The geese are back ! I couldn’t believe it. Look at the way their numbers shot up, and then declined:
Of course, it’s all to do with the weather. We had a week of very late summer – warm days, no wind and no rain. That brought the geese up from town. I’ve never see the lake so crowded.
Our geese are not migratory- unless you call a journey of three miles migratory. They are a local population who spend their summers at the lake, feeding off the surrounding fields, and the winters on the banks of the river which runs through the middle of the city. There they have a river, and the warmth of surrounding buildings as well. Food is readily accessible- all they have to do is go round the back of the local supermarket and take what they want. They are first rate scavengers.
It’s strange, but they have no fear of people. They step out into the road and the traffic stops for them (often for minutes at a time) until they get safely to the other side. They go into shops, they blag food from passersby. You don’t believe me ? Look here.
I’ve got this thing about writing poems in answer to someone else’s poem. I was really pleased with the Robert Frost one I put up recently – in fact I was so smugly happy with it, I didn’t write a word for six weeks afterwards. I was starting to get that sinking feeling ( That’s it. You’re done. You will never write anything decent again…you’re old…you’re going funny…) I couldn’t find a way in. Anything I started looked dull, banal
When this happens ( and it does not infrequently) I look back at my recent stuff. Medieval saint- done that. Alan Bennett-ish jolly piece on sex orgy- done that.Why not write about the geese ? Done a piece on the lake and anyway, I’m knee deep in poems about geese.
And then I remembered a poem by Henry Reed which I’ve loved for years. It’s about his weapons training at the start of the second world war. He’s being lectured by a sergeant about the different parts of a rifle and at the same time, he’s looking through the window at the artless elegance of spring flowers.I couldn’t dream of matching that.
Then I remembered my new smartphone (Smart ? It’s stupid and small and neurotic and it hates me. It is surly and rude and cuts me off when I’m talking to people.) And I started to wonder onto paper.
I make no great claims for this. It’s not deep or profound.Your soul will not be touched. But maybe, hopefully, it will make you smile.
Henry Reed’s new smartphone
Today we have Making A Start. Yesterday
We had Taking It Out Of The Box and tomorrow
We shall have Disposal of Packaging.
But today we have Making A Start.
This is the ON button. It can be depressed
By the thumb. You can do it quite easily
If you have any strength in your thumb
So do not let me see any of you
Using their finger.
Leaves shiver and rustle
In all of the neighbouring gardens,
Never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.
This as you see is the keyboard.
It is small, as you can see.
If you are not too banana-fingered
You can ring up your friends at times
Inconvenient to them and exchange pleasantries.
R snd thm txts.
Outside the trees
Semaphore autumn to a fading sky.
It is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb,
Like the ring tone,the screen saver, the voice search,
The 500 minutes+free texts +all the data you can eat,
Which, in my case, I have not got.
Perhaps my thumb is weak.
Beyond the window, geese
Call to each other in the sooty dark.
By the way, if you want to look at the Reed poem, you can find it here:
This story is an orphan. It has never had a proper home, so, bearing in mind this is the 100th anniversary of the Great War, I’ve decided to put it up here.
It is one of a dozen streams which flow from the top of Crow Fell – run-off water which soaks into the layers of spongy peat, then deeper, insinuating itself into the cracked granites and basalts which make up the vertebrae of the Pennines. At first it is nothing more than a sheen of wetness, reaching under tumbled dry stone walls. But then it finds a crack in the land, a favourable slope. and it becomes a stream. At first it is no wider than a man’s stride and a few inches deep, but by the time it reaches the village it has become an apprentice river, with swirls and back-currents- a place of luminous shadows and splinters of reflected sunlight- and small brown trout.
Ken was behind the bar, polishing glasses.
“You’ll catch nothing this afternoon,” he said, “Why not try later ?”
“I’ll bring you a nice couple of brownies back, “ I said, “You can cook them for my supper.”
I turned right outside the Cricketers’ Arms and headed over the stone bridge. There was a promising patch of shadow under the willows on the right hand side. I would start there. Ken always belittled my chances of success when I set out , and feigned amazement when I brought a couple of trout back. It was the friendly, bantering relationship that only relative strangers can maintain .
There are times when everyone needs to stand on a riverbank and stare into running water. As I pushed my way through the willowherb on the bank, I thought smugly that Ken was wrong. A hot August afternoon is not a bad time to fish a small trout stream. Sunlight on the water masks incautious movement on the bank and the trout become lazy and careless.
I thrashed the water for half an hour, working the fly close under an overhanging bank. If there was a trout there, he was asleep. I decided to try further downstream.
Past the bridge, the river broadened out into a smooth procession of amber coloured water, thirty feet or so from bank to bank. My side of the river was pasture, with half a dozen black and white cows fifty yards behind me . Across the river was the village cricket field- a green oval with a wooden pavilion . I tried a couple of experimental casts, letting the fly float downstream past a couple of likely spots. I felt the tiniest pluck on the line, but struck too late. There was a fish there, though.
After a while there is only the river. It becomes the focus of every sense. Below the surface glitter you can see fronds of grey weed, streaming in the current, the angular shadows of jutting rocks, and tiny bubbles, rolling and tumbling, like faults in old glass. And all the time you feel the stretch of your shoulders as you cast and retrieve, cast and retrieve.
I do not know when I first became aware of the cricketers- some time in the late afternoon, I suppose, when the sun lay across my back like a weight. I remember looking up and seeing the two batsmen cross in the middle of the wicket, stealing a quick single. The patter of applause which followed sounded like rain on dry leaves.
I had no more bites that afternoon, though something made me carry on fishing for a while longer . But it became an automatic, mindless thing and I found my attention drawn more and more to the cricket match on the opposite bank.
There is something soothing about the ritual of cricket. I watched the bowler lumber into his run-up and the fielders close around the batsman like a fist. I saw the swing of his shoulders and heard the ‘plock’ of bat on ball a moment later. A leisurely single. More applause. Someone came out of the pavilion. I think he was wearing a striped blazer and carrying a tray of drinks, but I was too far away to be sure. A girl in a long dress was standing by herself on the far boundary. She waved and he walked towards her.
End of the over. The two batsmen met in the middle for a quick conference while the fielders changed over. One of them came walking across the field towards me. There was a grass stain on one leg of his cricket whites and an old school tie round his waist instead of a belt. He could not have been more than eighteen, though his close cropped fair hair made him look older.
“Hi there !”
I called across the stream and waved, but he turned away to watch the bowler as he started his run.
As the light thickened and the afternoon flowed into evening, I gave up all pretence of fishing and packed my rod away. I sat on the bank and watched the match.
It was a hard fought contest, full of slashing stroke play and dramatic catches. The fielders moved in and out with every ball, like a slow pulse, and the batsmen loped awkwardly between the wickets. Every alternate over the boy came back and took up his position on the opposite bank. There was something distant and preoccupied in his expression and I did not call to him again.
And then it happened. I heard a ‘thwack’ as the batsman hoisted an easy delivery high over the slips. I could see the ball, a black dot against the purple tinted sky, and the boy running backwards, arms outstretched for the catch. But it was too long. The ball flew across the river and landed with a thud in the grass beside me. Stooping I picked it up. Ten yards away the boy was facing me on the opposite bank. There was a look of puzzlement on his face, as though he was seeing me for the first time. I could hear clapping and a distant cheer in the dusk behind him. He raised one hand to his eyes, as though looking into a bright light.
I drew back my arm , threw the ball back across the dark water and heard it slap into his cupped hands. Another ragged cheer went up; the other players were running back to the pavilion, their white shirts flickering like moths in the twilight. The match was over.
The boy paused for a moment and lifted his hand in a kind of wave, then turned away into the gathering shadows.
“It was quite a match,” I said, “The last man in hit a marvellous six- it came right across the river. I had to throw it back to the lad who was fielding on the boundary.”
Ken looked up from the pint he was pulling.
There was no match today,” he said quietly, “Our next fixture is a fortnight away..”
I thought for a moment that he was joking, but then I saw a strange, almost guilty look on his face.
“But I watched it ! I sat on the bank and watched it right through to the end !”
Ken placed my pint carefully on the bar.
“It doesn’t happen often,” he said, in and odd, apologetic tone, “I’ve only know three other times in the twenty years I’ve been here. You have to be here on the right day, you see…”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about..”
“The anniversary,” said Ken, “Wait here.”
He went through into the back bar and returned a moment later with a framed picture under his arm.
“Look at this.”
It was one of those group photographs which hang on pub walls, ignored for years once the people in it have died. The glass was misted with tobacco smoke and the two figures on the far right had been bleached into pale shadows by the sunlight.
“Two cricket teams,” said Ken, with a hint of pride in his voice, “ This village and Lowton. There’s always a lot of rivalry between us. We often end up playing against each other in the Shield Final. This photograph was taken at the beginning of the last century…August 3rd 1914…”
He looked at me.
“The day before the First World War broke out…”
“it was a real cliffhanger by all accounts. They were five runs behind and the umpires were getting ready to draw stumps at the end of the over. We thought we’d got it made. Then on on the last ball, their lad hit a six across the stream….just like you saw. The following day both teams met up at the station and went into Leeds to enlist. They were all dead within a year…all of them.”
I stared at the photograph, trying to see in their bright, open faces some hint , some shadow of the horror which lay in wait for each one of them. Then I found him, standing at the back with arms folded, looking directly into the camera. His face had that same expression of puzzlement and uncertainty I had seen earlier.
“That one there,” I said, “He was fielding on the boundary. Who was he, I wonder ?”
“My great-uncle Bob,” said Ken, “My Grandad’s eldest brother.”
I left Crowfield the following morning. The weather had broken and thick grey cloud hunched over the hills. As I drove over the bridge the river was nothing more than a ribbon of blank space between two fields, without depth or life. By the time I had reached the top of the hill it had started to rain.
It’s quiet on the lake. There’s a touch of mist on the water, and up at the far end there are thirty seven Canada geese who have stopped off for a rest before heading down to the river in town. It’s warmer there.
But for now, they’re happy enough to huddle together, chattering in their jazz-saxophone voices.
Then I spot the ducklings. There are seven of them. They’re a late brood. I saw them for the 1st time on the 10th of September so they’re just about five weeks old. I didn’t think that they would survive for long- the heron is a regular visitor- but somehow they’ve only lost one. They’re quite big, almost fully grown, and te they are still swimming around in a gang, with the mother ploughing along behind. As soon as I take the bag of breadcrumbs out of my pocket, they reverse course and come charging up the bank.
And as soon as they’ve scrambled and bickered and eaten all the crumbs, then they scurry back to the water and head off for the middle of the lake, where it’s safer.
There’s something ridiculous about ducklings. They look like wind-up bathroom toys- and yet, they live dangerously. There’s always the heron waiting to pounce, and people say there are a couple of pike in the lake, and they’re looking for a few good meals before they sink down into the depths before winter comes.
Mist changes everything. It hides and discloses at the same time. I can’t see the end of the lake properly, and yet, suddenly, I’m surrounded by spider webs, hanging like exotic, delicate jewellry from the bushes. What I’m looking at here is an IDEA brought to fruition, it’s a killing machine, it’s a necklace.
There is something magical about any stretch of water. It ‘s never still, always changing. It throws you off balance. On a summer day you can stand on the edge and look down at the sky. It looks as though the world is a narrow crust dividing a blue universe. In the winter it ices over; you can always tell when it’s going to happen. There is a sharpness to the air and the ripples are just a little sluggish as the water thickens. The following morning the lake is flat and grey, the surface ridged with ripples, caught at the moment of freezing over.
This is my lake. It’s not big – almost exactly half a mile round- and it’s set in the middle of a residential area to the north of the city. It isn’t an old lake- in fact it’s entirely artificial. Seventy odd years ago an RAF airfield was built nearby, and they dug the hard-core and rubble for the runways out of the ground just here. You wouldn’t think it now. It’s surrounded by mature trees- sycamore and ash mainly, and lot of blackthorn, may and hawthorn. There’s a path all the way round it, and one stretch has been fenced off as a kind of nature reserve.
I look on it as my lake because it lies exactly 47 seconds from my front door.
It attracts all kinds of wildlife, including human beings – but I’ll leave them for the moment and tell you about the birds. We have as fine a selection of water fowl as you can get anywhere in Britain. Coots and moorhens stay all the year round. They look virtually identical, except that the coot has a white splash down its beak and the moorhen a red one. They are quite amazingly violent. Any visitor who gets too close is chased off with violent squeaking and splashing and wing beating.
We have ducks. Boy- do we have ducks. Mainly mallards, but ducks have interbred so much that I often find it hard to distinguish which particular species they are. If coots and moorhens are violent, ducks are obsessed with sex. From April onwards they start mating flights- a female leads two hopeful males on a test flight to see which one can keep up with her. They’re like jet fighters, swooping and turning until one peels away and the happy couple land somewhere, anywhere, often my front lawn, to consummate their relationship with quacks of ecstasy. It’s all very 18 certificate.
Then there are the regular citizens of the lake- the geese.
This is a greylag. This is the ancestor of the farmyard goose. They are intelligent, devoted parents and usually they mate for life. There are about thirty residents on our lake. Well- they’re not there all the time. They breed on the river in town, but they come up to the lake every day to chill out, have a preen, shoot the breeze.
But in early August, something amazing happens. Flocks of greylags descend on the lake in droves, greylag clans whiffle over your head, and then land, webs flat like water-skis, and slide to a halt in a creamy wake. I counted 221 this year. They don’t stay long. The call comes in the middle of September. You can tell what’s going to happen because they make the most ear-splitting racket, egging each other on, louder and louder until one hurls up into the air, and everyone else follows, family by family, clan by clan, until the air is full of joyous shouting, which grows fainter and fainter as they head north.
I don’t know where they go to. I only know that their departure is the end of summer.
This Place, The Right Place.
This is the second Staymore novel I have read and I’m both intrigued and bewildered. It follows the story of Diana, recently graduated from a top college, and Day, the teenage boy who channels Daniel Lyam Montross,( a local no-good who died years before). They run away together to visit the lost villages where Daniel had stayed eighty years previously.
Diana’s businessman father employs G, a washed up college lecturer, to find out what happened to them after the ending of the previous novel ( Lightning Bug.) Most of the story is told by G ( who is Donald Harington in every respect apart from his name.) He tracks the two runaways from one abandoned village to another, trying to tease out the reason for their long, and apparently pointless journey.
And that is just about the whole story. It’s packed with all kinds of literary references- Diana and Day as Adam and Eve trying to get back to Eden, Daniel Lyam Montrose as either God ( who is running the whole show) or the Devil ( I can’t make up my mind which)- and G the lecturer, allergic to everything except whisky, who is trying to make sense of it all.
“ This Place, The Right Place” is about all kinds of things – Arkansan dialect, village life, sex ( lots of sex) but more than that, this is a book about the nature of the novel. When you read a good novel, how real are the characters ? How real are the characters to each other ? Or the author ? Do we , each one of us, have a tangible reality, or are we all just a summary of how everyone else sees us ?
Is there a clearcut border between the writer and the people he creates ? Or do they create him?
This book, like the one before it, has a long literary ancestry. You can find Laurence Sterne here, James Joyce for wordplay, Dickens for intricate plotting, Chaucer for coarse humour and sex and Melville for mind boggling weirdness. Oh- and Pirandello for theatricality.
Did I enjoy it ? Well it all depends on what “it” is and who I am doesn’t it- there – you see -the damn thing is infectious.
It’s a great book. And I shall read it again sometime.
But not yet. I need something simple, like the telephone directory.
Lots of characters. Not much plot though. Never mind.