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
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.”