an extract from City of Desolation : Chapter 19 – Virgil

(for an audio version of this piece, click here)
There was sand in his mouth and someone was pulling his arm. He tried to open his eyes, but they seemed to be stuck together. Then whoever was pulling his arm turned him on his back and water that had been in his mouth ran down his throat and made him choke. He put up a hand to wipe his eyes and encountered something scaly and slippery which made him recoil in horror. A voice above him made concerned, soothing noises and when at last he forced his eyes open, Jake saw an old man standing over him holding a long streamer of brown seaweed in one hand.

He struggled to sit up and the man stooped to help him, supporting his shoulders. He looked around: he was on a beach that stretched out of sight in both directions; the sea in front of him showed an oily, sinister calm. The beach was deserted. The high-tide mark was strewn with sea weed, driftwood and flotsam. It was a melancholy place. He looked up at the man, and found him melancholy too. He was old and defeated-looking: his face had once been handsome and still kept traces of nobility and dignity that made his present hopelessness all the more poignant. Seeing Jake sitting up and apparently uninjured, he seemed to decide that his role was ended, and he turned and began to shuffle away.

– Wait! called Jake, spitting out a quantity of sand.

The old man stopped without turning round. Jake struggled to his feet.

– Wait! What is your name? Where is this place?

The old man turned now, and Jake could almost see his brain working: he pictured ancient rusty cogs engaging, grating harshly, long disused.

– My …name? I have one, I’m sure…it will come to me presently. And this place? It is…the place where we find ourselves.

Highly informative, thought Jake. He began to think the old man was a bit wandered in his wits. How did I get here? he thought. For a moment his mind was entirely blank, and then it came back to him: he had been in a boat that had capsized in a storm; he had been sure that was the end of him, yet here he was. But where was here? And why had he come? The thought sent his hand to his pocket, and he was immediately reassured to find the package still there: he drew it out and examined it: the wrappings were intact, and it had suffered remarkably little from immersion in the sea.

He became aware of the old man’s gaze on him and looked up sharply, suddenly suspicious. The old man continued to gaze at the package and at Jake with candid interest, his whole look subtly transformed – as if a spark had kindled in the ashes of a cold hearth.

– You have…a mission? asked the man.
– Yes. I have to give this to someone.

The old man’s face took on an inward look, as if he was striving to retrieve something from far, far back in his memory.

– If you have a mission, then I must help you, he said at last.

Jake looked at him in surprise.

– I have done it before, he said. It was long ago.

He stared out to sea, remembering.

– Maro, he said at length.

– Pardon?
– I was of Maro: Virgil was my name. I was a poet.

They trudged up the beach in the direction of the dunes.

– There was another – with a mission, I mean. He was a poet too.

He sat on the slope of a dune, shaking his head. Jake imagined flakes of rust falling from the machinery of his memory.

– All this was long ago. Much has changed since then.

The old man looked into Jake’s face, as if he might find the answer he was seeking written there. Then he smiled – a slow, uncertain smile, as if he had forgotten how.

– Dante, that was his name. Dante Alighieri. I was his guide.

Jake smiled back at him.

– Would you guide me, too?

The old man shook his head, sighing.

– Alas, I cannot. So much has changed now – it is all different. I would not know the way.

He stood up, and moved to the top of the dune, beckoning Jake to follow.

Jake had not known what to expect, but it wasn’t this. Beyond the dune, a dreary prospect of grey, uniform houses stretched in every direction under a brooding sky, filling a broad plain that rose to higher ground in the remote distance, where Jake thought he could make out the walls of what seemed like a fortress or citadel; there was a suggestion of a taller tower in the middle of it, with a red light at the top which flashed intermittently, as if signalling.

– All this used to be fields, said Virgil. The fields of Elysium. We were happy here, in our quiet way. He shook his head dolefully. But that was long ago.

Jake saw that off to the right – the opposite side from the distant fortress – there was a low hill, where among ancient ruins a sort of squalid shanty town had sprung up, composed of makeshift buildings haphazardly assembled from all sorts of materials. The smoke of many fires went up from it, obscuring the land behind, which rose in steep high cliffs. Virgil followed the line of his gaze.

– That’s where most of the ancients are now, he said. Still beyond the pale, of course.

He nodded towards the base of the dune, and Jake saw that there was a high wall topped with a coil of barbed wire between them and the grey houses. Virgil had begun to walk along the top of the dune in the direction of the shanty town. Jake followed.

– I stay mostly on the beach, myself. There’s a rougher crowd have moved in there. (he indicated the shanty dwellings) It used to be all philosophers and poets, but now there’s a lot that used to be further in – in the Old City, I mean – but they seem to have got out, somehow. Order is breaking down everywhere. The authorities don’t seem to bother with the older population now. I’m not sure just how much of that is still inhabited.

Jake looked in the direction of his nod and saw that a change in the wind had blown the smoke away to reveal that what he had taken for a cliff rising behind the shanty town was actually an enormous rampart, the first of a series that mounted like giant steps up and up until they were lost in obscurity. Here and there the masonry was riven with great cracks, and the whole wore an air of ancient decay and neglect.

– If you come down this way, I can take you to the gate-house. That’s as much as I can manage, I’m afraid.

Jake followed him down a path that wound steeply down the grassy slope and presently joined a broader way that ran from the shanty town on the hill towards a large opening in the wall that surrounded the sprawl of houses. As they drew closer, Jake saw that the opening was guarded by a low blockhouse.

– I’ll speak to them first – they can be… awkward, sometimes.

The room they entered was notably bare: the walls were naked concrete blocks, not even whitewashed. A large counter ran the full width of the room: behind it stood two men in buff-coloured work-coats, one very large, the other small and wiry. Though evidently unoccupied, they paid no heed to Jake or Virgil when they entered, and when Virgil rapped on the counter to attract their attention, they went through an elaborate pantomime, looking first at each other, then at every other part of the room (including the high corners, as if someone might be perched up there) before finally deigning to notice the man who stood right in front of them.

– Yes? said the small wiry one.

The other began rooting under the counter, and produced in turn a huge leather-bound ledger, which he opened, an old fashioned inkstand, and a jar with a number of pens. A door behind him opened and a third man appeared, wearing a dark uniform with shiny buttons, like a policeman’s. This man paid no heed to anyone but went to the far end of the counter, where Jake saw there was a small washstand, with a mirror. The man took off his tunic and hung it on a peg, then bent low, making the motions that go with removing boots. All the while, he whistled tunelessly through his teeth.

– My young friend here wishes to go further in, said Virgil.
– Does he though? said the small man. What do you think of that?

The second question was addressed to his partner, who made no response, but continued to fiddle with the pens, as if looking for one that suited him. Jake saw that they were the old-fashioned sort, that needed to be dipped in ink.

– Well, if you can just let me have your details, said the wiry one to Virgil.

– But it is not I who wish to go, protested Virgil
– That’s as may be, said the other. I take it you are prepared to vouch for the boy?
– Er – certainly, said Virgil.
– Well, in that case, you’d best give me your details then, hadn’t you? said the other triumphantly, as if he had scored a point.
– Very well, said Virgil wearily. Virgil Maro, Poet.
– Marrow, eh? That’s a kind of vegetable, isn’t it?

Virgil sighed. The large man, having at last chosen a pen, wrote something in the register, very slowly, his tongue protruding from concentration.

– Have you got that, then?
The other pushed the register over to him. The wiry man read it, and shook his head.
– What did you say your name was?
– Virgil Maro.
– That’s not what it says here.

Virgil looked at him in exasperation. Jake saw to his surprise that the third man was now removing his trousers, which he folded neatly and hung beside his tunic.

– What it says here is “Vegetable Marrow”.

He turned the book for them to see: Jake saw that it did indeed say that, written in a large looping script, peppered with blots.

– Now if I was a suspicious man, I might incline to think that a pseudonym – or perhaps I should say a nom de plume, seeing as how you are a poet. You are a poet, I suppose?
– Yes, said Virgil tersely.
– Make a living at it?

Virgil sighed. The man at the washstand was now attiring himself in a brown civilian suit.

– I wouldn’t ask, normally, only my friend here does like to pen a bit of verse in quieter moments – you’d never think it to look at him, I know, said the wiry man with a smile, but some of it – in my humble opinion – is really quite good, and well worthy of a wider audience.

The big man examined his fingernails with a show of modesty. The brown suited man emerged from behind the counter, set a hat on his head, and said

– Well, that’s me off now, lads.

He went out, letting the door slam shut behind him. The wiry man put on a sudden air of briskness.

– But we can’t spend all day chatting about such things, I’m sure. He looked at Jake for the first time. Now then, young sir, what can I do for you?
– I’d like to go further in, said Jake.
– Would you now? Make a note of that, George.

The big man took the register again and wrote in it laboriously, at some length. While he did so, the other came round to their side of the counter, took a brush from a closet, and began to sweep the floor. When he reached Jake and Virgil, he looked at them as if surprised to find them still there.

– Well, if you come back tomorrow, I’m sure the sergeant will attend to you.
– The sergeant? said Jake with a sinking heart.

The wiry man swept round them.

– The gentleman who’s just gone out, he said over his shoulder. He’s the one you want to speak to. Now, if you’ll excuse me, we’re finished here for the day.

When they were outside, Virgil shook his head.

– I’m sorry. You see how it is. Perhaps they will be more amenable tomorrow.
– I doubt it, said Jake.

He watched as the wiry man, whistling cheerfully, closed the gate, securing it with a large padlock.

– Is there no other way in?

But Virgil was already some way down the road that led to the shanty town. Jake hesitated a moment, then went after him. It began to rain.

The Writer’s Task

Trawling through my chaotic file system, I came across this, which I wrote a while back – it has at least the merit of brevity (‘Brevity is the soul of wit – if you can’t be witty, at least be brief’) :

‘A character must do, not what I want him or need him to do (for the sake of the story), but rather what he would do in the circumstances – so, the author seeks to contrive the circumstances from which the story will arise, as it were naturally.’

Hmmm. Might just be something in that.

A note on ‘Table Talk’

As the heading says, this is an old story, and not just because I wrote it eleven years ago.

(At the time I thought having a story narrated by a table was pretty original, but I suspect it has been done before.)

Part of the inspiration for this, which is alluded to in the text, was a talk I heard on the radio (I think) which mentioned the Jewish custom of laying out the dead on the kitchen table. I associate this with ideas that I learned elsewhere, about tables as altars, and also something that sticks in my mind from a lecture long ago – ‘for the Jews, every meal was a sacrifice, and every sacrifice a meal’ – I find that a very pleasing, hospitable notion, which I feel ought to inform Catholic understanding of the Eucharist rather more than it does. What is more characteristically human than sitting down together to eat?

However, the main inspiration of this tale comes from three very old stories indeed: the first is the parable of the Prodigal Son, which I have blended with another, that of the Good Samaritan – I rather liked the notion that the two might be the same person. But the third story is the oldest of the lot, and the connection only occurred to me in the act of writing. I had always been troubled by the character of the older brother in the Prodigal Son, perhaps because I identified rather too much with him (the ingenuity of the parables is to wrongfoot the righteous: we identify with the Pharisee and the labourers who were hired first, rather than the publican and those hired at the eleventh hour).

So here at the end, the brothers become Cain and Abel.

Table Talk : an old story

The old man’s whistling faltered; the young one took it up, moving briskly about the kitchen.

My world is weight and sound, things laid on me, voices around me, arms leant on me, legs stretched under. I know my place, so central that I am taken for granted, my absence unthinkable. Stories are told over me, and I bear the blows with fist or flat of the hand that anger with others directs at me as I bear the burdens, usual and unusual, that are laid on me: with patience and, as a rule, incuriously.

Sparse routine had so lulled me that I did not understand at first the bustle of excitement, the sudden assault with a hard-bristled scrubbing brush, the laying-on of the crisp weight of cloth, the speedy piling of plates and trenchers, jugs and glasses well beyond their common number, freighted well beyond their common weight – yet it was familiar: somewhere, far back, this had occurred before.

And more than once: down the years a lost world came back to me, a world of gaiety and noise, of music and frequent celebration; a different world in this same place, when the day was rarely without voices and activity of some sort, the woman humming to herself as she chopped vegetables, singing snatches of song while kneading dough, clashing pans in the sink; or deep in conversation with her neighbours dropping by to pass the time of day. Every evening, after the evening meal, conversation long into the night, a mixture of voices, older and younger, the clink of glasses, frequent laughter – and every week, it seemed, a feast or party of some sort.

Long gone now: all that ended with my first experience of a body, the woman’s, laid out on my length while family, friends and neighbours mourned. No other woman was brought to the house: there was only the man and his sons. Through the day they were elsewhere: at night they gathered round me for their meal, in silence as often as not. No more parties, no more neighbours dropping by: I dreamed the empty days away, the sun at morning through one window, at evening through another.

The boys were not alike: one, the younger, was all plans and dreams; the other dour, taciturn, addicted to work. He thought his brother shiftless, lazy; did not like the way his father indulged him, sharing his dreams and crazy notions. Did not like either his father’s generosity, which he saw as waste:

– You’d give everything we have away if I let you, to the first tinker comes to the door with a tale to tell. I wonder you are so gullible.

The younger brother had a notion: he talked his father round. The old man told his first-born son,

– I’ve a mind to give your brother that bit land, between the dyke and the trees, for his own. You’ll not mind that? There’s plenty left for you.

– There’s small hope of him doing anything with it, unless you count sitting on a rock staring at passing clouds a gainful activity.

– He’ll maybe be different if he’s something to work on his own account: we’ll see.

– I’m sure we will.

The older son turned out to be right; the parcel of land did not flourish under new management. Every night the older brother made sarcastic enquiry about his progress: were the crops in yet? Or was it to be beasts? Was he thinking of breaking the ground this year at all? Which boulder had the best view of the sky? The father listened in pained silence; the younger son did not respond, until one night he announced:

– Father, I’m thinking I haven’t made the best use of that land you gave me.

This drew a big horse-laugh from the brother. He spluttered broth all over me. His brother carried on, undaunted.

– Sooner than try to work it, I should make it work for me. My mistake has been to think myself a farmer – I’m just not cut out for it. With the money that land would fetch I could get myself an education.

– In what? Drinking and whoring?

– Hush, let your brother speak. He’s maybe right – a man should use his talents. An education’s a rare thing to have.

– With him it’ll stay rare. The bottom of a drinking glass is all he’ll study – that and flaunting city women.

– You’re over hard on the boy. His nature’s different from yours.

– That I can agree with. If he wants to leave, let him go – he’ll not be missed, for all the use he is round here. But don’t sell good land to pay for it. Let him make his own way

– The land’s his. I made it over to him.

– But not for this!

He brought his flat hand down hard. His father brought down his fist.

– Enough! Your brother can do what he likes with his own. He’s his own man now.

His father grieved to see him go, exacting oft-repeated promises to write and say how he was getting on. He parted with a glowing vision of the future:

– You’ll see. I’ll come back a made man, with gold in my pocket enough to buy that land twice over. Then I’ll settle down, and marry a wife and you’ll have grandchildren to cheer your old age.

– Goodbye, son – remember and write!

– Goodbye, dad – I will!

– Good riddance, said the brother, under his breath.

The years went over and they heard nothing. The son worked all day and the father grew old. No-one came to the house except the occasional beggar. If the son saw them first, he chased them away, but the father was always keen to hear their talk, just in case they brought some word of his other son. One day a travelling man leant in at the half-door to tell a queer story:

– It was like this, your honour, the man was no more than a heap of rags, covered in blood and dust. Plenty passed him by, thinking him dead already, or not wanting to get involved. But this young fellow he calls out to me, here, you, lend a hand – this man’s hurt. So we pick him up between us. Take him to that inn, says the young man. You can bet the innkeeper is glad to see us. What’s that? He says. None of that now, says the young man, very sharp like. This man’s hurt and he needs attention. Fetch some hot water and some bandages! That’s all very well, says the innkeeper, but who’s going to pay? I will, says the young man, as cool as you like, and takes out a purse full of coins. Well, that makes a difference, as you can imagine: the innkeeper can’t do enough now, sends his girls scurrying, fetches the water himself, helps the young man dress his wounds. They see him up to bed in one of the best rooms, and the young man says, here, take this for now, and if it costs any more I’ll settle up next time I come by. And he slips me something too, before he goes. As it turned out, the man in the bed was a rich merchant that was set upon by thieves, so he was well able to pay his own way, once his relatives turned up looking for him. Just as well, because the young man never did come back.

The old man, moved by the tale, had the beggar describe the young man to him, and at every detail he said: I knew it, I knew it! And whether because the tramp got the drift of what he was thinking, or because it was true, he said,

– Do you know what it is, your honour, he had a gliff of yourself about him, not a word of a lie, he might have been your honour as a younger man, he might indeed!

– I knew it, I knew it, repeated the old man, it’d be just like him to do a thing like that!

The tramp went away well-rewarded, but the other son was sceptical.

– Away, father, he could see that’s what you wanted to hear. These tramps aren’t daft, you know. Not like some, he added in an undertone.

All the same, the old man cherished the story, and never failed to tell it to any passer-by, in the hope it would bring fresh word of his son, but it never did. The evenings took on a ritual quality: the elder son would come in from the fields, they would eat, exchange predictable conversation, then at some point the old man would say:

– I wonder what your brother’s up to now?

To which the son would not respond. Then the old man would paint some scene in which the absent brother featured: a professor at the university perhaps, maybe a government minister; or a literary man, an artist, a musician; perhaps a merchant prince, with his own fleet of ships upon the sea, his caravans coming and going on the Silk Road. It was obvious from the variety and detail of these imaginings that they were what he spent his every waking hour thinking about. Sooner or later, however, they all led the same way:

– You know, I never can forget that story the tramp told about your brother – do you remember?

At this point the brother would stiffen: I felt it in his arms, resting on me, in his long legs stretched underneath. He said nothing, but I knew what he would like to say, because after the old man was gone he said it to himself, alone in the dark kitchen:

– Do I remember? Precious God, will you ever let me forget!

Then he would carry on in a wheedling, mincing tone, a mockery of his father,

– I’m always thinking how your brother helped that man, how like him it was to do a thing like that, if there’s one thing I can be proud of in my life, it’s having a son who’d do a thing like that. The way he dealt with that inn-keeper! O, my brave boy!

And he would slap down his hand in exasperation and disgust.

– Brave boy,  indeed – the wastrel!

One night, the father had just embarked on his usual course when instead of stiffening the son responded:

– I remember fine, father. But do you remember this?

And he put on his wheedling, old man’s voice:

– “Goodbye, son – remember and write!” “Goodbye, dad – I will!”

He left a pause, to let it sink in, then resumed his own voice:

– It’s been how many years now?

The father mumbled something indistinct.

How many years? Ten is it? How many letters in all that time?

Another mumble.

How many? A hundred? Twenty? O, surely one a year at least, surely one a year from your brave boy? No?

A sound now like sobbing.

– What? Not one? Not one letter in all that time?

More sobbing, something mumbled.

– What do you say?

An indrawn breath, a voice controlled with difficulty.

– What are you saying, son? Do you mean you think your brother’s –     … dead?

If he meant that, the son did not say so. He kept silent, letting the old man work out his agony alone, as if talking to himself.

– He did say he’d write – he promised – the first few years, well, maybe he was busy – but after all this time…

After a bit the old man got up. He went and stood a long time by the window, looking out.

– I fear you’re right, son – your brother’s dead, he said at last. Why else would he not write?

If the son thought there might be another reason he did not say so. It was a quiet house after that.

The old man’s footsteps altered to a slow dragging shuffle. He no longer sat at the window during the day; I would hear him muttering the tramp’s story to himself, but he never mentioned it again before his son. The years went over and in the Summer he sat by the half-door, dozing in the sun. In his waking moments he talked to himself in a low, barely audible drone, a sleepy sound like a bee.  I grew so accustomed to it that I only noticed its absence; as one bright morning, when the door clattered open and I heard his footsteps scampering away like a boy’s down the road, and coming back to me on the breeze inarticulate shouts and whoops of joy.

At the feast in his honour the returned one preserved a modest, self-depreciating demeanour. No, he didn’t quite make it to college; he squandered his substance, and soon found himself in difficulties. Pride would not let him write to tell of his predicament, the mess he had made of things. Eventually he came to his senses when he found himself competing with the pigs for something to eat. The rueful, humorous way he told it won everybody round – the more he reproached himself, the more they inclined to forgive him: they clapped him on the back, telling him how good it was to see him again, how just seeing him there made them realise how little it mattered what he did before, that was all behind him now.

Two things I missed in all that clamour: his older brother’s voice, and any mention of the old tale of the man rescued on the road. A few days later the older brother came into the kitchen to find the younger one already sitting there, in the first grey light.

– You’re here.

– I couldn’t sleep. It kept going through my mind what you must think of all this. I never expected it, you know. I made sure father would disown me, turn me out – I was ready to beg to be taken on just as a hand on the farm, a servant, anything. Instead he comes dashing down the road to meet me, lays on a hero’s welcome. I didn’t even get the chance to ask his forgiveness – he just waved it away. But I reckon you must find it pretty hard to take.

– Well, that depends – there was one thing I meant to ask – a story a tramp told father years ago – about a young man helping someone that had been beaten up: he always thought it must have been you.

– Well, I’ve been in a few scrapes in my time, I’m not sure I can remember them all.

– But this young man insisted on taking the injured man to an inn, and paying to have him looked after.

A sudden laugh.

– O, that! I remember now – it was ages ago, not long after I left here, as a matter of fact – I was really pretty green, just a simple country boy. This man is lying all of a heap on the road, so I did what I thought anyone would do – well anyone round here, at least – I went and picked him up. I just assumed that if we took him to the inn, someone there’d look after him – well you know how dad would always have people in that were passing by and looked in need of a square meal. Anyhow, it soon becomes clear that people didn’t act that way in those parts – the landlord just stands there, doesn’t so much as lift a finger to help us. “Who’s going to pay?” he says. Well, I was just about to get ripped into him about his social responsibilities – you’ll remember how I was always a great one for telling other people what they ought to do – when this girl appears in the doorway – his daughter, maybe, or a servant – and a prettier face and figure you never saw in your life. So all at once I wanted to do something to put the landlord in his place and impress the girl, so before I knew what I was doing I had my purse out and was ladling money onto the counter as if there was plenty more where that came from – as a matter of fact, it was just about all I had, but it was worth it just to see the change in the old villain’s face and the look I got from the girl. I got really carried away with myself. “Give him your best room,” I said, “ and if that isn’t enough, I’ll pay the balance next time I’m passing” – which was easy to say, as I didn’t plan to come back that way at all. Of course the irony was that I couldn’t afford to hang around, so I never did get any more than an admiring glance from the girl. I wonder if she still remembers me?

As the younger brother told the story, I felt the older stiffen in that same way he always did when his father told it – as if he could hardly bear to hear it. For a long time after, he said nothing, then

– Do you want to come and see that land of yours? The man we sold it to made such a poor fist of working it that he ended up having to sell it back to me, at half the price.

The two of them went out into the grey morning. A while later, the older one came back alone – I knew his step. He had a shovel with him that he set behind the door. The old man was in the kitchen, whistling.

– Where’s your brother?

– Why ask me? He’s his own man. As like as not he’s away again, now that the party’s over and there’s work to do. You know what he’s like.

The old man’s whistling faltered into silence. Then after a pause young man took it up, moving briskly about the kitchen.

© John Ward 2001

As you can see from the date, I wrote this a while ago. For a note on it, see here.

Walrus Boy

O walrus boy, o walrus boy!

Alack, and wae is me –

If I hadna wed a walrus

My strange son widna be.

 

It fell about the Martinmas

When mists lie on the land

I stumbled on a walrus

Was lyin on the strand

 

It didna look tae left nor richt

But fixed me wi its e’e

An said “My man, ere it is nicht

I doot ye’ll lie wi me!”

 

O it isna for your rare moustache

Or tusks sae fine tae see

But cause ye spak me soft an fair

That I will lie wi thee.

 

Then aff he did his blue blue coat

An on the sand he sat

An aff he did his velvet trews

But ay kep on his hat.

 

O it will na be in winter time

When fields are white wi snow

Nor will it be in springtime

When the green shoots do grow

 

Nor yet in shining summer

When the leaves are on the tree

But just about the harvest time

I’ll bear a son to thee.

 

He’s drawn his boat upon the shore

An tied her tae a tree

Wi half the summer gone, an more

He hasna pit tae sea

 

Wi half the summer gone an mair

His boat lay on the loam;

But when the sheaves were in the barn

He wat her keel wi foam

 

He hadna sailed a league, a league

A league but barely twa

When in amang the green green wave

A mighty shape he saw

 

He hadna sailed a league, a league

A league but barely nine

When he has speared that mighty shape

An held it wi his line.

 

O wae tae ye, ma bonny man!

What is this deed ye’ve done?

Your cruel spear has slaughtered

The mother o your son

 

O walrus boy, come hame wi me

Together we must bide

For I have slain my own true love

Wi’ a harpoon in her side.

This is a ballad I wrote some time ago, during a fine weekend in Cromarty, under the auspices of Hi-Arts: for a brief note on it, see here.

Walrus Boy and the Ballad Form

Walrus Boy‘ was written during a writers’ weekend at Cromarty, some years ago. One of the talks we had was on the Ballad form and its characteristics.

Ballads are an ancient and popular form yet they have a freshness and directness about them that never seems to wane: they may appear naive and unsophisticated on first reading, but there is an economy and urgency about them that I find very pleasing. In particular, there are sudden unheralded transitions of time, place and speaker which have much in common with good film editing – in one of my favourites, The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens, we start with the King’s court in Dunfermline then cut rapidly to Sir Patrick walking on the beach and he speaks directly to us; and in the next verse, they’re off across the sea:

They hoysed their sails on Monenday morn

Wi’ a’ the speed they may;

They hae landed in Noroway

Upon a Wodensday.

No time wasted there!

Though my own ‘walrus boy’ has a touch of parody about it, I hope it is a fond mocking.