Alexan­der McCall Smith finds that on a clas­sic boys’ trip aboard a yacht in Greece, his mind me­an­ders be­fore tak­ing a dis­tinctly po­etic change of tack

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A boys' boat trip around the Greek is­lands takes a po­etic turn for Alexan­der McCall Smith

Each year, in an en­deav­our to re­duce the pres­sures of life – and this year, for some rea­son, those pres­sures seem to have been at­mo­spher­i­cally in­flated – I go in the com­pany of six friends on a sail­ing trip. We are un­ac­com­pa­nied by wives or part­ners, who look upon the trip with good hu­mour and un­der­stand­ing.

It is, in old-fash­ioned terms, a boys’ trip. Of course, there are some who look askance at such things, but in a lib­eral so­ci­ety

– if that is what we still in­habit – men should be as free to take boys’ trips as women are to take trips with the girls. Of course, even the use of the words boys and girls for men and women is frowned upon by some, but those are peo­ple, it seems to me, who frown upon ev­ery­thing.

This year we went to Greece, to the Io­nian Sea and the is­lands south of the Gulf of Corinth. Th­ese in­clude Ithaca, surely one of the loveli­est of the Greek is­lands. One can un­der­stand why Odysseus was so keen to get home to that par­tic­u­lar is­land, even if some spoil-sport schol­ars sug­gest that he was not headed there at all. But some of the same schol­ars ar­gue that the Odyssey is, in fact, set al­to­gether else­where, one Ital­ian pro­fes­sor even ar­gu­ing that the whole thing, in­clud­ing the Tro­jan War, re­ally took place in the Baltic.

The sea sparkled in the early au­tumn sunshine. Homer de­scribes it in the Odyssey as be­ing wine-dark, but it was, in fact, dark­ish blue, like the ink that Messrs Quink and Water­mans made, and still do, for the few who use foun­tain pens. Sit­ting on the deck, tug­ging at the oc­ca­sional sheet (a tech­ni­cal sail­ing term for rope, but so much more im­pres­sive), I al­lowed my mind to wan­der. Could th­ese cliffs be the very ones that Odysseus gazed upon when he at last re­turned to find Pene­lope? Were th­ese bays in which we an­chored, with their beaches of white stones rubbed smooth by the waves, the same ones on which he at last set foot?

I al­lowed my mind to wan­der, be­cause when you are sail­ing, and are in no hurry to get any­where, the mind will roam. I looked up into the empty sky and re­mem­bered a poem I had read that talked of just such a sky. That was by Al­fred Al­varez and it was about look­ing up and see­ing an­gels cross­ing a Tus­can sky. They make no noise, though their wings move…

Its haunt­ing lines came back to me now. A sky like this, in those lat­i­tudes, was just the place for an­gels or for the grey-eyed god­dess, Athena. Of course it was.

I al­ways carry a small Smyth­son note­book with me, so I wrote An­gelol­ogy, a poem about that strangest of the hu­man mind’s pur­suits – the study of an­gels. Why do peo­ple con­tinue to be­lieve in an­gels when they so ev­i­dently do not ex­ist? Prob­a­bly be­cause such be­liefs are com­fort­ing, and we all need com­fort:

How re­as­sur­ing it must be / To close your eyes in sleep / In the knowledge that one / So at­tired and winged, some acolyte of Gabriel / Or Michael, per­haps, stands at your head / And at your feet. To be not alone / Is an am­bi­tion of us all; / To have pow­er­ful friends / Even more so; if it is al­lowed us / To be­lieve in at least some­thing / Un­likely, then surely / We might per­mit our­selves this, / An in­no­cent be­lief that harms no­body, / Has no car­bon foot­print / And, most im­por­tantly, makes no­body cry.

That writ­ten, it seemed ap­pro­pri­ate to write a poem about fish. Un­like the case of an­gels, there is ev­i­dence of the ex­is­tence of fish, who lead a very dif­fer­ent life. This led to:

Fish have wa­ter as / Their fir­ma­ment; / The stars for fish are / Dis­tant and dan­ger­ous light, / Not some­where / They would wish to look at, / Nor wish upon.

Fish have moun­tains, / As we have; / Th­ese are sunken rocks, / Around which / All but the small­est fish / May swim with ease; / For a fish to climb / A sub­ma­rine mountain / With­out wa­ter / Is as dif­fi­cult as for a man / To climb Ever­est with­out oxy­gen. / It’s the same thing, / Say fish; it’s the same thing / But viewed from / A dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive.

Love, say fish, / Is much the same thing as wa­ter; / With­out it all about us, / We feel dry.

“When you are sail­ing, and in no hurry to get any­where, your mind will roam

On our way back, once the boat was handed back to its own­ers, we trav­elled to Athens through Del­phi, the an­cient city in which the Del­phic Or­a­cle ut­tered her puz­zling and am­bigu­ous pre­dic­tions. That, of course, is par for the course with or­a­cles and seers – don’t ex­pect a straight an­swer. I watched the vis­i­tors climb the mar­ble steps to the an­cient tem­ple and its out­ly­ing build­ings. Through my mind went the thought: what are those who come here think­ing?

The pas­sive tourists wan­der / Past the fallen stones and think / What they’d ask the or­a­cle: / Does he love me as I love him? / Will she con­sent to be my wife? / Will I ever get the job / I’ve al­ways wanted, and will / My name be up in lights? / Is it bet­ter to be poor / And con­tented, or be rich / And sur­rounded by flat­ter­ers / Who love you for what you’ve got? / Big ques­tions, to which the re­ply / Is: “Pos­si­bly, or maybe not, / But in the mean­time make the most / Of what you don’t know, the wise

Do not re­veal all of what they know, / Re­mem­ber that, re­mem­ber that.”

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