My father’s house is by the sea, so close to the sea that an onshore wind can lift the white caps and coat his windows with a curtain of spume, and a storm can pebbledash the house with beach grit. He retired long ago to this little beach-front bungalow with its garden a square of beach shingle on which almost nothing could grow save for some salt-tolerant succulents and a few hardy wallflowers. The last time I came I remember watching a procession of terns patrolling just beyond the surf line, heads all tilted downwards in search of that glimmer in the shallows that cuts across the movement of light on water. And then the sudden check in flight, the lining up before the plunge. But today the beach is grey and deserted, and there is nothing to see save for a solitary crow that is waiting on the garden wall as I arrive and calling over and over, relentlessly.
It is a relief that I came for a day visit not so long ago, with my children, and the day went well. We all strolled along the seafront, and had lunch in a café, and the children were charming and on best behaviour. He talked a little about growing old, for he was keenly aware that he was starting to become frail with the advancing years. He seldom even took his cars out nowadays, and that had always been his greatest pleasure in life. I brushed off his concerns and said he would probably outlive me, for in all my life I had barely known him suffer an illness of any kind, hardly even a cold; while I, in contrast, seemed unable to go more than two or three years without contracting yet another life-threatening condition to add to the others. But on the whole it was a good day, without tension. It felt a little that we had rather made our peace. We had not always seen eye to eye, and sometimes, with my wandering life, years had gone by without my seeing him. But age seemed to have mellowed him, and perhaps it had begun to mellow me too.
I am here for a purpose: to collect any post; to throw out any leftover food; to scrub the kitchen free of grease; to defrost the freezer and icebox, and disconnect them; to sweep up the shards of glass and the splinters of wood where the police had broken the door down; to look for any important papers that have been missed. It takes me all day; when the kitchen is looking otherwise done I set pans of boiling water inside the freezer and fridge to soften the ice, and shut the doors. I don’t want to be here till tomorrow. I go to explain myself to the neighbours, but they are not home. I take a walk along the esplanade; it is blustery and threatening to rain, and no-one else is out save for one or two dog-walkers.
When I get back I start looking through desk drawers and cupboards. It feels vaguely uncomfortable to be rummaging through someone else’s personal possessions; this is what burglars do. My brother has already been and collected enough papers to fill eight boxes. He said there was stuff everywhere, scattered in different places, different rooms, as though my father had been looking for something.
Working my way through a chest of drawers in my father’s extension that he used as a study and junk room I find three old diaries, dated 1972, 1973, and 1974. They are not my father’s diaries, they are mine. I hadn’t even remembered that I used to keep diaries as a child, and yet I recognise them at once. Their covers are coated with a thin dust of dry mould. They have been stored alongside a selection of old school books and examination papers. I am a little amazed that my father had kept all this stuff for all these years.
I sit at my father’s white sixties dining table that is not made of wood but of fibreglass or melamine or something that is not quite plastic, not as we know it now, and start to flick through the words of my twelve year old self, pondering the possibility that some of these words might very well have been written while sitting at this table, in this orange and white chair that looks like a sixties dream of a future that would never quite come to pass. Every page of the diary is filled, but it makes me smile at myself, for it is not really a diary in any conventional sense; more a collection of nature notes, a chronicle of my childhood obsession with the natural world.
My tastes were surprisingly catholic; there are wild flowers, ferns and lichens, moths and seashells and fossils. There are accounts of my early attempts at badger-watching and fox-watching. I must have been a pretty weird kid, for on my birthday I asked for mouse-traps. I mean live traps, for I was never the kind of child who found pleasure in torturing the helpless. Quite the opposite; I literally would not have hurt a fly. Each night I would bait and set these traps, and would catch wood mice, yellow-necked mice, bank voles and field voles, even the occasional shrew that had wandered in by accident looking for insects. I would sex them and weigh them, measure their body-length, their tail-length, and I would colour-mark them before release. There was an equation you could use to estimate population densities according to the frequency with which individuals were caught more than once, but these calculations are not in the diary, just the raw data.
More than anything else, there are birds. You have to work to see mammals, for they are mostly shy and nocturnal and lead secret lives that are hidden away from us, but the birds are in the skies, out in the open. They are always there – almost any landscape, at any moment, will contain birds somewhere in the frame of your vision. It comes as a shock to the system on the rare occasion when this expectation is confounded – say at an African waterhole in the dry season, with large mammals all around, and nary a bird to be seen.
I am pleased to see that I did not particularly discriminate for rarity; my purpose, my interest, did not just lay in the accumulation of new species. It was not a matter of being a collector, a lister. Although while flicking through the diary I find records of less common birds, sightings that I had quite forgotten about until reminded of them by seeing them here – hawfinches, a cirl bunting, a corncrake, roseate terns and black terns, for instance – they take no precedence over my observations of the daily behaviour of the magpies or dunnocks in the garden. I am just going out into the natural world, and watching keenly to try to see what is really there.
There is a scattering of little sketches – the egg cases of a dog whelk from the beach, a wren’s nest in an old tin can on an ivy-covered bank, a badger’s footprints on a muddy path – but far more frequent are the maps. Sometimes there is a map every day for weeks on end. I don’t just record what I have seen but mark its precise position, and often my own position too, as if I am trying to capture the moment and preserve it forever. As my maps become more sophisticated over time I even begin to colour-code them, with a key for the different species I have seen that day. Birds being birds, they did not stay still for long, and my maps show their movements too. A wavering line, with a little arrow to show the direction of their progress, from the point where I first glimpsed them to where they were lost to view. The maps of my childhood are criss-crossed with the flight paths of a thousand birds.
Less than a hundred yards from my home, on a ledge on an ivy-decked chalk cliff, nested a pair of kestrels. These were almost the only birds of prey I would ever see. The era of the silent spring, where chemical pesticides had entered the food chain, was still in full effect, and birds that ate birds were the most affected. Once I watched as a sparrowhawk took out a starling on our garage roof and eviscerated it there and then, but this was the only sparrowhawk I would see throughout my entire childhood. Yet the kestrels, feeding largely on mice and voles, still thrived. I would see them almost every day, and almost every day I would map those moments when the paths of our lives intersected.
Occasionally in these diaries I make passing reference to my rather precocious reading habits. It surely cannot be entirely normal for a twelve year-old to be reading Darwin’s Origin of Species or Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne. What are conspicuous by their absence, however, are a lot of other things that you might reasonably expect to find in a diary. There is practically no comment at all on how I was feeling, and any mention of other significant elements of my life – friends, family, school – is perfunctory at best.
Wednesday 28th June 1972
Went onto hill across road. Found two bee orchids and two pyramidal orchids. At the top of the cliff as I came round I disturbed a female kestrel from the ground a few feet away pulling its prey to bits. At my approach it flew up with its prey but dropped it a few feet away. I examined it, expecting it to be a mammal, but when I saw it I was surprised to find that it was a sparrow. Exams continued.
I wrote about birds rather than feelings because birds were not ambivalent. I wrote about birds rather than people because birds had motives that I could understand. I wrote about birds rather than school because, while schooldays were dull, filled with seemingly arbitrary rules, and an imposition, birds were beautiful, a source of endless fascination, and mine – my own free choice.
This single-minded preoccupation of my childhood diaries, with their seeming evasion of the indoor world does not matter, though, for as I read them I know exactly how it felt to be me and to be twelve. I can reconstruct my whole self, my daily life, my frame of mind, from my recollection of those fleeting moments. For other people it will be something different – an old song heard on the radio, the smell of new-mown hay, perhaps a football match – that will cast them back in time and evoke a seemingly perfect recollection of their long-lost selves, as seen from within, but for me it is birds – sometimes other animals too, but always the birds. They are my own personal key that unlocks my memory. Birds are the spark that lights the fuse, and that sets off a whole chain of memories, one after another, like a string of firecrackers in my mind.
The third of the three diaries I have found is smaller than the others. The entries are shorter, there are fewer maps, and for the first time there are blank pages. My preoccupations have begun to become the more typical social concerns of a teenage boy – friends, parties, beer, girls, motorbikes, work and money, finding a peer group with whom I felt I belonged, finding my place in the world. And mostly I thought about my own first flight. There was a whole wide world out there just waiting for me, and I wanted to see it all, I could not have felt more ready. I left the birds behind, and pushed forward in my determination to join the world of men as quickly as possible. I did not forget the birds, but left them fluttering in a box in the back of my brain, waiting to be set free.
I put the diaries aside and go back to chipping the last of the ice from the freezer and ice-box, and mopping away the melt-water. Before I leave I try the neighbours again, and one of them is in. I had spoken to her once on the telephone, but never met her before. I introduce myself, and she says, ‘You look like him.’ She tells me how hard it is to imagine my father no longer being there. She had moved in twenty-five years ago and he had already been living next door. He was not exactly a part of the local community; he had always just been there. For years, decades even, he had lived there on his own, spending his days tinkering with his cars, stripping down his cars, rebuilding his cars. He spent an awful lot of his time in his garages, with his milling machine, his grinding machine, his block and tackle, his welding gear, amidst the chassis of his unfinished projects. He was always a man who seemed more at home in a garage than in a house. And I wonder if I shall end my days something like this. Not with the cars, but with my birds instead.
© Neil Ansell 2013
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Read another Neil Ansell essay, ‘Orange’.