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THE ATLANTIC ARCHIPELAGO

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It is an archipelago of small lakes,

streams, and rivers. I watch black headed gulls

at low tide flock westwards, seawards,

following the water courses – where eels

and salmon thrived – to the vast estuaries

of the Dee and the Mersey barely a league

apart. Rains – falling on the Welsh Mountains

and the Peak District, on Rowton Heath and Chat Moss,

on the Wirral Peninisula that divides

the two rivers’ mouths – comingle forever

in the Irish Sea with currents from the south,

the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico.

 

When I was a child the map was a picture

of an old man with hair wild in the wind,

his nose sharp, his jutting chin, riding a pig,

and following, chasing a large balloon.

Now I see the long North Atlantic seas

founder on the rocky, indented coasts

of Ireland and the Hebrides to merge,

north of Cape Wrath, between the Orkneys

and Shetland, into continental waters,

breaking from the North Sea and the Channel

on atlased cliffs and strands, on endless inlets

and promontories, perpetual coasts.

 

This archipelago of six thousand

surprising, shifting islands – for the most part

uninhabited by human beings,

still mostly green from space in daylight –

abounds with saints’ names, and with hallowed places.

Yet how the English aka Normans,

Plantagenets, Tudors, and Stuarts

took the name of Jesus Christ in vain

so as to scourge their nearest neighbours –

Oliver Cromwell at Drogheda,

William III at Glencoe – nowhere

too small or modest for lethal bigotry!

Later the English anglicized the place names

in Celtic lands. Their army engineers

built single track bridges in the Highlands

so gun carriages could cross, and surveyed

the entire kingdom in case of uprisings.

 

The chalky, pebbly English Channel ports

appear to have been stuck strategically

on England’s rump so our masters may face down,

with florid rhetoric, through sunshine

and moonlight, mist and storm, perfidious

foreigners in occasional dinghies.

Yet here are infinite coasts of landfall:

Celtic warriors, Roman villas,

Saxon kingdoms, Viking settlements,

Norman castles, French speaking courtiers,

Latin in law courts and cathedrals,

and German dynasties on the throne!

 

The Celts were harried westwards into Wales.

There were Highland Clearances, the Great Hunger,

and English Enclosures of common land.

Wherever there were forests they were felled

to build ships. Wherever there were valleys

and streams floors of clattering, rumbling looms

were built. Wherever there was coal the earth

was torn open, and its history burned.

Canals were dug, iron rails laid, roads tarmacked,

and cities – with their civic halls, their squares,

museums, libraries, and back-to-back slums –

grew large on the Slave Trade and Empire,

as the English with their aiders and abetters

coloured the atlas pink with murder and greed.

When it all fell apart, they invited those

who had been servants and slaves to take jobs

in the archipelago, work the natives

would not or could not do. So the cities

have become celebrations of diversity,

testaments to there being one human race.

How the self-pitying nativists hate that!

What should be a welcoming commonwealth

is riven with squabbling, petty abstractions,

exploited by would-be demagogues,

and media-megaphoned by aged billionaires –

spiteful, mendacious citizens of nowhere!

 

I saw, one early August afternoon

on Lindisfarne aka Holy Island,

a tidal island off England’s north east coast,

home once of St Aidan and St Cuthbert –

a coach party from Newcastle about

to disembark. There were children, mothers,

grandmas – the women in hijabs. Suddenly

a cold sea mist – known locally as a haar

from the Middle Dutch for a cold, sharp wind –

blew in from the North Sea. They shook their heads,

sighed, laughed, and, speaking Urdu and English,

got back on the bus to have their picnic

in the warm and dry, bright mist swirling round them.

 

 

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