Day 45: A port in the storm


A Port in the Storm is about walking along Portobello beach late at night, trying to lull my baby daughter to sleep. She didn’t sleep easily, and cried loudly and often, so I would put her in a sling or in the pushchair and head for the promenade, partly to give her mum a break, partly to steady my own nerves.

The sea seemed to soothe her, and I often wondered why. Perhaps she would have calmed down anyway, just from the walk, but I think the sea helped, its sound and its smell. It certainly helped me. It’s a primal experience, looking out at the place where life on earth began – probably – especially if the stars are out too, and especially if you have a baby in your arms. In the song there are various conflicting thoughts swirling around my head. The sea is comforting – I felt a strong sense of connection on those nights to the beginnings of the universe – but also frightening. We were always keenly aware in moving to Portobello that we were choosing a home that could be underwater in a few years’ time; on a stormy day at high tide the waves would crash dramatically on to the promenade. Portobello was becoming quite an aspirational place to live at the time, and the expensive new seafront homes being built on the prom, battered by saltwater even before they were finished, seemed like a textbook example of climate change denial; they reminded me of things I’d read about the madness of building more and more luxury homes on the Florida coast. We were in a wee flat in an old tenement block two streets away from the seafront, but still not far above sea level.

It’s interesting how your perspective on a song can change over time. A Port in the Storm was initially called When The Big Flood Comes until I decided this was too bleak, focusing on death and the end of humanity in a song that’s mostly about love. More recently it’s become simply The Beach, the middle section of a song cycle on the new album, called The Path, The Beach, The Sea. I like that a song written about the beginning and the end of life is now part of a bigger journey, just as our own beginnings and endings are only a small part of a bigger picture.

I also changed the lyrics in the final section. Originally it went ‘please give my daughters a port in the storm’, a plea addressed to the islands of the Forth – Inchcolm, Inchkeith, Inchgarvie – that you can see from the shore, and to whom I’d sometimes talk in the absence of other company. By the time I was making After All Of The Days We Will Disappear, though, I had two sons as well as two daughters, and it became ‘don’t be afraid of the ocean, we’re going home’.

By home I partly meant the ocean. I had an image in my head of humanity being swept away by floods but returning, in death, to the place where we started. But I also meant our new home in the Outer Hebrides, which faces the sea but from a much higher vantage point. Not that we’re immune from climate change here – the weather is famously fierce and likely to get fiercer, and who knows what will happen with the gulf stream? – but it feels more like home than anywhere else I’ve ever lived, and with an even bigger and more humbling view. Instead of Inchkeith, Inchcolm and Inchgarvie we now look out on the Flannan Islands and, on a very clear day, St Kilda. Beyond that the closest land to us is the Faroe Islands and Iceland. And you can see far more stars here than I ever could from Portobello.

The baby daughter of the song is seven years old now. Sometimes she asks me to play her ‘Beau to the beach’. She still doesn’t like sleeping.

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