Off in a Boat
In 1937 Neil Gunn, then a Civil Servant in the Customs and Excise Service, and already a novelist of considerable IL distinction, decided to make the break with his former life of writing within a service that offered him financial security at a time of mass unemployment. The break took the form of giving up his post, selling his house and buying a boat. It was a bold and courageous step and brings to mind other authors' ideas of changes of direction.
In Kipling's poem Sestina of the Tramp Royal the wanderer writes,
'But presently you feel that you will die
The wanderer's philosophy, although laudable, portrays a sort of restlessness, a desire for change for change's sake.
Unless you get the page you're reading done,
An' turn another - likely not so good;
but what you're after is to turn them all.'
Joseph Conrad in his story The Shadow Line writes about that farewell to youth, even youth abounding with success and useful experience, to cross the barrier into another world - possibly a world less certain in terms of hope and the realisation of youthful dreams.
For Neil Gunn the break with his past pattern of life and his crossing that invisible barrier into a new form of existence were done for different reasons and were not simply part of the natural process of moving from late youth into early middle age or, in his case, more remarkably, a movement within the vast bracket of middle age itself. A remark made in the early part of the book explains much; it concerns the buying of the 'Boat'. 'I had been thinking of it for some time. To be passing out there, where no craft was visible, would be a sailing out of time. To cast our warps, not for escape, but for adventure - into that which all our moorings have kept from us.' The remark is positive and hints at the author's need to stand back and reflect on the human situation in a world that was becoming increasingly torn apart by political strife and the clash of ideologies (1937). In the book it becomes clear at an early stage that the tools for this detached survey include a profound knowledge of Celtic mythology and tradition, a love of Celtic culture and a deep interest in his own ancestry. For him, ancestry meant both the Celtic and Nordic influences - sometimes at variance, sometimes in concord. This interest had been translated into imaginative history in an early book Sun Circle (1933), which could be called the Genesis of Caithness, Neil Gunn's native county. It was no accident that Gunn decided to make the West his area of exploration. That 'never ending' direction that fascinated Celtic minds with the idea of Tir nan Og, the land of the ever young, the Gaelic paradise, and enticed the Vikings to go further and further afield to satisfy their land lust and their penchant for destruction and plundering. The place names in the West, both Celtic and Nordic, thrilled Gunn and provided the compost needed to sustain his thinking.
But back to the 'Boat' - no Viking longship, but simply a 27-foot motor cruiser, appropriately named 'The Thistle'. The noun odyssey has often been used in connection with this book. Strangely enough, a great admirer of the English Tennyson, Neil Gunn was fully familiar with the Victorian poet's poem, Ulysses. In that comparatively short poem Tennyson delicately dipping into Greek mythology mentions the 'Happy Isles' where the great Achilles found his final resting place. In Off In A Boat Gunn can match these allusions with his many references to the heroes and heroines of Gaelic mythology. This is an easy balance as both classical and Celtic mythologies, although dealing with the remote past, have an immediacy about them that appeals to the imaginative mind. A knowledge of Homer or Virgil adds much to the delight of the seaman viewing such islands as Malta, Gozo, Sicily and those off mainland Greece. Celtic and Nordic mythologies are equally important ingredients for the complete enjoyment of the Hebrides. Although these similarities are worth noting, there is a big difference between the Odyssey and Off In A Boat. Ulysses is returning to his beloved Ithaca to perform an act of retribution; Gunn is completing his voyage to enhance his creative life through the memories of a voyage round the Inner Hebrides and his reflections and thoughts gleaned from his love affair with the West.
There is another great difference between Neil Gunn's Off In A Boat and the works of joseph Conrad and the great Homer. There is in Off In A Boat a thread of humour that winds its way throughout all the episodes and anecdotes that form the core of this curious sea voyage - at once concrete, spiritual and timeless. In this context Neil Munro's inimitable Para Handy comes to mind as 'The Thistle' at times resembles her sister ship 'The Vital Spark'. A description of the Clyde puffer is as humorous and vivid as that of Neil Gunn's 'Thistle'. 'She wass chust sublime. A gold bead oot of my own pocket, four men and a derrick, a watter-but and a pan loaf in the fo'c'sle. My bonnie wee Fital Spark.'
Compare this to the advice given to Neil Gunn when on his quest for a boat. 'Man', he said turning to me with his dark smile, 'I know the very thing for you. I saw her last week in Skye. She's mahogany from the keel up and she has the lines of a girl. You could dance in her cabin and she has a wash-basin you tip up and a lavatory that cost over twenty pounds.' The description is of a 'real' boat that will initiate Gunn into the practicalities and mystique of life at sea.
Like Neil Gunn, Joseph Conrad can be extremely lyrical about the sea and ships. Yet, behind the lyricism there is the presence of the matter of fact in the form of good seamanship, pilotage and navigation. In his novel Heart of Darkness a man who is in danger of losing his spiritual bearings in the upper reaches of a jungle river finds consolation and assurance at the sight of an Admiralty publication that contains concrete advice on tides, currents, topography, local politics and place names. Neil Gunn derived much pleasure and comfort from publications of this type. In fact, they intrigued him and reminded him of the good common sense so necessary for the safety and enjoyment of life at sea. They kept him fully aware of the 'here and now' and the age old rhythm of life in the Western Isles, a rhythm that reached back in time and introduced a feeling of timelessness. He writes, 'What really prompted the buying of this monstrous boat? Was it that I wanted to outdo the folk of the West in their disregard of time, to have some sort of revenge on the monstrousness of time itself?' He certainly outdid Ulysses in terms of his crew. No band of seasoned warriors to aid him, but only his wife Daisy and occasionally his brother John, my father. Daisy's culinary attributes and skill with the camera added much to the pleasure of the voyage and the value of this book.
As a former naval officer, I cannot but be amazed by this book, which contains something for everyone. It is a book for the amateur yachtsman, the philosopher, the geographer, the historian and those who avidly adhere to Kenneth Grahame's famous dictum - 'There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.' The book is complex, and yet has the freshness and beauty of an early June morning at sea off the Hebrides. I leave the final word to the author who in his dedication to the crew writes, 'For the Crew - This simple record of a holiday in a boat, bought in ignorance and navigated by faith and a defective engine, knowing she will be happy if it inspires others to find themselves further at sea.'