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Like Jonathan Richman, I’m in love with the modern world. I may not be driving around Massachusetts these days, but I’ve got my radio on. Only it’s radiotherapy. I started last Monday. Every day for two weeks they clamp my head into my own personal mask and put my brain in a microwave. Or the equivalent of, let’s not quibble over frequencies. Maybe I can smell burning. It’s actually not at all painful but it leaves me a bit more dizzy than usual, and these days I am Normal Dizzy the great jazz musician at the best of times.

So, slow me down. Let me build a garden which is a haven of peace and quiet beauty. And live in it a life full of respair where despair is repaired by hope, or at least calm acceptance.

But please don’t confuse me for some apolitical moron on a path to personal discovery and heightened spirituality. I still spit with indignation at mindless repeats of old history, where right-wing bigots use the misfortunes of “destitute foreigners” to advance their own interests. I snort with incredulity that anyone can believe that the Tory agenda for the NHS does not involve causing it irreparable harm. I laugh at ex-Army types who talk about “terrorist sympathizers” but clearly have never had a serious conversation with someone jailed for planting a bomb.

Maybe I’m just more aware of the passage of time. The average human lifespan in the UK is 972 months and we sleep for 324 of those. My current personal target is to have stayed alive for 720 months. Maybe I’m aware that a high probability of early mortality was once common with World War 1, Spanish flu, etc. Maybe I see the things around me with sharper acuity.

My English teacher at the Irish seminarian school was straight out of Chaucer – a short, billiard ball of a man rigged out as a priest in his black robes. He was an 8 ball. Round glasses in a moon face on a round head attached to his round body. ‘Cream buns’ was his nickname. If we only had a bit more culture in us we could have called him ‘Skoleboller’ (‘school buns’), which are Norwegian cream buns.

He tried as teachers will do to instill some love of literature in the unwashed sons of farmers and small town solicitors. “Boys, shur ye’ll like this one, he was only a youngfella like yersels”. He was talking about Francis Ledwidge (1887–1917). The centenary of his death will be on 31 July. Ledwidge was a war poet. He survived the battle of Arras (where the English poet Edward Thomas was killed), only to die at the next one in Ypres.

The poem that the portly priest was praising prolifically is called June. It begins:

Broom out the floor now, lay the fender by,
And plant this bee-sucked bough of woodbine there,
And let the window down.

I didn’t have much time for the pastoral in those days, but it was so easy to visualise that country cottage that I was a little bit impressed. A woodbine is the folk term for honeysuckle, in case you didn’t know. The Victorians didn’t like young girls bringing honeysuckle into the house because the smell of the flowers was believed to cause erotic dreams.

You could maybe pair it with a little bit of Seamus Heaney:

Were we not made for summer, shade and coolness
And gazing through an open door at sunlight?
For paradise lost? Is that what I was taught?

Even a shower of rain is good in June. Petrichor is the name for the earthy smell made when rain falls on dry soil. Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) wrote about it:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

I try to see and hear things better now. Swifts that scythe the summer sky, madly and constantly screaming as they fly. The chuckle-cackle cry of a passing jackdaw. The mutually-reassuring chirps of long-tailed tits to the rest of their family group. A good day is spotting a Silver-washed Fritillary butterfly in the garden (and listening to Boris Johnson make a twit of himself on live radio).

Small pleasures.

For a while there, it was a line from a Tom Murphy novel: “Bejaysus, ’tis worse things are improving“.  The infection took hard on me after the operation in late September and by the middle of October I had to seek help. I was admitted into hospital again. “Cancer fever“, they said. There was a backup of urine and they had to catheter again. For many days it flowed red with blood, which they put down to a tumour penetrating into the bladder wall and bleeding into there. After three days, and a lot of antibiotics, my creatine levels were normal enough to get a discharge home. I’d become convinced there was something tumerous pressing on my stomach, but it was more likely the unhappy alliance of the bladder and the lung tumours working together.

A couple more days lying in bed at home, and a class of recovery started to come upon me. The cancer fever dream lifted, and I was alive again.

That was good enough to jump in the car and head for Aldeburgh on the coast. Well, I’m all revved up and ready, baby, as Lene Lovich once said. Lots of sea and shingle. It was an impressionist painting of pale blue sea/sky abutting onto beige pebbles. In the stillness of the dawn early light you could be forgiven for forgetting the current madness of this world. It is of course Benjamin Britten / Peter Grimes territory, hence the title. Managed to get in some long walks, spotting some good birds along the way. How many more Autumns?

Then home again for another day trip to Thoracic Park. More cameras in the lungs. They say the second tumour in the bronchus is growing. There is talk of more radical intervention to prevent it from closing down the left lung. Radiotherapy or stents, perhaps. Discussions about me will be had. I will be told.

At the end of November I will also meet with Oncology. It will be an interesting conversation. I have questions to ask about pelvic surgery and/or  treatment with a newly-approved drug for colorectal metastatic cancers.

In the meantime, I work. I make lists about things that need to be done. No point in having time to prepare if you don’t use it. I laugh at marketing emails from my bank: “Pushed for time, Paul?“. Just a bit, NatWest, just a bit.

It is possible to miss a field like an old friend.

When I was a child in Ireland, with the summer coming in, we’d be encouraged to make a trek every evening in May out to a Marian Grotto at a country church two miles or so from home. These are shrines found in the churchyard, usually with a set of steps leading up to a statue of the Virgin housed in a small cave structure – hence the grotto. The idea was to recite the rosary bit by bit as you shuffle up the steps on your knees. I think you do a bit more of it each day, culminating in the full twenty decades or whatever by the end of the month. We laid our ears to furious prayers, but I was never that big on the detail.

For me, it was more about the journey there and never the destination.

Out over the back wall, across the last remaining fields on the edge of a council estate, until you reached a couple of country roads. Down along one of them for a few hundred yards, then over a low wall into a karst region. You may need reminding, but a karst is an area of exposed limestone slabs. The rain breaks down the surface into fissures until it looks like block paving laid by a giant. In every crack and crevice, dried leaves slowly turn to soil and support a little ecosystem of alpine plants. The slabs along the limestone top are known as Clints, and the fissures are called Grikes. They are the ghosts of little sea-creatures, glistening halftone grey from the graves they left in warm seas, 340 million years ago.

The most famous one is of course The Burren in Clare, but smaller karstic terrains are not uncommon across South Galway. One of my favourite places in Yorkshire is Malham Cove, and that is another example. Apart from these few places, there is very little limestone pavement found anywhere in the world.

The area I recall was nothing of the Burren scale. We’re talking around 1 square mile. I assume it was owned by somebody (isn’t everything?) but because it was so rocky I cannot recall any farm use. Not even a sheep. It wasn’t flat like the Burren. There was a mini-scale landscape of little cliffs and valleys. The deepest would be maybe twenty feet down. Like most limestone pavement, it was thinly vegetated but it supported quite a few small trees and bushes. I can be very precise in one recollection because it was our number-one destination for gathering hazelnuts in the autumn. And so many small birds flitted through those branches. I knew nothing about birds, but what I do know is that the yellowhammers seemed to be everywhere then, and they are nowhere now.

The poor old yellowhammer. It’s said to have made a pact with the devil. The eggs it lays have an intricate pattern that looks like writing, and said to conceal messages of harm and evil. Maybe they carried a lark-scribbled message of impending demise. Éiníní, codalaígí. Little birds, little birds, sleep, sleep.

The path to the grotto was not a straight one. You had to weave in a bend every few hundred yards to navigate the next bit. It was quite the adventure for small boys.

They would call it “undeveloped” in a property context. It wasn’t pristine. There was an Electricity sub-station behind large fences on the corner of the small road. There was a small and isolated country shop and butchers. But it was very much on the edge of town.

The little country road itself is worth a mention – it is called Bóthar Na Mine in Irish. That translates as The Maize Road –  mine buí is yellow corn or maize. During the Famine, maize was imported to make up for the potato disaster. Because it was too much to just give food to the starving people, it was customary to build “famine roads” as relief projects. Work through your hunger, get the corn. Most of these roads go nowhere, like the morality behind them.

Sometime in the early 1980s they tore it all away. I thought about including a screen grab from Google to show you what it was replaced with, but it is too depressing. Think car parks, small industrial units, and warehouses.

I suppose this is the customary point at which to be angry, to lament the passing of irreplaceable natural beauty. To mock the short-term views of local politicians who destroy one day, then apply for restoration grants the next.

But my reminisce is more about the inevitability of change.

Take the very fact that we were there in that place, in the first instance. It used to be parkland. A country estate with a fine view of the sea (and from hence it got its name). A fine country house built by successful merchants during the eighteenth century. Men who had grown rich from the abundant wine trade with Spain and Portugal. There is a good chance they also imported the yellow maize that paid for the road, given they made a donation of £1,000 in 1847 to fund ships carrying foodstuffs.

The family sold the house to a factory owner in 1953, and the local government saw a chance to build housing alongside. They tendered for the erection of over 250 houses, with a view to providing homes for people moving out from the city centre. They all moved in at more or less the same time, were all more or less adults in their 20-30s. Child-bearing, and Catholic, we were soon at least over a thousand children growing up on a council estate. Everything came in waves. The water pipes made of lead having to be replaced. The old people reaching their ends.

They might romanticise it now, but then it had nothing. They’d build a playground, and it was littered with broken glass a week later.

I remember it for the crows. There were hooded crows, closely related to the carrion crow and who also feed on dead animals. The only dead animals we had were in dustbins, but they seemed to cope well. They liked to move in flocks on the green. There were rooks, who liked to roost in the old trees behind the country house / factory. They kept themselves more separate, like a mafia gang you knew existed, but did not always encounter. After all, a group of crows is called a Murder.

None of us were eagles. We all just lived in the sinkhole of a corporation estate. If they wanted to name it again, they could call it Poll Na Préachán – the hole of the Crows.


Apparently, when it comes to the interpretation of dreams, to dream of velvet is an indication of feeling comfortable, calm, cool, or collected.

Tomorrow is the last day of the first cycle of my drug trial. Really, it’s the second cycle. The first one was shorter and only involved taking the experimental drug as a baseline test. The second one was proper – combine chemo on Day 1 with ten days of the drug over a 21 day cycle. The original idea was to take it for longer but they found that the impact on white blood counts was too harsh. They reasoned that the body needed some days off to recover the platelet count. Maybe you could try sucking on roast bone marrow or something to help the process along, but alas diet and white blood cells don’t correlate much. At least, not to that degree. Red blood cells, that’s a different matter.

This data is based on results from two people. There are (I am told) four of us in total taking the drug. In the world.

For my part, it’s been altogether episode-free. Not one side effect. The drug bounced off me. The chemo bounced off me. This is a bad sick joke. For someone this sick, I am ridiculously healthy.

I’ve probably now put the bad curse on tomorrow and the blood test results.

If not, then on we go to Chemo#2 next Monday 9th.

I’m pleased that the risk/benefit decision to do this trial is paying off so far. At least, the part of it where I took the risk has returned no bad results. The benefit is still an unknown. It seems improbable that something this innocuous could result in anything tangible. But if I turn out to be a Super-Responder, that will be fine by me.

And so I dream of velvet.

I remain calm but detached. As Edmund Husserl said about “embodied experience”, it is all about chaos, absurdity, and the accident that is our subjective life in the form of a human-lived body.

I read about nature. I feel as much in common with the birds as I do with the world of people. I look at the night sky. Yesterday, Jupiter was visible just above the (nearly full) moon in the East, like a symbol from a flag of a country that does not exist. Each day grows warmer and the chilling effects of chemo will soon be no more.

I wear my father’s coat. I miss him and I think of all the gaps that appear in the world.

i wear your coat
it makes me believe
you’re still here with me
it keeps me warm
and all of my fragile kingdoms
from harm

–Clara Engel (2008)

But, at least I dream of velvet.

August was a busy month. Finished the last of the radiotherapy and then spent a week in Dorset. I was prepared to treat it as a week for convalescence but ended up doing a normal week of walking, eating and drinking. We had a cottage at the foot of Bindon Hill, which is the subject for a chapter in W. Warde Fowler’s book “Summer Studies of Birds and Books” (1895). It starts:

I OFTEN doubt whether there can be such another hill as Bindon in these islands; I at least have never found it. In foreign lands there are famous hills, and health-giving hills — Alesia, Epipolai, or the Acropolis ; but I feel sure that they cannot offer such store of delights, for mind and body too, as Bindon does.

It’s a long spine of a chalk hill, stretching like a rampart from Lulworth Cove to Mupe Bay. Although it’s an area of outstanding natural beauty, it’s part of an MOD firing range for tanks and artillery. You’re only allowed on there at weekends when they are not shooting. Because it has been so untouched (they don’t shoot at the actual hill!) it’s full of birds, bees, and butterflies. And, of course, the ghosts of a Roman legion.

Apart from the health-giving properties of the hill, certain further restorative measures were gleaned from the Cider festival in progress at the village pub. A mere 45 ciders and perries to choose from…

Unfortunately, back at home the ambrosia wore off later in the month and I had a lung infection. Radiation pneumonitis, probably. It triggered all the check list items on my little red cancer card (it fits in your wallet) but I was too sick to actually read the thing to know this. I did go into hospital just after for a check and they gleefully put me back on the Fragmin. Now, back to daily injections for ” at least six months”. Serves me right for going near them.

Despite that, I went back again afterwards for one of my regular consultations. It was one of those pointless ones where there is really nothing to discuss – no scan results, etc. I tried to use it as an opportunity to get more of a long-term view. But I was assigned a relatively young doctor who’d never seen me before and I only ended up with the “every person is different” speech.

I do have another CT scan scheduled for 17th September with the results feedback meeting on 22nd. I will try again to get some sort of a prognosis from them. Although this year has been dominated (again) by chemotherapy, cetuximab and radiotherapy, this is really just the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the iceberg is what’s likely to be the pattern of life for the next few years?

If the 2.2cm tumour has got even smaller as a result of the radiotherapy, then would they consider a more aggressive treatment plan? They said the tumour was too large for radiofrequency ablation and so I had traditional external radiotherapy. What size does it have to be?Lump_actualSize

If the tumour has stayed the same size, my guess is that we’ll go into a holding pattern with scans every 3 months. I would hope that we’ll catch any future growth early so that the treatment doesn’t need to include chemo.

If it has started to grow in size again, we’re dealing with an aggressive customer. I don’t know if they’ll want to repeat the whole procedure and at what stage will they consider a pneumonectomy i.e. total removal of the left lung.

If you allow it, the interaction with the Oncologists stays focused only on the immediate medical actions. They see many people like me, and the next goal is to get them to open up a bit more with that knowledge. I’m not asking for a crystal ball, but just some idea based on normative data as to what typically happens to people like me with inoperable colorectal metastatic lung cancer.

We spent a day yesterday on a guided tour of Orford Ness, a 12 mile long by 1 mile wide strip of shingle and marsh that licks its way along the Suffolk coast, shifting and twisting itself over the millenia to catch the best angle.

For the past one hundred years it’s been mostly a secret. First for the ministry of defence to test their bombs. Then for the AWRE to test their atomic weapons. It became a National Trust property in 1993. orfordNess

Orford Ness is a juxtaposition of values. There’s the arrogance of military; if taking human life is the accepted norm, what odds for a strip of nature and a few meagre plants? It boasts of the pride of empire, my bomb is bigger than your bomb. There’s the dominance of nature; give me your paltry metal and watch the force of my seasalt lash. Let me show you true destruction.

It’s a silent, eerie place. The oystercatchers and the curlews cry their plaintive shrills while the giant ears listen iover the horizon to the far-off Slavic frequencies: What did you do in the dasha, Ivan, and shall we invade in the spring? The cobra mist spits its forked tounge into the banality, seeking the sweet honey of secret.

It’s a desert. Shingle trudges where the stones suck at your heavy boots – don’t leave us, we’ve been alone for so so long, stay a little while. The sun bakes the dessication and you wonder how long that ferry ride must have been to take you to this alien place. Like the song says: in the desert you can remember your name. Except here there are few indeed who want to give you no pain.

It’s a paradox. The pagoda-shaped blast chambers with walls of concrete many metres thick, precision-engineered interiors and a roof designed to blast away. Now that shingle roof is a boutique hotel for black-backed gulls, who can’t believe their good luck. It’s the penthouse suite legacy of cold war paranoia.

Surrounded by concrete brutalism and the enigma of militarism I watched a kestrel kill. It hovered like a state-of-the-art, red-flecked flying machine and then dropped with precision onto an oh-so-weak enemy.  Then another swoop to the rustbucket oil drum to contemplate its victory and consume the gory reward of success.

At least the kestrel won. Another meal and another chance to pass on its genes. The cold war bombers seem the last to carry the family name. Who knew that war would cease to be about the stout fellows of empire raising their fists (but following the rules of course, one isn’t a hooligan) to give the other chap a jolly good thrashing?

Perhaps the shingle whispered it, but no-one was listening?

I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name,
It felt good to be out of the rain.
In the desert you can remember your name,
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain.
–America – A Horse With No Name (1971)

Listen to the Ness, it speaks gull, it speaks wave, it speaks rust, it speaks lichen.
–Robert Macfarlane (2012)

Poppy Ackroyd – Seven

The day before yesterday I was at the funeral of a talented and kind woman. Marion was a sculptor and painter, and lived about as exciting a life as it’s possible to live. Throughout most of her 94 years she lived it with a glass of something in her hand and a passion for getting the absolute most out of whatever situation she was in.

Days after I’d first heard the news of her death I was sitting in an audience listening to Edna O’Brien talking about her books; her life in Ireland and the battles she’s had with censorship and bigotry. At 82, she could have gone for a “water under the bridge” line, but no, she’s still angry at the small-minded intolerance she endured. Rightly.

She told the story of two dreams she’s had frequently concerning the house she grew up in Tuamgraney, Co.Clare. In one, two men with white-hot spears guard the house and prevent her entry. She cannot go back. In the other, she’s in the blue bedroom where she was born, but there is no exit; even the doors are sealed. She cannot leave. She probably already knows her village is named after a tomb (“Tuaim”) in Irish. It’s reputedly the tomb of Gráinne, the heroine of an Irish legend and another young woman at odds with an old patriarchy.

Her first novel, “The Country Girls” came out in 1960. Talking about the reaction in rural Clare to the book, and the impact it had on her mother, she recounted an episode where a neighbour said to her mother that she (Edna) “should be whipped naked through the streets”. “Oh,” replied the younger Edna, “…why naked?”

Throughout the talk there was constant references to having to get away, to escape. In that, she follows a long line of Irish writers. She was asked:

Q. What has England given you?

A. Freedom. Well no, I’m not free. But more freedom.

That same week I’m listening to music called “Escapement” by Polly Ackroyd. She’s called it that because  ‘escapement’ is “the part of the mechanism in a piano that enables the hammer to be released, so that the string can vibrate once it is struck”. But it can also mean the physical act of escaping and the release of emotion when we listen to music. By using natural sounds such as birdsong from the Outer Hebrides and the pelt of Scottish rain, she’s plugged in to the transcendentalist revival that’s everywhere now. Books by Robert Macfarlane being a case in point. Only nature can help us get some insight into the whole thing of this universe, and why we hurtle through it like the minor miniscule specks of nothingness that we are. Walking and meditation are our best tools.

I remember a conversation with Marion about another female sculptor; the one who’d done the statue of Arthur “Bomber” Harris that stands outside the RAF church. The “orange and lemons” one – St Clements Dane near the Aldwych in London. The statue had to be guarded 24 hours a day for a long time to stop it being vandalized. After all, it was the Press that called him “Bomber”; his nickname in the RAF was “Butcher” Harris. The writer W.G. Sebald was another escapee emigrant – a German living in England – and he was conflicted by the thought that in one period of 1000 days during WWII, the RAF dropped 752,000 tons of bombs on German cities. With a “conchie” husband and a life in Germany before the war, Marion was in a position to understand the tension between Art (making a statue) and Life (killing German civilians). Should that artist have taken that commission? And if she was wrong to do so, at what point do you offset that against the inherent niceness of the artist herself? No easy answers.

And so we rush to escape.

Edna finished her hour by referring to the case of Savita Halappanavar and the general cowardice of politicians in Ireland when State meets Church. When I spoke in this blog about my feelings about that tragic case, I talked about the need to escape from Ireland. To get out and never come back. To warn others not to go there. To tell them women have a role in Catholicism in the way cheddar has a role with a cheese grater.

Marion had a cottage on the west coast of Ireland. She went there for long spells to paint (because of the light). I know a thing about Irish scenery, but this was a place apart. It had three views, depending which window you looked out from. Through this one was the watery verdant green of fields; all washed-out grass and trees dripping in their summer foliage. From this one was the grey-blue limestone of a tall hill, with scree slopes dropping down to the turquoise mirror of a small, still lake. And best of all this one: a golden-white strip of sand separating the green land from the grey-metal sea and the indigo darkness of the cliffs beyond. The whole seascape flecked with those white-horse waves that you only seem to get in the Atlantic.

We talked and drank there one night. Depleted the Irish national stocks of whiskey and turf sods; the one to fuel conversation and the other to fuel the more psychopathic needs of a blazing hearth. Next day we drove the scenic route back around Clifden and across the Roundstone bog. As we sped along the old bog road she talked about what she was seeing in the colours of the sky and the land. It made me see Ireland again, in a different way, and to a very considerable extent it gave me my country back. It isn’t the fault of the land that bitter old men can’t let go of the past; that tired and small-thinking people clutch the shabby hem of religion.

Again, Edna said something similar. She talked about the way that gentians grow in the Burren, and the blue of it against the grey limestone.

Did I mention that Marion loved life and the odd drop of something warming? That old creature-medicine that can cure the ills and extract that extra percentage from whatever is going. And in-between that she (like the rest of us) had to make a living.

Edna O’Brien quoted a couple of lines from Ogden Nash that make me think immediately of Marion:

I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance,

Were it not for making a living, which is rather a nouciance.

It was obvious from the service and conversations after that I was far from being the only one touched by Marion’s influence. As I trudged away from the after-service get-together in the place she’d lived in since making it her home in 1948, I remembered another sentiment and quotation: “Ce qui est dur, c’est le sentiment que quelque chose se termine.

It’s 4pm on the first day of spring.

It’s a warm and sunny day. I take a break from work and go downstairs. I feed the complaining old cat. I step outside to re-stock the bird feeders. I have one tube of Nyger seed that attracts Goldfinch. When it’s full there can be four of them feeding with a couple more standing patiently in a queue, waiting their turn. Sometimes the males bicker over the territory and the food rights and then there’s a small featherball of swirling red and gold as they jostle in mid-air. I have one tube of black Sunflower seeds. It attracts all sorts but mostly Greenfinch and Chaffinch and an occasional Bullfinch. Then a small flock of Dunnock (tree sparrows) will descend and dominate it for a while, bickering all the while. I have two small cage-like suet feeders each containing a solid bar of fat plus either nuts, fruit or insects. These hang from trees and attract mostly Great Tit, Blue Tit and Coal Tit. There are two Great Spotted Woodpeckers that like to cling to these and feed for long periods at a time. You’ll always see them in peripheral vision because their red tails give them away in the sunlight when the feeder swivels under their weight. When they feed on trees they hop around to the other side from you but dangling from a feeder they don’t have that option. There is a small tray elevated above the ground which holds dried mealworm, which are yellow grub-like things. These are very well-liked by the Robins and Blackbirds, although the latter spend more time fighting over territory than they do eating. When they do eat the Blackbirds are equally fond of the black berries that grow profusely on the Ivy. Sometimes they fight, stop to eat, and then fight again like two beer-bellied drunks on a boozy night out after far too many shots.

Some Wood Pigeons hang about underneath waiting for the fallen seeds. They are to the other birds as a 1950s Cadillac is to a Mini. They waddle and explode into the air all the time. Two modes: dumb stupidity or mad panic. They are joined sometimes by a couple of Collared Doves that are considerably more refined and elegant than the pigeons. They do their best to restore the good reputation of the family.

Once in a while, a Sparrowhawk will alight on the dead branch of the pear tree that dissects the space, a small blob of red flesh still grasped in its talon. It will survey its hunting ground before it moves on, in no great hurry. It will leave an eerie silence trailing in the wake of its killing ground, but its elegance cannot be denied. It’s said that elegance means being two juxtaposing things at once: simple/powerful, beautiful/deadly, classic/new; and so on.

Benjamin Franklin, the American philosopher, scientist & revolutionary, was born into a family background of Puritan Calvinism in New England. Salem witch-burning was not that distant a memory. At the age of 12 he left school and was apprenticed to his older brother, who had a reputation as a strict disciplinarian. One of the tenets of Calvinism is that we are born bad, and the evil must be expunged from the child. Over time he turned his back on that Calvinism and adopted sympathies that would (much later) became known as American Transcendentalism.

One of the criticisms of Transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau was that they were really just Poets. Another was they were prone to ignoring the true murderous instincts of the lower classes: that great unwashed army of labourers and workers. Last night the English football team failed to win a match. I read a few blogs picking over it. One stood out. The blogger said the team represented England because “ours is a strange, dirty, tabloid-twisted country now, an amoral, inefficient, materialistic land of tattooed bullies, corrupt banksters and phone-hackers.” Yesterday I was on a business trip in Ireland. The taxi driver spoke (like all taxi drivers do) about the greed that lurks in the heart of their politicians, and asked why as people we can never be happy?

And so it turns. From the 18th Century through the 19th and on into the 21st. Are we born bad? Does murder lurk in our heart? Or is each of our souls identical with the soul of the world and in each of us is found a piece of its wise silence and beauty?

It’s 5pm on the first day of spring, and the sun is beginning to set.

Bill Callahan – Riding For The Feeling

That January, in the never-nothing of a mild English winter, I set out to find the real J.A. Baker. As the insipid pallor of a slight drizzle lay upon the drooping tall grasses, bending ever so-slight in a baby’s breath breeze, I wanted to seek the soul of an English ornithologist. I would pack a small luncheon box of pre-conceptions: some thin sandwiches of expectation and perhaps a crisp apple of knowledge, and I would try to find the beast within.

It started in the most divergent of sources. I had read a music blog about an Australian experimental musician called Lawrence English who had released (on vinyl LP only) a musical homage to one of his favourite books, “The Peregrine” by J.A. Baker. Musically, it’s all a bit hazy and a montage of soundwashy enveloping soothiness but that’s the sort of ambience I go for in these times. Put it on now if you like, while you read:

Lawrence English – The Peregrine (excerpt)

“The Peregrine” is a sort of “Cider with Rosie” except with flesh-ripping falcons instead of buxom village girls. The author sets out on his bicycle into the wetlands east of Chelmsford in Essex. Out alone along the banks of the Blackwater River and especially out to the estuary around Maldon and Osea Island; he followed the activities of several individual hawks. It would be quite wrong to replace the word “antics” for “activities” there: you must understand that this is as far away from the jolly japes of an Alan Titchmarsh narrating a slightly-funny / slightly-sombre documentary on British wildlife as it is possible to be. It would be quite acceptable however to slip in the word “obsessively” to qualify the activities of Mr. Baker. This is indeed common for reviews of this type.

I was drawn to the book for two reasons. The first is that it is a cult book. John Alec Baker was a never-before just into his 40s and (in 1967) this is his first book. His first award-winning book. He took a stipend from the Arts Council on the back of it and managed to produce that difficult second book a couple of years after, then no more for the remaining 18 years of his life. The second is that it is a book that has inspired the “new Nature writing” of authors such as W.G. Sebald, Robert Macfarlane and Tim Robinson: all of whom I enjoy.

The cult part depends on mystery, and this is amply reinforced by a Wikipedia page on him that (at least on January 20, 2012) is not exactly encyclopediac in its contents. J.A. Baker was a librarian, we are told, and not much more. Finding out more is a matter for academic research. In fact he was educated at the King Edward VI Grammar School, Chelmsford and became a middle manager who spend his working life at the Automobile Association (AA) and the Brtivic soft drinks company (a major employer in Chelmsford at the time). The most interesting fact about him is that he worked for the AA and couldn’t drive – imagine his annual performance review and setting objectives! He does seem to have given it all up rather suddenly and a mystery, life-threathening illness is the attributed cause. This illness didn’t kill him (or his wife Doreen), for they lived on for 20 and 28 years respectively. He took to bird-watching instead, and the Peregrine Falcon became the object of his attentions.

If you want to become obsessed with a British bird, then the Peregrine is a very good choice. It may eat the odd earthworm, but it is not a grubby little forager. Nor is it an Osprey or a Golden Eagle. Those are elitist birds and assume a certain amount of regular and easy access to Scotland, which would be alienating for readers in the south. If you want to don your mackintosh overcoat, pack your binoculars into their leather case and set out to find Transcendentalism on your doorstep, then the Peregrine has the right balance of panache and accessibility to warrant the selection.

After all, did not Thoreaux himself just pop along to a log cabin at the edge of town, not too far into the woods and close enough for his mother to bring him a basket of cookies every now and then?

It’s a little hard to get past the “Fly Fishing, by J.R. Hartley” pastiche.

But that’s unfair.

J.A.Baker shuts out the mundane details of his life because he wants to shut out the mundane world. Who can blame him for wanting to hide from the hunting / fishing brigade by pressing down low behind the Essex hedges? He probably didn’t want to be recruited into the Countryside Alliance or hear the latest reason for repealing the hunting laws. If he was out there now in these Only Way is Essex times he would probably have run screaming into the sea, followed closely by a despairing birdlife.

The Peregrine is one tough little mutha of a raptor. In the 1960s they appear doomed by the spread of agricultural chemicide and loss of habitat. In the 2010s, it is now swooping from the skyscrapers of London EC1 onto the hapless bodies of city pigeons (and hopefully defecating on bankers in the process). This is a survivor, and as good a symbol of hope as you are likely to find.

Falcons were once scored on a bird IQ scale as the most intelligent of birds. Beautiful, clever and dangerous: we should commission a TV show with Simon Cowell (Falcon Factor?) to discover them. But alas, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

And I have learnt so much in the process of reading this book. I now know that the Sparrow hawk takes it’s kill to the ground, forms a sort of tent using its wings and its tail spread out for balance. A sort of “num num” moment but a little unedifying (although I do, by and large, admire the genus). Whereas the Peregrine finds a perch and plucks its kill from the breast outwards. It strips the breast flesh from the bone but ignores the head, wings and feet. It is the fine diner of the forest canopy; the gourmet of the woods. My family treat a roast bird in the same way, so I suppose they are peregrines too after a fashion.

I now know that the male hawk is called a Tiercel, whereas the hen is just a generic falcon. The word is a rendering of “tercel” which in turn has an etymology from “tertiary”. It was believed that only 1 in 3 eggs hatched into a male bird. Others say it is so-named because they are sexually dimorphic. This sounds like it ought to catch the interest of a Tory MP, but sadly it only means that the female is 1/3rd larger than the male.

I also learnt that “to stoop” is almost a synonym for “to swoop” but differs in that stooping is a high speed dive. So when you stoop to conquer, you are not bending your shoulder slightly to get under the low beam of adversity. Rather, you are diving at 200 miles per hour onto your unsuspecting enemy.


Buy this book on Amazon (I did and do not regret it)
Wikipedia article on J.A. Baker
LRB article on J.A. Baker
Review from The Independent
The London Peregrine Partnership (see photo gallery)
W.B Yeats “The Second Coming” (did you spot the quote?)

There’s an exhibition running at one of my old colleges featuring the photographs and articles by Tarquin Blake about the abandoned buildings of Ireland. A good number of the cases are former country houses of the Anglo-Irish ascendency and small Protestant churches, but there are also examples from poorer quarters, such as old workhouses and ayslums.

I can’t make the exhibition just now, but the book is on the way to me.

There’s an absorbing website to go with the work at Abandoned Ireland. Some brilliant use of virtual reality 360 degree views (done using VRML, I wonder? Never mind, just some tech I used to follow).

The cover of the book and the image they’re using to advertise the exhibition is one I recognise. One of the nicer walks around Galway involves driving out east to Oranmore, then take the turn just past the town for the Maree road. Head off to Rinville village and park up. You can take a lovely walk from there along the northern shoreline, up past the marina. It goes on for only a mile or two but the sea air and views are great. Pity they can’t finish the circuit back into Galway itself.

Across the bay on the southern shore you can see the ruins of a great house. After looking at this over the years the last time I was there I decided to find out what it was. I drove around some fairly small roads until I reached this gate. Couldn’t actually get inside the building as there were a fair few warnings not to, and I’ve learnt over the years not to mess with Irish farmers out in the middle of nowhere.

It’s called Ardfry House. It was built in 1770 by the Blake family, they being one of the top families (or “tribes”) of Galway. They bought the land from the Wall family and around 1800 took the title / family name “Wallscourt”.

There is a painting done in 1825 by Thomas Lawrence of Elizabeth, Lady Wallscourt & wife of the 3rd Baron, showing her playing the guitar. The artist, probably the leading portrait painter of the time, was a poor boy made good. They said he was always in love, always in debt. Her husband, Joseph Blake, the 3rd Baron Wallscourt, was also an interesting character – he travelled around Europe and was an early Socialist who tried to set up a commune on his estate.

I believe the painting is lost now, and there’s a rather poignant note that it may have been sold to cover debts. In fact, the wife of the 4th Baron (who had inherited when he was about 8 years old) had something of a problem with gambling. After she’d sold off all the interior decorations (presumably including portraits of her ancestors) she allegedly went on to strip the roof of all its lead.  Not surprisingly I suppose, the house began its fall into dereliction. There was one more Baron in the line, Charles Blake, who died on May 27th 1920 without a male heir, and that was the end of the peerage.

You might think all this dramatic enough – a movie set in the Edwardian twilight as the old world of wealth and pomposity slowly sank into the oncoming quicksand of the impending First World War. While Mi’Lady frantically stripped the house of it’s valuables in a vain effort to slow or prevent a certain end. And in the wings a group of agitated young men were playing soldiers, with their nice new green uniforms and talk of nationalism. Very “Wind That Shakes The Barley” indeed. Most of these big houses would have been dealt a final blow when a small group of the volunteers would pay a visit some dark night and burn it to the ground.

But this is Ireland, and so there are two more movie scripts waiting. Two more dramas to unfold. The first, which I envisage as a quirky little period piece, involves the return of three grand-daughters of the 4th Earl to reclaim their inheritance, around the 1950s. The house itself is broken so they must live in one of the estate houses, a modest farmhouse. They’re known locally as the “three gay mice” and this drama  is an exploration of the interplay between them, and of their sense of longing and regret for that-which-has-been-lost. It’s “Dancing at Lughnasa” the way their sisterly bond is strained by the yearning for the what-might-have-been. Their loss mirrored by the background austerity of a poverty-stricken land. All is quite gray.

And so to the final movie. It’s the early 1970s and a rich American is in the area. He’s in the movie business, or “sum-tin to do with the fill-ums” as the cast extra speaking with obligatory pint in hand in the local pub would have handily told us to develop the plot. There’s money available, so the house is re-roofed and all the windows are put back in. But only the facade of the house is restored. For this is the world of facades – they are making a movie called “The Mackintosh Man” which is to be a cold war espionage drama. It’s to star the Hollywood legend, Paul Newman. This movie is in a Fassbinder or a Herzog style – a movie about the making of a movie. The two worlds of austere Ireland and opulent Hollywood colliding, as a metaphor for Capitalism versus Communism. Love in a cold war climate.

The final scene of the Hollywood movie has arrived. It’s a dramatic scene in which the big old house is put to the flame. The new roof and windows are destroyed in the deliberate torch scene. No doubt a good deal of the irreplacable period fittings of the interior goes with them. Floors collapse. Long, eerie cellar corridors are exposed like the guts of the old house.

And so it ends.

But what’s this? A Brian Palma “Carrie”-like final shocker for the audience? A plan to convert the house into holiday apartments, you say? Keep (what’s left) of the old stuff but make it a boutique little destination on the edge of the western world. Be-jaysus! Ah, but hang on now there a minute. Sure, isn’t there only gone and after being a total collapse of the banks and the economy and the property developers are sitting there with a glass of whiskey in one hand and the shattered dreams of their ambition in the other. Maybe there’s another script out there after all.

Declan de Barra – The Wind that Shakes the Barley