It struck me that if the summons I just received had been offered in a city context, I might not have been so willing to acquiesce to its demands. “Come and see my new chainsaw!” was the invitation. Winter storms had ravaged much of the Western Isles in January 2015 and the trees surrounding my parent’s house were badly damaged. The chainsaw was being put to good use, massacring the remnants of what remained standing.
It was all a ruse though. “Trobhad agus clearaig na craobhan a tha seo dhomh”. Which basically translates to, “I’ve pretended that I was going to show off my chainsaw, when what I actually want is for you to come and carry this huge stack of trees away.”
I went in search of gloves and knew they’d be found in the place I hate the most: the barn. With its cobwebs and damp and miscellany of tools, my parent’s barn is not dissimilar from the hundreds of others in Lewis. It’s where everything goes before it is finally consigned to the sad fate of the skip.
I was distracted by the memory of an old Silver Cross pram that used to be in there. Not appreciating the concept of “modern vintage” though, it had obviously not made it through my parent’s last junk cull. But I did find something else. Amidst a pile of ancient exercise books and jotters with curling corners there was a small, water-damaged book – The Hundred Best English Poems.
I recognised the names inside. Yeats. Byron. Whitman. Kipling. Scotland’s own Burns. How sad that such legendary names should be condemned to mould and rot in a side room of a little Scottish barn. So I saved it. And brought it to Glasgow to nestle safely between Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.
Today I picked it up and read the words of William Wordsworth’s Sonnet (“The world is too much with…”) and Edgar Allan Poe’s brilliant Annabel Lee for the first time. I read Shakespeare and Blake. I skipped to the back, wondering who had squeezed in at number 100. It was James Elroy Flecker to whom the final slot in the book was bestowed. Here is what he said to me in the last two verses of To a Poet a Thousand Years hence:
O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone;
I was a poet, I was young.
Since I can never see your face,
And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand.
Here, in this old forgotten schoolbook, a long-dead poet had written to me. No gimmicks or games. With just pen and paper he snared my attention. His words had transcended time and space and reached me. These words became a worthy addition to the notebook I always carry with me, where I keep note of my favourite pieces of literature and poetry.
We live in a throwaway age of disposable this and get-a-new-one that but the charm and worth of this little long-forgotten collection is more than money could pay for. And I wonder now – what else is in that barn?!