I wished to tell the story of Hindle Walbarrow. But then I ran into a problem. For it to be at all comprehensible I had to provide all sorts of background and exposition. Matters were getting hopelessly complicated and poor Hindle was getting lost in the extraneous baggage others were bringing to his life. To be fair, that is not a bad metaphor. Indeed with a little work it could make a perfectly usable aphorism. But I get ahead of myself and shall start at the beginning. So put Hindle Walbarrow from mind. Pretend he doesn’t exist. This isn’t difficult, his mother managed it for the first twenty years of his life. Let us instead focus on a lady of beauty and immense talent.
It is my belief that to be a great poet one has not merely to be trained, one has to have poetry surging through one’s soul, built into the very fibre of your being. It has to be handed down to you by your ancestors. Indeed it is often better if your ancestors were not poets. This means that you contain within yourself the frustrated poetical outpourings of a score or more generations of thwarted genius. Hence my greatness may have been inadvertently boosted by the fact that before me, for uncounted centuries, no Steelyard wrote anything more profound than a laundry list.
Mistress Georgi is perhaps another exemplar. I remember her mother, but not well. Her mother was one of those people whom you could meet on a daily basis, spend hours with, and still not know well. In my case I began to wonder if there was actually anybody there.
Let us start at the beginning. Milican Driggle and her husband Bontisque were (indeed still are) a pleasant enough couple. Happy and well-to-do. They had only one daughter, Cilicia. Cilicia was a pretty child and in her teens was obviously developing into a beauty. The problem with her wasn’t that she was vacuous and vacant, it is just that she seemed to be somehow disconnected with society. She could converse courteously but you’d learn nothing from her conversation. She read widely and appeared to appreciate what she read but it had no obvious impact on her life. Her parents had her sit for a portrait, and she sat as asked. The portrait was finished but was never delivered. This was because it was discovered that she was, at the age of sixteen, pregnant.
Obviously this has happened to many other young women and will doubtless happen to many others. What shocked her parents was that their daughter had actually shown enough initiative to allow this to happen. After all, she was rarely unchaperoned. She never mentioned a father and showed no interest in the matter. Finally her mother took control, sent her daughter to live with her grandmother on a small farm the family had. Milican then gave out that she was expecting. This wasn’t unreasonable, she was still in her late thirties. Milican then went to be with her mother, Cilicia gave birth and of course Milican could claim that the child, a daughter, was hers.
Sadly, after giving birth, Cilicia, as if bored of the whole business, didn’t so much die as merely faded away. It was as if everything was frankly too much fuss.
Milican brought her child home and she was named Georgi. A year later, as sometimes happened, Milican discovered she was really pregnant and gave birth to a son, Gartan. Cilicia faded from mind, and with two young children to raise, Milican and Bontisque were kept almost perpetually busy.
I was asked to help teach the two children. Gartan was a perfectly normal boy. Pleasant enough, bright, only occasionally in trouble, I suspect his parents have the usual worries you have about boy children, but in all candour I always felt he’d do alright.
Georgi’s situation was interesting. Whilst nobody knew her father, she also didn’t look enough like anybody for it to cause comment. Added to this there are a number of men of an age to be her father. These never claimed paternity but they all keep a paternal eye on her.
The first thing you notice about Georgi when you meet her is her intensity. When she does something, she does it with passion. At the age of four she heard the gardener playing jigs on a fiddle. Whereas other small girls might have danced to the music, Georgi demanded to learn how to play. Within two years she was an acceptable fiddle player. It was then that she painted her brother with glue and covered him with feathers to pass him off as a large chicken. The idea was that he would dance as she played and people would throw coins into the bucket he was carrying. By the time she was twelve she was climbing out of her bedroom window on a rope of knotted sheets and was sneaking off to play at the sort of dance halls frequented by kitchen maids and their admirers. It was at this point that she asked for her brother’s assistance. She used Gartan as a counter-weight when she rigged up a rope ladder to help her get more easily back into her bedroom. When she was fourteen she sneaked aboard a paddler going to Avitas because she’d heard of a fiddle festival there. She didn’t win it, but she was commended by the judges and was considered by many to be the best fiddle player present under the age of forty. She was also the only one who could play her fiddle and simultaneously dance barefoot to her music.
Then there was her poetry. Initially I confess I hadn’t expected much. Small children have no little depth of experience. Yet her observational skills were impressive and at the age of eleven she produced a poetic description of a spider’s web which I entered anonymously in one competition. It was disallowed as obvious the work of a professional.
Into all this her brother was dragged. Personally I suspect he was, and still is, devoted to her. He would always good-naturedly fall in with her plans. I remember him telling me that when he was ten, Georgi had attempted to fly him as a kite. This particular episode had stuck with him not because of the bruises but because, for once, it was not music or poetry related. Indeed I did wonder whether Georgi had not merely inherited her mother’s unused verve and gusto, but was somehow borrowing it from her brother.
Finally at sixteen she slipped out of the house, purchased a ticket to Oiphallarian and won for herself the role of Jigging Jinny in the comic opera Fat Boppo’s Dancing Class. I don’t think it’s been staged in Port Naain, mainly because it claims to be set here and the main thrust of the performance is that Port Naain as a city is inhabited by self-regarding show-offs who lack any real ability. Indeed it is just the sort of production one puts on in one city because it will garner full houses as the populace crowd in for a chance to laugh at their neighbouring cities.
I was sent to find her and bring her home. I returned without her, having eventually tracked her down. I pointed out to her parents that in a little more than three months she had not merely performed to general acclaim, she had published some of her poems and had been commissioned to write an afterpiece in verse.
She returned to Port Naain in time to spend her twentieth birthday with her parents, before throwing herself into her next venture. This was to both publish another book of verse, but also set it to music as a performance piece.
She is still single, but one day some young man is going to look too deeply into those eyes of hers and he will drown there, to be carried along forever in her wake.
Her brother I see quite often. He remains a pleasant young man and is now a very junior partner in a long established avarice of usurers. He is happily married to a nice girl. She is almost pretty, slightly plump, and has shown no sign of trying to fly him as a kite.
It strikes me you may wish to learn more of Port Naain
More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. Meet a vengeful Lady Bountiful, an artist who smokes only the finest hallucinogenic lichens, and wonder at the audacity of the rogue who attempts to drown a poet! Indeed after reading this book you may never look at young boys and their dogs, onions, lumberjacks or usurers in quite the same way again.
A book that plumbs the depths of degradation, from murder to folk dancing, from the theft of pastry cooks to the playing of a bladder pipe in public.
As a reviewer commented, “Thanks to the inimitable generosity of Tallis Steelyard, in this selection of tales, we are given further insight to the denizens – sorry, I meant ‘Citizens’ – of Port Naain, who are an education in the diversity of humankind, from physical through spiritual, from adroitness through haplessness, from … but I think you get my drift.”