windward or taken by the tide to places we call home

As a kid, I think it was always accepted that when we saw gulls circling our little Midlands enclave, it was because there must have been a storm out at sea. It might even have been a sentiment accompanied by a wave of the hand and a chilly glance toward where we thought Skegness or Filey might be.

I’ve hung on to that idea for years, even though I know it must be mostly fanciful. It seemed particularly romantic to me that these storm-tossed creatures, shaken and buffeted by some distant and unknown tempest, should fetch up in our manor seeking respite.

Oh, but it’s a simple misunderstanding, and I was young then. Culturally, they’ve always been storm indicators, and often misrepresented.

The Welsh have the story of St Kenneth, or Cenydd, who was born to a minor nobleman from Arthur’s court, but was the result of an incestuous liaison and deformed. Horrified, the parents decided to cast the child into the River Loughor, but beforehand a priest baptised him and placed him in a basket. A storm arose and the cradle was carried into the estuary and out to sea. It was seen by a colony of gulls which lifted the basket to the top of a rock, where they stripped their breasts of feathers to make a bed while watching over the baby.

It is a rare positive reference. Normally, gulls are pests, scavengers; destructive and noisy. Even their name is assumed to be attached to the pejorative, from which we might attribute ‘gullible’ or to be ‘gulled’, as in a character who will swallow anything. The etymology is a little hazy at best, and may refer to the gullet, any gullet, rather than this genus of bird in particular. Don’t let the irony of all that peck you on the arse as it flies off now, will you?

It all depends on how you conjugate it. Gulls are globally successful. They split from their Middle Eastern progenitor group, and broke across the Atlantic, the best part of three hundred thousand years ago. At about the same time, we, our own species, spilled from the cradle of civilisation and filtered out from that same area. We have lived in each others’ footprints and shadows eternally.

They are not seagulls, or, at least, they are never just that. That’s too lazy. Their family name, the taxonomy, is too simple. They are Laridae, which comes from the Ancient Greek λάῥος, or ‘sea bird’. But gulls are everywhere, they are birds of cities and fields and landfills and motorway service stations and waste ground and high rises and every place where we might be. And yet, you can see the attraction of the pull of the sea. That romantic feeling coming back again. John Masefield called it the “vagrant gypsy life” and longed for “the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife”.

Or maybe it’s just because it’s easier and we know we can peripheralise these shrieking, insolent marauders. You catch sight of one of these pallid intruders and immediately you’ll fancy the breeze is a little keener, and the sky a little darker.


wanton freak

A day of pearlescent damp, an overdimmed gloom that stretches out and engulfs the trees and hedgerows. A sticky fog that hugs every surface and lasts on beyond midday.

At the rear of the cemetery, a fabulous sycamore, its leaves flushed rust and turmeric yellow. I sit underneath it, put my camera down and listen. Eventually, I’m able to oust everything and listen to the leaves as they tumble  through the branches. It is a gentle, soft chaos.

At the crown, though, the loveliest thing. A charm of goldfinches, a dozen, twenty , thirty, I have no idea how many, push a sortie through the head of the tree looking for food. They are fabulous, entrancing little creatures and, I confess, my favourite birds. Last Spring a pair nested in my garden. Both parents were killed by next door’s cat within hours of each other; I found their bodies ripped and discarded on the flagstones at the rear of my house.

But, we should feel fortunate. At least they are common enough to even be in the gardens. Goldfinches are at the top of the wave at the moment; regular and familiar visitors, they were, when I was a child, an almost exotic sight. Their population waxes and wanes. Hunting pressure in the Mediterranean, where many of the British population will migrate, is offset by the recent popularity of  foodstuffs upon which they thrive. As the birdfeed market becomes more sophisticated, new foods like Niger seed and Sunflower hearts have encouraged them off the heathland and farmland and into rural areas.

Goldfinches love thistle seeds. They will take dandelion and ragwort, too, and many other things, but it is thistles that give them their name; they are carduelis carduelis, the ‘thistle bird’. They sit on top of the dried oval bulb of a thistle and expertly avoid the spikes to find the seeds resting in the heart of the phyllary. It is said that the Goldfinch’s striking red face was bestowed when a bird landed on the crown of thorns and was splashed with Christ’s blood. The association has lasted for centuries. Goldfinches appear in dozens of representations of the Madonna and Child, the infant Jesus often clutching a struggling bird or watching as one flies above His head. They are a foreknowledge of the crucifixion, a symbol to show that Christ knew His destiny from birth. Raphael, Leonardo, Tiepolo and others all teased the image of this little gem into their devotional works.

They scatter through the trees and on. I follow them as best I can, a few specks imagined against the general fug of drizzle and murk. Later, they’re camped in the mess of briars and hawthorn that rings the recycling bins. The divine lost, well, tarnished. Noisy, rambunctious opportunists, but gaudy, florid and marvellously, wonderfully present. Little wonders.

je voudrais tant que tu te souviennes

Three miles to the South, the echoed crump of a cannon. My body clock was there anyway, I’d already stopped crossing the field and for several minutes had been watching the birds pecking in the furrows. Lapwing and Common Gull, Jackdaw, Pheasant, Partridge, a few scattered Golden Plovers.

Some crows lift for a moment at the sound, but settle again quickly. It is bright, and the morning air sparkles.

11am, of course. The sun is high. In what shadows there are, the last of a fine frost hangs on. I shift a little, and rest my camera and binoculars down on top of my rucksack.

There is a poplar to my right. It is a pale, washed-out sand colour, much of it dried and stripped by the October weather. Now, in the second week of November, it has little coverage left, what there is shakes crazily in even the gentlest breeze. In the spring and summer the same action creates a wave of silver and dark green that threshes endlessly up and down. As I watch, a dozen tags are torn away and spiral into the wind.

The black and dark brown fields of tilled soil are wiped here and there with wind-blown patterns of debris. Leaves are speared in the hawthorn hedgerows, they catch in scratchy circles on the pathways, and tumble through the branches to the floor.

The poet Jacques Prévert wrote the words to the song Les Feuilles Mort (Dead Leaves) in 1945. It is a mournful, beautiful thing about loss and love and remembrance (Et la mer efface sur le sable / Les pas des amants désunis… the sea wipes out the footprints of lovers torn apart). It is the melody which is better known outside France; first played sparingly on a harmonica to Yves Montand in the post war drama Les Portes de la Nuit, it developed into a standard, adopted into the American songbook by Johnny Mercer to become the hit Autumn Leaves. It is used to heartbreaking effect in a movie I saw this time last year, My Week with Marilyn, a slight but bittersweet tale of a young English man who may or may not have had a relationship with Marilyn Monroe. They see each other only a few times, but in the middle of their encounters is one day where they walk in the country, as if they were lovers, and have, what sweethearts would call, an adventure. At the end, driving back as the sun goes down, the light slanting through the car window, first tenderly holding hands and then – as they look out, at the real world – letting go, Nat King Cole sings Autumn Leaves and the swelling strings are almost unbearable.

Across the field, a stand of trees, a place I sat beneath six months ago. I can pick out the spot exactly despite its changed livery. It is now a rage of red and gold and brown. I had watched a quarrel of Blackcaps, parents and juveniles, stripping the elderberry that was threading through the branches, a tide of new and energised life, a pother of noise and hunger.

Now the landscape takes a breath. It inhales. It is, if you could taste it, a time of sweet darkness and decay. The leaves fall and settle and although they begin to change, an imprint of the world is made. It is closing down, for repair, for redress, for rebalance, for remembrance.

The cannon sounds again. I look up as the crows lift and skirr around once again, before settling back to earth. I pick up my things and start off.