I’d like to introduce you to a classy little publication. If you don’t already know it, The Marine Quarterly edited and published by PBO columnist Sam Llewellyn is a gem.
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TMQ is a beautifully produced four-times-a-year package of writing by current and past authors, and I’m delighted to be able to say that I found it full of the kind of writing where there’s not a word out of place, or that I would want to change. What’s more, the material Sam has found to put in it is always illuminating, poetic or entertaining, and often manages to be two or three of these at once.
I do realise a few samples are needed to prove the point, so I’m going to add a few short extracts that I enjoyed particularly.
First, from a dreamlike piece by Roger Taylor (of Ming-Ming fame)about narrow escapes from drowning, we have this:
‘I was twelve when it happened next. Every Sunday I crossed the sands of Dee from West Kirby to Hilbre Island, for the birds and the wilderness and the delicious distance from the mainland. On this day I set off a little late, in thick fog. I did not have a compass, but I had the fresh tracks of other birdwatchers to follow. Just beyone the Little Eye I came to the first gulley. This is a slight depression in the sand which fills first on the rising tide. I followed the tracks into the gulley, expecting, at this stage of the tide, a stretch of water just a few inches deep and twenty yards or so wide. I knew that once through the shallow water I would come to the rocks that led safely to Hilbre. I waded on. Suddenly the water got deeper, filling my Wellington boots. Suddenly it was up to my thighs. I stopped and looked around me. There was nothing to see. A silver sea merged into a silver fog. The water was rising quickly…
‘I knew what was going to happen. People drowned out here almost every year, and this year I would be one of them.’
Here’s Oscar Branson greatly enjoying describing the doings of plankton just after sunrise:
‘Diatoms with glassy opal shells hang in the water, glittering in the sun – a variety of diamonds, cylinders and chains. Minute ciliates zip around in the water, propelled by ranks of frantically pulsating hairs. Coccolithophores, round cells covered with intricate calcium carbonate plates, rise slowly to the surface. Peculiarly shaped dinoflagellates progress sedately, powered by two long, thin tail-like flagella. Cyanobacteria rise serenely to the surface, inflating their bouyancy control gas bubbles…
‘And all this is taking place in a single millilitre.’
Finally, I was delighted that Sam found room in his latest volume for one of Neil Munro’s famous Para Handy stories about the crew of a Clyde puffer, the first of which were now a century old. The Scottish words can take a little work to understand, but these tales represent some of the best sparely-written and sympathetic humour I know. And, besides, coming across the story Hurricane Jack’s Luck-bird took me straight back to the period in sixties and seventies when Para Handy was on telly and a special treat for a boy like me who really should have been in bed.
‘Para Handy, with his arms plunged elbow-deep inside the waistband of his trousers, and his back against a stanchion, conveniently for scratching, touched the animal misgivingly with the toe of his boot, and expressed an opinion that any kind of pet was unnecessary on the Vital Spark so long as they had McPhail. ‘Forbye,’ said he, ‘you would have to pay a licence for the beast, and the thing’s no’ worth it.
‘Your aunty!’ retorded Sunny Jim, lifting his hedghog in his cap; ‘it’s no a dug. Ye divna need a licence for a hedghog ony mair nor for a mangle. There’s no’ a better thing for killin’ clocks; a’ the foreign-goin’ boats hae hedgehogs. Forbye, they’re lucky.’
But the Captain still looked with disapproval on the animal which Sunny Jim had picked up in a ditch along the shore that morning and brought aboard in a handkerchief.
‘There was never a beast aboard this boat,’ said he, ‘but brought bad luck. I once had desperate trouble with a cockatoo… ‘