Procol Harum

the Pale

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Salty Scotsman 2001

Spotted in The Scotsman by Charlie Allison 

Most unusual to find a journalist on Scotland's premier broadsheet writing with such feeling about matters Procoholic!

Jim Gilchrist feels the tug of safely unattainable shores

You're flicking through some old, photographs, mid-19th century, while from the foot of the street comes the faint bicker of gulls, the elemental mutter of the sea. The pictures depict cross-hatchings of spars, and, rigging bristling against sepia'd skies, impossibly archaic-looking sailing ships tied up in Leith and Cork harbours. Peering closer at the sharp shadows thrown by some of the figures on the quayside, you wonder whether it was a hot day that these scenes were captured: can you smell the tar blister? Can you hear the creaking, the impatient jostling of timber hulls, eager to be slipping out with the tide?

Galleons, clippers, brigantines, caravels ... tall ships. They still exercise the imaginations of even the most land-lubberly among us, evoking ersatz memories we've never actually known, of exotic destinations which exist only within the fabled geography of our imaginations, as charted by the likes of Jim Hawkins concluding his Treasure Island narrative: "Oxen and wainropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island; and the worst dreams that ever I have are when I hear the surf booming about its coasts, or start upright in bed, with the sharp voice of Captain Flint still ringing in my ears: 'Pieces of eight! 'Pieces of eight!'

Robert Louis Stevenson was, of course, no mere armchair voyager - witness that famous photograph of him alongside crew members, clinging to the bowsprit of the schooner Equator, during his South Sea travels – and our literature is the richer for it. Such fantasies, however, still exert a strong grip, even in an age of supersonic flight and space travel, when distant patterns of palm-fringed islands become mere speckles on the blue curvature of the earth, when pirates are passé. Even the distinctly non-seafaring, guitar-wielding icons of our youth were not immune to the contagion. Those of A Certain Age may recall with affection Mountain's Nantucket Sleighride, with its lumbering concatenation of howling guitars and sea shanties, an axe man's lament for the lost whale; or Procol Harum's surrealistically poignant Salty Dog, with its introductory chorus of wheeling gulls giving way to solitary piano, spare strings and that cannonade of drums from the late and still lamented BJ Wilson, evoking "a sand so white, and sea so blue, no mortal place at all.".

The story goes that when Procol singer Gary Brooker first ran over Keith Reid's haunting lyrics at the piano for the benefit of Wilson, it was in a room with sunlight spilling through the windows. Wilson, who would later die after a three-year coma resulting from an alcohol-related accident, sat with a sunbeam on his face and told Brooker he thought it was the most beautiful song he had ever heard. Such glowing evocations of billowing sails and island sunsets take no account of scurvy or summary floggings; no matter that the pellucid atoll may be laced with oil spillage or simmering with radioactivity from some misbegotten nuclear test. Still, to look at those photographs, freeze-framing a creaking quayside moment some century and a half ago, you feel a tug of something, the appeal, perhaps, of reassuringly lost horizons, of safely unattainable shores.

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