Caught by the River

Archipelago 10th anniversary celebration. Somerville College. Oxford.

Sue Brooks | 29th November 2015

from-the-wheelhouseAndrew McNeillie

Andrew McNeillie and friends launched the tenth issue of the literary magazine Archipelago in Oxford recently. Sue Brooks was lucky enought to join them:

At night aboard the Archipelago, we steer by the stars. We study charts and flows and promises of fair weather, threats of foul – deadlines sworn to on an author’s life, deadlines run aground on the rocks…….

One of the great pleasures of the magazine over almost a decade, has been the editorial by Captain A. McNeillie, owner, publisher and instigator of ten voyages in the good ship Archipelago. The charts cover the margins of the unnameable constellation of islands on the Eastern Atlantic coast. The Captain navigates by the stars above and the contributors below – his stellar crew.

I looked back to the first Issue for an account of the maiden voyage. It came as a stab to the heart to read the lovely prose piece by Seamus Heaney on page 1. He is leaving an island sitting on the thwarts with a child on either knee. What better and more poignant way to launch Archipelago, knowing as we do now, that he would die in 2013. Issue 8 was dedicated to his memory.

The celebration to mark the publication last Saturday (ed’s note: actually 14 November) of the 10th edition was entitled Unencompassing the Archipelago. You might think a ship would lose its bearings completely in such a sea; but not with Captain McNeillie at the helm.

Archipelago was beached for the day in Oxford. Maps were distributed and ship’s orders. The First Mate, veteran of all ten voyages, took the wheel and gave us a guided tour of The Shipping Forecast: Norman Ackroyd, tireless and passionate adventurer in the outer reaches of the archipelago, strapped to the mast with his sketch book in rough seas: I have no system. I read about some place, get fascinated and go there. I talked to Seamus about Plein Air drawing. He feels the same – the poem Postscript was written in 10 minutes sitting in the car. The feeling wells up in you. You can’t tart it up afterwards. There’s still so much to discover. Places few people visit, or even see.

We scattered to the four winds. West Far West. South South West. North North West. East North East, located in different parts of the College, and took our bearings from the extraordinary tales and songs we heard there.

After lunch, Philip Marsden with only one trip in the Good Ship under his belt, was contemplating another in his recently acquired 7 ton wooden sloop. The Captain was much taken with this venture. Would the skipper fly an Archipelago pennant? Of course he would if a suitable design could be found. Invitations were issued. The sloop project is to seek the mythical enchanted isles of the South Atlantic – the Isles of the Blessed named as Hy Brazil on ship’s records since the fifteenth century – and explore and celebrate their phantom shapes in the imagination. We can never reach them, but by God we can have some fun trying.

An evening of poetry, music and prose followed, rich with Scottish, Irish, Welsh and English voices, some speaking in their own tongues. ( Deidre Ni Chonghaile and Angharad Price ) A celebration of contributors to past issues of the magazine and readings from the seamark Issue 10, in all their marvellous variety. Honour was paid to those who have died during the magazine’s history and to those who, for reasons of illhealth, were unable to be present – Tim Robinson and Bernard O’Donoghue. Tom Paulin and the beautiful singing voice of Kirsteen McCue brought the day to an end.

No sooner had the last line of “ My heart’s in the Highlands” died away, and before any of the assembled company could wipe the tears from their eyes, the First Mate assisted by Able Seamen R. Macfarlane and T. Dee had hoisted the Captain to their shoulders. James Macdonald Lockhart cut the mooring ropes and the good ship Archipelago slipped away into the starry night. Captain McNeillie and his crew in search of new adventures in the unnameable Archipelago. The celebration had been a triumph. There was still so much to discover.

Every year a new venture, often into uncharted waters and never without risk. As the editorial commented in Issue 2 – readers make the difference. There is no life without them. They keep the life-boat afloat, life being the word and the meaning. Readers, as supernumerary crew members, have kept the Good Ship afloat for 8 years. After such a day, we have all signed up for more – and no end in sight.


A subscription to Archipelago would not only make a great gift it would also help keep this wonderful magazine going. Treat yourself or a treat a friend this Christmas. Find out more.