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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

04 September 2020

On holiday in Norfolk, Malcolm Guite ponders what story a derelict boat might tell

I LOVE old boatyards and boatsheds. Like the vestries of some churches, they are full of the accumulated paraphernalia of tradition and specialisation: wonderful old bits of gear to which most people could not even give a name. To the layman, the chains and cups of a dusty thurible, and the rusty block and tackle for a gaff-rig might seem equally elaborate, equally inexplicable. But, to the initiate, each has just that kind of exact beauty in which form follows function. And some boatyards, like some vestries, contain not only examples of beauty and perfection, but also many remnants of forgotten projects and half-realised dreams.

We are enjoying a late summer holiday on a houseboat, which is part of a boatyard on the Norfolk Broads; so I can poke about the place, and enjoy its full boatiness to my heart’s content. There are many fine old vessels, beautifully maintained and clearly their owners’ pride and joy, perfect examples of those lovely Broads sailing boats that flourished a century ago, just before the advent of mass motor cruisers, back in the days when Arthur Ransome was sailing, and fishing the broads.

Indeed, there’s another yard up here that hired boats to Ransome back in the day, and is still hiring those same boats out, sound as ever. But, alongside these cherished classics, there are poor dilapidated boats covered in leaves and mould, cobwebs running strong between their spars, and they have clearly never been visited for many seasons. And then there are the unfinished projects: the derelict boats that someone began restoring and somehow abandoned.

There’s a jaunty little boat in this yard with a bright yellow hull, but she’s half falling off her trailer and her stern is covered in green algae and the leaves shed by the old willow beneath which her trailer is parked. It wouldn’t take much to set her in fine fettle again, and her name invites that initiative, and makes her sad abandonment all the more poignant; for she is proudly emblazoned CARPE DIEM.

Oh, what a story she might tell! Someone saw his life slipping away, with nothing dared, nothing dreamed, nothing done. And then he saw her, and fell in love! “Seize the day,” he thought. “She only needs a little work to set her to rights, and then we’ll be free, we’ll be sailing the Broads together, we’ll see the sun set with the heron and watch it rise with the coots and the swans, we’ll live life to the full at last.”

So, he made her his own and he brought her here. And then, alas, what happened? Carpe diem! Perhaps the days seized him: the days of overwork, the days of obligation, the days of debt, the days of sickness, and, as Dylan says somewhere, “everything he ever planned just had to be postponed. . .”

And so Carpe Diem waits under the willow, like Mariana in the Moated Grange, for someone who never comes.

But she has at least done this: she has reminded me to make the most of the days that are given to me, to seize the day, to live this present life to the full and to hope that I might leave some small items of usefulness and beauty, however obscure their purpose, for someone to stumble upon in the vestries or the boatyards of posterity.

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