I can’t find my notes. I’ve moved my office space around twice since the time I had them. I flick through dozens of aborted moleskin journals, the first half a dozen pages of each filled with urgent, unravelling scrawl, and … Continue reading
My brother, whether he realises it or not, is still at one with his roots. His current residence is in Didcot, five miles south of Oxford, a top floor flat of a two-storey apartment that nestles amongst red-bricked houses with brown window frames. If you look at his housing estate on Google maps, it bears anatomical resemblance to a heart, with a main road for an artery that feeds off into little capillary cul de sacs. Here he lives with content, over five hours’ drive from the nearest family member. My brother is unmoved by places and locations. It’s not that he particularly likes living in suburbia; it’s more that the things about suburbia that people loathe, or admire and are drawn to, simply aren’t of interest to him.
At least they don’t seem to be of interest to him. It can be hard to tell sometimes.
The red kites didn’t seem to interest him, not even the one I saw out of his lounge window, patrolling the suburb with bent head, its wings and tail forming angles unfamiliar to me.
“But look at it! It’s incredible! And it’s rare!” For me, this Red Kite was a big deal; only the third I’d ever seen, the first two being sighted on the way here as they flew over the M40. In the 16th century, the Kite was persecuted to the edge of extinction in the British Isles for being verminous, and then in the 19th century, when their numbers were so low, it was pursued for being rare and valuable. Egg collectors all but wiped them out, leaving only a handful left to breed in Wales. After around a hundred years of conservation efforts, the Red Kite is now enjoying some resurgence, particularly in this area of England.
“You think every bird is a Red Kite,” he replied good-humouredly, turning back to his PS3.
The following morning after breakfast, I slipped out. I’d sighted a straight concrete path from the bathroom window and had decided to go looking for it. The houses were silent; around them, the scrubby spots of hedges and trees turning to bud were noisy with sparrows and blackbirds. Crossing a road, I found the path and was led through a small grassy park, into cul de sacs that themselves held paths to other cul de sacs. I was soon lost in the capillaries.
The Kite I’d seen yesterday was already patrolling its patch, floating with a calm rigidity a few metres above the rooftops. Much has been said about these birds of prey and their striking long, forked tails; less has been said about the fact that the toy of the same name that’s cast into the air and held up by the wind was so called because of the manner of the bird’s flight. There was something arresting about how the bird above me used its tail to feel its way and lock into the wind’s unseen gusts and fluctuating thermals – it was if it were double jointed. As it swung and paused directly over my head, for several, separate split seconds, it seemed to lose its sense of animation; it was, in one and the same moment, a bird and the semblance of a bird; in flight, and suspended in flight. I had an urge to test the tautness of tightened string, and I felt my thumbs twitch deep in my coat pocket.
It was magical. I stared up at it; it didn’t stare back, but continued to monitor the cul de sac, eyes keen for carrion, perhaps, or a spilt bin bag. I suddenly felt sorry for it. Such a creature, I thought, should be scanning fields and hedgerows. Looking around me at the tarmac, the red bricks and the brown window frames, I felt a familiar and directionless sense of guilt.
The bird disappeared from view. I remained standing there for a few moments, suspended as if in fluid. And as I stood there I wondered whether, if I ever came back to these parts, I would become more like my brother, and in time not bother to raise my head at the Kites that carved their way through the Oxfordshire skies.
2.42pm. ‘Excuse me, are you familiar with the Starling routine here?’ I tell them no, but that I’m here for it too, and that I’d met a man earlier who said there were half a million of them exploding from … Continue reading
I wasn’t sure how I’d come to get such a central view, but there I was, leaning over the railings with my hood up, redundant and frustrated, watching the pilot whale die. It was smaller than I thought it was going to be – 12 foot long, perhaps, and pressed right up close to the sea wall. It was covered with a great red sheet, smooth and sodden from the seawater that volunteers had been pouring over it for several hours. Water was scooped up in big containers from rock pools and passed along a human chain to a man who poured these offerings into a dustbin serving as a water butt. From there, a further team collected the water in smaller pots and tin watering cans, distributing it across the whale’s body. Sometimes, when one of the team stepped out of the way, you could see the gentle curve of its shiny black head peeping out of the sheet. Whenever this happened, there was an ‘ahh look,’ from someone nearby.
Thirty people were on the beach: coastguard rescue, the local policeman, vets, a photographer, marine biologists from Tremough campus, and an assortment of volunteers without any uniform at all. Everything that could be done was being done. A windbreak had been set up to fend off the wind as it tore across the beach to dry the animal out. One woman stood ankle deep in a rock pool. I have no idea how long she had been in that position, bending down to scoop water and pass it along the chain.
The crowd up above on the promenade, and the rescue team down on the beach all at some point stared at the tide. The whale had been stranded about 11 am, and by the time I heard the news and drove up at 2pm, with some vague notion in my head of being useful and helping out, I was of course far too late to be of any use. High tide was expected around 6pm. Though the waves seemed to press towards the land, they made little difference to it and came no closer to the pilot whale whether we willed it to or not. I wished them on, nevertheless, as if this was one way in which I could help. I stared at the sea in a way that I had not stared for a long time.
Sometimes there were things said in the crowd: that the vet was coming to put the animal to sleep; that there was something wrong with its muscles which had resulted in it being beached in the first place. I couldn’t believe that it would end like this. I stood there for over half an hour, waiting for good news to trickle through via text messages between the audience and the stage.
From time to time, the exposed tail would flap up and down, each movement a burst of saved-up energy, a will to live. It made many of us ache with our own uselessness. ‘I’m not standing here to watch it die,’ a young girl said to her friend as they put their cameras away and walked from the scene.
I was angry about the cameras at the start. As well as smartphones, there was expensive kit that hung around craned necks as the crowd swelled, absorbing passers by. But as time went on, and I realised that the animal was indeed going to be put to sleep, I found myself taking my own phone out of my pocket. I still do not understand why I did it: a combination of bearing witness, of effecting an action, of willing it to live. I do not know whether or not to delete it.
I looked at it later, when I was home and it was over. The image was of thirty people, shivering brazenly into the April wind on a rocky slip of a quiet beach, working to ease suffering in whatever way they could.
The painting in front of me hangs proudly on its wall, rich in its age, an age that I cannot begin to comprehend. It began life as a white canvas. An Irishman, slender, red-bearded, set it on a stand in his Newlyn studio in 1889 and made it into a work of art. It was one of the largest canvas boards he’d ever worked upon; it was to be his masterpiece.
He needed it to be. He was not long married. He had a young child and a second on the way, and he was struggling to make a living from his work. Years of hesitancy over careers must have weighed heavily on Norman Garstin as he painted: he’d attempted engineering, architecture, diamond mining and journalism, all without success. An accident whilst hunting had blinded his right eye; it was while he was adjusting to partial sight that he decided to become an artist. He had trained for years in Europe and then settled in remote Newlyn, having heard of its promising art colony. He was now 42 years old. He had to make this work.
The Rain It Raineth Every Day hangs in Penzance’s Penlee Gallery, and is a work of realism that captures an unmistakable English scene: a wide promenade on a rainy day, across which stride dark, coated figures with sturdy umbrellas, indifferent to the spent wave breaking across the walkway in the background.
As I stare at it now, I try to suppress a feeling of disappointment. It’s just that it’s different from what I remembered. My parents had hung a print of it on the wall of their old living room, directly over the TV. It would gaze austerely out at the room, whilst technicolour sparked and fizzed underneath. I remember it as gloomy and grey. I would stare up at it sometimes when I was trying to do my Maths homework, or whilst eating my tea. It sobered me.
The original is not so gloomy, not so grey. It carries hints of pinks and blues that provide it with a luminescence, another layer of meaning, that the print couldn’t carry forward. ‘Time and again, when looking at a Garstin picture, one’s initial reaction is of slight disappointment,’ writes Richard Pryke, the artist’s main biographer. My disappointment differs from the sort towards which he gestures, but I take the reassurance all the same.
Pryke says: ‘If one concentrates on the picture, its true composition becomes evident and its different parts fall into place’, and it is true that I have walked around this gallery, looked at the other works, and returned to this one alone for another look. I stand at different distances and angles, trying to catch the light off its surface; I puzzle over the unfinished quality to the main figure’s face. I work hard to make my disappointment disappear.
I guess I feel guilty for preferring the print. The Rain It Raineth is Penlee Gallery’s jewel, and the fact that it is here at all carries sadness. Garstin never managed to sell his masterpiece, and left it to the gallery as a gift. Not being able to sell it changed the course of his life, reducing the number and quality of works that he produced, uprooting him from Newlyn, triggering mental illness and marital strain.
The original now hangs with pride and does not disclose its creator’s misfortunes. As for the print – The Rain It Raineth that I know was taken down when my parents moved. It lies in their new living room, torn and unframed in the dark behind the sofa, while brighter, more disposable prints take its place above the flickering screen.
“When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back,” writes Solnit in Wanderlust. Perhaps it was the distance travelled or the time elapsed, but once I left Brighton three things happened within the space of a few hours that made me reflect upon that sentence.
The first was brief: a sudden fear of disconnection with the coast. I boarded a busy morning bus from Brighton to Peacehaven, and within minutes felt anxious that I did not have my feet on the ground. I couldn’t tear my eyes off the coastline from which my feet had been severed; when the bus ducked inland briefly at Rottingdean, I felt a wave of irrational panic because I could no longer sense the sea.
The second was more substantial: a shaky reunion with the coast as I walked over the chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters. Land that was smooth, grassy and fairly level formed folds that were accentuated the closer they came to the edge, then were sliced short, like a block of Viennetta. The cliff’s verticality was picturesque from a safe vantage point, but unsettling to walk on. There was nothing in its face that would break an accidental fall. As at Brighton beach, I had an odd sense of the land being active; I dismissed it because the chalk underfoot was new and strange to me; I was used to granite. I began to climb up and into the folds, noticing that there were no signs warning people of the sheer drop. People sat close to their edge, chatting and eating, possibly dangling their legs.
Then the land stopped correlating with cartography. I came across concrete pillboxes that perched quietly on the land, collecting litter from previous visitations, waiting, perhaps, to be used again. They were not on the map, and the implication of this hit me as I recalled that I was coming closer and closer to France. Then, the reverse: on map paper heavy with orange contour lines, I walked over ancient settlements and tumuli, their age indicated by the use of calligraphy script. On the ground itself, I saw no trace of these features, nor felt their imprint under my feet. Recalling my anxiety on the bus, I stopped looking at my map. From now on, I would follow my instinct and trust my feet. This was when things began to go wrong.
The cliffs were tough. They tugged at my calves as I scaled one fold after another. I was sure I had counted more than seven. And I was tired; really tired. I noticed that each fold had paths made from ruts in the chalk, little white nicks in the thin, grassy scalp that would make the climbs more manageable. Perhaps they had existed for centuries, for millennia. My eyes dropped to focus on my feet. Then followed the head. Left foot, right foot. The rhythm helped my mind wander, it returned to Brighton beach and lingered there. Then a wick of wind brought me back to the present; still walking, I lifted my head.
The land had vanished. Only dark sea and light sky, two separate halves of blue.
My back foot on the edge transferring weight – the lifting of the front leg
Reaching for land that wasn’t there –
The backward stumble of the body, as it screamed at the mind
To step away from the ed
A feeling of calm would eventually replace the convulsive waves of adrenaline and the deep breaths, the shake in the hands and legs. I should have seen how the path I had chosen streaked, from twenty metres inland, diagonally towards and over the edge, a route that had once continued upon land long since lost, eaten away by the sea. My mind returned, its shock fading while it threw forward disjointed memories of Alton Towers, a page of a book I was reading, the sea kelp near Bognor Regis, and my parent’s bathroom.
I started to walk again, checking each step until there were other things to worry about. Light was beginning to fail. Bracken was thickening and replacing the grass. Mist curled over the cliff. I hadn’t yet reached Beachy Head, the famous suicide hotspot. I returned to the map, worked out where I was, and saw that I was near a road that would take me there in safety. I moved inland.
The road was deserted, sweeping through the down-land. I dragged my feet on the asphalt, my shoulders rolling forwards. Once more, my head slipped down. Then the sound of a car, and a flash of approaching headlights. I moved onto the verge. As the car passed, I read ‘Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team’ on its side. Its engine note dropped as it slowed, and I turned to see it pull up at a lay-by, where it could see for miles around.
I’d heard of a suicide patrol team that watched over Beachy Head, approaching jumpers and offering help. This had to be them. The car’s engine was still running; I decided to watch. Perhaps they had been alerted to a potential suicide victim; perhaps they were looking to see whether cars had been abandoned further up the road.
The car continued to idle. I continued to watch.
Something had to happen.
Then a window was wound down. Despite the mist, I could see the driver, a woman with her blonde hair tied back.
“Are you looking for me?”
Each word clear, enunciated. A gentle, imploring emphasis on the ‘me’.
“Me?” I placed my palm onto my chest, mirroring her clarity. I didn’t know what else to do.
“You were looking in my direction. I wondered if you were looking for me.”
She too had been waiting for something to happen.
The hand on my chest formed a dismissive wave, an act of bravado, almost, to make it appear that I was fine. “No no, I’m not.” I turned and started to walk, realising how I must have appeared: alone, lost, depressed.
I never did make it to Beachy Head. By chance, a bus soon came along the road, ‘Eastbourne’ on its front. I boarded it before I could change my mind. This time I did not look out of the window, out at the mist. I stared at the face of my mobile phone, waiting for it to show bars of signal, feeling a flush of relief when they appeared.
“When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back”: Solnit surely didn’t mean for her sentence to be experienced in quite this way, for her verb to darken and sharpen. Lying in a cheap hostel bed at Eastbourne that night, I listened to traffic outside the window. I stroked my thumb over the screen of my phone, held under the covers. I thought of the patrol car, possibly still out there, rescuing souls from themselves or from the land. I thought of Brighton beach, and I tried to sleep.
The following is an extract from my final Masters dissertation, written about my 80 mile walk along the Sussex coast in July. (The rest is, er, still being written…)
Brighton claimed me the moment I tilted back my head onto its shingle and heard the suck-hiss of the Channel working on the layers underneath. That shingle, pushed by the sea, piles up in a couple of increments like a set of stairs leading down to the shoreline: the further you walk down towards the sea, the greater the privacy from the city offered by the shingle’s layers. We were only halfway in, twenty metres away from the shoreline, our curiosity levels lowered by hangovers, yet as I lay there it was as if I were hearing the sea directly underneath my body as it roamed an underground cavern. No calm lapping, no sense of regular exhalation that I’ve come to associate with the shore. This was the sound of the sea feasting on the land.
Three of us had come to Brighton in order not to think. We’d been seeking pleasure in its more superficial and transient state as we sauntered through arcades and absent-mindedly browsed the emporiums. We’d drunk too much the night before, eaten junk food, bought tat from souvenir shops, and simply didn’t care that it was a Wednesday afternoon and that we weren’t at work. Why had we done this?
While my two companions threw pebbles into an empty disposable coffee cup with increasing competitiveness, I stared vacantly at the overcast sky and then realised that I had asked myself a question. I sat up, leaning on my forearms to look at the sea, properly, for the first time since I’d arrived. What I felt was a flutter of disappointment similar to what I’d felt that morning when I had poured a cup of tea in the room of our decadent, unhealthy hotel (with its licensed early morning bar, curly wurlys to accompany the sachets of tea and instant coffee, rock and roll posters on the walls). The tea had turned out the colour of dilute mud; barely a colour at all. A cup of tea in Cornwall was bright and golden, and as I stared at the Channel, I tried to find the right word for the similar sort of half-colour it was displaying.
I settled on ‘sunken green brown’. Hardly the sharp aquamarine of Kynance cove, or the teal-milk-blue of Falmouth’s bays when the weather was right. Yet thousands of people flocked to Brighton’s seafront each day. The city was grimy yet elegant, boisterously oblivious to the aggression of the sea, run down by the arcades (‘that’s what I imagine hell to be like – but with a carpet’, my friend had said earlier as we walked along the pier) yet hoisted up by the trendiness of the Laines. The fish and chips were a disappointment, people littered, the blare of music and the traffic along the city’s seafront road never let off – yet I didn’t want to leave. Ever. I couldn’t work Brighton out, its character of paradox and multi-layeredness elusively shifting identity with each attempt to understand it. It frustrated me, and it was then that I realised that it had seduced me.
I pulled up Google Maps when I arrived back in Cornwall and typed in Brighton’s name. It was the jewel in the crown of Sussex’s coastline, smack bang in its centre, with Bognor Regis to its far left, Eastbourne and Hastings to its right. Each seaside resort was a cast-on stitch threading a seafront road named the A259 between them. In some areas the knitting of these road-threads was neat and full: at Worthing, Hove and Peacehaven, barely a stitch was dropped along the grid-like patterning of streets. I couldn’t see the railway termini on the map but I knew that they were there, lines that sloped away from Southampton and London and ended at the Channel. I pulled up another map, one of the county borders of England, and raised my eyebrows to how much of the South-East coast Sussex claimed. It lay luxuriously underneath the affluent and London-tied Surrey, sharing its first two letters before breaking free with its double-s into that glorious suffix, -sex, heavily charged with the promise of excitement, energy, taboo and freedom.
It’s so easy to look at maps and spin hypotheses. To have the hunch I had formed in Brighton confirmed by Sussex’s geographical location: that it was close enough to London to pull in crowds and city culture, but not so close as to be eclipsed by it. To zoom out of the map and allow the North-Western tip of mainland Europe to creep in with each mouse click, offering another ingredient to the Sussex identity. To learn with excitement how the South-Eastern coast is continually blighted by long-shore drift: to read a sentence such as this – “South-Westerly storms and currents have carried debris from the West to build shingle bars and sand banks across the river estuaries to the east, blocking harbours and accelerating the setting up of river valleys” – and imagine a shifting coastal line that challenged a long-term rooting of identity as the Sussex people fought a losing battle with the sea. To suspect that this battle lies behind the Sussex motto, ‘we wunt be druv’, translatable from the now obsolete Sussex dialect as ‘we won’t be driven away’.
I decided that I would walk Sussex’s coast, casting my own line along the shore to stitch together resorts that the day-tripper often sees in isolation when making their ephemeral visits. I hoped to work out a sense of Sussex identity that would help me understand Brighton’s own; I wanted to sense what it was to live on a shifting coast. As I stepped off the bus that first day, I was carrying a mind full of preconceived ideas as well as a rucksack. Some of these ideas and theories would expire as I walked; some of them would hold to be true. And along the 82 mile journey I spent many hours wrestling with an elusive, shifting regional identity. I worried over the limitation of my perceptions, and felt a faint despondency that for everything I noticed and for every conversation that I fell into along the way, there would be countless things unseen and unsaid that would spin their own narrative of life along this strange and shifting coast.
Last week, Peninsula Magazine was published – a product of my postgraduate Writing course which is now winding down and coming to its close. My coursemates and I spent over six months working on Peninsula – from conceiving its theme, contacting our favourite writers to ask for contributions, liaising with copyeditors and designers to get it just how we wanted, and then getting it out there – in UK bookshops and as a downloadable PDF online.
The process made me fall a little in love with litmags, and realise how invaluable they are to the spread of good writing, and new writing too – something that I’m hungry for, more than ever. For my part, I interviewed Jay Griffiths, one of my favourite writers, about Wild, one of my favourite books. I was also fortunate to get other great writers involved, whose work and sentence craft continue to inspire me: Robert Macfarlane, David Lawrence, Matthew Oates, Kathleen Jamie, Jeremy Mynott, Mel Challenger…all of these writers, some whose work I read prior to making the decision to pursue writing more seriously, some who I stumbled across whilst completing dissertations for my course, all have given their words to Peninsula with generosity, and have made it eclectic, diverse and very, very readable, covering themes as wide ranging as footpaths, Antarctica, butterflies, London, birds, the paranormal, Glastonbury, road trips, Hawaii and Cornish policing. I also contributed some of my own writing, on pages 68 – 70, about returning to my childhood home.
There are very few print copies left (which, by the way, are free – we post them out to whoever wants them), but the PDF is available here.
I think you should click on that link.
Wheal Coates is a tin mine that stands on a North Cornish cliff bound by heather and gorse. Its mineshaft reaches down through the rock to Towanroath Yugga, a cave off Chapel Porth beach that can be entered into when the tide is out. Today, however, the tide is in, and the weather is foul. The heather lies low on the ground, as if trying to shelter from the wind and the rain. It’s a wonder that Wheal Coates still stands and hasn’t been blown into the sea, I think, holding onto my hat as I walk towards the tin mine’s silhouette, through weather that batters me, as if trying to force me back.
Wheal Coates dates from the 1870s, and was finally abandoned in 1913. Nearly a hundred years on, the site looks fragmented, as if the cliff had been bombed. Three engine houses still stand, their roofs lost long ago, their tips tinged back into life with the green of moss. All have cavities where windows should be: the tallest engine house has an uppermost window-hole that frames for me a patch of heavy sky. Elsewhere are low strips of wall, which, to my ignorant eyes, seem randomly built and abandoned half way through. The National Trust information board gives these fragments sinister sounding names: Calciner, Boiler Pond, Dressing Floor. Still, hundreds of people understood this land and used to come to this very spot to work in a world far beneath my feet. Men died down there, dying of injuries and landslides; many drowned in the dark.
It is the wailing of the drowning miners that you are meant to hear at Wheal Coates, coming up the mineshaft. I don’t see the shaft at first: I am too easily distracted by the colour of the stone that has been used to build the various walls. Blood red, with the occasional streak of white. It’s not noticeable at a distance, but up close, parts of Wheal Coates look as if they were built from slabs of red meat; gristly steak. More of the same stone covers the ground and paths: scattered off cuts. I slide a couple in my pocket, wiping the wet from my fingers onto my sleeves.
The mineshaft is covered with a metal grid, splitting its disturbing darkness into small, manageable oblongs. In one corner, part of the grid has been stretched and widened, creating a hole large enough for a dead miner’s forearm to reach out and grab a foot. Not really knowing what I am doing, I pick a stone out of my pocket and toss it into the shaft to gauge its depth. Poorly thrown, or swept off course by the wind, it clatters on the shaft’s sides as it falls, creating echoes and thus revealing nothing. I reach for my other stone but as I do, the wind mimics my actions, tossing rain into my face and whipping my hair. For the rest of my time on the cliff, it seems to pursue me, howling within the engine houses when I step into them. It knows the stones better than I do, and uses them to create unusual sounds. On one occasion, it creates a sound close to my feet that makes me stop still. Like it knows of an underground cavity, and is sweeping through it.
It doesn’t spook me at the time, because I assume there is a rational explanation for what I hear. But replaying it in my mind after I have come away makes my spine grow cold. So, too, does the stone that I find in my pocket, days later, whilst searching for something else. Now dry, its colour has paled to an anaemic pink. It is almost as if it has been drained of something, and I wonder whether the colour slowly changed, unseen in my pocket, the further I took it away from its cliff.
Sunday morning, early May, 4.30 am. I walk down the lane in the pre-dawn darkness with my guitar strapped to my back. It sits uncomfortably on the curve of my spine, and bumps against it with each step. The zip of the guitar case ruptures the quiet around me with a tinkle like breaking glass.
I am late; it’s already started. A robin was already warming up as I left the flat, and wrens and wood pigeons sing softly in the trees I now pass. Other birds are singing too, but I cannot identify them.
There is just enough light from the moon to see the gate leading to Lower Marsh Nature Reserve, where I have chosen to conduct my experiment. I cross the road, guitar bag chirruping, lean over the gate, and unlock it. I can just about pick up a silver ribbon of path in the darkness, beckoning me in.
The chorus seems to develop and become richer the deeper in I go. I find a place to sit: it’s not acoustically perfect, just a patch of bare earth by a fence that I will later find borders onto a pool of water. I unzip my case, taking out my guitar and my field recorder.
I feel for the recorder’s power switch in the dark. Its red light winks: it’s ready. I set it on the ground at a fair distance from where I am going to sit, not wanting to be too much in the foreground.
I sit. I wait.
I’m not even sure what I’m going to do, or how I’m going to join in. The chorus feels closed to me at present. I cannot sense any space into which a guitar could slip.
I close my eyes and listen to it build. I try to identify the birds as their songs bubble in and out of the chorus. I hear a blackbird wake and reel out a brief, emotive series of notes, stretching its throat as I would I stretch my arms and back as I get out of bed. It works on its song for a minute, and then wraps up prematurely. Then a wren starts, trilling a refrain like an alarm call, dominating the show. Underneath its line, collared doves call softly to each other. A cuckoo, deeper in the wood, clears its throat.
Sitting amidst a dawn chorus is a completely different experience to hearing it from bed. It’s so loud, for a start. And it is far more fluid than I thought it would be. There is not so much of a climax, but more of a slipping in and out of different songs, as birds announce their presence and leave a hole, an absence as they disappear. Not being able to see anything around me makes this musical presence/absence far more striking.
Just as my ears grow accustomed to the lead refrain of the wren, a cockerel, far off in the distance, crows a repeated series of notes with a rhythm that awakens the musician in me. And I know exactly what I will play and sing, too, as I experience a timely flashback of a moment when I was twenty, leaning on a windowsill, listening to a bird break the morning in. I’d written a song about that moment, about wanting to escape with the bird and its song. I’d not played it for years.
The lyrics become oddly prophetic as I roll them around in my mouth; I place my fingers in positions on the fretboard that they have not assumed for a very long time.
The cockerel continues to crow, counting me in. It is as if I am standing on a platform as a train rolls slowly by, spotting the approach of an open carriage door, waiting for the right moment to leap.
I would burr strings, fluff notes, and overshoot the vocals with a voice rigid from the cold, but it felt right on this enchanted island thirty miles from the UK mainland, a world full of overshoots and vagrant chorus members. And when I stopped, I would hear the space of my song’s absence for a fraction of a second, before the rest of the chorus rushed in.
– taken from ‘Songs About Birds’, a recent piece of writing about reawakening song-writing through ornithology and birdsong,