The Immigrant at Port Selda
I got off at Port Selda and looked out for the harbour
but it was quiet, nothing smelled of the sea,
all I saw was a station by a well-kept arbour
with a notice pinned to a tree.
It said: Welcome to Port Selda, you who will never be
our collective unconscious nor of our race.
This is the one true genealogical tree
and this the notice you will not deface.
It was beautiful there. It was Friday in late
autumn and all the birds of the county sang
their hearts out. I noted down the date.
The sun was shining and the church-bells rang.
A few weeks ago, during the Words, festival someone was reciting Betjeman's famous poem about Miss J Hunter Dunn and it was remarked to me how English that poem was, and that I could hardly be expected to recognise the specifically English experience to which the poem referrred. I understood what the speaker meant, though it was an odd moment in many respects. He was right, or rather I supposed - and continue to suppose - that he might be right, because, after all, there are levels of being one cannot vouch for. I suppose it was an odd moment to draw that line between what constitutes Englishness and where I might be supposed relative to it.
It took me back to another occasion in my schoolteaching days some twenty or more years ago, when the conversation turned to cricket in the staff room, and having grown fond of cricket I venture an opinion on style. I had clearly taken the others aback, since there were raised eyebrows and a little surprised looking, as though there were objects within the sanctum of consciousness of which I could not be presumed to speak.
I don't argue that this was specifically English, since it is quite likely that anywhere in the world you would find such sanctums, those spaces of shared being informed by the experience of generations. It is right that visitors should respect such spaces and that, occasionally, there might be family business at which it might be proper for the visitor to withdraw. That is if one had somewhere to withdraw to. That isn't always the case.
Hence the poem. I thought of Edward Thomas, and particularly of his poem, Adlestrop, which conveys to me something related to, if not the same as, Betjeman's poem. Betjeman's poem is a social creature inhabiting a social field. Edward Thomas's is about something deeper and yet proceeds from something, a sense of place, mood and language, that might be felt more intensely by the native Briton. Looking at that photograph in a recent blog of Adlestrop, the name, as Thomas says, I note, as others might have done for all I know, that it spells Port Selda backwards. A port! The very place an immigrant might arrive at. So the poem.