Books · Colonisation

this is what I heard

The People of the Sea: Celtic Tales of the Sea-Folk.The People of the Sea: Celtic Tales of the Sea-Folk. by David Thomson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here is Seamus Heany’s introduction quoting Wordsworth’s definition of a poet to apply it to David Thomson

a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind

I may as well give up then! This made me laugh and feel extra grateful for Aubrey’s new group.

In addition to an off-putting introduction (that’s to say it put me off Wordsworth a lot, Heany a little, and this book not at all), there is also a pointless afterword explaining the truth-status of Thomson’s text, which is, as was obvious, unimportant. All this rationalising and gaudy (and sexist) wrapping paper only goes to emphasise the degraded status of oral history and the obstacles facing its *scription. If anyone is to be enticed into reading, this humble stuff must have the name of a great poet, it must be packaged with academic explanations and endorsements, and those creatures, women, who only care about plot and relateable characters, ought to be well warned off.

I am saying all this because the text itself leaves me near speechless. Like the tellers of tales who talk in these pages, I am minded to hold my tongue until I have something worthy to say at the fireside, where I feel I am still sitting, with the sea rolling in my heart and the mournful songs of the seals in my ears. When I finished this book, I dreamed vividly of my family in strange houses and strange landscapes and awoke feeling I had drunk some restorative potion.

When I first began the book I felt I was hearing a voice apart, an uncolonised voice, but that is a wildly idealistic misperception I suppose: Thomson’s voice might perhaps be called postcolonial (critically oriented to colonialism) seeking the uncolonised memory still speakable in lives actively and unevenly colonised. For instance, Christianity is entrenched, but its grim binary-bound worldview is strongly inflected by a world of fairy folk, speaking creatures, strange blessings. The coercive teaching of English is remembered with the shadow of resistence. These topics are prominent – I’m not imposing my preoccupation! – but come up incidentally; Thomson never adopts a studious voice, an outside voice. His telling has no edge; it is tales within tales, songs within shells within rockpools within memories within women that are all of them story. The submerged listener invites the reader in and under too. This is a Scots-Irish 1001 Nights of the seal. I will carry it on my chest.

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