A souvenir of pre-Paget’s syndrome days and a trailer for the serialisation of The Fading Margin: an autobiography, due to begin here shortly.
I LAY IN THE FIELD IN BRITTANY with angels about my head and half a bottle of cider standing in the grass. The angels had blue wings and golden haloes and flew with their hands in an attitude of prayer. It was night, and a friendly glow came from the embers of the fire.
In the London shop an assistant had said: “The only smaller pillow you’d be likely to get would be in the nursery department, first floor.” The pillow was all right (“scientifically tried and tested to guard against accidents: Baby sleeps safe and sound with …”). But the pillowcases were terrible. The sales lady said: “Well, we usually do have plainer ones, but we just happen to be out of stock.”
It was the angels or nothing at all.
It was a 70-minute flight to Dinard. That I lingered neither there nor in St. Jacut longer than was necessary to buy food and wine is no slight upon either resort: pleasant they are and pleasant they were with the sun breaking through the rain clouds of the night and the waves curling gently over the wide sands; but I was eager for the open road. After a while I left it to rest at the edge of a field where the scent of purple clover was rivalled by that of honeysuckle. When I closed my eyes the two became one, ineffably sweet.
By noon the sun’s victory was complete; I sweated in cotton trousers and shirt and the straps of the rucksack bit into my shoulders. From lanes and tracks that ran above the coasts I descended to the foreshore where the tide was running out, took off my boots and splashed barefoot through cool puddles and salt streams that ran from the rock pools.
I might have walked for miles along that shore, but wished to cross a headland and so sought a way up the cliffs. “There are paths,” said a man who was digging for sandworms, “but they’re not easy to find.” I found one, scaled the rocks behind the sands and found a track through the bracken and the brambles. Scratched and dirty, I emerged at last in a field on the cliff top and sprawled on the dry grass, my back against the pack. What a reward was there! To the relief from labour, itself exquisite, was added a soft sea breeze, and there, beyond the green of the bracken and the yellow of the broom, was the blue of the Atlantic; the fleets of white clouds in line astern above it, the tiny white triangles of the sailing boats ranging far out upon it; the little islands, rock-fringed, stranded by the tide’s retreat.
Now from my pack I fetched out the bottle of Muscadet that I had bought cellar cool in Dinard and wrapped in my sleeping bag. Muscadet is a dry white wine of the Loire but now its taste is of that day overlooking that Brittany shore. Before I drank the first glass I made a libation. Before the last I made another; that they were accepted I cannot doubt, for when I took up the pack again its weight was significantly diminished and in spite of the miles behind me I strode the crowded beaches of St. Cast as if the sun had just risen. My goal was the high ground overlooking the Bay de la Frenaye, for I wanted to sleep near the sea; but in fields where new-bailed hay suggested an easy bivouac I was tempted to call an end to the march.
The decision, when it came, was hardly mine. In a hamlet almost overlooking the bay I stopped to fill my water bottle. A young woman came out of the cottage and offered me cider. Her husband appeared and took me into a shed where two glasses full were drawn from the wood. The husband’s father appeared and three glasses were drawn. A man who said he was a sailor joined us and the tap was turned again. It was, as the old man boasted at intervals, “Good cider! Very honest: not doctored in any way.”
By the time the sun had set we had moved from the shed to the kitchen of the old farmhouse and the party had grown to seven; a supply of milk, butter and eggs had been offered for the morning and a debate had begun as to where best I should spend the night. The loft, they suggested. The open air, I countered. A while before darkness fell I was escorted to a corner of a distant field. It was, they said, quite sheltered from the wind; if I heard noises in the night only the pigs on the other side of the hedge would be to blame.
But the night was quiet. When my hosts had gone I collected dead wood from the hedgerow and made a little fire. A bottle had been filled from the barrels in the shed and I had a last glass with the sausages that I had bought in Dinard. I did not sit up long. As I lay in my sleeping bag a very soft breeze touched my face and my head was framed by angels with golden haloes and blue wings.
I made it in April 2009 from the case that had held one of the most munificent presents that I have ever been given; a dozen Château Gruaud-Larose ’85.
Gruaud-Larose is a red wine from the St. Julien appellation of the Médoc region of Bordeaux, a “second growth” so consistently excellent that a man might wonder what heaven a first growth could be intended for. 1985 was a particularly good year for all French wines and this was superb. It would have remained so for far longer than the wind farm scam will continue to flourish or the likely political life of Nick Clegg, but by the time I came to be looking for carpentry materials it had all been drunk. In the bird box, I thought, it would at least have some sort of a memorial.
I conceived it with the affection that I have for almost all birds except vultures and city pigeons, and for small birds in particular. At my grammar school I never progressed beyond sawing and planing and at my military-minded boarding school there was no handicraft instruction at all, but I gave the job my limited best. Ornithological authorities were consulted as regards dimensions. Screws rather than nails were used and no potentially harmful protrusions were permitted either outside or in. The entrance hole was large enough for all garden birds except starlings. There was strength where strength was required (we are vulnerable to prevailing, and sometimes ferocious westerlies here on the lower slopes of the Sussex Downs), symmetry where symmetry seemed advisable or advantageous and taste throughout.
In short, I crafted it, aiming somewhere well short of godwottery but less utilitarian than anything offered at B & Q: something between Enid Blyton and the library’s Carpentry from A to Z. For a nicely calculated rusticity the vestigial G and R of the Gruaud Larose on the roof were concealed by short lengths of well weathered bean pole, a finish so authentic that even with the highest possible degree of magnification the artifice would not be detectable on Google Earth. Thinking about the habits of nuthatches and stumped for a non-toxic wood dye, I at last imaginatively hit upon half a bottle of superannuated soy sauce.
Never think that God’s delays are God’s denials. Hold on; hold fast. Patience is genius, said the philosopher, Buffon. It would have been foolish to have expected an avian stampede to a so newly contrived nesting site., and for the rest of that spring after positioning it on a post beside a hedge at the end of the lawn I was content simply to speculate as to whether robin, wren, blue tit or sparrow would be the first to take possession in 2010. When May of that year was half gone without any sign of interest being shown by a feathered friend of any kind I gave philosophy another whirl. All human wisdom is summed up in two words: wait and hope, said Alexandre Dumas. It was a dictum that carried me well past lilac time and a spot of bother that underlined the undesirability of visiting A & E in the early hours of a Sunday after a night when lusty lads and lasses fuelled by the blushful supermarket Hippocrene or dry cider laced with vodka have caroused from dark ‘til dawn through the centre of Brighton and woe betide anyone who gets in their way. But again, for all the notice my diary took of it last year the bird box might never have existed. Then on Monday everything changed.
Sitting at the computer, searching for a mot juste, I was looking out of my cabin window for inspiration when a sudden movement at the edge of my vision caught my eye. The top of the post on which the bird box is mounted is crowned with a piece of packing case larger than the base of the box itself. On the ledge thus provided a blue tit had alighted and with little jerky shifts of the head, up and down, tilted to the right, tilted to the left, was shrewdly considering its options; it was a process that seemed to take for ever while I hardly dared breathe. Then at last the bird was clinging to the rim of the entrance hole. Then had disappeared inside. In a moment it appeared again and perched on the overhang of the roof while a second bird, just flown in, imitated its behaviour. It was an occasion worth capturing and I got up to fetch my camera. Less than three minutes later, when I was ready to shoot, the blue tits had gone, never to be seen again.
A disappointed suitor could scarcely be more miserable than this writer. I had been called on but not chosen; tried, but found wanting. Pride was devastated, self-confidence shattered. What could be the reason for my rejection? Given the numerous requirements for an acceptable bird box, and in spite of all my efforts, it was obvious that I had conspicuously failed in every respect
At a right angle to the hedge at the end of the lawn, meeting it no more than a few yards from where the bird box stands, but just out of sight from my cabin window, is my neighbour’s garden wall, a substantial affair of Sussex stone. On Friday, bent on a critical examination of the box and necessarily moving from the cabin further than I normally need to go, I was greatly surprised by the sight of Sinbad, my neighbour’s moggy, installed where I had never seen it dare to venture before on the broad coping of the wall.
I am not a dyed-in-the-wool adversary of Felis catus, but no lover of it either. For every amiable Mittens, Moppet or Mrs Tabitha Twitchit, collared and belled, petted and pampered with GoCat and Whiskas, there are a thousand domestic relations in whom beat the feral heart of the primordial predator of field and forest, red in tooth and claw. No doubt sensing antipathy, Sinbad is usually careful to avoid me. Now, with blatant effrontery, contemptuous of my presence, he was curled up in the sun, facing the abandoned bird box and within a purposeful spring of it. Watching. Waiting.
And now antipathy turned to implaccable enmity. Now I understood.
JOIN ME IN A GREAT ADVENTURE. On Wednesday I braved the steep track behind my house and walked up onto the Downs.
Early last year, rain or shine, I was walking there almost every day; three miles, five miles, now and then ten or more. Then the implacable forces of Wear and Tear opened hostilities. Little by little the occasional twinges that I had erroneously supposed to be the legacy of old skiing incompetence became my almost constant companions, at first merely unwelcome, then troublesome, intimidating, so that less demanding excursions became my exercise default mode.
Then came the X-ray report: ‘…marked loss of disc height, prominent anterior marginal osteophytes and facet joint sclerosis most severe at the lower three lumbar levels’…. Paget’s syndrome … luceny and coarsening of the trabecular pattern in the right hemipelvis ….thickening of the illiopectal line.
You might be forgiven for thinking that such a diagnosis would be enough not only to stop a man laughing in church but to deter him from ever again so much as twiddling his toes. Here in Sussex we are made of sterner stuff. What it did, nevertheless, was to limit my walks to the Seaford promenade where there are benches which, though not specifically reserved for the victims of prominent anterior osteophytes or thickening of the illiopectal line, might fairly be described as what the doctor ordered, and for dodgy facet joints a comfort beyond price.
All my adult life I have striven to make the most of my modest five feet seven and a half inches (taller than Napoleon and Genghis Khan) and at this advanced stage to suffer a marked loss of disc height was a cruel psychological setback. Facet joint sclerosis at the lumbar levels was nothing short of a blow below the belt. Gritting the teeth, muttering the sort of mantras that made the British Empire great (Bear through life like a torch in flame —Play up! play up! and play the game!), I have risen above the indisputable and carried on. There are countless conditions graver than luceny and coarsening of the trabecular pattern, and millions are obliged to endure them. “The great affair is to move”, said Robert Louis Stevenson, and every day I thank whatever gods there be that move I can. Also, although the Seaford waterfront may offer no competition to your Costa Brava or your Côte d’Azur, to be within a pebble’s throw of the English Channel and the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry is boundlessly uplifting; the lungs filled with the smogless air, the head with wishful fantasies born of Stevenson’s Vagabond and Housman’s blue remembered hills. But I have sorely missed the Downs.
Wednesday dawned with only the smoke stack of the eco-friendly Newhaven incinerator belching picturesquely above the mist in the valley. A cloudless sky and a mounting temperature were evidently to come. Greatly daring, before high noon I had broken the bonds of prudence and Bonningstedt Promenade and was on my way up the hill.
How tentatively I went to begin with; how tenderly testing the anterior osteophytes and the facet joints. Oh, the blessing of my walking poles. But what a reward was there. How reassuring to be able to climb the padlocked 5-bar gate with a hey nonny nonny and scarcely an admonitory twinge. How good to have the old chalk grassland instead of the County Council’s concrete underfoot. How pleasing to rest the hemipelvis upon familiar stiles and lift ambitious eyes beyond the immediate goal of Page’s New Barn (built in the year that Victoria ascended the throne) to the far ridge overlooking the Weald.
There was no obvious swelling of ash or hawthorn buds, none but winter colour in the landscape, no thickening in the woods; but in the rookery was a noisy congregation of birds at last year’s nests. The hedgerows were still bare except for the bright gold of lichen on the blackthorn, yet wild plum blossom, white as new snow, confirmed beyond a doubt that another spring had arrived.
WHERE ARE THEY? In Seaford, Pearl of the Sussex Shores (twinned with Bönningstedt, Schleswig Holstein) it is the question of the hour.
Huddled on memorial benches along the promenade, (“For Stan and Muriel Hatcher, who loved this view”), sipping their tea from polystyrene cups, savouring their picnics in the front seats of their family saloons, gazing seawards, senior citizens are asking the question. Convening on the pavement outside the Crown Inn, taking time off from the texting of illiterate trivialities or the trashing of bus shelters, stalwart young men and maidens are seeking news. Where are the kittiwakes that ought by now to be noisily congregating at Seaford Head?
‘Gentle looking, medium-sized with a small yellow bill, short black legs and a dark eye’, says the encyclopaedia concerning Rissa tridactyla. ‘Strictly a coastal gull, feeding off fish, shrimps and worms. Not a scavenger’.
Not your great lout of a bird, then, like Larus argentatus, the Herring Gull, an omnivorous scrounger more familiar with the municipal midden than with the briny. Consider the kittiwake’s dark of eye. Not forever agleam with the main chance, the anticipated pleasure of bombing the newly polished car or the washing on the line. Thoughtful. Serious. Too preoccupied with the never-ending battle for survival than to have time for urban deliquencies.
Seaford Head marks the eastern extremity of this ancient Cinque Port town, where the southern border of the South Downs is interrupted by the wide valley of the River Ouse. Here, where the bare chalk plunges 500 feet from the downland turf to the pebble beach, on this sheer cliff exposed to every westerly wind that blows, the kittiwake, short of leg but noble in courage, contrives to build a nest and raise a brood of one or two where an injudicious fidget by an unfledged chick could preface a plunge to oblivion.
Nesting season is from springtime to midsummer; months when the noise of even the roughest of breaking waves is worsted by that of the maelstrom of kittiwakes spinning, soaring, diving in a seemingly aimless exhibition of aerobatics that brings visitors from far and near and is signposted by the RSPB. Before the autumn leaves fall and Seaford is at peace again save for the sirens of police cars called to yet another traditional southern counties cash point robbery, the entire colony of this most singular of gulls will have disappeared for another year.
But where are they now?
All at sea is the authoritative answer. ‘During the winter the species is highly pelagic, usually remaining on the wing out of sight of land’, says the encyclopaedia. Pelagic: there’s a word! ‘Pertaining to the open ocean’, says my dictionary. With its annual business done, there is no hanging about with the common herd —or flock—of gulls outside the pubs and takeaways of Seaford, eager for discarded tacos or the sweepings of barbecue-flavoured potato crisps. Come September, Rissa tridactyla is on black-tipped wing to the open Atlantic, which is said often to emit a mysterious glow and where, in unexplored depths, life may have evolved 3 billion years before life on land. No wonder the kittiwake has a dark and thoughtful eye. There, subsisting on whatever marine and planktonic invertebrates swim into its ken, it sees out the furious winter’s rages, waiting for the migratory urge which, as irresistible as the swallows’ return to Capistrano, sends it landwards once again.
When will they arrive is the question of the moment. Primroses may already be in bloom in our more sheltered places, but this, we fear, is merely another sign of global warming. Only when unseasonable snow is disrupting traffic on the Brighton to Victoria line and the kittiwakes are once more swirling about Seaford Head will we know for sure that spring has come.
I know how this piece begins but it’s anyone’s guess how it will end. It begins with the realisation that nothing is worth doing and nothing matters. Nothing. Not eating or drinking or washing or shaving. Not hearing from or talking to anyone. Not reading or writing or going anywhere. Not looking to see if the post has come or turning on the computer to find out if there are any new emails. Not bothering about the weather forecast or thinking about a walk. One goes through the motions of everyday existence —taking a shower or getting dressed—only because it is easier and less uncomfortable to do so than to make the decision to abstain.
When I was a very young man I used to call it my “futility feeling”. It is not full-blown Weltschmerz or accidie, as I understand those afflictions, but comes precious close to them. So far as I am aware, Winston Churchill left no analysis of the recurrent malady which with typical flourish he called his ‘Black Dog’, but I have the impression that my own condition must be very like it. Which is comforting, in a way. If one of the greatest men who ever lived was powerless to avoid such wretchedness, what possible chance has a toad beneath the harrow such as I of being immune?
I am not talking about clinical depression, a frightening disorder that can lay waste entire lives and compared with which Churchill’s Black Dog was a trivial inconvenience. Nor about melancholia —literally ‘black bile’— which from Edgar Allen Poe to Sylvia Plath (and not forgetting Van Gogh’s ear) has plagued celebrities without number and from Shakespeare to Schopenhauer inspired whole libraries of literature. Clinical depression may respond to medication. ‘Futility’ precludes even so much as a visit to the G.P.
So far as I know, Churchill never publicly disclosed a therapy for his attacks of Black Dog, but I think I know what it must have been. “To have the management of the mind is a great art”, said Dr.Johnson. Churchill stopped trying to think and did physical things. With the assistance of a local bricklayer, he built a playhouse for his daughter, Mary, at Chartwell, and a garden wall for his wife, Clementine. He dug a ha-ha. He dammed a stream to create ornamental pools. Action is the cure. Almost any action so long as it is physical, time-consuming and fatiguing. Pulling all the books from your shelves and rearranging them. Emptying the kitchen cupboards, cleaning and restocking them. Clearing out the garage and taking all unwanted items to the tip.
Action being in this case wholly at odds with the condition to be remedied, a supreme effort of will may be required to start the process of rehabilitation. C’est le premier pas qui coute is the watchword. (To move a mountain, pick up the first stone). Fetch the stepladder to reach the highest bookshelf or kitchen cupboard. Place the dusters and other cleaning materials at hand. Take out the first book or moulding jar of time-expired strawberry jam. Then another, and another. Keep on keeping on until you are too tired to shift so much as a paperback, throw out third tin of solidified emulsion paint or bin the seventh rusting can of what might be anything from baked beans to bouillon but can’t be identified or dated because the paper wrapping has rotted away.
Then pause. All at once you find you fancy a glass of hearty red wine or cold beer, or a mug of tea. And you do care which. All of a sudden you want to know the figures for yesterday’s Footsie or learn how the Opposition performed at PMQT. Out of the blue you decide to read William Manchester’s The Caged Lion again and think it would be really good to have Michael and Amanda over for a drink.
I can’t be sure that my “futility” is the same genus of visitation as Churchill’s Black Dog, but the antidote is identical to that which he so succinctly and specifically spelt out for such times of lost heart.
KEEP BUGGERING ON.