The Marks t’ Gan By

By Katrina Porteous |

"It's difficult to know which one to use, but after some thought I've chosen a very old poem, The Marks t' Gan By, because I feel that it expresses something of the network of community, marine environment, nature and culture embodied in the lives of the fishermen I knew who were born before World War I. Their sense that their way of life had been handed down to them, and that it was their responsibility to hand it on, was very strong; their fear that they and their environment were threatened by new technologies that improved life in the short term but endangered the future has fully come to pass. Men and women like Charlie Douglas and his sister-in-law May Douglas were clear-eyed, not nostalgic or romantic. There were many aspects of their early lives that were insupportable: the dangers of fishing from an open coble, particularly in winter; the endless unpaid drudgery of women baiting the long lines; even some of the conditions in which they had lived. Nevertheless, they understood some things that were perhaps lost in the rush of new technology: that efficiency is not the only goal; that many of the most valuable things in life are unquantifiable and have no price; that the human and the natural are inextricably intertwined; and that, as Charlie Douglas succinctly put it, 'The sea's the boss': that, however our technologies appear to dominate it, nature is always in charge. I think of their now-lost way of life as a metaphor for so much that wider society must keep in mind."

The Marks T’ Gan By

I asked Charlie what a fisherman must know.
‘Aal bloody things!’ he answered me. ‘How so?’
‘A fisherman hetti hev brains, y’ kna, one time;’
His fingers twisted round the slippery twine
In the stove’s faint firelight. It was getting dark.
‘Them days,’ he said, ‘w’ hetti gan b’ marks.

‘Staggart, the Fairen Hoose; Hebron, Beadlin Trees...’
Thus he began the ancient litany
Of names, half-vanished, beautiful to hear:
‘Ga’n roond the Point, keep Bamburgh Castle clear
The Black Rock, mind. Off Newton, steer until
Ye’ve Staggart level the Nick a the Broad Mill.’

Novice, I listened. In the gloom I saw
The rolled-up sail by the long-unopened door,
A traveller, stiff with rust, a woodwormed mast –
All the accumulation of the distant past.
‘Now, keep the Chorch on Alexandra Hoose,
An’ yon’s the road...’ ‘Oh, Charlie, what's the use?’

I said. ‘These memories! I know they’re true,
And certainly they’re beautiful. But how can you
Compete with all the science of these modern days?
The echo-sounder’s finished your outdated ways.
Efficiency. That’s what they want; not lore.
Why should the past concern us any more?’

I could not see his face. The stove had died.
‘There’s naen crabs noo,’ said Charlie sadly, and he sighed,
And seeming not to hear me, sealed the knot.
‘When ye see lippers comin’, when t’ stop
An’ when t’ gan – that’s what ye need t’ kna.
The sea’s the boss. Me fatther telled me so.

‘Them marks,’ he said; ‘he handed aal them doon
Like right an’ wrang. Them buggers for’ the toons,’ –
He sliced the twine he sewed with, savagely –
‘Th’ divvin’t kna what’s right. Th’ gan t’ sea –
Their only mind’s for profit. They’ll no give
Naen thowt t’ hoo their sons’ll hetti live.’

I saw, then. ‘So,’ I said, ‘as we embark,
The past is map and measure, certain mark
To steer by in the cold, uncertain sea?
We leave it, like the land. But all we know –
What to hang on to and when to let go –
Leads from it...’ ‘Aye,’ said Charlie. ‘Sic an’ so.’

Katrina Porteous
From: ‘The Lost Music’ (Bloodaxe Books 1996)

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