Kaptajn Svend Poulsen – 11th of April 1929 – 8th July 2017
The tradition of ‘Month’s Mind’ – a special commemorative day for a deceased loved one that is held around a month after his or her death – is in all faiths and traditions, regardless of how that is arranged and expressed. The Month’s Mind tradition is still very strong in Ireland and, of course, the Celtic use of the word ‘mind’ as a verb is to ‘remember’. Do you mind that day when he was here? If I mind correctly, it was last autumn when the tree fell, and so on. Memory is the basis of all culture.
The word ‘mind’ is essentially Germanic in origin and, interestingly, in Old Norse we find that ‘mind’ as minna and then the related mynd can be both a remembrance and also an image. Modern Icelandic ‘hug-mynd’ meanwhile is a thought or perception. We mind and we image and we imagine, and this, my Months Mind for my dear, recently deceased sea captain Svend Poulsen, is an important way of helping me bring my thoughts memories and images about him together. To help me create. To help me ‘mind’. It also tells me once again that no matter how much, justifiable, anger we feel at religious institutions and their collapse into imperious moralism and too often evil abuse, we mustn’t throw away the traditions they have carried for centuries in our cultures. Our rituals and myths are there to help us to remember not to forget. Memory is the basis of all culture.
‘MS Skaga Sif’ in Spain with timber from Russia – the author bending over her gunwale under the watchful eye of a boatswain in the foreground who’s stowing a pilot ladder.
Most of you will already have noticed that it’s more than a month since my Captain died but I wrote much of this essay just after his cremation service in Salford and then work, in the form of a book deadline, has delayed me until now. Captain Poulsen will forgive me for allowing work to take precedence; for he always stressed the value and dignity of work. He was at heart a worker. Despite his exalted position as a Ship’s Captain, he was really just an extraordinary ordinary man who chose to live amongst the people. That was the way we met. His wife lived in Salford and that’s where he chose to live. Salford of all places. Grimy, already post-industrial, Thatcher ravaged Salford. The allegedly feral Salford. My home town. He could have chosen anywhere in the world to live and most sea captains do. By a beach, usually, on their retirement. A living death scenario for my Captain.
The Hidden Nature of Irish Plastic – a novel
I’ve written a novel that’s based on my time at sea. It is, or more accurately ‘became’, fiction, but Svend Poulsen features more or less as himself. The key story is a young man’s voyage of self and cultural discovery and is obviously partly based on my own life, but by far the majority of events in the book are fiction. There is strong truth in good fiction. It is an incredible process when the characters you mind as you write a book suddenly begin doing things you weren’t expecting, or show sides you didn’t know about, but they are nonetheless true – for that character and for that life in that book. Creating true metaphysical lives is an astonishing human gift.
The book doesn’t romanticise. Life at sea can be harsh, as is shown. Inevitable tensions arise when people must live cheek by jowl with each other for long periods of time. And you can’t just walk off a boat in the middle of the ocean. But deep cultural symbols and memories emerge. The Danish crew’s love of good food. The seriousness also with which most Danes takes democracy. I mind (create) conversations my shipmates were having – about poverty in England and the reasons for it. The way they left things aside for that boy. Suddenly found things they didn’t need. Work gear the boy didn’t have. Even the right wing or cussed ones had constant flashes of Grace. Liked the boy also because he loved to work.
Of course, I’ve written the novel after studying Old Norse, Scandinavian and other languages for many years. I learned Danish almost as a child does. So came the knowledge that the Scandinavians have this precious thing called serious discourse in their culture. That they are highly individual and have a deep sense of personal right. That a person also has a right to be awkward. That there must be space for Loki as well as Thor. The phrase Holmgang – a single combat duel over a legal dispute that is fought out on an islet or ‘holm’ – has gone into English. With ‘Holmgang’ in your culture, you need to know your law and be ready to be yourself to your very essence. And they help this boy find his true self back in Ireland from whence his ancestors had to flee. Truths that had been hidden from him, as is the immigrant way with their children.
I only sailed twice under Captain Poulsen but they were long trips. Once on ‘MS Inger Kansas’ from England to Portugal, the Canary Islands and then Africa, with an extended stay in Nigeria. A remarkable journey into the creeks of the Niger delta. And then a second tour under his command on ‘MS Skaga Sif’. On Skaga Sif we went from Sweden to White Sea ports around Archangel in Russia and then down to Morocco; on then into the Mediterranean and its captivating harbours. It’s far from it I was reared, but my Captain saw good things in me and knew I was able. He wanted me to continue my life at sea; was even willing to pay for me to go to the naval officer college in Denmark. But he and his crew had lifted me from the mire of a grim childhood and the only journey I could make was that of self-discovery, which is a journey into art. I know he was disappointed, but he freed the yearning salmon as freedom lovers do.
Svend Poulsen was always just himself. Happy in himself. Happy in his own self sufficiency as Kierkegaard put it. Happy in the knowledge he had not only been a quietly brilliant ship’s master, but had also helped other people. Happy amongst the people. He’s in Valhalla now and waits to steer the Gods in their longship. Away from Ragnarök on that fateful day. He was brave and forthright. A great mariner. Gladly faced into storms with a glint in his eye. An impish grin, even. He was both Thor and Loki. The essence of a Dane.
Farvel så længe, Kaptajn. Vi ses nok igen, engang.
@Paul Larkin , An Charraig, Gaoth Dobhair
Mí Meán Fómhair 2017