We were ‘minded of this line from Kenneth Slessor, ‘they sway and wander in the waters far under’ when we saw a dead cat amid the sea-wrack who had fallen from the cliffs at the Wallegoe Steps, Northern Scotland on our recent visit there. It may well have been the most poignant image that springs to mind when I recall our trip to Scotland. My father’s brother, Basil and Della’s own father, Bill both fought in the North African campaign (alongside Slessor), so no doubt witnessed the dread originators of these lines).
I was amazed at the way the currents made the dead cat come alive, just as the drowned soldiers seemed to off Alexandria those many years ago. I know that a dead kitty hunting kittiwakes who had over-reached himself in his greed, slipped and fallen to his death in the ocean a hundred plus metres below is not the same thing as WW2, and when I watch documentaries about the latter I am not sorry I missed it, and marvel at the amazing generation who endured it.
As a ‘cockney’ hailing from Shoreditch, Della’s mother lived every day as a young woman through the torment of Goering’s blitz. There was a point (she told us) when it was ‘getting her down’ (their generation’s word for PTSD). Her own mother’s advice (this was after their house scored a direct hit and ‘disappeared’ completely – if you can imagine that – leaving only their family dog shell-shocked and sheltering under the gas oven – all that remained) whilst they too were sheltering in the Anderson shelter in the backyard was pretty much, ‘Toughen up Dorothy’ – which she did! The dog however did not recover and had to be put down. Dorothy though went on to live to 91+.
I always remember her as an amazingly cheery tiny woman, smaller even than Della who is a pocket-sized Venus just 1/4″ shy of 5′. Dorothy was more like 4′ 9″. How and where she found the strength to be so positive after the terrible things she had witnessed in her life is such a credit to her spirit. Size is not a measure of quality. Bizarrely enough, apparently in our present ‘entitlement’ culture today folks under 5′ are ‘entitled’ to a ‘disability’ pension for being short. This is just laughable. Della and her mother Dorothy are/were tiny powerhouses. Utterly unstoppable.
For example, right across the road of Dorothy’s London youth there were some shops. After one air raid there were clearly people trapped in a cellar which had acted as a bomb shelter under the ruins of one. Rescuers saw no great hurry to clear the rubble as they could ‘hear a man with a beautiful tenor voice singing’ below. There were no doubt more urgent things: people injured, fires and such which had to be dealt with. The dog perhaps?
Little did they know that he was singing to keep the trapped people’s spirits up whilst hoisting a small girl on his back to keep her head out of the rising water. The bombs had burst the water mains and the water level was slowly rising. All, (over 100) drowned as Dorothy and her mother watched and listened, no doubt busily helping move some rubble meantime. The shops were never rebuilt – instead now there is a small park with a memorial to those who perished.
The Wallegoe Steps were poignant to me for another reason. They were built at a huge expense of labour (in the early C19th) to create a very flimsy ‘harbour’ to unload the herring catch. Just walking up and down them is quite an undertaking for folks of our generation – most having to stop many times in each ascent/descent – but hauling box after box of fish and tackle on your back up and down the hundreds of steep steps no doubt often in dreadful weather underlines the harsh life so many in Northern Scotland endured for so long (as the remains of the many crofts we came across also did). In comparison we have lived a blessed life, though we have worked hard too outside for many years in may different weathers.
We managed to take a video of the cat. Some may find this macabre I know – but if you watch it as you read Slessor’s poem and also reflect on what I have said above, you may see the point in posting about it here.
Beach Burial Kenneth Slessor
Softly and humbly to the Gulf of Arabs
The convoys of dead sailors come;
At night they sway and wander in the waters far under,
But morning rolls them in the foam.
Between the sob and clubbing of gunfire
Someone, it seems, has time for this,
To pluck them from the shallows and bury them in burrows
And tread the sand upon their nakedness;
And each cross, the driven stake of tidewood,
Bears the last signature of men,
Written with such perplexity, with such bewildered pity,
The words choke as they begin –
‘Unknown seaman’ – the ghostly pencil
Wavers and fades, the purple drips,
The breath of wet season has washed their inscriptions
As blue as drowned men’s lips,
Dead seamen, gone in search of the same landfall,
Whether as enemies they fought,
Or fought with us, or neither; the sand joins them together,
Enlisted on the other front.