I came home this morning with windfall damsons tumbling out of the bicycle panniers, and heard from the Lodger that Seamus Heaney has died. We drank a toast to him in sloe gin.
I make sloe gin because, nearly eighteen years ago, I stayed for a few days with Christopher during the October school holiday. We went from Liverpool to Shropshire. We climbed the Long Mynd, and drank in a pub full of raucous young farmers, and walked in a wood where there were sloes. We carried the sloes home and made sloe gin. Christopher died the following summer. I have gone on making sloe gin. Every year I pour the last of it, in a direct line back to those Shropshire sloes, into the new year’s making.
The poem was first published in Station Island (1984), so it is older than my sloe gin – in fact, I think we referred to the poem for a recipe. By the time it appeared in the collection Opened Ground (1998) Heaney had changed the last lines:
I drink to you
in smoke-mirled, blue-
black sloes, bitter
But I remember Christopher that autumn, on Saturday night, polishing his black shoes for church next day, and remarking that the clocks should go forward for an extra hour every Sunday morning. And I remember teaching the poem with a class in Heriot’s, and a boy reading it aloud and misreading the last lines: ‘I drink to you / in smoke-mirled, blue-black, polished shoes.’ I don’t think Seamus Heaney would want the polished shoes taken away from the echoes of his poem. They will be there for his funeral.
Herself: Most elegant obituary.