WE ARE in Northumberland for a few days, staying in Amble, a small fishing port that Maggie and I have been visiting for more than 20 years. When you stand on the jetty in the harbour mouth, where the River Coquet runs into the sea, you can look upstream and see Warkworth Castle — “this worm-eaten hold of ragged stone”, as Shakespeare called it — still standing proud. Amid its ruins my children first played at knights-in-armour.
Or you can turn and look out to sea; and there lies Coquet Island, with the morning light beginning to brighten behind it, as thousands of puffins and roseate terns enjoy their sanctuary there. Though there is a deeper sanctuary still; for the lighthouse rises from the ruins of a monastery, and the island was, for a while, one of St Cuthbert’s island hermitages.
But, when I first wondered down to this harbour, very early one morning in 1996, it was neither the castle nor the island that drew my attention: it was the little fishing fleet, and, more particularly, it was the names of these sturdy vessels which attracted me: Providence, Fidelity, and Fruitful Bough, all somehow resonant, redolent, of Prayer Book and scripture.
As the light strengthened and the tide came in to lift these little ships that morning, 23 years ago, I sensed that there was a poem there, just in the names themselves, and I jotted the names down and kept them on a scrap of paper. I felt like a jeweller with a purse full of pearls, waiting for the moment to give them the right setting.
Eventually, that came; and, far from Amble, in landlocked Cambridgeshire, I wrote a poem, “Saying the Names”. It’s 20 years since they kindly published that poem in The Ambler, Amble’s community newspaper, but, visiting the place again, I was delighted to see that many of those boats were still there, crewed by a rising generation; and, for old times’ sake, I went down to admire them in the early-morning light, just as they were when I wrote the opening lines of “Saying the Names”:
Dawn over Amble, and along the coast
Light on the tide flows to Northumberland,
Silvers the scales of herring freshly caught
And gleaming in their boxes on the dock,
Shivers the rainbow sheen on drops of diesel,
And lights at last the North Sea fishing fleet.
Tucked into harbour here, their buoyant lines
Lift to the light on plated prows their names,
The ancient names picked out in this year’s paint:
Providence, Bold Venture, Star Divine
Are first along the quay-side. Fruitful Bough
Has stemmed the tides to bring her harvest in.
Orcadian Mist and Sacred Heart, Aspire,
Their names are numinous, a found poem.
I know that the fishermen of Amble and so many other places have been through many vicissitudes and uncertainties, and, for all of us, it seems that there is more uncertainty to come; but I took comfort in the continuity of those names, not just over the two decades of my visits, but from generation to generation, and reaching back into the scriptures they echo.
And that is how, all those years ago, I ended my poem:
Those Bible-burnished phrases live and lift
Into the brightening tide of morning light
And beg to be recited, chanted out,
For names are incantations, mysteries
Made manifest like ships on the horizon.
Eastward their long line tapers towards dawn
And ends at last with Freedom, Radiant Morn.