The grey waters of Hugh Bryden's beautiful treatment of my 'Lost At Sea' saw their official launch last week. Gracefield Arts Centre Cafe was so packed out for me and Andy Forster (launching the excellent 'Digging') that more chairs were scurried for. Oh it cheers you up so much when you're about to read.
I realised on the way to the event, packed into a car in the murky dark of February with rather a lot of my family, that 'Lost At Sea' is a kind of travelogue. It proved to be one of the easiest readings, because of this, I think - it has its own internal narrative, in which both the Shetland Islands and my great grandfather and his family are explored, and glimpses caught of them.
My 82 year old mum came along, and it was lovely to read to her, as she has done all the family research that I have (rather) plundered. She kept beaming at me. I found reading 'The Ditty Box of Thomas Gilbert Hunter Aiken' to be a strange kind of crux, as it contains many of the fragments of story that come down the generations. I suppose this is how our lives are likely to be summarised. And they're not likely to be so adventurous.
I've got his telescope safe. But will I one day have to decide whether to keep that charts table?
The Ditty Box of Thomas Gilbert Hunter Aiken
That he left Church Closs
and his mother and stowed
away on a Tyne collier
at thirteen, dodging on board
in the wash and blow
of Lerwick harbour.
That sometimes he ate
ships biscuits so maggoty they
shuffled across his plate. That he sailed
round the Horn. That he shivered
one winter on a vessel held ice-bound
for weeks in the Baltic.
That he was wrecked
in the tide-race of Ushant, rescued
by a brig bound for Cuba and dropped
at the mouth of the Tagus to row
under Torre de Belem
into white-paved Lisbon.
That in Valparaiso he
punched a man and knocked him
overboard and then
jumped in and saved him.
That he married twice but no-one
ever mentioned the first time.
That he had a strong face, a trim beard
and fierce eyebrows.His eyes look far
past my shoulder.That we know this
from a photograph. And also have his telescope,
his drawing instruments and his cut-down,
hacked-about charts table.
That he lived to see his sons survive the War
and held his grandchildren, as babies.
That his sextant and the ditty box went missing
at last, in the bombing of Liverpool
in 1940. That he never
went back to Lerwick.