When a ship passes at night on the Clyde
Swans in the reeds, picking oil from their feathers,
Look up at the lights, the noise of new waves,
Against hill-climbing houses, malefic cranes.
(This blog respects copyright. To read the rest of the poem, try your local library, or else where on the internet – or, if you really like it, buy it.).
(Douglas Dunn 1967, From selected Poems 1964-1983, Faber and Faber, London)
There’s something devilish going on in the first couple of stanzas of Douglas Dunn’s Ships. We’re some distance here, figuratively speaking, from the soothing waters of Hamilton’s poem of my last post. There’s a definite hint of Auld Clooty himself here, who has long been a mainstay of Scottish literature. Those swans picking oil out of their feathers are suffering from the modern ill of pollution, but the vision it conjures of an oily river is a hellish vision, not least with those ‘malefic cranes’ and ‘clubfooted peninsulas’.
Even the ‘hill-climbing houses’ seem somewhat sinister here, as if the spread of suburbs to the hills of Ayrshire were somehow sinister. Perhaps that’s the influence of Dunn’s mentor, Philip Larkin, who lamented the urbanisation of the English countryside – in Going Going, for example.
The ‘lascar’ shipmates bring a slightly devilish exoticism to an otherwise dour scene, and a hint of the glory days of when Britannia ruled the waves and the coast never set on the British Empire (and racist classification was a fact of life). They were proud days too for military and seagoing men and their families, and for the seaports of Britain, Glasgow being one of the most important. Such pride finds a touching expression in the description of framed pictures in stanza three.
Those days are gone, with the British Empire usurped by the American Hegemony, the Asian Tigers and a new globalised world; Scotland’s old ports and shipbuilding areas are in terminal decline and their ‘restless boys without work in the river towns’. Drink your Coca Cola, boys – empires have suffered worse fates.