I was in Blackness Castle on the shores of West Lothian this week. It is built in the shape of an unsinkable ship facing out onto the Firth of Forth towards the Rosyth dockyard across the water in Fife. The tide was low and all of the small yachts moored in the bay were fully exposed, tilted to one side, their keels and hulls blown dry by a brisk south-westerly. The air was damp, misty, nearly raining – time to retreat within the thick castle walls. Inside one of the rooms of the castle was a game of rope quoits. The target, at which the quoits were to be thrown, was a tilted wooden panel with seven protruding pegs. We stood, half a dozen paces off, and had a go. Beginners luck, I caught one with my first throw of five. Sure enough, I followed it up with twenty failed throws; gently judged pitches that nearly made it, but not quite. Close, but no cigar. Nearly hitting my target was important, though – it kept me at it, gave me an appetite for more. Had I been a terrible shot I’d have wandered off, but the near misses added to my tenacity. It’s the same as the penny falls at an amusement arcade (or whatever denomination of coin is used now). You know at a glance that the precariously balanced coins are so nearly about to tip, and if you were to get twenty pence worth of 2p coins you’d be in a toppling tuppence bonanza.
Fishing is another exercise in nearly. One doesn’t stay fishing long if there aren’t any bites, but if there’s a tug at the line, or, better still, as you hold the straining rod and reel in, then see a glistening flash break the surface before it slips the lure and swims off – well, there’s hope, isn’t there? You nearly caught it. In mountaineering there is a phenomenon called summit fever. It’s not a physical fever; rather, it is that insatiable need, that overwhelming compulsion for the mountaineer to keep going regardless of the odds. The ‘no matter what’ mentality, is said to intensify the closer climbers get to the top of the mountain; they push on regardless of extremes in both fatigue and weather. All safety training and good sense dissipate when summit fever kicks in. Descending or setting up camp are swiftly dismissed in favour of ‘nearly there’.
There is an ancient saying, attributed to the Chinese philosopher, Zhuang Zhou, that reads: ‘When an archer is shooting for nothing, he has all his skill. If he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous. If he shoots for a prize of gold, he goes blind or sees two targets – He is out of his mind.’ It’s an important lesson: that we can lose a sense of clarity when we adopt the breathless desperation that sometimes comes with ‘nearly’. Mountaineers’ lives have been lost with the nearly of summit fever. Parents’ coin purses are depleted to zero by children hypnotized by the mechanised push and pull of the penny falls and their promise of nearly. There’s probably enough fishing tackle submerged in Irish coastal waters to build a small trawler, all lost in the name of nearly.
There is another sense of nearly, however. A nearly that can be happily left to one side, a nearly to which there is no disappointment attached, a nearly that is not pursed to conclusion – a conclusion that is not always predictable. I love this poem, by Wendy Cope, because of how she holds ‘nearly’ this way: with a sense of fondness; as a cherished memory; without any tinge of regret. She turns what didn’t happen on its head: in nearly having a bunch of flowers, she now always has a bunch of flowers. Life can be like that.
‘Flowers’, by Wendy Cope
Some men never think of it.
You did. You’d come along
And say you’d nearly brought me flowers
But something had gone wrong.
The shop was closed. Or you had doubts —
The sort that minds like ours
Dream up incessantly. You thought
I might not want your flowers.
It made me smile and hug you then.
Now I can only smile.
But, look, the flowers you nearly brought
Have lasted all this while.