light vanity

Ugly beautiful he sits on a dead branch and caws into the cold blue. A big and bold bird, pitch black with a tar dark voice, he barks his uncloistered racket into a perfect ink-blotter sky.

He is mesmerising, arrogant; a mean and unlit patch on the last gimlet-bright day of the year. A petrol-sheened devil sat in a tree. The Great Cormorant, sometimes even the Great Black Cormorant. He is horribly wonderful, and he has a terrific, weighty name, but taxonomically it is even heftier; Phalacrocorax Carbo, the bald black raven. I’ve always loved that guttural stumble of sharp consonants in the first half as the Latin goes through the gears.

But he lives up to it, being stark and ancient, Patrician and haughty. There is something primitive here, more than a little of the Archaeopteryx about him. The original bird. Urvogel. Other and old. Ugly beautiful.

The Cam has already split from the Great Ouse a few miles north at Pope’s Corner, and a hundred yards to my left it splits again. The main spur heads in a gentle meander past Burwell and Adventurers’ Fens toward the city, and along it a leisure craft bobs the waterfowl up and down a little with its wash. But it breaks off once more, the river, and separates, branching into navigable lodes that spike out more directly to Reach and Wicken.

It is quiet yet, the sun high and bright. I am the first punter in the beer garden, escaping the piped music rattling around the empty pub. The Five Miles From Anywhere (No Hurry) Inn gets a lot of river traffic, I imagine. The garden runs down to the river and from mooring to bar is a fairly short and obvious walk. There is room for barbecues and staging bands. The pub has undergone several changes in identity over the years; first the Black Swan, which it ought to be today I think, and then the Lord Nelson, it became known as the Five Miles in the 1850s. A hundred years later it was derelict and lost to a fire. The current building is pure Eighties pragmatism unhindered neither by style nor appeal.

River traffic is the key, obviously. I have a postcard of it from the turn of the Nineteenth Century, where a chain ferry rests, moored to the pub bank. It was still used on the eve of the Great War, a short cut for workers and livestock across to the farms on the western side of the river. The anglers, the eel fishermen, the landowners who worked these pools and cuts would have looked askance at the Cormorants. We have lived with them for ever, and for the most part they are treated with contempt. Anglers hate them, and in recent years, perhaps even as I write (I expect), have called for culls to ease pressure on stocks, for they are master fishers. But it has not always been such a terse relationship.

Shakespeare drops them in regularly, alluding to gluttony and the voracious devouring of anything precious. In the very first lines of Love’s Labours Lost the King, Ferdinand, uses them to highlight the temporary nature of life, (“spite of cormorant devouring Time”); in Troilus and Cressida, the siege of Troy is a “cormorant war”. But around the same time as those words were being written, the new King, James I, began to see the birds in an entirely new light, as a means of sport.

Men have used Cormorants for fishing for years, of course; there are references to the Chinese using them as early as the Third Century. They still do. But it was only in the mid-Sixteenth Century that the Venetians had begun to formally train and rear the birds for the serious purpose of sport.

The falconer, John Wood was elevated to a new post, Master of the Royal Cormorants, a role that lasted throughout the the Seventeenth Century, even being resurrected by Charles II after the Interregnum.

And they were trained as falcons, too, to fly to the hand. Eight, nine pounds of recalcitrant beast bearing down, clacking and snapping. A fierce, bolus of oily energy, those great marine green marble eyes, swiveling and pulsing. A band is placed around the bird’s crop, alien and uncomfortable, pinching so that it can’t swallow any fish, the returning hunter flapping and fighting in the bottom of the boat, forced to regurgitate its quarry whole, still alive.

Wood took his birds from breeders in Norfolk, from Thetford and Reepham in particular, where Cormorant fishing was a regular and popular practice. When fully trained, they fetched great prices; the King sent them across Europe as gifts to the great families. Cormorants are recorded as hunting at Fontainbleu, traveling between engagements wearing little velvet hoods to calm them down.

By the start of the Eighteenth Century the Royal title seems to have been retired; Benjamin Colinge, appointed for William and Mary, was the last of the short line. The sport shifted out of favour and although it was resurrected briefly in the 1850s by a handful of rich eccentrics it never again attained the sponsorship of the monarch.

The bird flaps his great wings, only to rest them again. He is dry in the sun, and doesn’t need to adopt the warming stance they so often hold. He twists and turns his neck, folding and unfolding that shimmering black cable. He caws almost to himself and the eyelids, calcium-white bulging barnacles, cover the green madness.