‘Pile everything that will burn into the stoke-hole: decks, masts, everything – including the lifeboats!’
So ordered Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s Round the World in 80 Days. Fogg was attempting to get round the globe and back to the Reform Club in eighty days for a £20,000 bet. And, in the 1956 film with David Niven as Fogg, this was shouted from the bridge of a paddle steamer that wasn’t making enough headway. The scene features in the official trailer, and I don’t suppose Verne in 1873 or Niven in 1956 could have had any idea how these words would so perfectly encapsulate our reckless exploitation of the environment. Nor that they would pretty much sum up the Brexit venture too.
It was the first film I ever saw, aged four at most, with my grandmother at a cinema in Prince Street in Bristol. The image of people burning a boat they were travelling on made a profound impression, and I think this is what resurfaced when I wrote a poem for the IsamBard poetry walks in May at the University of Bristol Botanic Garden.
Things take time, and less is quite often more. So the original poem featuring an oak tree in the Botanic Garden was, I thought, more or less finished last November, and its four verses of five lines each of iambic hexameter, were read in the garden in May. But something about the poem nagged, so now it’s four couplets of iambic hexameter. What nags now is the notion of the ‘eco-poem,’ which I suppose this poem is, but I have a problem with fitting poems into categories, however vital the message. Or maybe it’s messages bothering me. But then again, what are we for if we don’t raise our voices?
Fire as an image can represent terror and destruction. It can be an image of cleansing and prophetic power too, as in Niney the Observer’s reggae classic Blood and Fire . PJ Harvey combined both these aspects of the image, and also sampled Niney’s track for Written on the Forehead, a song on her 2011 album Let England Shake. The track is here, and the lyrics are here. PJ Harvey is for me one of those artists who is both songwriter and poet. The power of her song perhaps answers my unease about messages.
Oak in a Botanic Garden
There is a ship that we are burning as we go
a ship of wood, of leaves, of earth and flesh and bone
a ship that was a tree which could have been this oak
that’s shifting overhead though anchored in the dark.
Then will we have to sail from here and seed the stars
once more transporting greater knowledge, grander truths?
But we’re the craft itself, the cargo and the crew
upon a ship that we are burning as we go.