Under the gritted lid of winter
each ice-puddle’s broken plate
cracked to a star. The morning
assembling itself into black and white, the slow dawn
its developing tray. Cold steams off the grass;
the frosted yarrow and sea holly
smoke in the new sun.
In the barber-shop mirror, I study this museum of men
through glass: their shaving brushes, talc and whetted razors,
the bottles of bay rum, hair tonic, astringents; long
leather strops; those faded photographs of hairstyles,
that blue Barbicide jar on the counter
dense with pickled combs and scissors like a failed aquarium;
the special drawer full of Durex, copies of Parade.
The plane from England scores a skater’s track
across the icy sky; on the promenade, frost
thistles the railings. You hear the drawl
of the wave, the gulls, raucous at their bins,
the day’s first Labrador, his tail flogging the surf.
The quarantined city lies behind, bilge-deep in cobbles,
listing: flying the Yellow Jack, typhoid in its quick-work.
On the floor of the butcher’s,
blood has rolled through the sawdust
and become round and soft.
We found the blood-buds
in corners as the shop was closing, and gathered
the biggest ones in handkerchiefs to take them
to the woods, break them open for their jelly.
In the light from the blaze, there’s a fox
nailed to a fence-post: the tricked god
hanging from his wounds. We have nothing to feed
to the fire’s many beaks but some mealy apples
and a bottle of Hay’s Lemonade, which explodes.
I dig in my pockets and find
a Salvation Army picture of Jesus; tender it to the flame.
We’d skip school lunches for some milk,
a rowie and a mutton pie. A twist
of penny sweets: foam bananas, liquorice sticks.
On special days, some hard bonfire toffee
and a lucky bag, watching the third-years fight
in the kirkyard, in among the graves. One boy
holds the other’s hair so he can kick him in the face.
Creels are swung from boat to shore, filling
fishboxes in silver rows. A slush of ice and gulls
all day till nightfall. Then all you hear is the ice
tightening back together
and the cats crying that dreadful way they have,
like the sound of babies singing
lullabies to other babies.
I knew how children came, so I look for the stork
in the cliffs over the mussel pools,
in the quarry ledges, the chimney stacks,
all along the walking pylons –
search for her everywhere
in the gantries of the storm woods, in the black pines,
that she might take me back.
About this poem
This poem was included in the Best of the Best Scottish Poems, published in 2019. To mark the fifteenth anniversary of our annual online anthology Best Scottish Poems, the Library invited broadcaster, journalist and author James Naughtie to edit a ‘Best of the Best’ drawn from each of the annual editions of Best Scottish Poems.
This took me back to the Aberdeen of my youth, frost on the granite, and east wind off the sea. Robin Robertson has such well-tuned senses that he catches an atmosphere in a word or two – ‘the drawl of the wave’ – and the city springs to life, albeit quarantined in that summer by what we called at the time, simply ‘the typhoid’. We’re unmistakably back in that fish market, now all but gone, and it feels like yesterday – ‘a slush of ice and gulls / all day till nightfall.’
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2013. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2013 was David Robinson.
What I love about this poem is the ease with which it subverts nostalgia. All the elements of the usual regrets at the passing of innocence are there and the past’s lost-boyhood is in pin-sharp focus. Yet no less clear is the poem’s very adult sensibility: the nine-year-old boy might not really know about the special drawer full of Durex and copies of Parade, doesn’t have the laconic humour for the word play behind ‘whetted razors’.
But the real focus of the poem is about what nostalgia misses out: the cold violence of children fighting, children’s fascination with death. It takes the reader back to what childhood actually felt like far more effectively than any amount of nostalgic gloss.
‘1964’ is a sequence of discrete but related pieces that emerged, by slow accretion, when I was thinking about my childhood in Old Aberdeen. This was the period immediately before the city was ruined by ‘North-Sea oil exploration’ and the greed, corruption and despoliation that seem to attend all such robber industries.
What Aberdeen had in 1964 was a fishing fleet and a typhoid epidemic. That was almost enough for an eight-year-old who walked everywhere, all the time, but the investigation of this marine landscape and the mysteries of the harbour and the shops and markets of the adult world made childhood a full-time job.
The penultimate section describes the unearthly ululations of cats ‘crying that dreadful way they have,/like the sound of babies singing/ lullabies to other babies.’ One critic completely misunderstood this, saying ‘The only false – or, to my ear, far-fetched – note is the likening of the sound fighting cats make to “babies singing”.’ Like me, they’re not fighting – they’re just being territorial.