PsychoGeoFerry 1

(Here is the first of the four earlier ‘psychogeo-‘ postings from Tumblr in their correct order. I realised when I scrolled back to look for them, that they are all pre-Makar, ie from Spring and Summer 2013, and, therefore, before my father’s death. They therefore have a certain openness I find it hard to regain. But they nonetheless read now as strongly prefiguring the concerns arising from that appointment and the posts I wrote after that loss.)


On one level, it’s a pretend life, this flat rented for six months thirty years too late in an idyllic position gazing over the river to Tayport, its bay window between the embracing piers that demark the pebbly beach of my childhood and adolescence, a pelvic cradle from which you can see the bridges upriver, the town and the oil rigs being worked on past the Stannergait; the white lighthouse directly opposite against the low green roll of the Fife hills, their crests of darker trees. 

The sky is as huge as childhood and, given that I’ve taken the place from May, is more frequently blue and cloudless than I deserve, with just an occasional gull, drifting almost motionless across the frame of the three tall windows as the town begins to perambulate, jog, dog-walk, drive, and generally pass before me, in communion with their river.

And the river keeps rolling in, filling the curve of railless concrete breakwater to what is never quite the brim, withdrawing without seeming to till a crescent stretch of mud is bared, depositing smashed reeds from up Perth way, and coming, coming, day or night, in its various shades of sky, the seemingly infinite slate grey side strokes of its waves sketching and erasing themselves, or rising into whitecaps as the wind drives them too, breaking more or less within my field of vision as I sit in the window, half-reclining or perching on the edge of my chair, or getting up perpetually to see some detail of a face or the movement of the swans that drift or preen within the little open bay.

I’m mapping, constantly comparing this scene to the scene that was, the scene that had to suffice in my memory and imagination for all those years, topped up by weekend or week-long trips, not always as frequently as I’d prefer, for how do you explain to family this urgent need to be in the place you came from, if they either do not feel it, or are still there, in their own unknown Eden, their commonplace idyll, so familiar that nothing is perceived as loss, that all change is still minor, tolerable.

But these are the scenes that I’ve dreamt about apparently obsessively for decades: the beach combining and reconfiguring rocks and the castle, growing to complex other places, the crossing to Fife reconfiguring itself like sand dunes, and the towns opposite acquiring strange hinterlands. This is the scene in which the waves have been disturbed by countless creatures and partly-submerged machines, the cetacean symbols of my unconscious, the steam-punk of dream’s industries combining bridges and ferries here, in this setting bathed in bright June light and simply before me now.

And yet this protean interior landscape is not ‘simply’ a product of subjectivity – it reflects the gradual shading in of history that can contort the topography of even this most familiar place. I’m not just talking demolitions, though there are enough of those. The frontage of the cinema where I used to work. The forties extension to my school that has been replaced by an entire new school, the rooms and corridors of what was the main building given over to a transplanted primary school. The fire brigade building and its adjoining cottage for the fire chief where my first girlfriend lived, gone as she has gone to that somewhere else we grow old in.

No, I’m referring to actual additions to the past, irruptions of what we think of as gone into what we suppose are the relatively stable outlines of the present. An entire graveyard, predating the ones I knew, those flanking churches, and the one my grandparents are buried in, has appeared as though a wreck returned from the sea and lodged somehow between the unchanged buildings of my teens.

I’d known some rumour of it, perhaps from our weekly meetings in the Ship and latterly the Fishermans, the group of ex-pupils, a teacher, nascent writers and pals that persisted a decade or so after we’d left school or retired. Or perhaps it was something my parents had said, but I’d searched for it among the larger houses’ grounds towards the yacht club: a sailors’ cemetery, or at least that of the fishing families – but nothing. I even began to imagine I’d dreamt it, that it was part of that shifting inner landscape undergoing its unconscious evolutions as the years went by, and my connection with place grew fainter and more internalised.

But all the while it was there, tucked directly behind the bench that itself is no longer there, just a few hundred metres from here, past the lifeboat shed – the wooden bench painted red in a flaky, old, much-graffitied postbox tone, where we’d sat during the brief years we’d gone out, that girl and I, and where I’d returned to throughout my twenties, her initials still carved in the wood in a post break-up defiance, nursing my heart-brokenness in that same interiorised way, while behind me, over a fence, was a whole unknown graveyard filled with its own set variations on our more absolute and final losses.

So when I look out over this little curve of concrete and reed and pebble and tide, and note that the red benches are gone – not just the ones spaced regularly along the pavement, which have been replaced with already battered and peeling perforated metal ones, seated sieves – but crucially the few tucked under the curve of the pier wall to the left, where old folk, parents and their kids would sit in a sort of stunned shelter on sunny days like this, I see I’m looking out on the vanishing of that certainty too: that I knew where in Broughty Ferry my special little unhappiness could be set, that I knew where I was.


About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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