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The Migratory Swallow

Writing and landscape

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

Scribbled on the back of a piece of card is a draft of a poem. One day outside Central Station in Glasgow, among the swirling crowds, I’d some moments of cognitive dissonance as startling as if I’d seen a heron standing on a coffee shop table in that city. Across the street, bowed yet purposeful, trudging to the station entrance, still tall, bald-wisped now, was an anonymous old gentleman. But not to me! Malcolm Wilson of Fairliecrevoch Farm, in my home county of Ayrshire, from almost fifty years ago! I hoisted hay bales for him; at seventeen I’d asked him for permission to photograph nesting peewits on his fields. And suddenly, all this time later, largely forgotten till that chance encounter, there he was. I must have stood gawping, wondering whether I should introduce myself: ‘Malcolm! Remember me?!’ But the moment passed, and he vanished, and I re-entered my largely urban existence among the crowds of Buchanan Street.

Then, unexpectedly, near the end of 2020, I had to move. Like a migratory swallow I returned to what I knew: Ayrshire, a few miles from where I’d been brought up. And I remembered other things I did not know I’d missed.

I had forgotten about the clouds. How could I have forgotten about the clouds? My first book of poems, The Shell House, written in Ayrshire, published in 1995, was full of them. And yet I had forgotten. Quarter of a century in industrial Lanarkshire, pre-Covid, had made sure of that. Its horizons were enclosed on every side by buildings, trees, and the gritty loveable streets of Glasgow, my daily commute. There, big skies didn’t grab your attention. You could barely see them. Here, back in Ayrshire, they did.

Or, more accurately, the cloudscapes, the distances, the miles for the sight to get lost in! ‘I stretched a gold thread through the wide world’, goes an old Yugoslavian folk riddle, ‘and wound it up into a walnut shell.’ The answer? Eyesight. It makes perfect sense here on calm days of changing sky arrangements like a slow-motion ballet: wisps, daubs, shower-veils dragging slowly across the wide blue and, visible through them on the far horizon, radiant bubblings of tiny cumuli in some sunlit elsewhere; all altering from minute to minute, never quite like that before, or to be quite like that, in the entire history of the Universe, again.

I had forgotten, too, behind all the human activity, the silence, an enormous coastal silence that persists as if waiting patiently for the action and brief noise of people to vanish. Where I had lived in Lanarkshire, after a two-year residency in Hugh MacDiarmid’s cottage near Biggar, there was never real silence. By one of those strange life-coincidences I was just up the road from where my paternal grandfather had worked as a miner on nightshifts for forty years. Yet it had never felt quite like home.

Ayrshire does. If landscape can subliminally affect the people who live there, the rawness and brashness of some local inhabitants seem linked to the huge natural forces swirling around the west coast. It’s a peculiar place with a character all its own. At dusk I step out of a big Asda behind a chatter of teenage girls, blithely ignoring Covid ‘social distancing’, to an eye-widening west coast afterglow, rising up the sky in amber and tangerine — day’s last breath. I step out again in a frosty winter darkness to a skein of geese going over, invisible, far up, belling each to each, set to glide down to the coast half a mile away. In the glare-lit superstore behind me are all the messy, comforting accoutrements of modern living: paperbacks, kettles, widescreen televisions, huge multi-pack bags of crisps; but close by, out there, stretch the mudflats of the estuary at Bogside where wading birds long-beakedly probe the lowtide mud in the darkness and, beyond it, are the sea and the island of Arran recumbent in the Firth of Clyde in a starlit nowhere.

When I moved to the area – or was moved – the first time, it was from Tyneside. (Our caravan there had been beside an enormous brickworks: great machinery, diggers and trucks, thundered day and night.) I was thirteen. By sheer happenstance my family pitched up on a tiny Ayrshire caravan site four miles from the coast, set on an elevation. The long distinctive shape of Arran cut the skyline — flatter in the south (to the left); peaked and impressive towards its north end. Graybright on summer evenings, or brilliant with snow on winter mornings, it looked like somewhere out of Tibet. At thirteen, I found it hard to believe that this new landscape I had arrived in could exist in Britain. Yet, there it was.

As with everyone else, the Covid lockdowns of 2020 and early 2021 jolted me out of old habits and routines. Pre-Covid, I was a daily coffee-shop laptopper in Glasgow. I needed, every day, my regular blast of the city: the exhilarating palaver of Central Station with its continuous processions of commuters, travellers, oddball characters — the beguiling attraction of people, all going, enigmatically, somewhere. A central poem-sequence in my most recent book, The Light Acknowledgers, is set there — vignettes of station life seen from the perspective of an onlooker in a coffee shop window.

Yet writers of a particular type – I am one – are creatures of routine. New habits replaced the old after my return to Ayrshire. Here, back in the area of my nature-obsessed youth, every afternoon, getting later with the season, I jump on the train to the next town over, four minutes away. I take binoculars. Five minutes later I am down the harbourside. The place is peopled with the ghosts of my past. Across the river estuary is an SSSI where I conducted bird counts on Saturday mornings at fourteen for the British Trust for Ornithology’s Birds of Estuaries Enquiry — almost, it now startles me to realise, fifty years ago.

I have become a follower of tide-times: low tides mean a wider beach to walk on. So on low-tide days I walk down to the mouth of the estuary where the view opens to the bay, a stretch of beach, and a sudden vista — the ‘long marine horizon’ the poet W. S. Graham described. The dome of Ailsa Craig, an island gannetry, obtrudes tinily above the sealine. Walking that shore, on quiet days when the small waves make their resonant detonations in the cavernous silence, it could be any century over the past several thousand years: Arran lies, mountainously magnificent, across the water. Beams ray down through cloud-gaps: a shimmer starts up on the Firth; miles away down the coast, minute at the foot of the sky, a row of shorefront houses, beam-lit, shine.

I had forgotten about the sea here, too. How could I have forgotten about the sea? Yet, nonetheless, I had. Of late there have been afternoons it is embarrassing in our ravaged, plastic-filthed ecosystems to call ‘paradisal’, but of such still, lit, radiant calm that ‘paradisal’ springs first to mind: the sun a visual shout up in the blue vault of the west; the sea as flat as a glass tabletop, expectant of a fin. Then there are other days of gusting rough winds out of the west, or north, the sullen grey-green a roar of breakers, the wind trying to rip away coats, hats, carrier bags, and hurl them into the bay.

With the changing seasons come the changing birds. Red Breasted Mergansers in low February light on the estuary, vivid in red and dark bottle green sheens, trying to swallow caught crabs at the surface before the gulls snatch them: flurries of avian action, like a brawl in a shopping mall. In summer, terns and gannets. Sandwich Terns – sea-swallows – with their forked tails, long, swept-back wings, their strange dreamy-dipping flight, at once delicate and powerful (they have flown, after all, from the coast of West Africa), and their metal-rending cries as if to offset all that elegance. They plunge briskly into the estuary for sand eels, with a little splash. They’re the classier counterpart to the hooligan gulls, scavengers and bullies, that throng this coast like modern pterodactyls, rifling the litter bins along the harbour side, swooping menacingly on shrieking munchers of fish suppers.

Nature-wise, it all sounds exhilarating and, in many ways, is. Human-wise, a rank, historically rooted sectarianism persists and can still flare up along this coast; closes and alleyways stink with the sour reek of cannabis; in parts, poverty and social deprivation is grained into people’s faces. It appears contrary to the birds and big weathers, yet the latter’s indecorous unpredictability, however illogically, seems linked to the human energy. So I notice a neighbour’s glaringly new training shoes are the same brilliant white as a light-struck gannet’s wings against a rain cloud over the Firth.

‘Environment,’ the American poet and novelist Stephen Crane once wrote, ‘is a tremendous thing.’ Over forty years ago, Ayrshire is where my writing life began. And now I have come back. What this will mean for my writing, it’s too early to say. But I will take up the draft of the poem about the old farmer outside Central Station. I must finish it at last. And have I mentioned the clouds? How could I have forgotten about the clouds? Yet, nevertheless, here they are.

Gerry Cambridge has edited the transatlantic poetry journal The Dark Horse since 1995. He has published six books of poems since then, the latest of which is The Light Acknowledgers & Other Poems (HappenStance Press, 2019).

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