Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Disappointment


Where were you at 9pm, the 30th June 1998? I was six, allowed to stay up late for the first time and bouncing on the damask sofa in the first house I remember living in.

There are some things you don't know when you are six: that Argentina means "silver coast", that we had fought a war sixteen years earlier, or that there's a place in France called Saint-Etienne that you might one day visit. I'd just discovered who Diego Maradonna was, earlier in the day and I was outraged.

There are some things you shouldn't know when you are six: anger, confusion, the fallibility of adults. David Beckham was my hero and here he was, sent off for lightly brushing Diego Simeone's calf with his boot. David Batty's missed penalty in the shootout seems merely incidental. I had a tantrum.

Where were you on the morning of 21st June 2002? I was in the school hall, watching my heroes half the world away. Watching as if in slow motion, Ronaldinho's free kick flying off at a weird angle and the dawning realisation that it was looping over David Seaman's flailing glove. I felt then that if only I reached hard enough I could help him claw it out before it crossed the line. Never mind. Brazil are Brazil and they always win and I was proud of England in defeat: I wanted to console them. To let them know that we always lose and that was fine.

Where were you in 2004? Penalties against Portugal in the beautiful city of Lisbon, eyes glued to the television set, one hot summer's evening: the familiar quarter final outcome, even then, as a 12 year old amateur pessimist.

2006? Same team. Same opponents. Same result: Owen Hargreaves the pub quiz answer, the only Englishman to score his penalty. YouTube is glorious: a nostalgia trap, that lets me relive my youth in shaky camera angles, dodgy aspect ratios, old commentator's voices and Des Lynam before he left  to present Countdown. I can spend hours on it, as an amateur pseud, filling in the gaps of my shaky childhood memory. I can map out my pessimism: how it grew and flourished, watered by the inevitable tragedy of English football. How they invented disappointment for me.

And it felt like tragedy. Growing up with an interest in football lumbers you with two teams. Your club and your country. I grew up with Manchester United in the zenith of their success. I grew up with the English football team as the unspoken assumption in the school playground. We all believed. This year. This was the year. It was a camouflage. Boys growing up are taught in the playground to assimilate. To not stand out, to bray with bullish confidence, not to have weird interests. We all liked football. It was just what you did. It was all that was safe to talk about, so it was all that we spoke about. Growing up, England were the antithesis of Manchester United: they were the shadow of failure that stalked everything. From my teenage years I sunk into pessimism, defeatism: a world view informed by the world around me that whatever happened, we would lose. Whether that was sport or socially or my exams.

Somewhere along the line I tried to stop caring. We didn't make it to Euro 2008; I'd discovered birds and books and the surprise first sip of warm bitter being pleasant, and that sport wasn't really for people like me anyway: chubby, awkward asthmatics who got bullied by those who were better at it than me because they could run. But 2010 was my A-levels. I spent that summer, hot as all past summer seem, with my text books open in front of the TV. England in South Africa, thrashing about: 11 men with the coordination of a dying animal, being mercifully put down by a German team who could've won it. I couldn’t pretend any more than I didn’t care.

I have shaken that pessimism off, more or less, though it forms the foundations of my life. Subsiding is always a danger. There is something that will always be attractive, something less painful, about the premature expectation of disappointment.

England are through to a semi-final for the first time in my life. The teams that seemed stalk me - Argentina, Brazil, Portugal, Germany - have fallen by the wayside. I have even witnessed in the last week the great impossible: a strong handed English keeper. Eric Dier defying his name. A penalty shootout success. Gareth Southgate’s team have invented something different, something unfamiliar for me: hope.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Sebald on the Beach

These words came at 4am, one sleepless, humid night in Greece. They were written in the Notes app on my phone while lying in bed and were forgotten about – until now.


The rain wakes us up from our shared shallow doze, drumming its anxious fingertips across the awning. The town cats scatter for shelter into the flower beds, their kittens dripping wet behind the plant pots, softly mewling for milk and mother. From the veranda, the town appears to be built on top of itself, building upon building, all facing west, facing the sea. The town is hidden from the harshness of the Greek sun at this time of the morning by the ridge of limestone mountains behind, green with olive groves and tall with cypress trees. This indirect morning light picks everything out in momentary clarity before the day's stifling heat hides headlands, mountains beyond mountains, islands and churches that don't reappear until the setting sun cuts through the haze, restores the landscape and honey-coloured cliffs appear as if by magic.


We take the narrow side streets to the harbour, between brightly coloured walls flaking paint and shuttered windows flung open to reveal the outside world to the canaries singing in their cages. Taking the table nearest to the water we drink espresso and chocolate milk, surrounded by fisherman from the harbour wall, watching the shallows flickering with light and silvered with seabream, while cats stick their heads into buckets of bait and chew. We get to try the delicacy of new words on the tip of our tongues, the fresh meat of kalimera, kalispera, kalinichta. We get to luxuriate in the differences of culture.

The Greek rain, at least not here, not now, doesn't last long. Another shower drums into the pavement and people flee to the cafes for the few minutes until it passes. And after it does, it leaves a gift. Swallows. Fifteen or so, flitting above the harbour, blue on dazzling blue. They flicker, sweeping low over the rippling sea, collecting insects, moving south in one flock minutes later, nothing more than a fleeting, weather-deposited glimpse of the world's workings. 

The world is - has always been - more connected then we've recognised, or perhaps accepted. The swallows are not Greek swallows or European swallows or the northern hemisphere's. They are the world's swallows. Birds of summer wherever they go, whether they're breeding or not. And the problems they face are not local either. They face being shot in Malta, trapped in Cyprus, washed by a Mediterranean storm into the sea, held up by the wrong winds in the Sahara, starving if it's an arid year in the Sahel, while trusting with their tiny battered bodies to bear themselves south, to Southern Africa. And when they get there their reedbed roosts might not have survived another season or global warming might have dangerously changed their food source. Any loss isn't just felt by their species or us or any one of those places - but all of them. And this journey is taken in reverse by other migrants - people from Syria, Libya, further south beyond the belts of desert, trusting their bodies, or placing their lives at the mercy of ramshackle boats or bastard criminal traffickers who will abandon them to whatever fate befalls them. After payment, of course.

And on Valtos beach WG Sebald whispers The Emigrants into my ear, his own indirect reckoning with the holocaust and the natures of evil and grief through the lives and deaths of four Jewish emigres, while I sit on the sand, trying to change the colour of my skin, staring out on a placid sea that is nothing of the sort.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

The Stoop

It took less than a second from beginning to failure. It took a jink of less than an inch for the pigeon to save its life.

On top of the water tower a peregrine is perched on a railing. It is a rare winter’s afternoon — bitterly cold, startlingly blue — and the falcon is motionless. Underneath the pigeons come and go, flying under the arched sides of the tower to shelter inside. The peregrine doesn’t stir, sitting hunched in the weak sunshine. Its grabbing, stabbing middle talon is long and clings to the rusting metal. A living gargoyle.

Familiarity breeds complacency.

A white pigeon flares in the sunlight. It drops low and slow and glides towards the tower. The peregrine knows. As the pigeon approaches, the falcon flips forward and plunges to earth like an axe. The pigeon sees and veers and is home under the tower in a split second, spared by an inch, by the flick of a white wing. The falcon swings up, drifts over, and resumes its familiar gargoyle perch on the other side of the tower.

It will fail and fail again in the space of a second, by the distance of an inch. The pigeons keep coming to the tower. The peregrine bides its time.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Three Things I learnt at Sea.


“Place and mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered. I cannot tell what this movement is except by recounting it.” (Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain).

Every year great shearwaters circle the Atlantic like an ocean current. When the temperature on Tristan da Cunha — the remotest permanently settled island in the world — dips in autumn, they head to the Atlantic coast of South America, turn north, cross the doldrums and keep on heading north until they reach the north-east tip of North America. As the northern summer turns, they circle across, passing Britain on their way down the eastern Atlantic, back to find spring on a wet speck of rock in the south Atlantic. Stop. Breed. Repeat.

I was last amongst them in 2014. Not on land but in a RIB — a boat that’s several feet too small in every direction to be comfortable — floating for 30 hours, five miles out in the Atlantic. Several thousand miles in front of me was the American coast: behind me the jagged peaks of Madeira, the tips hiding in clouds of their own making. Around me, great and Cory’s shearwaters sat on the sea, waiting. The birder term for it is rafting — when they look like oversize ducks on the biggest of ponds. They took off, unfurling their wings, slapping feet on sea, and transformed. Their wings are long, thin and stiff. With them they catch the breeze like sails, and skim across the tops of waves. A stray wave, something irregular could wash them away, yet it never seems to happen.
Great (front left) and Cory's (front right) shearwaters

The meaning of trip’s experiences are still slowly unfurling, like a shearwater’s wings, over time.

***

Pterodroma petrels are birds of myth and mystery: what is not known about them vastly outstrips what is. The English name for the family is the “gadfly” petrels, which my dictionary says means “a person who annoys”. Though flippantly truthful, I prefer Pterodroma: ancient Greek for “winged runner”. Both capture the essence of the family, fleeting, elusive, frustrating.

Fea’s petrels were discovered in 1899 by Leonardo Fea. Not long afterwards, Zino’s petrel was first found — unknowingly — by Ernest Schulz. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Paul and Frank Zino rediscovered them breeding on the third highest of the Madeiran peaks, the Pico do Arieiro, where their mournful wailing haunts the high peaks. They sing slightly differently to the Fea’s which breed on the Desertas Islands and Cape Verde*. Both species are rare: there are over a thousand individual Fea’s petrels. There are somewhere between 100-200 Zino’s petrels depending on how successful the breeding season is, and where the wild fires that strike Madeira burn. In 2010 only one chick survived: thirty-eight others and four adults were burnt alive.

I saw my first Fea’s distantly, briefly, underwhelmingly. It was an encounter loaded with an excitement that the sighting — fleeting, distant, disappearing in the gaps between waves — couldn’t satisfy. Like meeting a childhood hero. The second, several hours later, was better.

Seabirds harness the wind to fly. Shearwaters sail elegantly, slowly. Pterodromas spiral up, hit their apex, dip a wing and shoot seawards at a shallow angle, like following waves through the air. We saw this Fea’s coming from far off, stitching sea to sky. It is a fast flight. Deceptively so. In seconds it was beside us, arcing up, wings flexed forward. Dove-grey back and a fainter black line, zigzagging down the wings. Its tail is paler — the bird fading out. It’s head darker — black-eyed, black blunt bill. It dipped its wing and vanished.

I have a video of that encounter: ten seconds of meeting a mythical seabird. It still sends bolts of excitement through my nervous system.

It wasn’t until the second afternoon at sea that Catarina, behind the boat’s engines, spotted a Zino’s. She shouted: all idle chat stopped. A boat full of binoculars all drawn to one bird. It is essentially identical to a Fea’s. It swung up, reached its apex, and sheered down alongside the boat. It took all I could remember and all I could see to note the differences. The whiter underwing, the thin black bar running up it. The smaller, lighter size, the bill not so brutishly big, the flight that feels slower. It sheered behind the boat, between us and the high Picos of Madeira, before flying away over the waves. We all watched it until it disappeared over the edge. And as it disappeared the feeling was part relief — the trip a success, the birds still in existence — and part awe that they exist at all.

Yet. As I look back on it now it all seems tainted with metrics. It is not because of their essential similarity to the Fea’s petrel — the two species have a very different essences — but because rarity is a fact that conquers all. Fea’s may thrill but the experience of a Zino’s is difficult to separate out from their sheer vulnerability of their numbers.

***

The third day at sea. Both Pterodromas encountered, we sailed to a different spot. This time in the shadow of the Desertas Islands: two great lumps of abandoned rock that intervene into the sea’s horizon. We sailed out there with a super pod of more than 100 Atlantic spotted dolphins bow-riding, accompanying the boat down the coast of Madeira. A flying fish leapt in front of the boat, wings shining blue-green, tail-slapping the water as it went, as though it had evolved legs as well as wings and could never decide which it would rather use.

Bulwer's petrel
The day was hot and long. Birds were scarce but for the Bulwer's petrels — bat-like in flight, impossibly slender, and much smaller than they look in the book — that were regularly flying laps around the boat. But it didn't need to be a productive day. It felt valedictory: like we were content (smug) enough with what we had seen. Maybe it was the heat but I realised then that what I'd miss most from this was a three-quarter horizon of sea, rolling away until the edge of vision, essentially to infinity. A horizon of freedom, no obstacles and nothing hemming in. I felt then the urge coming over me that nothing would give me greater pleasure than to dive headlong over it; to be a great shearwater, always heading over endless empty horizons.

I resisted. If only because I can't swim.

***

We stayed out until sundown. Behind the Desertas we were unaware that a fierce breeze had sprung up. We headed directly into it.

Waves thump into the boat and the spray breaks over us. Lips burn, eyes sting. The rolling crests of grey waves turn peach in the light. There is another type of wave: one we don't crash over, but one we pitch into and skid over, with a momentary feeling of helplessness. A feeling of being suddenly at the mercy of the sea. The sun sets completely. Night unfurls. The boat has a tiny light, enough to make out the edges but not quite enough to see the next wave until it hits and I have to spit out a mouthful of seawater. I begin to notice other lights. Either side. Trawlers and small fisherman and buoys. The spray of a vicious wave. The lighthouse on the edge of the island. A plane's headlights breaking through the night. A galaxy of streetlights strung out from Funchal to Canical, along the populated coast. The football stadium and the fish factories. The harbours and bars. The plane landing at Funchal international airport. I take my hat off and lean back and a voice whispers in my ear of the plough and other constellations. I see Madeira reflected in the sky. An unfathomable sky of distant stars and the smudge of Milky Way. I don't want explanations. A dolphin breaches as we enter the harbour. A Cory's shearwater circles under streetlights, calling, louder than the throb of distant parties. Spontaneous applause. Handshakes and smiles.

*A note about taxonomy. The Fea’s petrels of Cape Verde are the original Pterodroma feae. Those breeding on the Desertas Islands are thought by some to be a third species, Pterodroma desertas. Desertas differs only from feae in the measurements of its bill length and depth, tarsus, and, marginally, in the length of their wings. If desertas is proven to be a separate species, its population of 150 breeding pairs makes it eye-wateringly rare (and yet twice as common as Zino’s).

Monday, 24 October 2016

After The Fall

Easterlies, decaying. Overnight rain. Early morning mist, lingering.

Chaffinches scattering from the gravel track to the cliff-top wood. Redwings seep out of the hawthorns and oak — some landing, some leaving. Other thrushes (blackbird and song) call quietly, seemingly several to each bush.

Gravel becomes mud. Light becomes shade.

In the heart of the wood is a strand of sycamores. I stand underneath, disturbing nothing, becoming like an adjunct trunk. In the heart of the sycamore, three goldcrests — six grams of feather, bone and muscle — flit about the canopy, foraging invisible insects from the undersides of rusting leaves. Migrants too. From, not just the woods of Belgium and the deep pines of Scandinavia, but from beyond the Danube, the Vistula, perhaps the Volga too? We are still working out from how far east our goldcrests can migrate in winter. An advance at least on the often repeated old folk-tales, that could only explain their crossings of the North Sea by them riding on the backs of short-eared owls and woodcocks.

The tree welcomes them, wherever they’re from. Food and shelter before the leaves are stripped back by November gales and they move on, once more, driven by the need for food and shelter. The mist has burnt off and the sky is deep autumn blue. The thrushes vanish. Skylarks head over, high, in singles. Flocks of goldfinch determinedly bounce south along the cliff-top. The world keeps turning. A leaf falls from the sycamore. The goldcrests keep flitting.
A migrant goldcrest from Orkney, where ditches replace sycamores.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Field observation of an ocean sunfish.

If I had stared until it made sense I would still be there now, rooted to that Cornish headland, rain-washed and blinking at it all. Blinking at its fin, a blunt triangular paddle, the same pallid colour as the rain that had swept over the bay in waves all day. Flapping with, I don't know what, the tremor of the waves or the pleasure of a fish half out of water in the rain.

The waves washed it away. The fin disappeared in the grey dip between crests, only to surface a few feet further out. Fin and face, like a wind caught plastic bag drifting endlessly out to sea. I looked it in the eye, through rain-glazed binoculars, big and black and round. A plug-hole, soullessly expressive of depths and darkness unimagined. Unimaginable.

Ocean sunfish. Ocean-coloured sunfish. I knew it only by reputation. World's biggest bony fish, world's biggest niche creature. A once rare drifter in the warm water currents that now run like a river past the Cornish coast. I read later that it eats jellyfish and can reach a tonne. But it doesn't look like that to me. It looks like nothing I have ever seen before – much less understood.
Ocean sunfish, public domain image by Per-Ola Norman

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Hawkeye


My favourite sentence in JA Baker’s The Peregrine is “The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there”.[1] It comes at the start of chapter two, where Baker turns his attention towards a discussion of what a peregrine is and the data of his observations. The methodology, if you like, behind the book’s slow unhinging from the human world, to that of the falcon’s. It is my favourite sentence not because it encapsulates the bird or the book in its entirety but because it encapsulates the writing. You can read The Peregrine many times and it will change and shift. You will notice new things, new sentences, overlooked details. It is like going birding, repeatedly in the same spot, and seeing different birds every time.




I spent the summer working with The Peregrine exploring the archive of pollution in its writing, within the toxic context of writing about polluted places. As usual at the end of a long project I can’t retreat back into books. Instead on holiday with my girlfriend and her family in Cornwall, at the wet, salt-glazed selvedge of England, we retreated into wildlife and the basic elements. Sea breeze, salt air, granite and heather again. We found three peregrines. A big adult female skimming the fields between Cape Cornwall and St Just. A bulky swarthy juvenile bludgeoned through a rainbow off the Lands End cliffs. The most spectacular was another juvenile, a small tiercel, tussling with a raven: stooping at a bird it couldn’t possibly catch, flashing its talons, carving up the air every side of it. The raven rolled over, raised its claws and barked. The falcon thought again and circled through the air, tucked its wings in and fell to earth like a dead weight.

I never saw if it was a successful stoop. I think it probably wasn’t – it is not the first time I have seen a young peregrine repeatedly circling, hassling and stooping over prey it has no hope of catching, as if it was playing, practicing, sharpening its reactions on the whetstone of actual living prey. At the same time, if I hadn’t seen it, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. Peregrines playing with ravens? Yeah right. Once a birder, always an incorrigible sceptic.

When I first read The Peregrine I regarded it as the ornithological gospel truth. The second time I read The Peregrine I thought it was an extraordinarily written piece of fiction, unavoidably stringy (string: the birding slang for made up, hoax observations). Ever since then, every time I read it, I change my opinion about it. My inkling is that its more contentious observations will eventually be proven true, or at least possible. In the past few years urban peregrines have been recorded hunting woodcock after dark, which Baker mentions. I recently came across a short paper about a peregrine hovering – again behaviour mentioned by Baker that I had in the past regarded as being impossible. These behaviours might be really there, but the hardest thing to see. Baker is, in the terms of Immanuel Kant, an “enlightened” observer – committed to the truth of his own impressions, observations and thought, without relying on received wisdom – or myth.

Yet the question of authenticity and Baker never goes away, though I dearly wish it would. Nothing is gained or taken away by pronouncing on the veracity of a text with a rubber stamp of truthful authenticity or fiction. That is as bad as people who would reduce the text to being about one thing, confidently pronouncing on the meaning of The Peregrine as if it was a fixed, easily pigeonholed story.

Having spent the summer exploring it as a depiction of its time and place, I still think it’s a pre-eminent example of a portrayal of a landscape poisoned by “the filthy, insidious pollen of farm chemicals” (15), a place where for the falcons “foul poison burned within them like a burrowing fuse. Their life was a lonely death, and would not be renewed” (118). Derek Ratcliffe, the naturalist who discovered the eggshell-thinning effect of DDT, wrote in his monograph The Peregrine Falcon, that had the decline of the peregrine in the 1950s and early 60s continued unabated, “extinction of the Peregrine in Britain could have occurred by 1967”[2] — the year when The Peregrine was first published. It is important not to forget this, or forget about the persistence of chemicals in the environment. Due to DDT’s chemical stability it remains present in the environment to the point where in 2002 still “No living organism may be considered DDT-free”.[3]

Baker’s writing persists due to its potency. In its synthesis of science and poetry it is, I think, unparalleled – a pre-eminent example of how to write about nature. Six years ago when I first read of his aim to follow the peregrines of Essex “till my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye” (41). I thought, for six years, that deep fovea was just a poetic expression of the materials of vision, one with a nice tang of Romantic mystery about it. It wasn’t until a week ago, reading Tim Birkhead’s excellent Bird Sense that I discovered falcons have two foveae. The fovea is the part of the retina where the visual image is sharpest. Where a bird has two, one works for close up and one does distant vision. In Birkhead’s words, “the deep fovea… acts like a convex lens in a telephoto lens, effectively increasing the length of the eye and magnifying the image to provide very high resolution”.[4]

The hardest thing of all to see… Baker attracts light. Writers Robert Macfarlane, Mark Cocker and the academic David Farrier have all discussed Baker’s prose in terms of light – as luminous, or flaring – as well as his use of light. Where we have light, vision follows. Macfarlane also describes Baker as having “an obsession (ocular, oracular) with the eyeball”,[5] adding that “One of the many exhilarations of reading The Peregrine is that we acquire some version of the vision of a peregrine” (154). The more I learn about peregrines the more I realize the extent to which Baker’s writing embodies them. Further and deeper than just the aerial perspective Macfarlane talks about. Baker’s writing is like the magnified, high-resolution vision of the peregrine’s own deep fovea.


[1] J.A. Baker, The Peregrine (New York: New York Review of Books, 2005), 19.
[2] Derek Ratcliffe, The Peregrine Falcon (London: T&AD Poyser, 1993), 324.
[3] Vladimir Turosov, Valery Rakitsky, Lorenzo Tomatis, ‘Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT): Ubiquity, Persistence, and Risks’, Environmental Health Perspectives, V. 110, No.2 (February 2002), 125-128 (125).
[4] Tim Birkhead, Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird (London, Bloomsbury, 2012), 17.
[5] Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2015), 141.