Monday, 28 October 2013

SAILING IN AN ARMCHAIR


When I visited the Orkney island of North Ronaldsay a few years ago I saw an armchair in the middle of a shallow loch (an unfashionable velveteen armchair in a faded what might have once been pink).  It’s an image of my island experience this year.  I’ve been becalmed at home or at my father’s house but I’ve had more time than usual for books.  My prose reading has included Fraser Darling’s Island Years and Island Farm.  I’ve enjoyed plenty of poetry including R S Thomas’s Uncollected with its Bardsey Island poems (“Ynys Enlli” and the “Island Boatman” elegy) and Andrew Greig’s Found at Sea. 

Writers and islands – George Orwell and Jura are the most famous pairing I suppose, but there are many others, dead or alive: Sorley Maclean - Raasay, Jen Hadfield and Sheenagh Pugh - Shetland,  Kathleen Jamie - North Rona (and other islands), George Mackay Brown - Orkney, Thomas A Clarke - the Outer Hebrides.  And loads more which no doubt someone will remind me about.

When I read a rather lacklustre review of Andrew Greig’s Found at Sea I knew I would love it and ordered a copy at once on the weakness of the review.   I heard Andrew Greig read his poetry at one of the Grasmere poetry readings a year or two ago.  Read?  No, it was more like listening to a master story-teller. 

Found at Sea is the account of an Orcadian mini voyage from Stromness to the now uninhabited island of Cava and is illustrated with panel artworks by Mike MacDonnell of Yell, Shetland.  The poetry sails along with few definite articles:
                  “Swell under strakes, these rollers lifted
                                    smooth broad glossy snouts – oh man,
                                                      dolphins bore us aloft
                                    as we tore down the sea-roads!”  (“Dolphins”)

A journey is one of the oldest metaphors of life – “That trip became myth / long before we beached” (“The boat reflected”).  So when Andrew Greig begins “A small emergency” with the lines
                  “In the middle of life, half way over
                    we find ourselves
                                                      scunnered
                     on a dark and gurly sea”
as well as admiring the words scunnered and gurly I think of the famous opening of Dante’s Inferno ("Midway this way of life we're bound upon ...") But I also think of Andrew Greig himself whose life was not just scunnered but almost scuppered a few years ago by a brain tumour – an experience he wrote about in Preferred Lies (the best and only golf book I have ever read).

Greig tells of two fascinating Cava islanders, Miss Woodham and Miss Peckham.  They decided one day in the 1950s to pack up their belongings and walk from Cleveland in Somerset to the North of Scotland.  After a while they settled on Cava and lived there for many years.  I was delighted to discover them in the book.

I may be stuck in the armchair but I’ve had some great island sailing this year.   And it’s been cheaper than the ferries.

(not the review I mention above)