26th April

Ghost Ships

The new blocks of flats at the waterfront do not look to him, from half a mile away, like blocks of flats at all. They are battleships – vast, towering, grey, black, all plated sides and gleaming spars, bridges, walkways and projecting platforms, different faces of steel and armoured glass, and all with a lack of symmetry, as if the naval designers, keeping pace with advancing technology, couldn’t stop adding extra layers of defence or methods to detect the enemy. In the sunshine and against the few swiftly moving white clouds these giants seem to lean into the stiff easterly breeze, straining at their anchors, ready to put to sea.

Between the flats and where he stands is an old dock with a decaying wharf, and beyond that a man-made spit extending far out into the water like a runway. Piles of rubble, concrete blocks and heaps of gravel punctuate this spit at irregular intervals. There, another two of the battleship blocks were supposed to be built, but they never were, because the property bubble burst. Their ghostly absence makes the ones that were completed seem very far away. He imagines people in them watching the shoreline from their windows, waving frantically, seasick, wanting to be brought back to land.

But they can’t be brought back. At the peak of the boom the biggest apartments out there went for as much as £750,000. Now they can’t be sold for half that. Their owners are becalmed, marooned, grounded – whatever marine terminology you prefer – by negative equity. And if it’s grounded they are then the tide is out, and nobody knows when, or if, there will be another tide like it.

‘More money than sense.’ So said many, himself included, who both envied and despised the wealth that was poured into those apartments. He thinks of the old story that when James IV commissioned his warship the Great Michael it was said that all the woods of Fife were used in the building of it. And then came Flodden, and James’s death, and the Great Michael was sold at a knockdown price to the French, who eventually left that mighty vessel to rot in the harbour at Brest.

Reader: Iona Zajac
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
Piano: Kit Downes
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