December 2007

It is Sunday morning, well after dawn, but the sky is dark, grey and the wind blows cold from the north.  The rooks and jackdaws have long since left their roosts in the beech trees behind the house;  their calls awakened me – like a crowd of excitable children being ushered along by the gentler, calmer rasping tones of their teachers.   Three hours later, the tremulous cry of the Curlew is interrupted by a burst a semi-automatic fire from the military firing range.   The troubles are still recent memory and the border is just the other side of the mountains, where police stations are defended with steel mesh and razor wire.  

I check I have remembered my keys and close the door, turning south to trot along the track between the dunes and the mud flats.   The tide is low and the river traces a winding route through glistening mud pockmarked with wormcasts.  The flock of  Arctic Knot,  shape changers, that I watched yesterday as they tied and untied themselves above the grey green chop of the estuary mouth – bowline, clove hitch, Turk’s head and back to a long rope that settled in a tight coil by the shore – has dematerialised, distintegrated into hundreds of tiny birds little larger than sparrows, sandy clumps of feathers atop jet black legs with matching short black bills, clustered head to wind on the mud flats, chattering quietly.  Their guards, the Oystercatchers, in regulation black and white with orange flashes, take off at my approach, piping the alarm, but the Knot merely shift a little, flutter and hunker down, too cold or too tired this morning for aerial contortions.    

To the west, high above over the main road where the green fields meet the mud,  the plovers are already aloft – ragged untidy flocks of Lapwings, slow, flappy, dark against the sky, but white where the weak grey filtered sun catches the underside of their wings.  Golden Plover, faster, more compact, decisive, whirring above the mud on sharp wings, utter desperate, plaintive cries as they speed away over the dunes and return to repeat their frantic dash in the opposite direction.    

Much as I applaud the efforts of the RSPB, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, in creating enclaves, havens for the ever more endangered avian species,  I do not enjoy sitting on hard wooden pews with cameras, telescopes and binoculars in the hushed ecclesiastical atmosphere of  concrete and wooden hides, waiting for God to reveal Himself in the shape of Harrier, Bittern or Little Stint.  I want to be out in the wind with the birds, sensing what they sense, sharing the feel of the morning.  Sadly there are few places in the United Kingdom where you can do this.  Northern Ireland is special.  Perhaps the troubles have protected the environment here from the developers that might otherwise have destroyed it.  Murlough in County Down has no hides, no beards with tripods and telescopes, just miles of ancient sand dunes with the river breaking though at one narrow point and spreading out into tidal mud flats behind the dunes to north and south.    

At the widest part of the estuary just before it dashes to the sea through the dunes, large flocks of Brent Geese congregate,  like a convocation of portly vicars in their black fronts and white collars.  They have come over from Newfoundland for the winter.  They are joined by the punks,  whistling flocks of Wigeon, the cinnamon heads of the males decorated with a Mohican beige stripe from crown to bill.  Egrets stalk the shallow water, paddling the mud underneath the surface to stir up tiny creatures which they spear with darting movements of their bills, sharp with determination, black as death.  Herons, church elders that will wait until the end of sectarian conflict for a fish to come by, look on with expressions of disdain at these flashy newcomers.     

Upstream where the mud narrows and turns to grass, Greenshanks prospect the shallow water, with bobbing heads and scooping movements of their upturned bills.  They are related to the ubiquitous Redshanks, the journeymen of the estuaries, but more larger, and so light and elegant, they seem to dance on the water.  This region of grass and rapid water is also the territory of the Teal,  small ducks with detrousse bills and characteristic yin and yang design in orange and green on the sides of the heads of the male.    

When I run, I like to choose routes that join different habitats.  At the far end of the southern limb of the estuary just before the path joins the road,  I turn east and take the path marked in yellow topped posts that crosses the dunes to the Irish Sea.  There  I turn north against the freshening wind, taking a path near the sea where the sand is harder.  A solitary Godwit probes the pools with little enthusiasm and less success, urged on by the screams of Black Headed Gulls, mocked by the chuckles of the Hooded Crows.    

In the distance I can see the shapes of seals.  I run towards them and stop just 200 yards away, separated from them by the mouth of the river.  They sprawl, fat and lazy, on the sand, yawn, lean up on their elbows and lazily scratch themselves, like a group of pampered middle aged ladies at a health farm.  One waddles to the water and swims over, raising his head to take a look. Nearby down at the water’s edge, a platoon of dark cormorants stands guard.   The wind comes in from the sea and blows the surface sand into ribbons which speed away up the beach.    

There are more cormorants swimming low in the water against the tide.  From time to time, in one smooth movement, they wheel  in an arc above the water and disappear.  I turn away from the sea and run back inland.  There is sporadic firing from the range across the water, but the seals just yawn and scratch.    

I draw level with two men walking their chocolate Labrador, who barks at me and bounds waggily over.  Dogs make people talk to each other.  The older of the two men lives in Dundrum.  He has a wild enthusiasm in his watery eyes – or maybe its just the wind –  ‘It’s a grand day!’ he says.   Why do the Irish always say it’s a grand day?  Today is grey, windy and cold, but ….. he’s right enough; it is a grand day!     

A hundred years ago, London was the commercial capital of the world.  But there were no computers, no internet, not even any typewriters.   Commerce was run by an army of clerks.  For men with no particular skills, to be a clerk was considered a steady and respectable occupation, certainly a step or two up from the near starvation existence of the unskilled labourer.  But the work was tedious and dull, copying letters, keeping ledgers, creating orders and writing invoices – the working environment oppressive. As Maggie reports  in The Orange Tree’s production of Elizabeth Baker’s play, ‘Chains’,  ‘the windows had dingy, drab blinds, and inside there were rows and rows of clerks, sitting on high schools, bending over great books on desks, and above each there was an electric light under a green shade.’    

The barracks of this army of clerks were the small terraced houses that had spread out west to engulf the villages of Acton and Ealing.  Every morning, the clerk would dress in his uniform of white shirt with detachable stiff starched cuffs and collar,  dark tie,  waistcoat, dark pin striped trousers, black shoes or boots and short coat, have an early breakfast and leave for work.  The opening sequences of the play were choreographed to Philip Glass’s ominous, repetitive musical sequences.  The clerks marched in one by one, donned their bowler hats and gloves, which were laid out on the narrow table, checked their appearance in the mirror and marched off to work.  They would probably do the same ever morning of their lives for 50 years. The mundane muffles the tragedy of lives only half lived. Clerks were not people with minds and emotions, but automatons, programmed to work for nine hours a day.  For those, who had risen to the lower ranks of the middle class, work was a duty, something you didn’t question.  There was no joy, no creativity, just the satisfaction of doing a steady respectable job, a suburban life style and perhaps if one applied oneself diligently or long enough, promotion to chief clerk before retirement.   

Charlie and Lil’s existence of unquestioning duty and respectability is rocked by the decision of Fred Tenant, the young man who lodges with them, to emigrate to Australia.  He is not going to work in the same office until he is an old man.  He is sure of that. He wants space, life, opportunity.  He is going to get some land in Australia and start a farm.   

At first horrified, Charlie is troubled by Tenant’s decision.  He is restless and dissatisfied with the unending drudgery of his existence.  He deserves something more. Why shouldn’t he go also?  Why should marriage hold him up?  He doesn’t want to leave Lil, of course, but when he’s got himself sorted out, she can come and join him.  Maggie, Lil’s sister, is also troubled.  Trapped by her sex and the job in a haberdasher’s shop, she is about to escape into a marriage of convenience, but she knows that this will be just another prison.  She rails at her fiance to be more adventurous.  ‘Why don’t you surprise me and take me to Australia?’   He looks at her as if she is mad.   Eventually, Maggie breaks off her engagement and Charlie decides to go without telling Lily, but on the morning of his departure, Lily announces that she is expecting their first child.    

The Orange Tree is a studio theatre.  We  are all in the living room of Charlie and Lil’s Edwardian house  – so close we can almost smell the food they are eating.  We feel the Charlie’s dreadful dilemma, Lily’s hurt and his final despair when the cage door finally clangs shut.  But it would be a mistake to see Baker’s play as a period drama.   

‘Chains’ is as relevant now as it was then; perhaps more so.  We may have more freedom.  Our leaders tell us we do. But we have greater expectations.  Charlie and Lil aspired to their own terrace house – living room, front room, kitchen, two bedrooms, aspidistra in the hall, but now this comes with flatbed television, hi-fi, cooker, fridge freezer, washing machine, dishwasher, holidays abroad and two cars – all bought on credit. People living in the 21st century are as shackled to our comforts and material expectations as Charlie and Lil ever were.  We also feel the same burdens of obligation;  to our spouse, our ageing parents, our children, our colleagues and line managers.  It is as difficult and frightening to opt out now as it was a hundred years ago; perhaps more so.  And options are more limited.  There is no useful land to be bought cheaply in Australia or anywhere else.  We may manage to escape one kind of cell, but as Maggie discovered, we find we are in another.  Freedom is an illusion; the  prison of the free.   So does this mean, like our ancestors, the clerks, we just have to learn to accept our lot with good grace and enjoy the comforts and society it brings.  Has the quest for personal liberty in situations of relative affluence always indicated  a neurotic restlessness, a deficiency in socialisation.  But if so, is that such a bad thing.  If we all accepted our lot placidly and with good grace,  society would stagnate.  Like a shark, it has to move forward, otherwise it dies.  Surely, it is the  neurosis embedded within our civilisation that creates progress.