bravery

‘You’re brave’, the dog walkers call out, seeing me swimming in the river on winter mornings.  I smile and wave.  It is difficult having a conversation with somebody on the bank from the middle of a cold river, but if I could catch my breath, I would say, ‘this is not brave; it’s cold, invigorating even, but not brave.  Besides, I want to do it.  It makes me feel good and able to face another day’s writing. It’s a means to an end, but brave; no, I don’t think so.  

Bravery is a moral quality.  Psychotherapist Dr Coline Covington, who spoke at a meeting of Sheffield’s Hallam Institute of Psychotherapy last weekend, said it was more about standing out from the crowd and doing something you may fear but you know is right.  

The day before Armistice Day was an appropriate time to be thinking about bravery.  The guns fell silent on the western front a hundred years ago.  Many of us have been remembering relatives who lost their lives in 20th century wars and saying how brave they were.  Millions of men volunteered to fight for their country, not just because it was a great adventure, but because it was their duty.  My father flew Hurricanes for the RAF.  A man, who, like the Prince of Wales, raised self deprecation to an art form, he nevertheless told me that when he and his friends were training to be pilots, they were informed that only 1 in 9 would survive.  None of them pulled out. 

Dr Covington talked about bravery as being true to oneself.  But how do we know what being true to oneself means?   Most of us get our moral compass from our parents.  Through instruction and example they show us how to be, or perhaps more appropriately how not to be.   ‘No’ is the most important word we ever hear.  So being true to ourselves means being true to the values inculcated in us by our parents early in life, which we subsequently identified with as our own.  A parent with strong moral principles will instil those into us. These then become the standards we endeavour to live up to, but inevitably fall short.  When my father had crashed his aircraft in Scotland and was fighting for his life, his father sent this telegram, ‘Chin up as always, Bummer!’   

My father and millions of other men, who signed up to fight in first and second world wars, were undoubtedly brave.  They did what they felt was their duty, they helped to defend their families and country in a time of adversity and were true to the principles they had internalised from proud and patriotic parents. 

This was the moral code I inherited from my father, who was a hero despite crashing on a training flight in Orkney and never engaging in conflict.  The same ethos was reinforced by being sent to a ‘good public school’, where like other similarly idealistic school friends, I joined the Combined Cadet Force, Britain’s last hope.  I learnt a little of what it was like to be a soldier: the endless drill, the polishing of brass buckles and badges, how to get a shine on your toe caps you could see your face in. I also learnt how to strip down the engine of a three ton truck, maintain my ex WW1 .303 calibre Lee Enfield rifle using a pull through and a piece of 4 by 2.  I fired a rocket launcher and sped across Salisbury plain in a Churchill tank.  I went on route marches, which as platoon commander I subverted to nature rambles through the Derbyshire countryside.  I led mock commando nocturnal assaults on ‘enemy positions’ in remote woodlands.  But all of that was just playing at soldiers.  It wasn’t the real thing. 

I needed that frisson of danger.  So I took up rock climbing in North Wales, was terrified, even fell off on a VS climb with the forbidding name of Ivy Sepulchre, but forced myself to climb it again.  I applied for and was awarded an RAF flying scholarship.  In my first cross country solo flight, I got lost in low cloud over Dartmoor and only found my way back by flying 200 feet above the main road to Exeter.  On another occasion, I practiced stalling the aircraft but put it into a spin – the fields rotating in front of me as I dived towards them, but I remembered just in time how to apply full opposite rudder and restore level flight.  Knowing what to do saved me from panic and disaster.  Was all of this brave or was it just doing what was expected of me, proving myself to be worthy of my father’s bravery?  Even when their marriage was coming apart, my mother conceded, ‘your father was a brave man’.  

No doubt all this boy’s own adventure stuff required a kind of courage, a drive to test myself and risk disaster, but it is not the moral courage that Covington was describing.  The soldiers, who obeyed orders and walked through No Mans Land while being raked by machine guns, were incredibly brave but must have felt they had no choice.  It was their duty.  Besides all their mates were doing the same thing; they could not be seen to be cowards.  But the conscientious objectors were also brave; they also stood up for what they believed was right and faced almost certain death by firing squad. The difference lay in the values they embodied: ‘thou shalt defend thy country’ or ‘thou should not kill’.  I remember hearing an interview in which Tony Benn, who resigned his hereditary peerage to campaign for social justice, said how his father instructed him to ‘dare to be a Jonah, dare to stand alone’. Identification with the principles, instilled in us by our parents or teachers, gives us the moral compass that determines our character.

So should we stick to what we believe to be right even when it means betraying one’s friends, society or country?  This challenges our notion of selfhood.  For most people, their notion of ‘who they are’ is constructed with reference to friends, family, community and society at large. So, when faced with a moral dilemma, their duty or need to belong may be stronger than their own convictions.  Covington told the story of a young woman, who was part of a partisan group fleeing the enemy in the forests.  Her baby, just a few weeks old, started crying.  She didn’t hesitate, she took it to the stream and held its head under the water until it was dead.  Was her action brave or an act of cowardice or did she have no choice?  In extremis, people do what they feel they have to do.  

Courage can be an act of moral self defence.  The anorexic defends their independence at the risk of physical survival – she or he is on hunger strike.  Similarly, the freedom fighter risks their life for a cause.  To abandon what we know is right because we are frightened of disapproval, loss or physical danger, or because it is best for our family, may leave us feeling we have let ourselves down. If we do the right thing, we might lose social support for a while or we may even risk our livelihood, but if we don’t do it, the shame and the guilt may haunt us for the rest of our lives.  The problem with being brought up with strong moral principles is that the challenges to live up to them can seem more conflicted and extreme and the burden of shame or guilt after the inevitable moral failure deeper.  It’s not so much what we did that continues to afflict us, it’s what we didn’t do. Soldiers, who survived when their comrades were killed, or holocaust survivors often express a deep sense of guilt.  

Our sense of morality is determined by the ethos of society and it changes with time. I wonder, therefore, whether the concept of bravery still has the same resonance.  One hundred years after ‘the war to end all wars’, do young people still embody the kind of death or glory courage of their great-grandparent’s generation.  Or is contemporary bravery more about being prepared to campaign for social justice, protection of the environment, demilitarisation or liberal principles?  Is it about expressing opinions that may not gain the approval of their Facebook friends?  As ever, their moral compass, as set at least initially by their parents, may encompass ideas of work, financial integrity and self actuation, all of which serve the individual rather than society.  Young people are too aware of the futility of foreign wars to volunteer as they did a hundred years ago.   No less brave when it matters, but more realistic.  

But those of us brought up in the shadow of war may still require some a gesture of valiance.  No – swimming in cold rivers is not bravery, but the ritual morning survival may feel a bit like it …. until the next time.       

Advertisements

speed awarenessOh dear; going too fast again!  This afternoon I attended another speed awareness course; this time in a plush hotel on the Chesterfield by-pass.  This is the third such course I have attended; each time for the same reason, going at 37mph on the identical stretch of 30mph dual carriageway just off the Leeds ring road going towards Headingly.  I was fed up, a mixture of shame and frustration.  Four hours seemed a very long time to have my wrist slapped.  Didn’t they know I had a book to write?   

There were about 10 sad looking people waiting in reception when I arrived.  Are you coming to join the naughty boys club?, somebody asked, but it wasn’t just boys; there were as many girls there. But it was rather like being caught for doing something wrong at school.  The two instructors, Keith and Steven, who were somewhere between a comedy duo and primary school teachers, laboured their points. Surely there was only a limited number of times they needed to tell us that National Speed Limit for a single carriage road was 60mph and it was the presence of regular street lights that defined a built up area.  That is except when neither applied, like when these were overridden by repeater signs indicating 20mph, 40mph, 50mph or on dual carriageways and motorways where the speed limit for cars was 70mph.  Of course, if you happen to be towing a trailer, driving a bus or a van, it was different.  Heavy lorries were more restricted, particularly in Scotland.  But speed limits are the fastest you can legally go.  In practice, motorists have to drive at the speed of the road and also use their judgement, depending on traffic and weather conditions. So they should slow down when the view ahead is obstructed by a parked traffic, a sharp bend or the brow of a hill. That’s all very well when the speed of the road is slower than the speed limit, but when it’s a lot faster like on the dual carriageway where I was caught, going at the speed of the road is no excuse.  After two hours of this, I began to lose the will to live.  

Don’t get me wrong;  I do understand the seriousness of speeding;  I realise my frustration might reflect a degree of disavowal – it’s not me guv’ner; it’s the councils who set the limits.  It was all beginning to sound like they just make it all up as they go along (just below the speed limit), when Keith pointed out that the system reacts to the number KSIs on that particular stretch of road.  KSI stands for Killed or Seriously Injured.  When there has been one such incident, they lower the speed limit.  When three such incidents occur, they put a camera up.  Five people are killed on our roads every day, though the rate used to be a lot more.  Suddenly it seemed a good idea, but drivers who are out on the roads all the time know where all the cameras are and frequently break the speed limit without getting caught. Looking around the room, I estimated that about 75% of us were over 60 and part time drivers, and none were speedy Gonzalez.  In fact, we had all been caught for doing 34 to 37mph in a built up area; any faster and we would have had an automatic 5 points on our licences.    

I was rather relieved that they didn’t show videos of children being hit by cars this time.  Instead they made the point about the lethal effect of speeding by a demonstration showing that when you are just a few miles per hour over the limit, both the stopping distance and the speed at impact increase exponentially.  At the point at which a car will stop when going at 30mph, just an extra 5mph will increase the speed at impact by 17mph. And travelling at 100mph will increase impact speed by 71mph and braking distance by over 200 yards. 

We spent a lot of time talking about psychology of speeding.  Did people drive too fast because they were frustrated, were short of time, or because they were distracted?   Children in the back seat and mobile phones are the commonest reasons for distraction.  Then we were asked what we would do differently to avoid getting caught speeding again.  Some said they would update their SatNav so that they would know where all the cameras were, but as Richard pointed out, SatNavs are not reliable and are no excuse.  I thought I could allow plenty of time so I could chill and focus.  Also, I could avoid driving when I am too tired and not get distracted by listening to the Radio 4. Keith had one good tip, always drive in third gear through a 30mph area.  Modern cars will have use any more fuel and the engine noise will feel much more comfortable at 30.  

Speeding does not actually get you to your destination much shorter.  If you go at 80mph instead of 70mph along a completely empty motorway, you will only get there 10 minutes earlier.  And if you go at 35mph through a town, the time saved will be seconds.  When I remember, I set the cruise control, but it does mean that I cruise up behind people a little faster than usual.  

Although I was relieved to get to the end of four hours, but I did feel I had learnt something. I would be much more aware of motor cycles. Only 1% of vehicles on the road are motorcycles, yet they include 18% of fatalities, most not the fault of the cyclist but of the car that does’t see them – often because modern cars have been so strengthened that the blind spots are much larger.  I would also try not to get frustrated with cyclists on hilly Derbyshire roads.  The highway code even recommends that cyclists ride two abreast so that cars have to slow down to pass them.  But what if bikes break the speed limit?  Do the same laws apply?  

apocalypse-snow-end-of-the-world-is-nigh-as-snow-on-italian-beach-fulfils-prophecy-by-italys-nostradamus-136413594068803901-170112133733

Sea levels will continue to rise, Homes will be flooded. Weather will be more extreme with droughts, floods and hurricanes.  There will be shortages of food and widespread famine. There will be epidemics of disease, mass migration, civil unrest, war. People will suffer a loss of livelihood and liberty. There will be a complete breakdown of civilisation. Predictions of the effects of climate change are apocalyptic.  It seems that ‘the end of the world is nigh’, but is calamity that imminent or are our media outlets too short of money and too high on catastrophe and ‘fake news’.     

It does not seem to me so long ago that our then prime minister, The Right Honorable Mr Harold MacMillan, The Westminster Walrus, told us that we had never had it so good.  He was right.  The sixties were a time of optimism and freedom when everything seemed possible and few were aware of a warming planet.  Public optimism has been going downhill ever since.   

50 years on, we may have not quite have reached the point when governments must step in with radical solutions, but we have perhaps reached a critical stage of awareness.  If patterns of extreme weather continue and begin to impact on our way of life, we will all be spending more of our income on essentials like housing and food and less on holidays and entertainment. Cheap flights will disappear.  We may have to give up our car and get a bike.  Many of our individual freedoms will be curtailed or become very expensive. Our diet will become less diverse as imported food will cost more.  The attempts we may all have to make to avert or mitigate the most catastrophic losses, will threaten our aspiration, culture and identity and involve the loss of our accustomed lifestyle.

Nevertheless, many will respond to such doom-laden predictions with indifference, apathy or cynicism.  Increased awareness of climate change has not yet translated into appropriate concern and action.  How can we think about it without either going into denial or sinking into depression and inertia?  At a recent meeting of The Sheffield Psychoanalytical Journal Club, my friend and fellow therapist Stephanie Howlett presented for discussion a paper on ‘Loss and Climate Change’ by psychoanalytical psychotherapist, Rosemary Randall, director of Cambridge Carbon Footprint. 

Climate change is like getting old or facing a terminal illness; it’s a loss that is bound to happen. Life, of course, is a terminal illness, but we only become aware of that when we approach the end and can experience the symptoms of decline.  So we might gain some insight into how to cope with climate change by thinking about how elderly people cope with their impending demise.  But climate change is not just something that’s facing the elderly, it is something that affects the young as well.  And the elderly among us may never experience the changes that will affect our children or grandchildren; the major effects of climate change on food supply and population dynamics may not occur for another 20 years.  So is the fear of climate change something that affects the young more because they will experience the worst effects or does it predominantly affect the old because they are already aware of the end of their own lives?  Young people often regard themselves as immortal; death only happens to their grandparents.    

So how are people dealing with the reality of climate change?   Some, like Donald Trump, deny it is happening.  They regard it as fake news, exaggerated by a sensationalist media, but isn’t that itself an assault on truth?  More acknowledge the reality of climate change, but disavow its seriousness. Disavowal means you don’t have to face the anxiety; it is happening elsewhere.  The present continues to feel safe but fear is split off and projected into the future; on the one hand,  false comfort; on the other, nightmare.  If we can manage to stop catastrophising the future and wrapping the present in cotton wool, we may diminish both extremes and make loss manageable for our children and grandchildren.  

Others may accept the reality of climate change, but blame others; the Americans or the Chinese or those with expensive cars and life styles, all the while maintaining their own way of life. It’s the same with Brexit: the government are hopeless and the EU vindictive.  Ministers downplay the seriousness of the situation and affect an attitude of control; they have to, otherwise they would never be re-elected.  In psychoanalytical terms, both are examples of collective splitting and projection.

Even if we full acknowledge climate change, we all have to find our own way of dealing with that reality if we are to avoid sinking into hopelessness and depression.  Some may adopt a manic defence.  ‘I’m alright Jack: I can have a good life in New Zealand or Scandinavia. I am not going to let it affect me’. Or ‘ok I know it’s going to happen, but I will make the most of the time left to me’.  The broadcaster, Clive James, has been dying for years but in the meantime has managed to write some of his best poetry.  In The Story of San Michele, the Swedish doctor, Axel Munthe observed that during the devastating cholera epidemic in Naples, people took to making love, often with complete strangers – on park benches, in fountains, anywhere – as if in a frantic bid to find life in the midst of death. 

Although we may wish to accept what is happening and engage with it in a positive sense, most of us will probably protect ourselves by banishing it from our minds and not thinking about it until something forces us to. Death is going to happen but not yet.  Continual fretting about the impending loss can only lead to depression and inertia – the less you can do, the more loss you suffer. But when loss remains unspoken, then change and adjustment cannot follow.  A better understanding of the nature of the loss might allow it to be brought back into public discourse and for people to feel a sense of agency.  God-fearing members of religious communities may regard death a necessary sacrifice to assure everlasting life in Paradise.  Our current secular society does not have such comforting delusions.  

But is climate change something we can engage with?  Or is it, like a terminal illness, an overwhelming inevitability.  Engagement means facing up to our own destructiveness.  Mother Earth is both our breast and our toilet and we are destroying both by compromising food supply and polluting the planet.  Can we ever assuage our personal sense of guilt by getting a bike, not going on long haul flights and installing solar panels?  Maybe not, but by engaging, it may feel good to be part of a solution, however futile.

Loss, even anticipated loss, involves a gradual withdrawal of energy from the loved object. Grief is a process of adjustment and acceptance, always in progress, two steps forward, one step back, never complete.  When a loved one dies, life can never be the same again, but meaning can be restored and it may even become possible to flourish.  With climate change, it’s our world that must end. How can we ever get our minds around that?  Denial and disavowal may be part of an ongoing process that may allow that painful reality to be assimilated. Many of us may accept the idea of climate change intellectually but moving from there to the reality of a lived emotional experience and acceptance of its irreversibility may not be possible. 

Perhaps we should all join the Green Party and campaign for radical solutions?  Collective action can make people feel so much better when they are in the jaws of calamity. Sharing the enormity of the problem might paradoxically garner enough  support to make life tolerable if not enjoyable. During the dark days of 1940, Winston Churchill did not attempt to hide the stark reality of Britain’s situation and was able to appeal to a spirit of resilience in the British people.  Hope, however futile, can always stave off feelings of despair and the ensuing inertia.  But does the same communal sense of purpose still exist in our current narcissistic society, where every man and every woman are for themselves and posting it all on Facebook. It is likely that most will only engage when endgame is upon them, but that will only be to turn to religion. 

IMG_5556

Thank you for seeing me, your holiness, I know what a busy person you are after more than 1400 years of trying to clear your name, but  I hope you don’t mind me asking you a few questions.  The thing is, there’s a few things I just don’t quite get, and I wonder if you can help me. 

Sure t’ing. Oi’ll do what Oi can for you. And who knows, it might even help me a tad or two. 

Aw, thanks, your saintliness.  Now wait a minute, let me just find my note book.  And I’ve got a pen in here somewhere.  OK, here were are.  Now, what I don’t understand is, with you being such an important saint and all that and doing all those great things, is how you got away with it.  

Oi’m nod at all sure what you mean boi dat.   

No, no, I’m sorry, your sanctimoniousness. I didn’t mean to offend. I can be a bit clumsy at times.  So let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  I’ll start at the beginning.  You left your home in Ireland or was it called Scotland at that time?  It’s all very confusing.  Anyway, you left your home under a bit of a cloud if you don’t mind me saying so.  And I’m not just talking about the weather – though it can be a bit rough in The North Channel especially when your boat is just a basket covered in skin. Could you not fly, you being an angel and all that?  Or have I misrepresented your saintly powers?  Sorry, your beatitude, I’m going off track.  But it was awesome how you and twelve others crossed over the North Channel in what was little more than a bathtub covered in skin. it sounds like Bonnie Prince Charlie without a sail or a prayer, but I dare say you had lots of prayers. No, what I wanted to know is how you caused so much hell back in the home country that you had to get out.  After all, you were a Bishop and a grandson of Kings.  

Oi know, Oi know. But you do go on something chronic. De fact is d’ basterds had it in for me.  Oi guess dey were jealous.  But you know, I never really left.  Back den, it was the same country on eider side.  De islands to the west o’ Pictland were a kind of colony.  Dere were loads of us up dere.  Besides, Oi didn’t stay on Kintyre. Oi just planted me footsteps – for de tourists, don’t y’know.  Then Oi had a drink at de holy well and sailed off up de coast to Iona – where I couldn’t see de old country an’ get homesick   

But the indictment was you infringed copyright law.  Now why would you want to do that?.  And why was it such a serious offence they threatened to excommunicate you. 

Well, you need to understand; we never had xeroxes back den.  De bastards asked me to copy dis enormous document, covered in letters in all different colours, wid pictures all down de soide.   It took me de best part of haf a year in doese freezin’ cloisters.  Dey’d promised me a great fat fee, but when it was all done, dey didn’t give me a bean. Well, Oi was so pissed off, Oi pinched it – so Oi did.  Serves dem roit.  But how was Oi to know it would start a war.  It was moi uncle; he’s a gran’ fierce man.  An de O’Neills look after der own.  But den dat bastard King Diamairt, no more than a jumped up swoine herd, so he is, moirdered de Prince moi cousin, who was recovering from a sports injury.  An’ in moi own church, moind you. Anyway dey framed me; so Oi had to get out pretty damn quick.  But Oi was innocent, so Oi was.  Oi never did it, so help me God.  An’ didn’t yer man make me a saint just loik St Paddy before me, who, by de way, was also no angel eider?  Well, no one was.  It was a case of dog eat dog back den .  

But, you’re a holy man, your honour.  What are you doing meddling in wars and politics?  Not even Rowan Williams did that.  Shouldn’t you leave it to the military. 

Oi feel bad about all de people dat got killed. Dat’s why oi thought oi should go.  But de truth is de kings were hopeless, not quoit as bad as de British government is now, but hopeless, none the less.  Oi had to do something.  Besoides, God sent me a message.   

A message. 

Yes, dis whale came up to me in de boat an’ told me Oi would rescue a man from de fiersome Loch Ness Monster.  So Oi went up there, made the sign of the cross and your timorous beastie ran away. I reckoned Oi’d squared things up wid God.  

Ok, let’s put all that to one side, your graciousness. There’s something else that happened on Iona that bothers me,  

Oi know, it’s about all dose women and de cows on moi holy island of Iona, but God told me to banish dem. 

No, it wasn’t that.

Well, de frogs and the snakes, den.   

No, it wasn’t them either, though I don’t know how you managed to round them all up and get them off the island.    

God works in such mysterious ways; his wonders to behold! (holds up two fingers and makes the sign of the cross, him being such a holy man) 

That’s as maybe. But I was thinking about your best friend.

Aw, you’re meaning Oran the moron.  He was no friend of’ moine; he just did what I told him.  But he had a lovely wife – such a waste!   Anyway, what happened to Oran was’na moi fault.  Yer man had a hand in dat, too. God told me that he would not consecrate moi chapel until Oi’d buried a man aloive in de foundations.  And Oran volunteered, so he did.   

And so you used your grace to console his wife. 

Well (stroked his beard wistfully) you could put it loik dat, but wasn’t it the least Oi could do for a friend who had made the ultimate sacrifice?  

 But he was still alive when they dug him up. 

Yes, but he’d lost his moind, God rest his soul – blaspheming against me, the church and his God.  

So you killed him.

Oi had to.  Oi put a stake through his chest to drive out de devil.  But you know dat wasn’t truly me.  As a saint of the holy catholic church, Oi’m only the instrument of the Almighty.  But surely Oi’ve paid moi price by now.  Although I departed this mortal coil way back in 593, Oi’ve never entered dose holy gates to heaven. Oi coudn’t even foind them. An’ Oi’m still lookin’  

So you admit you committed homicide, but if it was God’s will,  why, being a saint and all,  are you not up on a cloud singing with the angels? Sounds like God’s still got it in for you.  

But Oi was innocent, Oi tell you.  All Oi did was do His will.  Oi’ve got letters to prove it, and dey’ve taken me ages to wroite. 

corncrake

Crex crex: the corncrake or landrail, the fast running rasper, the nutty noisemaker, the long legged bird of the cornfield, the rooster of the corn, is the strangest and most elusive of British birds. Once a common summer visitor throughout the British Isles, it has been in steep decline for the last hundred years  Now there are just about 500 breeding pairs, confined to the far western fringes of Ireland and the Scottish islands.  

It was 50 years ago when I last heard a Corncrake.  I was staying in the observatory on Cape Clear,  a magical island just 4 miles in length and less than a mile wide off the coast of County Cork in Southern Ireland.  During the day, I took part in sea watches, counted Puffins on their burrows on top of the cliffs and recorded the migrants that flopped down exhausted in the fields around the island overnight.  One memorable morning I awoke to the sound of about 20 Cuckoos.  Each was perched on a fence post and calling in vain for a mate.  It was like being in a cuckoo clock shop in Titisee.  But at night, Corncrakes called from the wildflower meadows – a strange regular mechanical sound, like scraping a credit card across the teeth of a comb.   One night, as it was getting dark, I persuaded my friend to come out and track down a Corncrake.  We borrowed a pair of cow rib bones from the observatory, one with a serrated edge and the other with a straight edge, which, when scraped against each other, mimicked the call of the Corncrake.  Arriving by a bank at the edge of a field, we scraped our bones together.  Almost immediately, we had a response that seemed to come from just beyond the corner at the end of the bank.  Cautiously we edged our way up the side of the bank, scraping our bones all the while and were thrilled to hear the responding call approaching us from around the corner.  Eventually, it was so close, it could only be a few feet away, so we tiptoed to the corner and peered round.  There, crouched by the bank were two other guys equipped with a second pair of bones; so we all collapsed laughing and retreated to O’Driscoll’s pub for a beer. 

But In the Coronation Meadow between Treshnish Farm and Huann Cottages on the Island of Mull, where Joan and I recently stayed, there were three separate males calling thought the day.  On Iona, they were more common; an estimated 20 to 30 pairs at several different sites throughout the island.  Although we tried to stalk them and got very close, we never saw one, though locals told us that they would occasionally see them rush across the road.  Not only can they move very quickly through the long grass, they also seem able to ‘throw their voice’ so it is difficult to pinpoint where they are.  So fast on the ground, they are vulnerable in the open and rarely take flight.  With short stubby wings and their long legs dangling down, they are poor flyers. How they manage to fly all the way back to Southern Africa in the winter is difficult to imagine.  

Corncrakes or Landrails are such rare birds.  About the size of a blackbird and related to the Moorhen but with striated brown plumage and ginger flanks, they live in the long grass and wildflowers of summer meadows.  Once widespread throughout the British Isles, but rarely seen, Gilbert White once heard them near Paradise Gardens in Oxford and even ate one. Naturalists of the time frequently shot less common birds, dissected them and ate them.  As White described   “The bird, which weighed seven-and-a-half ounces, was fat and tender and in flavour like the flesh of a woodcock. The liver was very large and delicate.”  Mrs Beeton recommended that four Landrails roasted on a skewer made a very satisfying meal.  In the late eighteenth century, the Northamptonshire peasant poet, John Clare, always heard then near his cottage in Helpston near Peterborough, but never saw one.   

’Tis like a fancy everywhere

A sort of living doubt

We know ’tis something but it ne’er

Will blab the secret out’

Their food is somewhat varied, consisting mainly of invertebrates and seeds though White recorded that ‘we once took a mouse from the stomach of a Landrail’. Although it is normally an extremely timid bird, which skulks in the long grass and is hardly ever seen in the open, a woman on Tiree once reported that a Corncrake living in her field would walk in through the front door and feed on kitchen scraps, while on Barra a bird that stayed over the winter would come and eat the chicken feed once the hens had finished.  

It is only the male that calls and may continue with scarcely a pause for as long as 6 hours .  Females lay two cliches of about 5 to 8 eggs in a shallow depression on the bare earth.  As soon as she has finished laying, the male will leave her and call for another female. After an incubation period of about 17 days, the eggs hatch and the chicks soon develop a black downy plumage.  The female then abandons her chicks after 12 days, hooks up with another male and lays another clutch of eggs.  At the end of August, Corncrakes migrate to Africa.  Birds from Scotland fly down the western route through France and Spain and the Congo to winter in South-east Africa, while birds that nest in the Ukraine migrate through Egypt and Sudan, but are often decimated by nets put out to catch Quail.  9000 Corncrakes were taken in Egypt in 1993 and 14,000 the following year.   Although Corncrakes are reputed to return to the same field, only about 30% of ringed birds make it back.  Some birds seem to get their navigation wrong and have been caught as far away as Vietnam and New Zealand. 

Corncrake numbers started to decline in in the late nineteenth century when farming became more mechanised and intensive.  More fields were grazed or, if left fallow, cut for silage much earlier in the season before the birds laid their second clutch of eggs.  Also the practice of mowing fields from the outside in ever decreasing rectangles concentrated the birds in the centre of the field where they were killed in the last swathe.  On the far flung islands of Scotland, the RSPB tries to persuade farmers to leave wildflower meadows uncut until the Corncrakes have left late in August and to alter the pattern of mowing to leave refuges and escape routes.  Traditional crofters used to cut hay by hand and used a crop rotation system, where fields were left fallow for two years, encouraging grasses and wildflowers. 

The maintenance of wildflower meadows does not just benefit the Corncrake, it promotes an abundance of inserts which attract a variety of birds and small mammals. Flocks of Twites, Goldfinches, Wheatears, Linnets and Meadow Pipits flew up whenever we passed by the meadows on our way from our cottage to the farm on Treshnish.  One morning we were awakened at 5.30am by a thump on the window and were eye to eye with a young cuckoo, perched on the window sill.  It was soon joined by its a foster mother, a Meadow Pipit, bearing a mouthful of insects; always good for a bird with a sore head! 

IMG_5225Edensor Day has finally arrived.  Just two months ago, the residents of the bijou Derbyshire Village, where I live, emerged from hibernation and converted their gardens into a collective floral spectacle. Then, last Saturday, they opened them to the public, while on the green, all the accoutrements of a village fete and gala sprang up: stalls selling plants, bric-a-brac and books, vintage cars, a steel band, Morris Dancers, hog roast, raffle and barrel organ.  People paid £5 a ticket to enter and all funds were in the aid of this year’s charities: Dementia UK, Leukaemia and the never-ending Church Roof fund. 

Edensor appears in the Domesday Book as a small hamlet on the road from Matlock to Carver and Bakewell.  But after the big house was built in 1699, successive Dukes of Devonshire complained that the straggle of rude dwellings spoiled their view of the deer park, so in 1835, the 6th Duke and his general factotum, Joseph Paxton, demolished it and commissioned another village of the same name out of sight of his palace behind the Tumps.  According to social history, the Duke asked Paxton to obtain a selection of architect’s drawings. These included Italianate villas, Swiss chalets, gingerbread cottages and fortified houses with battlements and turrets. All the buildings were of a different style.  So in a confusion of indecision, His Grace proclaimed, ‘I’ll have one of each’.  And so it was: the dwellings of Edensor resemble a collection of film sets, but that contributes to the charm of the village. Nevertheless, Nikolaus Pevsner, the author of the compendious ‘Buildings of England’, was scathing about what he regarded as its inauthenticity. 

As a resident of 10 years, I am still regarded as an incomer, but in a gesture of solidarity to the community, I watered my flowers, fed the honeysuckle, and tidied the weeds from the front yard.   But I am no gardener. The biggest thing growing in my garden is the scaffolding they put up three months ago to replace my chimney that was in danger of blowing down. I am much better on biscuits and books that I ever was with plants and flowers.  So I erected two large tables outside under the scaffold, and filled them with some of my less cherished books, while on a separate table, I installed a Winchester flask of elderflower cordial and two cake stands of my own home made ricorelli biscuits.  I then made myself a cup of coffee and sat down and awaited the crowds. 

It is so poignant to sell my books, even for charity. They are like old friends. I can remember where I was when I first read them, where my mind travelled, what was important back then.  But my tiny cottage is groaning under the weight of novels, reference books on physiology, natural history, geology, environmental studies, medicine, psychoanalysis, biography and lots of poetry – though, if there’s one category I can’t get rid of, it’s the poetry books. 

It could not last. The long, hot spell of weather we had enjoyed from early May had to break some time. I had not long set up my stall when it started to rain.  I put both tables together under a large green parasol and rearranged my books where they might stay dry, then just as Lord Burlington, the scion of Chatsworth, drove through the village gate with his wife and young family, the rain stopped.  The ribbon was cut, posies exchanged  and Edensor Day was formally opened as, with a jingle of bells, a thump of the drum and img_5231.jpgthe bucolic strains of pipe and accordion, the Morris Dancers emerged in their black cloaks and breeches, multicoloured tassels, top hats with feathers and flowers, and faces painted in black, red and yellow like Red Indian medicine men. Back in the day on the borders between England and Wales, begging was unlawful, so destitute people disguised themselves and danced through the villages, extorting money by their frightening appearance.

From 11am until 4pm, a steady stream of people passed my stand and examined the books, though not all bought them.  Many said they already had a house full of books.  Others equivocated over the price, but I charged no more than £2 for most books, and all the money raised went to good causes.  The paradox is that had I charged more, people might have bought more; two pounds implies that they have no value.  I didn’t even have the heart to charge his Lordship more than £4 for the two art books he purchased, though his daughter politely requested a drink of cordial nervously holding out her 50p.  I didn’t sell as many biscuits as last year, probably because Tracey was selling cakes just next door, but despite the chilly weather, the Winchester of elderflower cordial was empty by the end of the day.  

At half past four, I had just started to pack up when, with exquisite timing and a loud rumble of thunder, heaven opened its sluices and cleared the streets and gardens.  It was a signal to join my neighbours in the courtyard for a beer and a laugh, and wait while the committee sat in conclave and counted the money.  The outcome was a record; over £12,000!

 

 

st kilda

‘Three points of contact at all times. And if anybody falls overboard, just throw them a ring and scream.  Don’t go running for’ad to get us because the chances are we won’t find them’.  Ex Royal Marine and RNLI, Jock was a health and safety man to his branded anorak and shiny boots. ‘None of you have got your life jackets on properly.  ‘If your crutch strap is too loose, the jacket will ride up around your neck and strangle you.’  This was suddenly serious.  

St Kilda is about 90 miles away from the Isle of Skye and the only way we could get there and back in the same day was in the GotoStKilda speed boat, a modern sea going capsule with a small afterdeck from where we could watch the birds, the whales and the dolphins.  

‘If people don’t come on time, they’ll get left behind’, scowled Jock. So on the stroke of 7 o’clock, Willie, the skipper, a stocky, shaven headed man, who had bought land to farm in Tennessee, fired up the engines and soon we were all heading west, racing across The Minch and through The Sound of Harris and out into the Atlantic, Harris and Lewis receding into the mist behind us on a glassy sea.  A pod of dolphins came out to investigate, arcing above the reflective surface. The sun was bright on the sea, in contrast with the western horizon, which was a wide smudge of dark grey with the evanescent angular shapes of islands.  

Borarey is about 4 miles to the north and east of the main island of Hirta and includes the magnificent sea stacks, An Armin and Lee, home to the largest gannet colony in the North Atlantic.  We watched as, like large prehistoric seagulls with sulphur yellow heads and sharp pointed bills, they folded their wings and darted into the sea at 60 mph to spear the shoals of herring.  Gannets can live for up to 30 years, but after a while the accumulated impact of hitting the sea at 60mph causes them to go blind and dislocate their necks.  Returning with their catch, they are mobbed by Bonxies (Great Skuas), also known as pirate birds, which force them to disgorge their catch.  The people of St Kilda relied on nesting birds not only for their staple food, but also for the oil and feathers which they would trade.  The young men would scale the sea stacks late at night to catch the gannets.  It was dangerous work.  They would have to catch the sentry bird and wring its neck before they could harvest the other birds. 

Hirta, the main island, is formed from part of the rim of an extinct volcano and has the highest sea cliffs in Europe. The islanders would let each other down on horsehair ropes to harvest the fulmar petrels that nested on the ledges. It was such dangerous work, but only two men were known to have died, when the anchor man at the top of the cliff lost concentration and did not take up the slack while his climbing partner missed his foothold, fell about forty feet and catapulted him 600 feet onto the rocks below.

We docked in the sheltered harbour of Village Bay, clambered into the rubber Zodiac and went ashore, where we were greeted by the resident archaeologist.  He was a shy young man with glasses and baggy jeans, who informed us that St Kilda had been occupied for 3000 years. The names of the islands, however, are derived from the Vikings, who built the black houses for people to live in and cleats (stone huts with a turf roof) to dry and store the feathers and the birds.  The St Kildans lived in their black houses up until the eighteenth century.  They burnt peat in a central hearth, but, as there was no chimney; the smoke hung just below the roof and deposited a thick layer of tar, which functioned as a disinfectant.  They also had their own form of central heating.  A cow or sheep occupied the same space, separated by a partition.  The dung was collected and stored together with human waste and refuse in a large heap inside the doorway and then spread over the floor.  The rotting refuse provided underfloor heating, but was very smelly.  

The St Kildans did everything together and met for morning ‘parliament’ in the village street to decide what they would do that day.  Survival was a full time job. The men collected the birds, built the houses and cleats, while the women tended the vegetables, plucked the birds and cooked the meals.  The community shared all the work and the harvest, but they sent feathers and fulmar oil to the landowner on the mainland in return for materials for their houses and any provisions, which they did not have on the island. 

People continued to live on St Kilda until 1930 when the combination of disease, emigration and poverty forced their evacuation.  The last person to have lived on St Kilda died just three years ago. An epidemic of smallpox killed off half the population in the 1870s, then flu took its toll in the 1920s.  Many children  died of infertile tetanus, probably caused by the habit of anointing the umbilical cord with dung or fulmar oil.  The newer houses, constructed in the 1880s, had tin roofs which let the rain in, but these were not an improvement: the tin roofs would blow off and the storms blew the windows in.  They may have been cleaner but they were not as warm. People suffered, became ill and increasing numbers of survivors took the opportunity to leave.  

On Hirta, we took the opportunity to explore the island alone.  We only had two hours to explore the island alone and the cloud was too low to go to the tops of the hills. I went up to the gap – the low point between two hills below the cloud base and ate my lunch while watching the fulmars glide along the side of the cliffs past their nesting sites.  Then I traversed across the heather and tried to get some photographs of the resident Bonxies, which were intent on dive bombing me.  The whoosh as one dived within inches of my head was alarming.  Down in the village, some Fulmars  nested in the turf on top of the cleats while St Kilda Wrens, greyer and much bigger than the wrens we see on the mainland, nested in the walls, sharing the nooks and crannies with starlings.

The time passed too quickly and I wished I had opted to camp there for the night, but as we left, Jock said he had an extra treat for us. He took us  to the place near where the puffins nested and saw thousands of them floating on the sea,  their clown like faces incongruous in their black habits.  Puffins dive for sand eels which dangle on hooks set on the inside of their comical beaks, but they are also victims of the skuas, who fly in and delicately grab the dangling sand eels.  

We could not dawdle; Jock and Willie were keen to get back, but Jock had an announcement.  ‘Now just go on your Facebook and Twitter and tell all your friends about ‘GotoStKilda’. We need to have a full boat every trip so we can put food on the table.’  At £236 a shot, this was hardly the same privation as the original settlers, but we said we would. 

A breeze had got up while we were on land and as the boat bucked and dived through the swells, we staggered to keep our three points or more in contact.  But that just added a certain frisson to what had been an amazing trip.