching qualification at Jordanhill College, Glasgow. He started writing when he was twenty and has been hard at it for twenty-four years now. His poetry and short fiction have appeared in Lines Review, The Athens News, Junk Junction, Ink Sweat and Tears, McStorytellers, Weaponizer, New Linear Perspectives, Spilling Ink Review, Drey 2 (Red Squirrel Press), Ironstone, The Legendary, The Midwest Literary Magazine and The. His first novel, Drive!, was published in 2010. He lives in Greece where he works as a teacher.

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