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The Wreck of the Fathership by W N Herbert


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Being appointed Dundee Makar (or City Laureate) implied that Bill Herbert might settle into middle age. He rented a flat overlooking Broughty Ferry harbour to write about his home town in both its native tongues. Then within six months his much-loved father died, and that civic idyll was thrown into crisis. Personal and political roles collided as referenda for Scottish independence and EU membership, then the US elections, signalled that the post-war liberal value system was very much in crisis. 

This is his Dundonian Book of the Dead, in which he explores both his own grief and the encroachment of a new intolerance. His town’s defining modern disaster – the loss in 1959 of the lifeboat Mona with all hands – becomes a symbol for a world turned upside down. 

But while patriarchy flounders in a storm of its own undoing, his absurd alter ego, William McGonagall, brings his unique tragedian’s eye to bear on both the city’s and our society’s efforts to right itself. The comic and the tragic become catastrophe’s flotsam and jetsam, and the image of the overturned boat is reflected in the very structure of this book, with a keel-hauling of Dundee Doldrums for its climax – poems which resist any stasis of the imagination. 

The crew of this latter-day Ship of Fools include Captain Beefheart, the cannibal clan of the Denfiends, and a lion, while the passenger list features the surrealist Leonora Carrington, various Jesuses, and the ghastly Imperator Trumpo. Its voyages to alternative futures and pasts echo those of Herbert’s merchantman father, while, in a manner that matches Bill Senior’s later trade of precision engineer, it fits together a dynamic range of forms with an intense focus on the metamorphic and redemptive energies of language.

‘WN Herbert’s new book, The Wreck of the Fathership, is a series of studies in public disaster and private grief. Written while working as Dundee’s first Makar (official laureate) from 2013-18, the book cleverly and movingly folds together several overlapping narratives – the illness and death of the poet’s father, the referenda on Scottish independence and the EU, the election of Trump and Johnson, the sinking of the Mona lifeboat in 1959 and the long, slow shipwreck of the post-war consensus. It’s a hugely entertaining and inventive collection…’ - Andy Croft, Morning Star

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