The Excursions

Andrew O’Hagan travels with Seamus Heaney and Karl Miller

‘You’d better take an interest in the earth and the air, for your own poor body will go there some day.’ That was the sort of wisdom that used to come with free school milk at my Scottish primary school. I remember the blizzard around the classroom the day Mrs Wallace said it to me, a snow-scene dense enough to make the end of Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ appear like a moment’s inclemency. The poet Hugh MacDiarmid had a feeling for the freezing lives of sheep, and he resurrected, or to some extent invented, the words that would capture the rude nature of the Scottish snowstorm, calling it the ‘yowdendrift’, when snow is blown across the fields at speed, or the ‘yow-trummle’, the ewe-tremble, when the shorn animals are seen to shiver and quake as they catch their death.

*

Two decades ago, when I came down from a suburban version of MacDiarmid’s pastures to work at the London Review of Books, the editor, Karl Miller, had a powerful sense of what connected literature to the land, and even the urban writers he liked – Kingsley Amis, for instance – were filled with a sense of hinterland, or winterland, of childhood places and beginnings. Many powerful writers, in Karl’s estimation, could reveal a country source, a little Scotland or Ireland or Wales, running from a high and forgotten place into the urban reservoir of their talent. MacDiarmid was crucial to him, and so was Seamus Heaney. The two names came together in the office one day when the paper was being put to bed. Karl is the only editor I’ve known who edited poems as if they were prose. It wasn’t beyond him to suggest the removal of lines or the scrapping of stanzas – even, on a good day, of an entire poem. On this occasion he was reading, with his nose about two inches from the page, a galley of Seamus’s poem in tribute to MacDiarmid, ‘An Invocation’. He asked me if I could see my way clear to getting Professor Heaney on the phone. (Seamus was teaching at Harvard.) I could only hear one side of the conversation, but it went pretty much like this:

‘Seamus, I’m very grateful to you for giving us the advantage of having your excellent poem in aid of my auld acquaintance Hugh MacDiarmid in the paper. We weren’t the best of friends or anything but he was certainly very good as a poet and so on, don’t you think? Yes. Well, listen, my dear. The problem is this. We’re delighted with the poem but there’s a mistake in it.

(‘A mistake?’ I imagined Seamus saying. ‘We can’t have mistakes in the London Review of Books.’)

‘Well,’ Karl said, ‘it seems like a mistake to me. The thing is you have this line about MacDiarmid’s “chattering genius”.’

(‘Yes?’)

‘Yes. That’s wrong. I’m from Scotland myself, Seamus. [They’d been friends for 30 years.] I’m from Scotland. You once said sheep chatter. And I can tell you Scottish sheep don’t chatter – they blether. Surely you mean MacDiarmid’s “blethering genius”?’

Amendments were duly made and the friendship continued, and continued to broaden, I would say, over the landscape that lies between Ireland and Scotland and London, where both men did their publishing work. Over the years they took on other passengers, of which I was one. I suppose it could be said that we each had an interest in the grounds of literature and in the ground itself. Since I first got to know these men, the landscape of these islands has been transformed. A few years ago I reported from the farms then witnessing a holocaust in their midst. Farmers in the Lake District were killing their sheep and burying them in Wordsworth’s hallowed sod for want of the fuel-money to take them to market. And the foot and mouth epidemic was wiping out herds bred over centuries in Wales. Small farmers, whelped on Common Market subsidies and John Constable idylls, were being priced out of existence by agribusiness and Tesco. In time, the three of us – Karl, Seamus and me – decided to go out there partly to see what we could see but also as a way of spending time in company with people who shared our quieter interests. We all live in cities, yet on our trips we dived into rurality, and we found new beginnings, fresh shoots, as well as a veritable cairn of endings. To my mind our journeys were filled with endings, along with the perhaps concluding notion that nature may be larger than memory. The hills of the Scottish Borders seemed to say so, as did the trees around Abergavenny and the stones of the Aran Islands.

*

It was about seven in the morning when we set out. Karl opened his door in Chelsea and I stepped inside the house and immediately we started talking about the drive. ‘There’s no need to look so fresh-faced,’ he said. ‘Anybody would think you were actually happy at the prospect of 500 miles at the wheel. Eh?’

‘I’m not sad about it.’

‘Yes. Well. Not being sad is one of your habits. Don’t think I haven’t noticed it before now.’ It was July and he was wearing a seersucker jacket, a rather punctured jumper, blue trousers that stopped short of his sneakers, a Panama hat, and he was holding onto a cane. ‘I apologise for the delinquent Edwardian look,’ he said. ‘I can’t help it.’

Somewhere along the road, Karl became deeply fascinated by the satellite navigation system’s ability to know the terrain. I explained that the technology could place us precisely on the road, showing where we were in relation to rivers, fields, villages, everything. ‘Is there a ghost in the machine?’ he asked. ‘I mean: a fairy?’ I told him it was all clever stuff to do with satellites. ‘Do you speak to the machine and tell it about the geography?’

‘No. It knows the geography. That’s all been programmed into its brain.’

We stopped at a service station near Lichfield and Karl demanded two cakes. ‘Let’s see which of us can make Seamus say something bad about somebody,’ said Karl, with his best comic grin. ‘The winner gets a prize.’ We went to the loos and Karl situated himself at the furthest-away urinal. We met up at the hand-drying machine and when I looked up at him he was wearing a very rueful smile and peering over his glasses. ‘It’s a well-known fact that these driers don’t work,’ he said.

Driving north through England, you have a strong sense of everyday experience fighting against the kinds of common experience labelled ‘heritage’. There are brown signs directing you off the road to crucial destinations, but in Cumberland, for instance, the land itself is the naked truth, the thing that the heritage industry can’t quite bottle and label. There’s just this immensity, with the clouds scudding over the top. We passed into Scotland and saw a sign for Ecclefechan, ‘Thomas Carlyle’s birthplace’ as one of those brown signs reminded us. Karl thought the town might offer the chance of a sandwich. We slipped off the motorway and inched through the ordered trees to the town, which seemed like it had been put to sleep some time ago. Clothes were flapping on washing lines, but nobody was around and the only sound was of distant roads. Birds were resting on the cottage roofs. The sky was totally blue and we stopped beside the town’s monument to the sage of Chelsea. ‘There he is,’ Karl said. ‘Thomas Carlyle. High and mighty in his coat of verdigris.’

Ecclefechan used to be a bright country town. Nowadays it has no sandwiches and if it has hotels, they were hiding from us. The place had that special Scottish ennui that can take over in the afternoon – the slow sense that life must be elsewhere – but we got back on the motorway and headed further north. We ended up in Lesmahagow, which we took some delight in pronouncing. A new school was being built, and we walked up the street looking for a lunch place. I’d noticed that Karl couldn’t cope with depressing eating places. As soon as we parked the car he pointed to a sign on a pub door. ‘Some low-life broke in and stole the collection box so we’re shut until further notice.’

Eventually, we went into a place called Jeanette’s. ‘We’ve got no baguettes!’ the woman (probably Jeanette) said as soon as we came in the door. Karl, with his hat and cane, who had thought he looked Edwardian in Chelsea, suddenly looked like the world’s last bohemian in Lesmahagow, his whole person rather stylishly stoical against the glare of the Formica. He accepted with half good grace a cheese and ham sandwich. ‘Pretty good,’ he said. Then he leaned over to me, whispering. ‘That lady hates us.’

‘Were you busy earlier on?’ I asked her.

‘Packed,’ she said. ‘The workers and the schoolkids, just by.’

‘Where do the young people go for nights out?’ Karl said.

She looked at him as if human nature were always biting at her heels. ‘You could go to Glasgow,’ she said, ‘but it would cost you a fortune to get back in a taxi. Even to get to Hamilton costs £22. But there’s nothing much else. There’s always a bit of trouble at the pubs. That’s the way it is, round here. We’re really just a town in the middle of the countryside.’

Then to Ayrshire. We got to Montgreenan House Hotel in Kilwinning around five o’clock, to await Seamus’s arrival. It filled me with an unexpected pleasure to be there, to see Karl – so much of London to me – among the back roads of my own childhood county. I was tired from the drive, though, and went up to my room, where I fell asleep immediately. I woke with Heaney knocking at the bedroom door. He was great in a brown tweed suit, his face lighting the hall with expected mirth. ‘That’s some driving you’ve done,’ he said. ‘There’s a dram in it for you and we’ll be downstairs.’

Karl always imagines, in the Edinburgh style, that a beer means a half pint, but Seamus is a proper drinker and you see pints when he’s around. We took our drinks into the garden at the front and I showed Seamus a gap in the trees and the beauty of Ailsa Craig, the rock that stands between Ireland and Scotland. ‘When Keats walked this coast he felt it followed him,’ I said. But our plans involved Robert Burns. Karl, since he first began publishing Seamus in the New Statesman in the 1960s, always felt there was a clear affinity between Burns and Heaney. They were both the sons of farmers and they both allowed nature to oxygenate the mind and inflect the morals. Seamus was keeping his counsel on that, but he’d always loved Burns too, and appreciated the way the Ayrshire poet had brought the force of country wisdom to the modern mind. Burns’s ‘birl and rhythm’, as Seamus put it in a poem to the ploughman, ‘was in my ear’ from the start. Burns knew the mosses, waters, slaps and styles of his own country places, and we had them in mind and in view as we drove out the next day.

At Alloway Auld Kirk the rain was off for a minute and the ruined church showed a tree growing in the nave. Even in Burns’s day it was ruined. The lichens were orange that month, and their profusion gave many of the graves an orange tint. ‘Look,’ Karl said, ‘the hellish glow from the coven in Tam o’ Shanter has seared the gravestones.’ Seamus bent down at one of the graves near the gate, the one where Burns’s father is buried. Karl was further back, examining the hieroglyphs. ‘Is this Adam hiding his nakedness?’ he asked.

‘No,’ Seamus said. ‘I think he’s exposing it.’

At Burns’s birthplace they now have something called the Tam o’ Shanter Experience. There’s a café, a shop, a performance space and a place for exhibitions, the kind of venue friendly to schoolchildren and bus runs. We stood outside and Karl smiled at Seamus and sort of winked, turning his attention to Seamus’s woollen suit.

MILLER: Is that an Irish suit?

HEANEY: It’s like that. I can’t be seen without my Confirmation suit.

MILLER: Soon there’ll be The Seamus Heaney Experience.

HEANEY: That’s right. It’ll be a few churns and a confessional box.

I asked Seamus how the country folk around where he grew up in Ireland reacted to his being awarded the Nobel Prize. ‘Ignored it for the most part, I’m sure,’ he said. ‘But after the Stockholm intervention, a certain Jackie Graham of the local grocery shop in Bellaghy wanted to open a Heaney Museum. ‘“It’ll be good for you and good for us,” he said.’ Seamus didn’t stand in his way and made sure some manuscripts and posters were put into the fellow’s hands. It’s the Burnsian model: writers who are famous and lionised in the city are more likely to be found notorious in the country.

We made a trip into Glasgow to a care home on the Crow Road, where Edwin Morgan was then living and writing. He and I had corresponded when he left his old flat and lost his library. I sent him some books and we agreed to see each other in Glasgow. Eddie was a city man. He was a city poet. It must have been odd for him to have found himself in his youth among a generation of thrawn poets with their country expansiveness: I’m thinking of Norman MacCaig in his Assynt mode; Iain Crichton Smith of the Highlands; George Mackay Brown in his Orkney remoteness; and Hugh MacDiarmid, always in among the fields and dykes, metaphysical or real. None of these men gave much quarter, and, next to them, Morgan could feel hemmed in. He was Glaswegian in that way: he had what you might call a tenement mentality. He was shy, too. The visit was, in a very small way, fraught. By that stage, Eddie liked to be with one person at a time. The three of us came in and he didn’t really know what to say.

‘Do you remember Grieve [MacDiarmid] fondly?’

‘No.’

‘Did MacCaig have interesting things to say?’

‘Not really, no.’

‘Are you comfortable in here?’

‘It’s all right. A bit noisy. I’m reading a lot of Russian poetry.’ Eddie was tougher, and more difficult, than he seemed. Like many writers, he found other writers a pain, and he had a little bigotry about him when it came to national stereotypes. (He was kind to me, but in general he didn’t appear to love Catholics.) He had the older writer’s complete trust of an acolyte, and it was almost comical how badly he spoke of his contemporaries. Friendship, to Eddie, was about companionship: if you made the point that friendship was about making another bigger than they were, by your loyalty, by your love, by your imagination, he would say, yes, I have been a friend to Scottish literature. And so he was.

Curving down through the basin of the Doon Valley, we drove into the Scottish Borders. By Cappercleuch we turned and saw St Mary’s Loch, a beautiful, flat mirror beneath the brown and green of the hills. This is where you find Tibbie Shiel’s Inn, where the Blackwood’s boys James Hogg and Christopher North used to come to liquefy their rhetoric. We entered from a smirr of rain, snoking for supper. It turned out supper was something that happened in the glen before 6.30 p.m. A lady in a white lab coat emerged to remind us of the fact. The phrase ‘You’ll have hud yer tea, then?’ is not unknown in Scotland’s eastern quarter. I didn’t hear it much as a child, being from the other coast, but I knew of it and have always thought it a strange anomaly: the bad-tempered reverse of the nation’s inborn hospitality. This hostess, though, was from England and not keen to please. With a huff and a puff, a round of fish was offered. (It was horrible, served on a bed of gravel.) We drank Talisker – the Skye malt, favourite of Robert Louis Stevenson – and tore the strips off some small sachets of tartare sauce while the landlady told us how annoying it was to see Czech incumbents at her local church. Seamus has small tolerance for intolerance, so he drank his whisky, rolled his eyes, and went to bed. We were all soon enough in our rooms.

Mid-morning the next day we were standing beside Hogg’s grave at Ettrick Kirk. The rain was heavier now. Daws were cawing on the trees, and a single blackbird came with its orange beak to sit on a gravestone two rows over and watch us. It was one of those memorial yards where everything seems watchful.

HEANEY: I don’t know what the protocol is – to visit the jacks inside the church or go outside. Outside, I think.

MILLER: Watch out. There’s police in these parts that go in search of pee-takers and revolutionaries.

Hogg’s grave was lavishly carved and had a harp at the centre of all the words and recommendations.

MILLER: That was his seal, that harp. It’s remarkably ostentatious, isn’t it?

HEANEY: Aye. And there’s a Grieve over there, forby.

I asked why MacDiarmid had been so keen to be a Hugh not a Christopher, and a MacDiarmid not a Grieve.

MILLER: It was Edwin Muir’s great joke about MacDiarmid’s acolytes. ‘Men of sorrow and acquainted with Grieve.’

Lichen covered the wet stone. We went inside the church and signed the book. The place seemed recently abandoned. A Bible was open on an oak table and dead flowers stood next to the font. A few drawings were pinned to a board. Seamus looked at them. ‘I thought they were meant not to have any images in these places,’ he said. ‘Just the landlord.’ He looked at the bust of Francis Lord Napier of Ettrick before he examined the pulpit.

HEANEY: It’s high up. The first church I went to in Bellaghy was just a pulpit sticking out of a wall.

MILLER: It is high up. Halfway up to heaven.

Seamus climbed up to the pulpit. ‘My God,’ he said, ‘why hast thou forsaken me?’ The trees seemed to have something to say at the window. The countryside was pressing in again. Someone’s spectacles sat on a book called Mission Praise. The carpet was claret-coloured and I wondered why it always needed to be so cold in the house of the Lord. From the top, Seamus quoted Thomas Hardy – ‘The Darkling Thrush, 31 December 1900’. He spoke of a visit he and his wife, Marie, made to Stinsford churchyard on Hogmanay in the year 2000.

‘The new millennium,’ I said.

MILLER: The poem’s first title was ‘The Century’s End’.

HEANEY: Aye. We went to pay tribute.

Outside the church you could still hear the talk of the jackdaws. You could wonder what gravestones and churches were for, except that their presence seemed to bring something good to the glen, to this cup of land between imposing hills. Graves and their words, stones and their epitaphs, lie everywhere in the Celtic countryside. A graveyard is a park. In the city it is often a bucolic haven between the buildings, a place of rest and flowers and pastoral shrines. I suppose that one of the reasons we often found ourselves gravitating towards graves during our trips is that so long as you’re looking at a grave, you’re on the right side of vitality.

But we were only just beginning with burial sites. Cairnpapple Hill is the only spot in Scotland I’ve ever been to where you can see the two coasts at once. The summit of Goat Fell on the Isle of Arran can be seen in the west, and the Bell Rock, smack in the Firth of Forth, is clear on the other side, down to the east. Walking up to the burial mound, Karl and I were approached by a herd of cattle. ‘Good, good,’ said Seamus, coming up and flicking them away. ‘A square-go in Arcadia.’ The prehistoric henge, with its Bronze Age cairn, speaks of burial rituals as old as the first links in the human chain, and as I watched Seamus among the ancient stones I couldn’t help but think of bogs and murders. When he went digging, all those years ago, in poems written before I was born, he was bound to find something of himself and maybe of his country, too, but I considered the matter afresh as we stood there in the wind. Coming down the hill, I asked Karl to tell us the story of his pre-adolescent attempts at sex, as described in his memoir Rebecca’s Vest. He and his friends would make holes up in the wastes of Midlothian, pulling clods of dirt out and putting their wee wullies in for a bit of rubbing. ‘Yes,’ Karl said, weary at the idea of his comic proclivities. ‘That’s right. The earth didn’t move.’

*

We were on the ferry from Holyhead. The day was grey and damp, with mist banking over the sea. As we sat in the cafeteria, Karl kept looking out the window. He said he was trying to work out where the coast was. He looked at me and showed an expression I’m not sure he’s aware of having, a broad grin that often signals a joke. ‘When your ancestors came over on raping missions,’ he said. ‘Rowing their punts. They must’ve had trouble knowing where to find the bare-footed maidens.’

O’HAGAN: Yes. The ancestors. In their punts. They would’ve had strict instructions to look for plumes of smoke.

MILLER: But it’s hardly the world centre of vivacity – Holyhead, I mean.

O’HAGAN: There’s a small amount of smoke, though.

MILLER: That’s right. As we were driving in I saw a young man standing against a chip shop smoking a cigarette. He didn’t look as if he was getting the absolute most from life.

The boat we were on was called Swift, after the great man, who wrote his poem ‘Holyhead’ in 1727.

O’HAGAN: I think Swift was just depressed. There should be an anthology of extreme positions taken by writers when they were depressed, positions that don’t rhyme with their actual views. Burns went in for that. So did Swift.

MILLER: Yes. Poets can get sad with age. Or maybe they have sadness thrust upon them. You are exactly half my age. I’m supposed to be doubly as wise. But you didn’t know me when I was your age. It is a shame you didn’t know me because it’s well known that I was terribly handsome and engaging.

He looked into the sea. ‘With this howling in my ears, this pain in my back, this cancer going round, and this cigarette lighter in my heart, it can’t be long before I collapse,’ he said. ‘I would like to be buried in Polwarth. There’s a nice church there – near where we used to have a house – though they probably don’t allow people to find their eternal rest in there who are known to have committed the crime of london.’

At the other end of our voyage, after a short drive through Dublin, Seamus stood in the road and waved us into his drive. ‘Hello, dear,’ Karl said.

‘Howyez?’ said Seamus. Our friend loves and hates ceremony at the same time. When it comes to pouring drinks, he doesn’t want to be hostessy but he wants to make sure you get what you want. Karl’s hearing is now and then quite bad and he has trouble with Seamus’s sonorous whisper. Marie was there and we began talking about borders. ‘During the Troubles,’ she said, ‘coming into England could be a bit of a trial. Like the time Seamus nearly got arrested at Birmingham Airport.’

HEANEY: That’s right. Your man stopped me and he said, ‘What’s the purpose of your visit?’ and I said, ‘To educate the English,’ and that was it. Kept me there under the Prevention of Terrorism. I had to explain it was a joke.

We had dinner with Frank McGuinness and then went to Buswell’s Hotel for a drink. We found it full of urban twentysomethings in miniskirts and earrings. The Polish guy behind the desk was lacking in enthusiasm when it came to guests and room keys. ‘He was like some dark-faced person welcoming you to the Lubyanka,’ Karl said, ‘but at least there were all those fashionable girls coming hither and yon. Did you see them? It was extraordinary to see this corps of Asiatic Cleopatras advancing down the hall.’

When Karl opened his diary next morning to check something, he showed me the place where he keeps a list of his illnesses, headed ‘Woes’. We went to the National Library to see an exhibition on W.B. Yeats and had the odd experience of Seamus talking between us as well as on a screen cocooned in a booth. Afterwards we walked under the fading sign high on a gable-end for Finn’s Hotel, where Nora Barnacle was working when Joyce first met her. There was a nice wind brewing and Seamus was struggling against it. He said: ‘My father used to say to us in the morning: “Get up and get the stink blown off ye.”’ In the National Gallery we looked at some Jack Yeats paintings and then went to the shop, where I pointed to a line of postcards featuring Seamus. He tutted. I took one down, a portrait painted by Edward McGuire in 1974. It showed a sullen, tousle-haired graduate of the bog. Karl immediately plucked a postcard from the display and presented it to our faces. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘They have one of me, too.’ It was a portrait of a terrifically wizen-faced old woman wearing a purple headscarf. Title: The Fisherman’s Mother.

As we planned our trip to the Aran Islands, Karl ruminated on previous journeys made there by earnest individuals keen on the rustic life. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘They used to go up to those shoeless natives standing apart from their clay biggins and say: “Hello, I went to Oxford and Cambridge you know, and I would thank you for a flagon of your finest poteen.”’

We began the drive west. Trying to negotiate the roads around Dublin, Seamus said, as if unconsciously: ‘Everything’s changed, changed utterly.’ Later, as the fields rolled by, I asked him if he had known Patrick Kavanagh: ‘I only spent one afternoon with him,’ he said, ‘and I felt lucky to get out alive. I remember I asked him if he liked Thomas Hardy’s poems and of course he took that to be a kind of insult, as if I was asking a country poet if he liked a country poet. He said to me: “Pope is a good poet!” And that just seemed to answer all the issues. But he tried the same thing on John McGahern. John told me about it and indeed he used it in a short story of his. He was in a pub with Kavanagh and Kavanagh told him to go next door and buy him a packet of fags and John decided this was a challenge and that he wouldn’t go. He was something else, Kavanagh. All well known. He was always touching people for money. He once borrowed ten shillings off another writer. “Don’t say anything,” he said. “I don’t want my wife knowing I’m in the ten shilling class.”’

‘Yes,’ Karl said, ‘Kavanagh is reported to have said that he wasn’t an intellectual or anything, but that it was great to have a poet like Auden, with his “well-stocked mind”, with his Freudianism and other isms. All junk of course, he said, but it does to make a blaze.’

We passed by Offaly and Seamus asked me if I knew what a Biffo was.

‘No.’

‘It means a Big Ignorant Fucker from Offaly.’

I was looking out at the landscape as we drove beyond the Irish midlands. If you come from a Protestant country, where the hedges are trimmed and evened-up to within an inch of their lives, the mad tangle of Irish hedges is striking. I imagine Scotland’s hedges speak of order and repression, of a land heavily demarcated, parsed and owned, but in Ireland a certain bucolic anarchy obtains. Ireland presents itself as an entity that might again revolt against the people. The landscape appears to have a mind, a vengeful one, an Old Testament one, if you think of the potato famine.

Karl and Seamus were discussing the notion of writers being either ‘branch men’ or ‘head office’. This came from a story Seamus was telling about T.S. Eliot. Lloyds Bank decided to throw a party a few years ago for Mrs Eliot, and Seamus went as the representative poet. Some knight or other was giving a speech and he said that Eliot wasn’t the only poet ever to work for Lloyds. Cardiff’s Vernon Watkins gave a lot of time to his writing but refused to take days off, preferring to come to his desk. Then again, the gentleman said, ‘Watkins was a branch man and Eliot was very much head office.’

We stopped for lunch at a favourite place of Seamus’s called Moran’s. They gave us a table to ourselves in the snug. There was a nice bottle of Alsace and we all three had chowder. Seamus once wrote a poem after coming here, called ‘Oysters’:

We had driven to that coast

Through flowers and limestone

And there we were, toasting friendship,

Laying down a perfect memory

In the cool of thatch and crockery.

In the main room of Yeats’s tower at Ballylee, with the shallow stream below and the light coming in at the green-framed window, I looked at Seamus and Karl and suddenly had a vision of a time when they would no longer be alive, and a time when none of us would be alive. At the top of the tower the sheer green of the trees gave out to other greens, and the sense of peace up there was unforgettable. We stayed the night at a house once owned by Robert Gregory near the shore. Built in the late 18th century, the house was beautiful: the fire roared in the grate and there were wild flowers everywhere and midges too. The couple who run the house are nice and well liked, despite having a certain B&B mania. ‘I thought he was going to be some steely-eyed English laird, endlessly finding the guests insufficiently glamorous,’ Karl said of the landlord. ‘He had Norman eyes.’ On the road to Dooley the next morning the ‘rules in the residence’ raised a belated laugh. ‘Children are out!’ Karl said. ‘Dogs are out! Televisions are out! If you get up in the middle of the night – don’t!’ There was no arguing, though, with the beauty of the house and the shore below it. Seamus said he regretted not calling his book The Spirit Level by its first title, The Flaggy Shore.

As we went to catch the boat to the Aran Islands, Karl talked about writers who gave the land a voice. He used the word ‘finesse-ful’ and Seamus looked round at me. ‘That’s a great new word for us,’ he said. ‘V.S. Naipaul would certainly object,’ Karl laughed. We had a conversation about what constituted good company. ‘There was a thing about Sorley MacLean,’ Seamus said. ‘He would get very tired in drink after a certain hour of the night. One time he said to Norman MacCaig: “After a certain point at night, after a certain amount of drink taken, I would fall asleep at the dinner table, even if I had Helen of Troy on one side and Voltaire on the other.”’

The boat to Inisheer was busy but the water was very still. I took photos of Seamus and Karl as we crossed, and noticed how transfixed they were by the water and the distance from us to the land. As we left the boat at Inisheer I could hear people whispering Seamus’s name, and he is very good with that, saying hello to people. We climbed into a pony and trap at the pier and were soon off round the island. The man driving the vehicle was the very picture of robust outdoor health, and Seamus took pleasure, he said, in the way the fellow ‘lazily whipped’ the pony every few seconds. It was Seamus who seemed best able to speak to the man, negotiating the price in Gaelic – ‘driving a bard bargain’, as Karl suggested. As we trotted along the road – passing great, drystane dykes on every side, made of limestone – the man told us his name was Tomas Griffin. He said many on the island were O’Flahertys (‘the ferocious O’Flahertys’) or O’Briens, who had been routed by the former many years before. There were also a fair number of Kenneallys. Griffin gave off a powerful sense of knowing his world: having it by heart, every person and their history, knowing every corner of the island and how it might have changed over the years. Every inch of Inisheer seemed to be accounted for, marked off with stones. I’d have said he was a drinker by the weathered look of his face, if I hadn’t been more persuaded that his face was just an outdoor face, the complexion nature intended. He went on with his lazy whipping and near the top of a hill, as the sea appeared calm for miles, he looked again at Seamus. ‘You’re the famous poet,’ he said. He told us in the 1970s the only electricity on the island was provided by generators at the lighthouse, so they had the only TV and more than a hundred people crowded in there one time to watch the All-Ireland Final. He looked again at Seamus with a combination of shyness and intrigue. He clearly thought the poet was a country man who had somehow made it into the universe of electricity and television.

At the top of such a place, you can imagine, for seconds at a time, that urban life is only a dream. It was a steep incline and Karl had to paddle hard with the stick. We passed flame-top flowers on the way up, before coming to a blue gate and the path up to the 15th-century O’Brien’s Castle. Standing up there with the castle solid and the wind whistling and the light moving over the ancient stones below, you could think of Theocritus on the island of Cos, or Virgil in Arcadia, or John Synge over by, or of fairy tales and oral ballads.

HEANEY: The first words ever I spoke in front of an audience were in a play at my boarding college. I was playing a butler and I said: ‘You called, sir?’ I got a taste for it then and it never went away.

MILLER: Andy here was a famous dancer. He pirouetted around Glasgow.

O’HAGAN: That’s true. I came from one of those communities where you got six of the belt if you didn’t perform your pliés the instant you got up in the morning.

MILLER: They called it the tawse in Scotland.

O’HAGAN: Or the strap.

HEANEY: When I was teaching, I only ever used it about four times. One day a young fella wouldn’t yield and I gave him four and then two and two, all in one lesson. That was terrible, really.

Looking over those fields of stones, you might be forgiven for thinking, just for a moment, that the land was all a monument. Even in the sunshine, every road was a Via Dolorosa, every yard a graveyard, and even the fields were built on a heap of chippings and bones. We made our way down to the beach, where an old ship lay rusted on the rocks. Out in the wilds, death is the black backing on the mirror that allows you to see anything at all.

That night Seamus took the country temper back to the city, talking, in company with Marie and us and a lamb stew and a bottle of Montrachet, of Robert Lowell the week before he died. ‘It’s hard to believe it,’ Seamus said, ‘but that’s exactly 30 years ago, September 1977. He brought a copy of Day by Day and laid it on the table there, and we ate with him and Caroline and then they had to go back to the house in Castletown. He was very drunk and they were in some trouble by then, which is well documented, of course. He was standing raging in the street and having a piss under the chestnut trees. When I left him I said, “We’ll be seeing you soon,” and he shook his head and said: “I don’t think so.” The following Monday he died in that taxi in New York.’

The next day Seamus took us over to St Patrick’s Cathedral and we stood before Swift’s grave, reading Yeats’s tribute, then Pope’s. I went round the corner and saw a plaque on the wall to Swift’s servant, put there, apparently, by Swift himself. I thought this was cheerfully democratic and said so to Seamus. ‘Diligence and prudence,’ he said. ‘Well played, that man.’

*

Three winters passed. Life performed its duties. None of us was younger or much the wiser. We’d been thinking about Wales for some time and we set out at the start of the summer, when the trees looked ready for inspection. Seamus agreed that we should pick him up at a hotel near Birmingham Airport. We got entangled in a ludicrous series of roundabouts, which Karl imagined to represent a cycle of Midlands torture unmatched since the blindings and dousings in the plays of Shakespeare. Seamus was standing outside his hotel next to a fire engine, as the entire human contents of the building were evacuated in a drill. He was staring into space. ‘Look,’ Karl said, ‘the Great Bucolic Contemplates Life among the Ring Roads.’

The car dug its way through the miles towards Wales. The landscape round the Usk was green and silvery and nothing short of magnificent, with ewes on the hills, and the hills themselves rising to great heights from nowhere. When we arrived at our hotel, The Bell at Skenfrith, there were cars parked all the way up to the castle. It had become traditional for us to be preceded at hotels by a host of naked girls. This time, in the foyer of the hotel the girls were actually gathered in their scants, about to walk the runway in the hotel’s annual fashion show. Seamus smiled from ear to ear and Karl looked uncertain where to place himself. ‘That’ll do,’ said Seamus, laughing into the circus. ‘Top marks.’ After a moment, Karl looked up, quoting from Tam o’ Shanter. ‘Weel done, cutty sark,’ he said. As we walked up to our rooms Karl stopped in the corridor and looked at us. ‘Do I suddenly seem very old and doddery to you?’

‘Not at all,’ Seamus said. ‘Sure, look at me.’

That evening, at the Walnut Tree Inn in Llanddewi Skirrid, a small building under a giant Monmouth hill, the birds were making a beautiful racket. The sky was pink. The boys ate Dover sole with nutty potatoes called Ratte, and drank a bottle of Pinot Grigio. It was true the details seemed to be mounting, on this, the third of our trips, but I feel that not only the devil but the value of the trip was there, in the detail. Conversation has its flare-ups and its exaggerations, its moments of ballet, its crushing moments too, but I kept coming back to the thought that conversation was a fundamental in the literature of these islands. The beat of the voice and the flutter of opinion, bound to the steady metre of walks and excursions and friendships.

MILLER: Ian Hamilton was against my saying so, but I feel there was something good there from time to time, in Spender. Like that poem about the aeroplane …

HEANEY: ‘The Landscape Near an Aerodrome’.

MILLER: That’s right.

O’HAGAN: About the plane descending to the feminine land, lulled into miles of softness.

MILLER: Yes, he could be good, when not in his ‘I think continually of those who were truly great’ mode. Frank Kermode once said of him: ‘Stephen never knows where he’s going but he knows the best way to get there.’

HEANEY: Those books in the middle years, about modernism and so on, I read them with pleasure.

The wine was described as ‘cheerful’; the late Alan Sillitoe was described as a lovely man, ‘without the talent of saying hello’. Seamus made the case for Dante, for peaches, and for basil ice cream. Willa Muir, according to Karl, ‘was fighting a losing battle at Harvard with the homoerotic community, insulting the gays without realising they were gay’. We came round again to country matters, to re-argue the argument between Edwin Muir and MacDiarmid which ended with the professor asking the poet if there was a ‘Hibernian Antisyzygy’. ‘Maybe in the North,’ Seamus said.

O’HAGAN [to Miller]: Don’t you want peas? Peas are always the best bit.

MILLER: There are too many. They brought 15,000 peas. I thought 500 would do me.

We came back from Abergavenny in a taxi, shrouded in trees and hills. It was like squeezing through a hole in the dark. There was light and laughter coming from our hotel, the catwalk models and their friends now hopping in the bar. If the countryside had a mind, you reckon its default position would be amusement when confronted with the ceaseless tide of human stuff. It must have seen it all before, the coming and going, the laughter, and the darkness coming round again. When I came down to the breakfast table in the morning, you could hear the spring lambs baa-ing not far from the open windows. Karl was brandishing a copy of the Guardian that had Wayne Rooney on the cover; Rooney was also brandishing something: a plastic crucifix. ‘He was like you,’ Karl said, ‘a Catholic in childhood. Forever putting his face up for the Communion wafer.’

Seamus arrived and a discussion began about the queen. ‘I think she’s done a fairly brilliant job,’ he said.

MILLER: Yes. She’s certainly been good at it. She was saved by adopting her mother’s sense of humour.

O’HAGAN: Ted Hughes seemed to excite her mother. The letters between them included in Shawcross’s book are hilarious. She had a sort of imaginary, pet name for him, the Rev. Cedric Potter, I believe it was. In one of her letters to him she asked if he thought the trees could communicate with each other.

MILLER: Good question.

HEANEY: Ted liked to interpret women’s dreams and that sort of thing. I had to sit beside the queen at dinner once. Her face was such a mask it was difficult to grasp what was going on behind. But she’s certainly intelligent. We spoke about Hughes, Mary Robinson, and I remember her making the point that Billy Connolly, though normally speaking with a Glasgow accent, spoke with an Aberdonian one in the film Mrs Brown, about Queen Victoria’s lover.

MILLER: I once availed myself of the Palace’s hospitality, I think at some kind of celebration of the many achievements of Isaiah Berlin. Anyway, this broken chain of corgis came sputtering into the room. People were scraping and so on. The queen talked to me about the war in Vietnam and said the Americans appeared to be doing rather badly.

The grave of Henry Vaughan can be found on a hill next to the River Usk. He lies in the graveyard of Llansantffraed Church, where there are trees on every side, the trees advancing like Birnam Wood, and words on all the graves. Vaughan’s plot is under a giant yew tree. It is stained with moss and lichens, its Latin phrases shaded from light. There’s no obvious path up from the road, so we climbed through the grass and found the grave looking not obscure but unvisited. There’s a bench to one side, with a bank of very old gravestones – some as old as Vaughan’s, 1695 – now attached to the wall for their preservation. Karl and Seamus sat on a bench and argued about the Latin on Vaughan’s grave. I was pleased to be with my friends, and the day was very fine and the sky through the trees was bursting with colour. The epitaph speaks of maximum sin and an eternity of supplication before God.

MILLER: Well, here’s Vaughan. A believer. It’s hard to think of you, Seamus, without belief. I find it hard not to believe you believe.

HEANEY: I stopped practising a long time ago, but some of it holds. If you have it as a child it gives you a structure of consciousness – the idea there is something more.

MILLER: I probably wouldn’t go that far, but I have to say: I always believed I would see my granny again. She was good to me.

HEANEY: For me, my father. I’d hope to see him again, all right.

We stayed there for a while and Seamus spoke about Eliot and the Four Quartets. In all this gadding about, there had been many versions of pastoral and an easy dalliance of time past and time present, but I sensed that, for Seamus at least, this wasn’t an Eliotic rose garden. It was just a place in which to rest your bones and take a breath. And that’s what happened, as the light came through the leaves.