PsychoGeoFerry 4

(This fourth part of the 2013 Tumblr posts has a semi-conclusive air to it, as I didn’t realise what was to come – the makarship, the death – and so could imagine things were heading to some sort of conclusion. Of course, in retrospect, what was concluding was only that first phase of familiarisation, the process by which we reintroduce something novel and exciting to The Continuity, that other space in which we spend most of our less-considered days. 

The pressure of family was beginning to tell – we were beginning to understand I was there as much as a son as a writer, with the concomitant strain on my roles as husband and father. And McGonagall, that bad verse elephant in every Dundee poet’s room, continued to loom. The novel continued not to be written, as it has done for decades, even when it was being written. Me not writing The Book of McGonagall by every means possible is the secret history of me being Makar if not my writing life, as I produce ever more and more of what is definably Not It.

So the sheen was coming off the Tay, as I began to search for traces of what Michael Donaghy used to refer to as wabi sabi: the scuff and nap of things and indeed ideas. And the old circuitousness, the long-way-roundness of The Project was beginning to reassert itself, what Heaney calls ‘following the sixth sense and proceeding on the off-chance.’ There is a moment when you get the scent, then, regardless of what the job descriptions say, you’re on your own.)


Immediately in front of this flat, lining the concrete, barrier-less promenade that receives the waters of the Tay, are a series of dark brown metal rings set into the wall. When I was a child, I used them for scrambling up and down from the pebbly beach, and never thought anything more about them.

Of course they were for mooring boats, the sort of little boats that would be hauled up on the shore, the sort that couldn’t and didn’t survive fluctuations in the fishing industry that meant Broughty Ferry was a former fishing village long before I was born, and that its thirteen fishing families were already otherwise employed.

The rings, as though through the nose of the bay, with the two flanking piers for the horns of the Broughty bull, were genealogical traces, in just the way the name, ‘Broughty Ferry’, attests to another role the town no longer plays. The way I never thought about any of this as a child attests to the manner in which I was inside the idyll of childhood, which gradually acquires accretions of such knowledge, but as myths rather than historical fact.

Thus for me it’s still possible to lay fabulistic tracing paper over the blueprint of the Ferry: to picture the bay as a sort of Minotaur because of the occasional marvellous yacht floating by; to equate those fishing families at some level with the tribes of Israel; to think of the loss of the lifeboat Mona in 1959 as ‘our’ defining wreck, as the Deutschland was to Hopkins; to imagine Dundee, besieged in the sixteenth and seventeenth century by the English, as an after-echo of Troy or Constantinople; and, above all, to consider McGonagall’s three central topoi – the whale, the bridge, the walk to Balmoral – as being of mythic stature in themselves.

I’ve been thinking about our idea of the idyllic more and more over the last few weeks – that place we have commodified as the holiday destination, for instance, or, as I’ve done, romanticised as the childhood home, or, for the writer, compartmentalised as the retreat, the study, the room with a view.

By coming home to Broughty Ferry and Dundee and their hinterlands, I’ve been seeking a combination of all of the above, and to a certain extent have been gifted them, though with the accompanying realisations that a lot of – too much? – time has passed since I didn’t think about the mooring rings, and that not everything about this arrangement is as delightful as I would like it to be.

The last couple of weeks have turned out to be a little tougher than I might have hoped for, in what is basically a holiday period in which I would normally go away with the family and get on with a larger scale work of composition. I’ve tried to swop one idyll for another, and the substitution has inevitably not been smooth.

Family illness and the inevitable difficulties and disputes following such a move, plus the continuing time-hungry work-related duties, have combined to take the gilt off the simple pleasure of being here, and reintroduce that banal but necessary question of guilt: the cost – not financial, but personal – of trying to do something out of the routine.

What was it that I wanted? To normalise my relationship with a place I hadn’t lived in for so long that it had remythologised itself in my imagination. To make it ordinary, subject to the disappointments and arguments, the scares and dismays, but also the intense passions of interrelation, of family and friends and just-don’t-care intrusive strangers or officialdom, all that which is not just the dream.

I wanted to take it from the idyll into the actual, to give it a grounding in grift and grief if necessary, but certainly to subject it to an act of demystification. I just didn’t want to admit that to myself quite so baldly, or deal with the unpleasant consequences. This is one of the acts of lesser hubris writers find themselves performing to get on with the job at all.

And, as we all always already know, this is the only way to integrate a place into your adult life, as well as the best way to clear up any uncertainty as to what that unfortunate phrase might mean. I wanted the paperwork of adulthood signed off in my place of birth, in order to balance bureaucracy against a boyhood, and so must take on the emotional baggage too. I wanted to acknowledge the history of the mooring rings if not accept that their use – outside the imagination – was past; I wanted to tether myself to that past in order to re-tell its fables.

The beloved place becomes important and precious to us on another level, if only because it must be appreciated in the moment as well as the memory, and in the minutiae as well as the myth, while we realise yet again that presence, however problematic, is both an inescapable fact and our actual goal.

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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