On Saturday 19th May 2012 the Collective Spirit sailed into Brighton Marina, her first port of call – while just a few hundred yards away, inland, I was… somewhere else. To hazard a guess, I’d say I was curled up on my sofa, reading, while outside my window the welcoming celebrations merged with all the revelry of Brighton Festival on the Saturday night air. When the ship set sail for Portland eight days later, I had no idea that something so remarkable had passed me by.
Two years and seven months later, at one of the Unthanks’ magical singing weekends in Seahouses, I was given a treasury of songs inspired by the story of this ship, and left curious to find out more about what I had missed.
Look closely at the Collective Spirit and you will see what makes her special: visible above the waterline are the outlines of hundreds of donated wooden objects which were used as raw materials for her construction. Lone Twin, the artistic collective behind The Boat Project, set out to make an “archive” (or even an ark?) “of stories and memories” as their contribution to the 2012 Cultural Olympiad: “1,221 people came with their wood and told us their story, each donation was then used along with thousands of others to construct a seafaring record of our lives.” The result is beautiful and functional, a seaworthy work of art deserving of its moniker: “the ship of a thousand memories.”
Of the 1,221 donations, a splinter from Hendrix’s guitar is lost among the grain, but an old wooden ruler can clearly be seen – the same wooden ruler, perhaps, once brought down hard on the knuckles of a student by a sadistic, misguided teacher, “for something, for nothing, for fun.” The outline of this ruler frames a story, written down by Nick Hornby and given voice by The Unthanks, about leaving behind the memory of a brutal school regime: “inch by inch we climbed above you, inch by inch we sailed away.”
‘The Ruler’ forms part of the Harbour of Songs, an album produced by Adrian McNally of the Unthanks to hold the stories inspired by the Collective Spirit. “Each piece of wood holds a different story within its grain, and each song captures a story.” The songs were donated in “the same manner as the wooden items themselves, each specifically bringing to life the stories behind them.” Imagining the former lives of the objects from which The Boat Project was born, Sarah Blasko sings of the joy of a ‘Simple Wooden Box’ for the storing of secrets, while Alasdair Roberts imagines the pride of an Australian circus performer’s prowess with ‘My Rola-Bola Board’. One of the most moving stories on the album is Ralph McTell’s ‘Shed Song’, celebrating the “church of masculinity” that a man’s shed became to his young grandson. The shed disintegrates as the years go by until, after the grandfather passes away, only three planks remain: “one for him, and one for me, and one for lives and schemes that overlap each history aboard this Ship of Dreams.”
Of course, the Collective Spirit is more than just the sum of these stories: over the course of her voyages, she will gather stories of her own. In the Summer of 2013, she was crewed to 5th place in the Round the Island Race; as Steve Tilston’s contribution to the Harbour of Songs imagined, “her keel will cut fine courses, while from the starboard bow keen eyes will watch for breakers”. After a long tour of this island nation’s ports, Collective Spirit is still sailing: in fact, you can charter her for your own use, and add your own memories to the thousands already held within her hull. But, if you are as landlocked and broke as I am for the moment, the Harbour of Songs offers another way to set sail on Collective Spirit, launching yourself into a sea of the stories she inspired. It was a great gift. Thank you, Max McNally, for passing it on.