Whatever the Sea: Scottish Poems for Growing Older

Edited by Lizzie MacGregor, Polygon, £9.99

By Nick Major

PEOPLE are forever reminding me not to remind them of their age. Next time someone does I shall give them a copy of Whatever the Sea, no matter how old they are. Even if at first glance it might seem so, this is not just an anthology for greying elders, although it will provide succour for anyone suffering from what J.B. Pick called the Old Age Blues. One of the delights of a collection like this is the discovery of voices heretofore not encountered. I did not know about Pick, who lived into his nineties and died last year. He was a well-respected critic who was friends with and wrote a biography of Neil Gunn. His selected poems, Being Here, was published in 2010. His contribution to Whatever the Sea is a short elegy for memory, but contains the memorable and simple refrain: "I don’t know what I used to know". It is no surprise that forgetfulness is a repeating theme in this anthology. Alison Prince confronts this worrying precursor to death in Absent-mindedness, but gives it an optimistic twist: forgetting to run errands, the narrator nevertheless has "no distress/in finding duties overwhelmed by dreams".

Editor Lizzie MacGregor, assistant librarian at the Scottish Poetry Library, has done a sterling job of compiling a panoply of poems, many of which are simultaneously plangent and funny. There are a good many ditties about the joys of looking back on life and nary a trace of sentimentality. Lyn Moir’s Last Chance Saloon, for example, recalls with a cool affection a couple’s hard drinking days: “'Set 'em up, kid' was your usual cry/as you sauntered through the door/with a look in your eye and a whisky sigh/and a voice that could sand the floor." While Rosemary McLeish’s Aquafit shows that the past is as cringing and absurd as the present. The narrator joins the "ladies past a certain age" in the pool to shed a few pounds, and, at last, find some use "for those terrible songs of our youth". One of the stand-out poets is Elma Mitchell. Her poem Good Old Days is a subtle exploration of how we all lie to ourselves "when the light is going".

Growing old, or even growing older, is too often understood in the negative. To say that someone is ‘mature’ can be a subtle insult. But maturity is simply the gradual intensification of character. One of the classics included here is Alastair Reid’s Weathering. "It’s living through time we ought to be connoisseurs of," he writes, in a poem about the beauty that the passing years bestow on the surfaces of skin and tree bark alike. Ageing well is an art, and like the perfection of a craft it has to be a struggle, an upward one, even when it seems that life’s trajectory is on the downward curve. But, as Douglas Dunn reminds us in On the Slope, perpetual youth would be a chore. Better to hobble onwards, remembering the "one sure adage: Bette Davis’s no-shit ‘Growing old sure ain’t for sissies!' ”