Being appointed Dundee Makar (or City Laureate) implied that Bill Herbert might settle into middle age. He rented a ﬂat overlooking Broughty Ferry harbour to write about his home town in both its native tongues. Then within six months his much-loved father died, and that civic idyll was thrown into crisis. Personal and political roles collided as referenda for Scottish independence and EU membership, then the US elections, signalled that the post-war liberal value system was very much in crisis.
This is his Dundonian Book of the Dead, in which he explores both his own grief and the encroachment of a new intolerance. His town’s deﬁning modern disaster – the loss in 1959 of the lifeboat Mona with all hands – becomes a symbol for a world turned upside down.
But while patriarchy ﬂounders in a storm of its own undoing, his absurd alter ego, William McGonagall, brings his unique tragedian’s eye to bear on both the city’s and our society’s efforts to right itself. The comic and the tragic become catastrophe’s ﬂotsam and jetsam, and the image of the overturned boat is reﬂected in the very structure of this book, with a keel-hauling of Dundee Doldrums for its climax – poems which resist any stasis of the imagination.
The crew of this latter-day Ship of Fools include Captain Beefheart, the cannibal clan of the Denﬁends, and a lion, while the passenger list features the surrealist Leonora Carrington, various Jesuses, and the ghastly Imperator Trumpo. Its voyages to alternative futures and pasts echo those of Herbert’s merchantman father, while, in a manner that matches Bill Senior’s later trade of precision engineer, it ﬁts together a dynamic range of forms with an intense focus on the metamorphic and redemptive energies of language.
‘A weird mix of Desperate Dan, MacDiarmid and Dostoyevsky…a rare and fantastic voice.’ – Fiachra Gibbons, Guardian
‘This antithesis of the slim volume bubbles and seethes with wit and polysyllabic adventurousness.’ – Edwin Morgan, The Scotsman
W.N. Herbert: an elegy from 'The Wreck of the Fathership'
Bill Herbert reads part XIV from the title-sequence of The Wreck of the Fathership, an elegy for his father. This video is from NCLA's Inside Writing series.
W.N. Herbert: 'The Fathership'
Bill Herbert reads his poem 'The Fathership', not the title-poem of The Wreck of the Fathership, but a key poem from the book, written in Scots, as he tells in his introduction to this reading. This video is from NCLA's Inside Writing series.
W.N. Herbert reads 'Dirt Bath'
Bill Herbert introduces and reads his poem 'Dirt Bath' from The Wreck of the Fathership, a poem written in Broughty Ferry during his time as Dundee Makar. This video is from NCLA's Inside Writing series.
W.N. Herbert reads six poems
W.N. (Bill) Herbert lives in a converted lighthouse overlooking the River Tyne at North Shields. Pamela Robertson-Pearce him in December 2007 in his study at the very top of the house, the walls of which are criss-crossed with salvaged ship timbers. He reads six poems in this video taken from his collections Cabaret McGonagall (1996), The Laurelude (1998), The Big Bumper Book of Troy (2002) and Bad Shaman Blues (2006), all published by Bloodaxe: ‘Corbandie’, ‘The Black Wet’, ’To a Mousse’, ’Song of the Longboat Boys’, ‘Slow Animals Crossing’ and ‘Bad Shaman Blues’. This film is from the DVD-anthology In Person: 30 Poets, filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce & edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books, 2008).
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