Skip to content

Poems from ‘The Messenger House’.



MY GREAT-GREAT-GRANDFATHER George Davies travelled with John Wheeley Gough Gutch, a Queen’s Messenger, on his journey to Serbia in both 1846 and 1847 and left two handwritten travel journals which I have transcribed. They stayed in a messenger house in Aleksinac, Serbia (then called Alexnitza) which was near the then border with the Ottoman Empire. Dispatches were carried by Mr Gutch from the UK and consulates along the way and they waited at the messenger house for dispatches from Constantinople which they then conveyed back to the UK in haste. During the second journey they met Captain Spencer, a travel writer, who had just emerged from Quarantine having inadvertently crossed and re-crossed a border in dense woodland. Captain Spencer writes about meeting Davies and Gutch in one of his travel books. I loved the roundness of reading both their accounts, something I hadn’t expected to find when I first read the family journals. Some of the pieces I am writing to go with the journals are set in the 1840’s and some are contemporary following my own visits and journals – the one called Selma is contemporary here.

On horseback in all weathers

SOMETIMES in winter
when snow lies two yards deep
in a country without roads
wolves pressed with hunger
circle the sheepfolds

Sometimes the rider
tested to the limit of patience
must frequently alight
to open clumsy gates
and their clumsier fastenings

Or a canopy of foliage
impervious to light
harbours loneliness
only the creaking of the saddle
allays desolation

Deep forest abounds
with immense tracts of oak
wild plums and cherries
then pieces of ground
just brought into use

Five or six feet
of each tree stands up straight
partially burnt—
brigades of lost soldiers
quartered in corn fields


HAVING SET OUT from Alexinitz to extend my excursions through the Knejine of Gorgouschavatz and Mount Rtagn, we inadvertently, in a frontier so ill-defined as that of Servia, crossed the Turkish frontier, and entered the province of Bosnia. On our return into the principality, we were reminded of the indiscretion by a troop of Servian pandours1 who, without much ceremony, conducted us to the establishment at Alexinitz. But as the offence was committed through ignorance, our imprisonment in the quarantine was, as a great favour, reduced from five to three days, which term may be extended to forty, when an epidemic prevails in any of the adjoining provinces.”

Edmund Spencer, Travels in European Turkey, in 1850; through Bosnia, Servia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Thrace, Albania, and Epirus; with a visit to Greece and the Ionian Isles, in 1850. (London 1851)

I was quartered with a wild and motley crew:
Turks, and Arnouts, Greeks and Zinzars, Jews, Armenians
and Gipsies. All habited in the costume of their tribe
and speaking tongues as might have rivalled Babel.

Our four-footed companions were doomed
to quarantine with us and made their own concert
braying, lowing and barking. Of all the wayfarers’
annoyances, quarantine’s most prejudicial to health.

The quarantine establishment is large, strong palisades
and a guard of pandours. Sheds for merchandise,
stables, a han2 and huts for wealthier travellers.
But most were kiraidji3 swineherds, and drovers

who preferred the night air to the expenses of a han,
and who bivouacked in a large space in the centre,
around a blazing fire. I saw three to four hundred persons
drink gallon after gallon of wine and raki

but here was no quarrelling nor fighting. They sang
smoked, danced and cooked, performed on the bagpipe,
reed and gousla and harkened to storytellers and bards
who asked but just a few pari from their listeners.

Our clothes, bedding and papers were fumigated
although there’s been no case of plague for several years.
Every little item swells the travellers’ bill of costs,
the guard of honour demanding a bakschisch.4

The Horses of the Kiraidji5

“The spot was a favourite halting place, had a fine spring gushing from the rock, ornamented by a fountain, erected by a pious Mussulman with an inscription”. — Captain Spencer

The caravan had halted at an elevated plateau
shaded by the foliage of a giant linden tree,
the way was impassable because of the storm.

Forty to fifty men with the produce of Macedonia,
Thessaly and Albania had camped around fires,
cooked, boiled coffee and smoked. A scooped-out

trunk of a tree made a trough for the horses
with a wooden drinking cup for travellers.
A cloudless sky and bracing wind came later.

Then they all yelped a guttural phrase and each
of the horses, freed in the woods to forage,
ran to his owner who held a little pouch of corn.

One impenetrable cry; but a horse knows well
his master’s voice and grasped by the mane submits
to the labour of the packsaddle, the burden of the road.


Never expose yourself to the night air
nor too much to the rays of the sun

Never sleep upon deck by moonlight
nor drink cold liquids in a state of perspiration

Travellers on foot should never sleep
under the shadow of a tree nor in a hemp field

If you pass over a bridge, or through a river in the night
never place confidence in your Postillions

who are sometimes intoxicated or sleepy—
never at that time traverse a large or lonely forest.

Travellers should never visit a sick person
in the morning before breakfast

nor in the presence of the sick
should they swallow their own saliva

Sweet or boiled wines inflame the blood
and are productive of the most dangerous consequences

The best posture for the ‘siesta’
is half inclined and turned to the left side

Desist from exercise of a violent kind
and always keep the bowels moderately open.

The activity of the whole machine
is enlivened by cheerfulness

A degree of joy removes noxious particles
—gaiety, mirth, exultation and rapture

aid in the preservation of health
when not carried to an excess or too long continued

Before the tourist leaves England, he should lay down
a route from which he should never deviate—

a carriage for the Continent should carry linch-pins,
anti-attrition grease and a drag chain.


There’s a toll road from Vrbas to Novi Sad
the ticket timed from one end to the other
and if you go too fast you’ll get a fine.
On his phone he plays the hard rock ballad
and says that Selma never did arrive.

Selma Is leaving for college
She’s leaving while I carry her suitcase
Look It’s heavy, but it’s hers
and so I love that suitcase too

Between two toll booths in the headlight’s flicker
he tells me he’s a Bosnian refugee,
that War is better than what comes after.
This desolation dropped in silence
over the song of loss and non-arrival.

I wanted to tell you something sweet
something with lots of concern
but I said only goodbye Selma
and please, do not lean out of the window

Janet Sutherland’s collections include Home Farm (2019), Bone Monkey (2014), Hangman’s Acre (2009) and Burning the Heartwood (2006), all from Shearsman. She is currently working on a new collection about her great-great-grandfather’s travels to Serbia in the 1840’s. A critical essay on the poet Charles Reznikoff appeared as an afterword to a new edition of his work, Holocaust (Black Sparrow Press, 2007). She received a Hawthornden Fellowship in 2018.
  1. A local militia, having a reputation for cruelty and plundering.
  2. Lodging houses, sometimes spelled Khan.
  3. Travelling merchants.
  4. In the German-speaking world, the Balkans and other countries of the former Ottoman Empire, bakschisch is colloquially an expression for a bribe.
  5. Actually the word is Kirdžija – merchants or travelling salesmen. In past times they transported salt, sugar,  brandy, matches,  wheat and spices.
  6. Found materials from: Handbook for European Tourists through Belgium, Holland, The Rhine, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and France, including a full description of Paris, the Channel Islands, the fashionable Continental Spas by Francis Coghlan. (London 1847).
  7. Selma : a rock ballad recorded in 1974 in former Yugoslavia by the band Bijelo Dugme (The White Button). Lyrics by the poet Vlado Dija, 1949, translated  by Ivanka Radmanovic, 2019. Quotations from the song  are italicised.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *