Frontiers 2023 People Past & Present

The poet’s song and the fish in the sea

Written by Howie Firth

It was the perfect name for a poet, and it was his own. The surname Singer came from his father, a New York salesman of Polish descent. His mother was from Gourock, and he later added her maiden name – Burns.

He started life as James Hyman Singer, and he was always Jimmy to his friends, but in his poems and books he was Burns Singer. He was born in 1928, and when he was four years old the family left New York for Glasgow.

And while Robert Burns wrote of the land, and spring ploughing and autumn harvest, Jimmy Singer was close to the sea. He worked for four years at the Torry Marine Biology Laboratory in Aberdeen, and wrote a book called Living Silver about the fish in the sea and the boats that sought them seine-netters and drifters, trawlers and long-liners.

Burns Singer in ‘Living Silver’, 1958

Living Silver

The central character is a young Polish man in post-war Scotland, with so much detail of fish and fishing boats that it must be based on personal experience. We read of sharp-toothed cod hunting for herring or going deep for cuttlefish and worms; haddock combing the seabed to munch tiny urchins and brittle-stars; and men hauling herring in a drift net to a capstan’s clatter. And running through everything is the motion and presence of the sea.

Weather, yes, it was important, as important as the men, as the ship herself, and yet, for Jan, there was another and deeper rhythm to these bleak northern seas. This was inward to him. He felt it sometimes at night, like just now when the cold green sea was beating within his heart. It was the sea itself, the distance and the nearness of it, the tides that clothed its beaches in foam, waves that grew white and shaggy, waves that flickered down in sunlight to a gentle curved enamel. They were always there, the waves and the tides, and he always felt close to them. This rhythm lingered after the trip was over. It was like the prosody of a dream.”

And maybe the sea was a home for him in a way the land never was, for when he came ashore in 1955 and moved south to London, he became known for his writing and reviewing but also for a sharp tongue and aggression with drink, and a strong contempt for much of the poetry of the time with its literary Oxbridge tone. He wanted the fire of the previous generation, of Dylan Thomas and of W.S. Graham who grew up on Clydeside and spent much of his adult life in Cornwall and wrote poems like ‘The Nightfishing’ with the rhythms of the waves running through it and a feeling of fierce, first-hand experience.

To W.S. Graham he dedicated his poems ‘The Hill of Names’:

Men write upon the sea but even more
The sea in them makes music to the core.
            Out of the hill of names
            A wintered derelict comes
On heels of ice with shredded voice that calls
Children from stems of salt and hands from walls.

A seaman ashore

In the London literary landscape he felt as restless as the trawlermen after life ashore. “A man needed the freedom of an horizon in which he could stretch his eyes,” he wrote in Living Silver. “He needed the movement of a ship under him so that he would be able to know where he stood.”

It had been there from early days. At age thirteen he was sent as a wartime evacuee to north-east Scotland, to Maud in the heart of Buchan, in Scottish cattle country, and the Webster family. Young Jack Webster, three years younger, would later would become a familiar name in Scottish journalism, remembered him well.

He remained a child apart, lean, pale and delicate with fair hair, slightly protruding teeth, a quiet lilting voice, and a creeping style of walk. In the rough-and-tumble of boyhood, he was an oddity, but the English teacher … was quick to declare him a genius. In a lifetime of teaching she had never encountered this calibre of pupil, an 11 year old with a phenomenal command of language … I remember … his quiet moods, bursting into chalk-white tempers when roused, and Mrs Singer’s refusal to accept my mother’s warning that Jimmy would cause her heartache before he was much older.”

Four years later he was at Glasgow University studying English, but left after two terms and went to London where he taught briefly taught maths in a private school. Then came Cornwall, pitching a tent next to W. S. Graham’s caravan, and a year abroad into which he managed to fit service in the US Army in Marburg and dismissal “after a fight with an anti-Semite”; and an affair with a Dutch painter, Nora van Gent. In Scotland he had been forming friendships with painters too, among them Bet Low, who would later become a regular visitor to Hoy; and paintings of Rysa and Mill Bay and the Hoy hills are in the Pier Arts Centre collection in Stromness. Back in 1946 she painted a portrait of Jimmy, just seventeen – “suntanned, sun-bleached hair and air force jacket with big fleecy collar.” She was born in Gourock, in an impoverished family, and in the harsh cold of January 1947 when she had nothing left to eat Jimmy came round with food from his parents’ house.

Burns Singer by Bet Low

The Gentle Engineer

By 1951 he was back in Glasgow, studying zoology, and then came a catastrophic blow, his mother’s suicide.

Jimmy was demented with grief and despair for weeks,” said his good friend and fellow poet James Russell Grant. “There wasn’t enough whisky in all Scotland… He would take a sudden run in front of a tram, if you didn’t catch a hold of him.”

And strangely, it was as they both stood in shock at his mother’s death that a cheque for £100 arrived – for the publication of his long poem, ‘The Gentle Engineer’. He had been writing since the age of six, and now he had a poet’s mastery of language, and an explorer’s eye for pressing on ahead in unmarked territory.

To move, yes, never away but always towards,
That is my destination.
Distance unravels within me. My taste buds surprise
Odorous sauces wrapt in the tang of a snowflake,
A curt rough brittle snowflake.

And so to the sea

In the years that followed there would be attacks of depression, and at one stage he asked for admission to a psychiatric hospital, although he left after three days, saying that he couldn’t stand the food. But back in 1951 he turned to the sea and went to Torry and for four years focused his restless energy on the sea and the fish that the marine biologists studied, describing them in elegant detail. Here, for instance, is the whiting:

Unlike the cod, it had a very delicate stomach, a stomach that could never have survived the clawing of a live crab. And it looked like a hunter, like a fish built for the chase. It had no barbel, and that was a hint that it did not trickle forwards across the bottom feeling for life, for sedentary food. It probably depended on its eyes. That is the way of hunters. They may sense food with their nose or their ears but, when they come to close on their scurrying prey, they usually rely upon their eyes to fix the image and measure the distance of the necessary leap. The whiting had good eyes and it used them to hunt the swift glittering fish and the agile semi-transparent invertebrates that burrow beside them in the sea floor.”

He writes too of the ling:

A green sea serpent, it lived in deep water, penetrating to all but the very deepest abysses of the Northern Atlantic. Since the days when boats were first invented, Gaelic fishermen, the men of Ossian, had hunted it with long baited lines. A glossy slimy covering lubricated its long cylindrical body that ended ventrally in a barbel so long that it might almost have been described as a tentacle. Its eyes were proportionally weak, since an animal so well furnished with organs of touch was almost certain to hunt by touch and had therefore little use for highly developed visual aids. But, if the ling did hunt with its barbel, then its barbel must have been a very efficient instrument for the chase.”

Out to the creels

Living Silver actually starts in Orkney, with the central character Jan going out to the creels in a small boat from somewhere in Hoy with a man called Frank.

They crept out slowly, and up the coast, groping between the rocks, swerving from inlet to inlet, touring the buoys to which their creels were tethered. Gingerly, then, hanging over the starboard side afraid that the boat would turn turtle, Frank drew up every rope, rhythmically, hand over hand. The surface of the water about them moved up and down with the quiet regularity of the breath of a sleeping baby. Only against the coast, when they listened for it, came the snore of foam on rock to remind Jan that he was now dealing with a fully adult sea. And then he would catch sight of the hovering oblong, submerged but slowly rising, and all thought of listening to anything would be lost. Was there a lobster in the trap? Or was that glint their untouched bait? All other senses disappeared. He became a mere machine for looking. But even his eyes seemed swallowed up in anticipation, the archetypal anxiety of a hunter when faced with the hope of prey. He had eyes for only one thing, the emerging creel.”

And amidst the sharpness of the marine observer comes the feeling of the work at sea, as in his description of sheer concentration of the work aboard a seine-netter, compared to the harsh but repetitive duties on a trawler.

Here he had to discover a continual alertness, as sharp as that of a man who is carrying on three telephone conversations at the one time; and this very alertness, this increase in consciousness made him more aware of whatever physical pain or peril came his way. There was no snoozing off into a dull agony of freezing fingers and sleepy skin. His mind was full of pins and needles so that not one of his senses could relax for a moment. He was stretched out tight to receive whatever stimulus might give sign of a hurt to the vessel or the gear and, with this useful information, he was forced to receive the signals of his own subjective coldness, his bleeding fingers, the wind like a blade in his back.

Thus, in every way, he found seining a more unpleasant experience than trawling. It was more difficult, it hurt more, and it took up more of his life. Yet he preferred it. He vastly preferred it. For the first time since he had come to Britain, he remembered what it was to have a sense of identity.”

Heading south

Living Silver received glowing praise. The great zoologist C. M. Yonge, professor in Glasgow where Jimmy had studied, said: “I doubt whether anyone has given a better account of fishing operations as they must appear to the fisherman and at the same time convey to the general reader the methods that are used.”

And then he headed south to become a freelance literary journalist, writing for The Times, The Listener and many other publications, broadcasting on the BBC; and meeting his wife, Marie Battle, who became the first black psychoanalyst in the UK. She was glitteringly talented, a self-taught artist whose work was praised by the expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka, a columnist for The Observer, a lecture and counsellor at Cambridge and Eton. She was born in 1910 in Mississippi, and like Jimmy was on the move.

“She spent a lifetime fleeing from racism, fleeing racial violence,” says her niece, Prof. Jane Rhodes, today. “The family experienced racial violence in Mississippi, there was a lynching at the school that my grandfather ran. And so they moved north, and while there’s not a daily threat of violence, there’s still an overlay of constant discrimination, segregation, and lack of opportunity. She got fed up and decided to open up the world.”

But still and all the same, and as still as you were,
Through more than ever woman was born to bear
My verses marry you who are my wife
As partly mine as all I have never known
And as complete as any bit of stone.

As distant as a dream, but as near as one too,
As impossible as this if it’s that which is true,
As good as gold, as better as blue in the sky
As old as seed, as best as the heroes who die,
My verses court their energy in life.

His own kind of gold

She worked in hospitals in Cambridge and London, and had her own practice in Harley Street, and they were part of a literary and artistic social scene. His poems continued, with a collection Still and All which was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation in 1957, and in 1960 Five Centuries of Polish Poetry, translations with his friend, the Polish poet Jerzy Peterkiewicz.

But the arguments and the drinking sessions continued, and the journalist Peter Chambers observed one of these in the Notting Hill flat of poet Christopher Logue and wrote about it in the Daily Express in early 1961 and saw something deeper.

He may never set the world on fire, or earn much money.

But Jimmy has looked deeper into the river than most of us. He is panning like a prospector, and those gleaming traces he washes out from the daily silt of words, words, words, are his own kind of gold.”

What man will speak it all? What man is dead
In his completeness and with not a part
Of this stark world forgotten, but fit to start
An argument with the almighty figurehead?
Proudly his own, he might give God his body:
But his intelligence would, by trim statistics
In the emergency, be always ready
For any trickery in God’s linguistics.

That was where he needed to be going, into deeper waters, away from the London literary scene and his angry reaction to many situations.

These people are like boats beside a pier
Who cannot journey since they cannot steer.

Back to the sea

And he took up his journey again and went back to marine biology, with a grant to study at Plymouth. But now time was running out. In the last year of his life he visited other writers in the South West of England, among them the Cornish poet Charles Causley, a Naval seaman in wartime and a schoolteacher afterwards, who wrote poems like old stories, with folklore and magic seeping through. He also visited Colin Wilson, author of The Outsider, a book which looks at the quest for higher levels of thinking and being.

He died suddenly of heart failure in 1964, just a few days short of the age of 37 that Robert Burns reached. “The heart just stopped beating,” said James Russell Grant. His ashes were scattered at sea.

I at any rate have tried to be a school teacher, a scientist, a bookseller and so forth,” wrote James Burns Singer himself, “but, by dint of an insane and abominable laziness, I have always landed back with a pen in my hand.”

In Living Silver he reflected on the quest of life at sea: “Somehow or other the fishermen managed to keep on the trail of what they were after. Without being able to see them, with no sound from under water to help them, without the aid of the organs of smell and touch, the fishermen tracked down the species they wanted …”

Weigh anchor into windfall and lurch at last
Up the ribbed ocean, green swell and unruly foam
Combed back in curls beneath you as you climb
On keels in wool and what you’re drenched in dressed.
Its purl or plain, its odd or even twist,
Takes your blood nevertheless away towards home
From a heart weighed up more heavy against its doom
Than ever that sailor in a hornpipe lost.

About the author

Howie Firth

Dr Howie Firth is a writer and physicist from Orkney, with a deep interest in history and philosophy. He is director of Orkney International Science Festival.