24th January, 2015
Unlike many of my contemporaries who grew up and were schooled in the Outer Hebrides, I’d never crossed the equator until about a week ago. And unlike most of my pals who underwent an initiation ceremony aboard a merchant ship, there was no marking of the aircraft’s flight-path. Not even a mention that might interrupt a movie. I was time-travelling, all right, but through Disraeli Gears, which was an option in the entertainment section on the screen in front of me. I was 15 or 16 years old when my cousin initiated me into the webs spun by Cream, Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd. Now I was back into the journeys of ‘brave Ulyssus’ – ‘how his naked ears were tortured by the sirens sweetly singing…’
It was to be more than forty years later that I went, with a translator but without a guide, into Homer’s Odyssey. I am grateful to Donald Smith, director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre for challenging me to retell a tale from that complex narration and for the poet Jo Shapcot who steered me to a near-contemporary version. Something happened when I turned to Robert Fagles’ translation. The bragging, dodging, sometimes bold and sometimes wily storyteller-skipper brought me with him to the underworld as well as taking me aboard on the white-knuckle ride when the master of the sheet-rope brought his vessel surfing towards Ithaca. The main purpose of my own journey across hemispheres was to present work in the arts programme linked to the biennial Australian Wooden Boat Festival. I was to present poetry of the sea, along with Christine Morrison’s images of voyaging and the showing of a film which draws a parallel between a boat rebuilt and a story retold. A story from the Odyssey might just about do for this occasion.
Not long after landing at Melbourne, I was walking St Kilda beach, sandier than any on its counterpoint in the northern hemisphere. The big dipper and the high wheels were still, if not quite silent. No white knuckles here tonight. Everything creaked in a fresh breeze that crept under the skin of plastic which was coating a vast theatre under repair. We were now eleven hours ahead of home, in time. It was after two a.m. here. The pubs were slowing down while a few clubs pounded on. Back in SY it would be lunchtime on a date one number less. It might be good to be ahead of the game, for a while. Islanders are not usually noted for arriving anywhere early.
It was clear enough to observe the main constellations. The pole star was absent and we were both disorientated:
on St Kilda beach Orion’s doing a headstand – we can’t find his dog
Next day, we were walking the shoreline again. My wife Christine Morrison makes visual art from re-presenting the data derived from observations of the natural world. She was already thinking of the drawings she would produce for a group-show in Hobart, Tasmania. These would be based on comparing the recorded minutes of daylight in Stornoway and Hobart, over a calendar year. She had begun to compile the data and I was already sucked in to the compelling narrative in the masterwork of Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan. His Booker prize-winning novel takes its title from the haibun of Basho – a work which makes seamless moves from prose to haiku.
I looked back to our starting point on this journey, not as the departure lounge of an airport, but our last walk on the shoreline of southwest Lewis, not long before departure. We were with my younger son, Ben, a rare pleasure, as he spends much of his life travelling as a musician. Just before we turned into the new year (eleven hours after those in Melbourne did) we hired a car to take us to the end of a southbound road. Ben was eager to see the Atlantic coast of his home island, before preparing for his next tour through Eastern Europe. These phrases are arranged from the words that came to mind for what was in sight, then:
how yellow, gold and even white are all necessary but not sufficient to indicate the sweating beach on Mealasta island
how green, even male mallard green even shag green under the crest are not sufficient for the suck of the seep in the geo on the track between the two road-ends
some of the illuminations came on for us even though the days are longer now – Mealasval sulked but Suinaval shone
Today was an important public holiday. It was a busy ferry but we were drawn into conversation with a couple who were preparing to retire on Tasmania. We were told of the strength of the Green movement here but also of a continuing and inevitable tension between development and conservation. Huon pine is a species of timber with a legendary reputation for durability but, like pitch-pine in the north, has been exploited to the point where hen’s teeth are more common than long lengths of it. At the boat festival, we would see some very old vessels with Huon-pine planking as good as when it was first laid on the frames.
Our new friends made this trip often. They warned us of the bounce to come as the ferry twisted through the narrow buoyed channel which would lead to the open water of the Tasman sea. We looked down to the most intense blue and the white lines of tidal interaction. We hooted our intention to turn to starboard and a squadron of angling boats powered our of our way. And then we could have been coming out of Stromness, Orkney. This huge ferry lifted her bows and we watched the white clouds of spray lift as if wind-bourne.
We made some head and shoulder leaps, like a salmon, as the long swell was forced upwards at ‘The Heads’. Some reefs had been blown-up and the channel dredged, here but we were told there had been a knock-on effect. The natural protection had damped down these waves, rolled in from the Southern Ocean. Now the residual swells were causing more damage to the shorelines of the outer suburbs of Melbourne. Like shifts in weather patterns, it is very difficult to prove a causal connection to possible causes.
The seas flattened out, as the ferry drove out in the open, further from the cliffs of mainland Australia. Even in broad, bright daylight it is easy to be disorientated.
facing south in the afternoon light our shadows stroll away ahead of us
We were told that the shearwater were the ‘mutton bird’ in hard times. I could reply that the rent of Mingulay was once paid in barrels of salted Manx shearwater. So there was another story which could transmit across the dividing lines we impose on our world. The species is distinct, down here. But the gannets seemed to be the same species.
scything a crop of waves – short-tailed shearwater
gannets gather themselves up for the next drop much the same as in the deep north
The word of the visitors from the other Hebrides had been sent out to members of the Tassie artistic community. We were met by Peter Lord who described himself as a photographer and a pretty much unreformed old hippy. His well-travelled niece and her man fired up the barbecue as dark fell. We had spoken a bit about the constellations. The Southern Cross was as strong a motif here as the pole star was, in the north. It did appear but somehow emphasised the sense of being at the last stopping-off island before infinity. a line, thataway would miss the southern tip of Africa. It would have to travel on around to cape Horn before it would hit land again. So I thought at once of my elder son, Sean, on his own travels now.
a line of sight on up from where the downpipe meets the gutter
through the weak star in a bold Southern Cross
the host now points along the ground over sea – that line will miss Good Hope travel on to the next Cape not a bit of stone in the way
my eldest son is in Chile now he hopes to travel down to see The Horn that’s a long way to catch a wink
All photographs by Christine Morrison, except where noted.
Ian Stephen is a writer, artist and sailor from the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.