I thought back to another year I knew
Autumn, lifting potatoes and stacking peats
On Mull… Ruthven Todd
There it is. Reading aloud from his latest book, Alexander McCall Smith nabs a furtive shadow from another time with a few lines from Ruthven Todd’s poem written in 1938.
That niggling feeling of impending doom, the disturbing whiff of civil war in Spain. Another time, another place. Impossible in 2018, and yet…’We find ourselves wondering if this is how people felt in the 1930s, the sense of crisis’. The gentlemanly McCall Smith leaves the suggestion hanging in the air. It’s a glorious autumn afternoon on Mull. Inside the Aros Hall, the audience at a signature event in the inaugural Tobermory Book Festival is eager to hear secrets of Scotland Street.
At times, the book festival seems like an escape from dysfunctional obsessions of Brexit Britain. Outside the hall, sunshine glitters on a flat, calm sea, bouncing off the shocking pink ice cream parlour occupying the old public lavatory in the harbour.
And yet, there it is, lurking round the edges of conversations in bars and restaurants: an echoing unease about the time we are in. Unfolding news nudges its way in between gaps in the festival programme.
Poems for bombardment
We bring the world with us. By chance, I have travelled to Mull with the Spanish Civil War in my bag. The Tree of Gernika: A Field Study of Modern War is a startling account by the young Times correspondent George Steer who alerted the world – and Pablo Picasso – to the brutal destruction of a Basque market town in April 1937.
Steer’s battle coverage is written in often disturbingly beautiful poetic prose. On the train journey here, I discovered he carried poetry with him into the trenches. As fascist forces bombed the hillsides around Bilbao, the war correspondent found a quiet corner under sandbags to read 17th century metaphysical words of George Herbert on a hot, hard day in August 1937
Maybe the young Scottish poet Ruthven Todd had that bombing in mind as he walked chilly streets of London remembering better times on Mull. Now, here is Alexander McCall Smith reading Todd’s poem, In September 1937, which he has included in his new book A Gathering: A Personal Anthology of Scottish Poems.
In September, I saw the drab newsposters
Telling of wars, in Spain and in the East,
And wished I’d stayed on Mull…
Not that Hebridean life is an escape from reality. This first Tobermory Book Festival is refreshingly free of romantic myths. The three organisers – Hugh Andrew, of Scottish publishers Birlinn, who divides his time between Edinburgh and Mull, Duncan Swinbanks, of Tackle and Books in Tobermory, and Hugh Raven, of Ardtornish – have no illusions about what it takes to thrive (or just survive) in remote communities dependent on the vagaries of weather, roads, and ferry timetables.
Other forces threaten sustainable livelihoods. Food writer and chef Claire Macdonald whets audience appetites with her Saturday lunchtime salmon cookery demonstration. But clear waters round Mull are also a battlefield and no longer teeming with fish. Next morning, Guy Grieve describes the devastating destruction of scallop beds. Grieve (author of Call of the Wild: My Escape to Alaska and founder of the Ethical Shellfish Company on Mull) is a fearlessly outspoken critic of the damage wrought by industrial trawlers dredging the seabed but, he says, local fishermen have learned to keep silent. ‘They know their kreels will be torn away if they speak out.’
A different silence blocks communication with the wider world. Visitors might enjoy respite from internet connection (no mobile signal, no Twitter, no email notifications). To Angus MacDonald, a highly successful entrepreneur and author (Ardnish was Home and We Fought for Ardnish), ‘lack of broadband is the third clearance’.
Perhaps the most haunting words come from Adam Nicolson. The Seabirds Cry is a poetic polemic, a celebration of ingenious, intelligent birds – puffins, sheerwaters, razorbills, kitiwakes – hardwired to survive all that Mother Nature can throw at them. Apart from human profligacy.
Nicolson’s talk, which fills the Aros Hall, is also a requiem for the extraordinary birdlife rapidly disappearing from our skies. An alarm call echoed by the WWF Living Planet Report that follows just a few days later. The sixth mass extinction is on us.
For all that, the festival raises spirits. Confronting hard facts, the authors speak from the heart because they love the abundance and complexity of life. They write because they want to share and save it. With political will and public pressure, there is still time – if we act now – to tackle the mess we are making.
Heading for home, ferry lights reflecting on water as smooth as glass. What happens next? In 1938 George Steer saw hope for the future in the resilient character of Basque people: ‘It is my belief, and history will show, that this oppression will not last for ever…’
On the train, I open my signed copy of Alexander McCall Smith’s anthology, a rich life-affirming collection, Here’s Violet Jacob’s Wild Geese. Poetry can be both a comfort and a warning. This autumn, more than any other, the thrilling call of wild geese reminds us what we have to lose.
‘And far abune the Angus straths I saw the wild geese flee,
A lang, lang skein o’beatin’ wings, wi’ their heids towards the sea,
And aye their cryin’ voices trailed ahint them on the air–‘
‘O Wind, hae maircy, haud her whisht, for I daurna listen mair!’
Featured image: Sound of Mull, Sunset by Henry Hemming CC By 2.0