I didn't leave Ireland until I was well into my twenties. I used to preen myself on this. I agreed with George Bernard Shaw that travel narrows the mind. I thought that finding yourself in a conversation with a travel bore was a fate only a few notches below death by dismemberment. I considered travel writing to be the lowest form of writing, fathoms below the writing of fridge manuals and perfume catalogues. (I still agree with the last part.)
Of course, I was being a twit. It's true that you can travel further in an armchair than on an airplane. It's true that someone who stays at home can know more about the world than any globe-trotter. But none of that means we should decline the opportunity to travel, for whatever it is worth. Just leaving the country doesn't make you a traitor to the beauty of the ordinary and near-at-hand. And travel is an experience unlike any other, after all.
In my late twenties, the clamour from friends and colleagues to "give it a try" became too much to resist. I spent a weekend in London, which was my first foray past the borders of the Republic of Ireland. (I've still never been to Northern Ireland, or the six counties, or whatever you want to call it.) And the next place I tried, after that, was-- Hull.
Some of you may be asking, 'Where's Hull?'. People who know the answer to that question may be asking, 'Why Hull'?
To answer both, Hull is a small city close to the east coast of England. It has the reputation of being one of the dullest and least glamorous places in England. In fact, it was named the worst place to live in Britain during the very week I spent there. As for why I went there-- it was mostly me being a contrarian. But it was also because my admiration of the English poet Philip Larkin was reaching a crescendo at this time, and Larkin had been a librarian at the University of Hull for most of his later life. (Hull was a suitable home for the determinedly stolid and curmudgeonly Larkin. Interestingly, for all its mundanity, Hull has been home to so many renowned poets that it has been called "the most poetic city in England". Perhaps there is a lesson there-- and in the fact that "Slough", a tirade against another soulless city, is actually one of John Betjeman's best poems.)
I travelled alone so it was a rather lonely trip. Whenever I gave not having a travelling companion as an excuse for not travelling, people would say: "Just go anyway." I see now that they were right. Not doing things because you have nobody to do them with is a good way to never have anyone to do anything with. Even if you don't meet anyone at the time, at least going out and doing stuff makes you less inward-looking and gives you something to talk about, stories to tell.
The highlight of my visit was the Maritime Museum, about which I wrote this poem. I loved it. It wasn't one of those new, fancy, multi-media, interactive, obnoxiously clean and bright museums. (Its only "fancy" feature was a recording of a whale song, which was played at regular intervals.) It had the musk of the past. Exhibits stood in rather grimy display cases or hung on walls with typed labels and captions attached. It was pleasantly cluttered. It told the story of Hull's whaling past-- at one time, whaling ships used to make their way from Hull to the Antarctic to fish (is that the word?) for whales, a trip that would take months at time. The trip was also dangerous. At one time, an open-air memorial service was being held in the harbour for the crew of one ship, who had not returned from their voyage, when that very ship sailed back into view. (The crews of these ships seemed to be very religious, with services often being held on board.) The museum also displayed various examples of the art of scrimshaw, which involves carving and sculpting from the bones of whales.
I found this memorial to a vanished past very haunting. Hence the poem, which has had more of an introduction than it deserves. (I wrote far too many sonnets back then. Everybody writes too many sonnets. Too often, a sonnet is a poetic form that people use when they won't take the bother to come up with a form more appropriate to the poem. Sonnets should really just be used for the most introspective, reflective poems.)
The Maritime Museum, Hull
The recorded cry of some dead whale resounds
Over and over again. Rusted harpoons
Hang from the walls. On winter afternoons
Descendants of dead sailors make the rounds
And mouth the names: Diana, Truelove, Swan.
Just syllables now. But children must have thrilled
To hear them, once. They gave renown. They killed.
But even the echo of their glory's gone.
These streets still pay their homage to the sea;
Pubs named for admirals, the Harbour Deck
Of a supermarket. Flotsam in time's wreck.
No-one tells tales of the Swan triumphantly
Returned from Arctic ices. Old, revered,
The Humber crawls, still dreaming of the days
It held the city's anxious, longing gaze
Like a mother no longer needed, no longer feared.