You might wonder why I bring the clunking, hissing, stinking power of steam into this work
A symphony in brass
Spinning and whirring
An unwanted trespass
Our senses blurring
At the roar of the steam
Our intentions adeem
Lost in the engineers dream.
But still there is a majesty and a power in the great riverboats, their wheels flagellating the water, forcing it to permit their passage.
Even in my youth, it was a rare thing for a respectable person to travel east along the Paraeba, even as far as Oiphallarian. This is slowly changing. The great steamers have brought to travel a luxury that was once impossible. On the biggest one can dine in style. You can eat the finest food; drink the finest wine, dance to the accompaniment of those musicians whose copybook is so blotted that they no longer dare set foot in a civilised city. For the wealthy it can be a very pleasant experience.
For those who pay less for their tickets, their accommodation will be less luxurious, nearer the engines or below the waterline. But still their meals are prepared in the same kitchen from much the same ingredients, and whilst the wines served might not be as good, they are stored in the same cellar under the sharp eye of the same sommelier.
In Port Naain the steamers come and go, unloading and loading their cargoes and their passengers. Indeed many of them will tow flatboats behind them upstream to get the advantage of the extra cargo space.
Yet aside from those who travel on the steamers, the city takes no great cognisance of them. Yes occasionally some notable from Oiphallarian or Vailas will enter society here, but in all candour, Port Naain is a remarkably parochial place. Thus it will fete the occasional novelty; yet we seem to give as much attention to the Partannese bandit lord as we do the Oiphallarian poet.
You might have assumed that the steamers would have afforded lucrative employment for the jobbing poet. Imagine the opportunities, not merely the constant new sources of inspiration, but also the boat herself becomes your patron and the passengers the guests. Yet much of the organising that a decent poet would do for their patrons is provided by the officers and crew. Also in the harsh mercantilist environment of the river, the idea of paying a poet merely to be inspired and write verse has never really caught on. Apparently the ‘shareholders’ would frown upon such an experiment.
Still there was a time when it looked as if poetry and the steamers might go together as white wine and inspiration or amateur theatricals and adultery. When the steamers were very new, in an attempt to promote them as the stylish way to travel, it was briefly fashionable to hold a party the evening before the boat left. These were quite prestigious affairs, leading figures in society were invited and even the arts were represented. On one occasion they even invited Rargan Grosset to perform some of his poetry. Now Rargan is one of the greats. Few if any in the generations that have followed him would even claim to be his equal. So it was obvious that the organisers of this party were determined to get the best.
Rargan himself was in excellent form. He mingled, he chatted pleasantly, he ate and drank wisely. Thus when he stood up to perform he was at the peak of his powers and the audience were predisposed to welcome him.
One issue that the hosts had overlooked is that Rargan Grosset is very much a son of Port Naain. I doubt if he’s ever left the city. His verses celebrate the city in so many ways, the light glistening from wet cobblestones, the sunrise as viewed from the Insane Asylum, he captures the magic of the place.
Seated on a steamer, metaphorically at least adrift from the city he loved, Rargan’s love for his city shone as never before. Thus for his final piece he delivered his ‘Horseman’s lament.’
This poem captures the final thoughts of a mercenary man-at-arms, dying on some distant battlefield. As he lays there, his life slowly ebbing away, he thinks for one last time of the people and places he loves but will never see again. I occasionally deliver the poem, but one has to be careful, it is a very powerful work.
On this occasion, on board a steamer that was due to sail next morning, Rargan Grosset was so eloquent that even he was overwhelmed by emotion. He finished the poem with tears streaming down his cheeks. Indeed there was not a dry eye within earshot. Even crewmen who came from towns further up the river were silent, contemplating their own mortality and the places they loved.
Still sobbing, Rargan walked slowly off the steamer. He was followed by eight tearful passengers, and even by three crewmen who suddenly found themselves unable to tear themselves away from our beloved Port Naain. No steamer has ever held a leaving party since. They slip away on the rising tide, shunning ceremony; honest working boats just getting on with the toil.
And apparently the legend has arisen amongst shareholders and those who hold the purse strings, that to have a poet on board is unlucky.
Should you wish to know more about the Seramis, the steamers of Port Naain, travelling poets, flat boats, or the river Paraeba as it flows through the Red Steppe, treat yourself now to
Tallis Steelyard: Six men in a boat.
As a reviewer said, “Runaway Poet, Flat Boat Sailor, Master Gunner, Flower Arranging Judge, Adventurer and Escort of a beautiful young Lady, are only a few of the skills exhibited by Tallis Steelyard in this extraordinary story.
In my opinion, the world and characters from Jim Webster’s mind would make a wonderful TV series, starting with this one.”