Murmurations

by Steve Waters and Tangled Feet

Copyright Thomas Young

Reviewed by Andrew Burton

Walking boots are not the first thing I usually reach for when I’m going to see a piece of theatre but Murmurations is no ordinary piece of theatre.  I saw it on the afternoon of Saturday 25 September 2021 at Strumpshaw Fen, an unassuming jewel of a nature reserve run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, nestling in the Yare Valley, a few miles to the east of Norwich.  

            Despite dire weather forecasts earlier in the week, by the time I arrived the sun was out, lending a coppery early autumn glow to the surroundings.  And Strumpshaw was thrumming with life; from the bearded tits that provided impromptu pre-show entertainment near the entrance, to the lucious blackberries dangling in the hedgerows.

            Murmurations, by Steve Waters and Tangled Feet, is a unique site-specific production created in response to two different nature reserves in the East of England; as well as Strumpshaw, the show also has roots in Cambridgeshire’s Wicken Fen, where the show had been performed the previous week.  Part of a project jointly funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the University of East Anglia, it is the latest piece of environmental theatre work by Waters who – since his seminal diptych of plays The Contingency Plan at London’s Bush Theatre in 2009 – has remained at the forefront of artistic practice and reflection on climate change.  

            Around twenty audience members and I were given headphones and invited to follow our guide Chloë (played with CBeebies chutzpah and genuine warmth by Chanice Hird) as we set off on our guided tour of the reserve.  Along the way, our walk was interrupted by a series of individuals and couples whose exchanges (and sometimes even inner thoughts) we could hear.  Grieving daughter Shola (brought to life convincingly by Emily Eversden) was deliberating where to scatter her mothers’ ashes; joggers Marco (Mario Christofides) and Kieran (Carl Parkin) interrupted their testosterone-fuelled run to argue about a contentious housing development which would affect the Fen; birding couple Kel and Pete (Emily Eversden and Mario Christofides quickly doubling!) bickered about rare sightings; terminally ill Mags (played with poise and restrained passion by Fiona Watson) became an environmental activist; and even tour guide Chloë revealed how the reserve had brought solace at a difficult time in her life.  As we ambled deeper into the play’s thematic thickets, it became clear how intricately connected all these strands were.  The terminally ill environmental activist, Mags, turned out to be Shola’s late mother; Kieran turned out to be the son of a farmer and came to realise the importance of keeping the farming tradition going for another generation after his father’s death, despite the difficulties; Kel and Pete remembered how their original shared love of bird watching had brought them together and, on their anniversary, learned to bond rather than bicker.  Within this richly textured story, the characters revealed their deep and intricate connection with the Fen.  One of the most striking features of Waters’ writing is its ability to map the local distinctiveness of an area onto a wider ecology of human emotion.

 This remarkable promenade headphone theatre piece was also a feast for the senses.   It was impossible not to be affected by the magic of the natural surroundings as bees buzzed, butterflies fluttered by, the heavy damask perfume of hidden honeysuckle pervaded the air and now and again the low autumn sun burnished reddening haws and rose hips.  What made it even more engaging was the way sights and sounds from outside the frame of the drama were incorporated into the performance: a baby being carried by one of the audience members quickly became an unequivocal star of the show after tour guide Chloë engaged in ‘baby talk’ and the baby gleefully gurgled back.  At one point, one of the highland cattle stared at performers and audience, threatening to upstage the action and putting the old acting adage about never working with children or animals in a whole new light. The Fen itself became a character in the play, linked to the unfolding human drama by means of a beguiling and lyrical song spell seamlessly woven into the narrative, a device also used to wonderful choric effect in Waters’ BBC Radio 4 series Song of the Reed

            Guy Connelly’s nuanced sound design was beautifully complemented by Polly Wright’s hauntingly original music which added resonance and depth to the human dramas being played out before us.  Deft direction by Nathan Curry was matched by astute design by Blythe Brett.  While some of the costumes – for example, those worn by the birder couple – were highly detailed and felt authentic, others felt less convincing; I don’t believe that any self-respecting East Anglian farmer would wear Dunlop wellies such as you might buy from Millets (see Justin Partyka’s illuminating photo study The East Anglians in Granta’s The New Nature Writing for the real thing).

Minor costume quibbles aside, Murmurations is a richly textured, warm hearted, timely and urgent piece of theatre that highlights our deep interdependence with the natural world and encourages us all – young and old – to adopt ecology’s longstanding mantra to think globally but act locally.

*

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A Shadow Fell

They say it came from far away, from over the sea, brought by ships from beyond the shores of our world, from lands where only our most distant ancestors live. A shadow that fell upon these lands.

*

Thirty years ago or so, the first signs of the disease began to show, they say. Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, they named it: a fungus; microscopic, unseen, unheard yet whose spores can be blown on the breeze for hundreds of miles.

‘It first began to be known through the black patches that appeared on withered leaves, the dark, diamond shapes, girdles of death, around the twigs and the branches of the ash trees,’ they say.

            Dieback, some call the disease. Others call it Chalara.

            The names mean nothing.

            There is no cure, they say.

            Most will die, they say.

            Yet they do not say of the choking, they do not say of the strangling, the slow suffocation from within as xylem clogs and water will no longer flow.

            ‘Some of the trees seem to have genetic factors which offer resistance to the disease,’ their experts say. ‘Or rather a tolerance to the chemical that the fungus produces – Viridiol – that is so toxic to so many.’  

            ‘150 million mature ash trees will be lost in these isles in the next ten to twenty years,’ they say.

            ‘Now we know more about the disease,’ they say. ‘The areas worse affected are the densest environments where populations are greatest and the disease can spread most virulently. We know that those individuals most isolated, those spread out around the countryside fare better. We know, too, that the pathogen cannot survive above 35 degrees Celsius.’

            We know only the fear of death, the whispering murmurs in the soil that tell of suffering, of those that feel the disease within them, the cold touch within.

*

            There is hope they say.

            ‘Mother trees with tolerant seeds may be the way to see a possible future landscape where ash remains a common feature.’

            The Tolerant Ones.

            The Lucky Ones.

            That is what we are, they say.

            The Survivors.

            We were forged of disease-resistant genes, they say. We were not even born when the first spores arrived on these shores. We are those tolerant seeds spawned of the one per cent of mother trees who showed some form of resistance.

            We are the future, they say.

            Yet we are also those left behind. We are the ones that live on after the apocalypse, after so many millions in this archipelago have withered and blackened and died.

*

They do not say that death came because of them. They do not say that it was their doing that will kill millions. They do not say that the sickness arrived on these shores because they brought it here.

            They use our bodies as fuel for their fires, as frames for their homes. They know we make oxygen for them to breathe. Yet they do not see each of us as individual, living beings, each with the right to live, to share safe, clean air and the same land. Only when they start to see us as valued others, will the world begin to breathe more easily.

*

So now we live with the memories of those millions who died still lingering in the soils that surround us, the brush of their touch in the earth still tangible.

            We are the new breed, they say.

            We reach higher each season and peer further over the horizon and dream of when the new breed of them will come.

            They who see not with narcissistic vision.

            They who feel for the other living beings in this world.

            They who know us as valued others.

            For until then, the fear remains that another shadow will fall which will turn all to darkness.

*

A piece commissioned by the folk band Fishclaw.

https://www.folkradio.co.uk/2021/05/fishclaw-feil/

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Two’s Company by Lana Clark

Lana is a recent Wild Writing MA graduate from the University of Essex, currently freelancing as a writer and prepping for her PhD.

There’s a tree I see every day, and only recently have I figured out that it’s an oak. I don’t know why it took me so long to acknowledge this as a fact. It occupies the space directly in front of my bedroom window, filling it almost completely. Now, in this stark close of winter, it is a dark figure against an otherwise bleak canvas.

Each morning, I wake up to it filling the frame of my window, its branches weaving in and out amongst one another like cracks. Its joints like gnarled knuckles, the skin rough and frayed. Often, I stand with my morning coffee clasped between palms just watching this tree, almost as though I expect it to get up and move in some way or another. Of course, it doesn’t, but I never tire of seeking out new details of my oak. One of the first things that struck me was how the trunk felt less singular and more of a plural. I have counted four pillars that conjoin together to make this oak, as though they once stood in a circle and joined hands, deciding that this was where they were meant to be, together. Around the base of the tree, the earth has built up into a mound where the roots wave and relax, never quite break the surface. Between two of these pillars is a small hollow, like an eye socket just large enough to place yourself inside of. It is too high for me to reach alone, but that has not stopped me reaching up and inside with fingers extended, reaching just far enough to feel the soft touch of moss and the prick of twigs that signifies the possibility of a nest of some sort. I have stood at all angles in my window, trying to peer inside, but to no avail. I have never seen a bird leave or enter this hollow. In fact, I cannot think of an occasion where I have ever noted a bird sitting on any part of it, not a single branch. It sits in utter loneliness, without another tree on the street to give it any company, without a flower underneath it to offer any colour. It stands alone, on a thick strip of worn grass between road and pavement, this tree outside my bedroom window.

Despite being a sad spectre in winter, in summer it shines. The leaves blossom into a spritely green that fills the glass of my window with such life. They transform into breathing stained glass, painting the off-white walls of my rooms with a green hue that shifts in short cycles with the day. I have begun to write about my oak tree. Just a few words here and there when they strike me. Words to plant in the ground that will grow into something more important in the future, maybe. I have seen that the tree grows, restores, rebuilds itself just as a person does throughout the year. I have seen that the oak hoards its shiny acorns in its boughs, keeping the possibility of itself close. I have seen the leaves lift in the breeze and be beaten down in a storm and fall as the seasons shift and change over and over as they so often do. And I have seen them grow back just as bright.

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Brown Suffocated

In his short story, Denzel Sarkodie-Addo depicts how ‘just like black people have historically been disenfranchised and made to feel like we have lost a lot of our power amongst our own communities; so have the trees, which allows them to build a bond.

This short story is the second of three, chronicling a fantasised relationship between black people and trees. The collection transcends different time periods throughout history, magnifying events that were/are issues for black people.

Of course they had torches lit with fires, and their hands clung to his tattered clothes and parts of his flesh, as they dragged him across the field in my direction. The man they were dragging? His skin was brown like mine. But human skin is so soft, and his had bruises and cuts all over it. Tears ran down his swollen cheeks, down to the snot and the blood around his mouth, as his body continued to leave a dark trail through the grass. He had curly black hair, with leaves and turf in it, unlike my green bushy head of hair. Either they had taken him with no shoes, or they had come off while he was being dragged, either way, he wore nothing on his feet except blood stains. The jeering crowd’s faces were menacingly glowing with orange light from the fire, as spit formulated from their mouths and their eyes widened with joy. I’d never seen this particular group of people before, but over the last 20 years I had come to know this face very well. The face of anger, and frustration. A face of vindication, and power. And there was no doubt in my mind why they coming my way. The boy was going to be lynched on me. He wouldn’t be the first, and wouldn’t be the last.

They lifted him up and threw him against me.

‘Y-y-you want me to beg or somm hmm?’ His lips quivered as he lowered and raised his head. His eyes glazed in the fire. ‘My boy’s gon know his daddy, feared nothin in this lifetime. He gon-‘

One of crowd members booted the man across the face making him drop, and blood from his mouth touched the grass by my roots. This made the crowd jeer again, and wave their torches. The man that had kicked him stepped forward, and lifted him up to his knees. ‘Your boy ain’t gon know nuttin bout you, boy. We gon’ shovel a nice spot for you, boy! You gon tellem bout fear from the grave?’ He tightened his grip on his shirt collars, as he said this. ‘Lot of your people believe in spirits and incantations, so if you do manage it, tell your boy to fear two things. The white man, and God.’ He spat on the black man, and threw him back to the ground as two other men emerged from the crowd with a long rope in their hands.

Now, I had seen folks do so many things with rope. I’d seen men pull their vehicles with ropes up the street when they’d needed towing or they had run out of gas. I’d seen the land owners bring in their horses with ropes on the fields. I’d even had dad’s attach tire swings on me for their kids on some of my thicker branches. But a noose was the most peculiar way I ever did see humans use a piece of rope for. They threw the free side of the rope over one of my branches, and let it hang until one of the two men went onto that side to grab it. They put the loose noose around the man’s neck, then tightened it a little bit so that it would be tucked just underneath his chin. It sickened me to know that I knew this routine so well, but as I said before, he hadn’t been the first, and he wouldn’t be the last. Again the crowd jeered, and shuffled with anticipation, as the men hammered a small key shaped piece of metal into my roots.

The man was on his knees, as he blubbered a prayer through his engorged bloody lips. They always did this, and I always found it remarkable. We both knew that this had happened so many times, to so many other people, but they always still prayed. Prayed for what, exactly? Forgiveness? Divine intervention? Their lives spared? I could never tell.  But if I had lips, I would pray with them. Because if it was forgiveness they were praying for, I would pray for it too for the crimes we trees had committed. I could feel the vibrations in my roots from the other trees in the field whenever a lynching happened. None of us wanted to be a part of this, but we had no choice but to aid this evil. But regardless, we too needed forgiveness. If it was for divine intervention, we would pray for the power of the trees to be restored. Long gone were the days of Doggerland, in which we had the power of instant movements. Now it takes us decades just to stretch or rotate, but we still have the ability to live for centuries. And this is what we would pray for if we could. For that to stop. If whoever these humans prayed to could hear our vibrations as well, we would pray for our long life spans to end. We wanted the skies to stop crying, and the ground across the whole field to become barren, so we had no water to drink. We wanted the sun to disappear, the world to be consumed in darkness so that we had to energy to survive. Because we knew that death was better that living through bondage. However, either our vibrations meant nothing, or they fell to deaf ears, because we were never given our prayers…

The two men tightened their grip on the rope and pulled, as the man’s body began to rise closer to my branch. As the rope tightened around his neck, the burning of the rope against my branch increased too. The man kicked and flailed out his legs, as my branches quivered, and the jeering of the crowd had subsided into a low roar. The man tried to pry his neck free from the ropes but it was pointless. I tried to will by branches into falling off but it was useless. They continued to yank the rope, until they tied the end of it around the key shaped piece of metal in the ground. The man’s body stopped rising. His legs stopped flailing. His arms stopped prying. And nothing, came from his mouth.

And as his body swung in front of my face, the same question that I always wondered, consumed me all over again.

What was his name?

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Extract from ‘Saltmarsh Sojourn’

Malcolm Brown shares an extract from his Psychogeography piece

Martyrs ~ Satanic Mills ~ Red Sails

Venus had burned bright in the icy blue, western, March sky for several nights — the moon heralding in spring tides to fill the estuary and swamp the river grazing of geese — as the vernal equinox approaches it has kept me awake. Head full of visions and wonderings, until I find myself moved to walking. To drifting out beyond the town out into the lowland marshy wilderness; following the Kyip-Kyip of the redshank the sentinel of the marshes.

Walking for me had grown from my teenage years when, too impatient to wait for buses, I challenged myself to walk to my intended destinations, and arrive before the bus — often than not I got there first. From this grew a malady, an obsession for walking (and later running!). As an only child I would disappear from home for hours at weekends and during school holidays, to roam without purpose, other than to walk. Wandering the highways and byways, parks and open spaces throughout East Ham, West Ham, Manor Park and Wanstead Flats. I became learned of street names and locations — I did ‘the knowledge’, of the cabby! On these perambulations I would, like my hero Sherlock Holmes, try to read the histories and purpose of my fellow pedestrians. I walked and observed.

So it was that early on a clear, bracing March morning I found myself outside the former Maldon Iron Works an impressive three storied building of yellow brick. Now a gym and retail outlet. On its SE wall a plaque, a stone inset which reads –

Stephen was a Maldonian who along with several others in Essex were burnt at the stake for denying transubstantiation, the Catholic church’s teaching of the change of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. The sixteenth century was a tough time for having differing religious views.

People pass by, no one seems to notice this dedication and that around four hundred or so years ago, an act of religious fear and barbarism took place here at the junction between the Causeway, that brought travellers across the marshy floodplain of the river Chelmer, before propelling them up the steep Market Hill with its fine Georgian Houses into Maldon town centre.

I reject the notion of climbing Market Hill and instead head eastwards following the slowly rising sun along the river frontage towards the Hythe. Near a boat yard and opposite the old Sadd’s timber wharf — now a barren brown field wilderness, a ghost of Maldon’s industrial past, lie several low buildings in immaculate condition. Completely painted black, they cling seal-like to mud of the riverbank — echoing the dark satanic mills of William Blake’s, Jerusalem poem.

Salt has always been important in this part of Essex the Romans paid their soldiers in salt and all along the Essex coast Ordnance Survey maps mark the remains of salt evaporation known as ‘red hills’. Where once the estuary’s salt rich waters were boiled to release their precious commodity. Maldon salt is special in its construction when dried the salt crystals form delicate pyramidal structures mirroring snowflakes.

At the Hythe the ochre red sails of the barges are furled and stowed. These vessels have sailed from here with a crew of one man, a boy and a dog for decades. Their business was taking hay and straw up the Thames estuary to London, (they were called ‘stackies’) and bringing back manure for the fields. Today they are used as pleasure craft and for taking visitors on wildlife tours. Maldon has a long history of sailing and ship building.

One of the barges has been converted to a tearoom; here over breakfast, I fall into conversation with old Maldonian called Cliff. His memories of Maldon are still vivid after seventy plus years.

  “It’s all history and tourism now boy,” he grumbles, staring out over the exposed mud that the barge is perched on, to a group of foraging dunlin on the far bank.

  “Use to be industry here, ships were built, big iron works, Mr Bentall from Goldhanger and his plough, trade went on, what we got now hey? — salt! that’s it”. He flows on, on a tide of reminiscences and might have beens.

  “History and tourism that’s it,” he repeats draining his teacup.

I tell him about Stephen Knight and his plaque.

  “Never heard of him, where you say this plaque is?”

 I tell him. He promises to go and look for himself.

 “Mind you, Essex has always been a bit non-conformist, there were them people out at Tillingham…..the Peculiar people, that’s them and more besides”.

He asks me what I am doing here in Maldon.

  “Drifting,” I say, “I’m walking into local history and wilderness.”

  “Why?” he frowns at me, “it’s all just history and mud, lots of mud!”

  “I like walking, getting lost, no purpose, just drifting and observing.”

He shakes his head as he rises — we shake hands, as he leaves the gang plank, now on dry land, he looks back smiling — he mouths, Good Luck! I sit down and bite into my toast when I look again he has evaporated into the salty air.

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Scene From Far Off

Terry Flower recounts a trip to Boulge Park, following in the footsteps of W. G. Sebald

   It was a grey overcast afternoon in February. Conducive to sitting by flaming firesides and the recalling of warm memories. But we were out. Retracing Sebald’s footsteps across the arable flatlands of East Suffolk, three miles inland from estuarine Woodbridge and the site of Saxon burials. Sebald had been drawn here by stories of the FitzGerald’s. In particular Edward FitzGerald, famous for his translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Was it, I wondered, Sebald’s admiration of the poets craft and endeavour or FitzGerald’s own admission that all of his relatives were mad; further that he was insane as well, but at least was aware of the fact.[1]

   Our journey began at St. Andrews church Bredfield. A small, welcoming, narrow-isled church, with a generous and elaborately carved hammer beam roof that seemed slightly out of kilter with such a modest place of worship. A risk assessment would have found the structure capable of bearing many times the load required of it here. A flying advertisement to a wealthy patron. From St. Andrews we set off, slip-sliding across a muddy harrowed field towards the site of Boulge Hall. It was into this manor house that the Fitzgeralds moved in 1825, having previously occupied a neighbouring manor house, Bredfield House, where Edward FitzGerald was born in 1809. Nothing much remains of either great house today. The former having been hit by a flying V2 rocket in the last war, the latter decayed, and over the years pilfered for building materials. Arriving at Boulge we entered the small family church. Full of marshalled memorials to the FitzGeralds. The interior was untidy and tight. Feeling the pinch of holding too many histories. Outside the family mausoleum brooded; gothic, moody. Flint and stone in blacks and greys. Beside, but set apart, a long granite tombstone of polished pink. This is the grave of Edward FitzGerald. At its head a tender homage to the poet; a spindling rose. Seeded from a Persian flower that casts it scent over the grave of Omar Khyyam. Only at this point did I feel the bud of the day turn to leaf.

Yes I have entered your olden haunts at last; through the years, through the dead scenes I have tracked you.[2]

   Moving out of shade and into the light we set off on the last leg of our field-tripping journey towards the site of Bredfield House. As we crossed through scrub dotted with oaks, we spotted a roosting barn owl. It flew off to patrol a distant spinney. Up and down it went at the edge of the far leafless-grey-wood, trying to flush out small birds with the silent movement of its white wings. With perfect timing it echoed the group, trying to tease into the open-air thoughts from the day’s dense thicket of experience.

Documents:Users:Terry:Desktop:DSC_0480.jpg
Photo by Terry Flower

The moving finger writes; and having writ, moves on.[3]


[1] Caulfield, Catherine. The emperor of the United States and other magnificent British eccentrics. London: Routledge. 1981. 86.

[2] Hardy, Thomas. After the journey. From Woman much missed. London: Penguin Classics, 2015. 23

[3] Khayyam, Omar. Rubaiyat. Trans. Edward FitzGerald. New York: Random House. 1947. 35.

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Journey to Orford

Sarah Beavins writes about her pilgrimage to get to Orford Ness.

The other side of Woodbridge, I missed my turning to Orford at the roundabout, so with time to spare, took the next right: a minor single track road bearing a sign saying ‘Not suitable for LGVs’. Just a few yards along, the eroded stump of a long ago fallen tree turned its underside towards the road, a vortex of bleached star veins; the sort of things that Victorians put in their ‘stumperies’, the fern garlanded gardens paying homage to damp and decay. I didn’t stop, already drawn into the steep banked lane, with the gunmetal sheen of January sunlight striking up from the wet road.

At the junction, I crossed the double tracked road, and continued on the scant ribbon of road I’d chosen. Jewelled splashes of standing water flew from the bow of my KA. The field’s dips and hollows either side of the road were filled with ruddy water, standing undrained on the low lying land. The hedges, expectant with nascent buds stretched gnarled black fingers to the clarity of the sky. A kestrel hung sentinel above the lane, suspended with concentrated attention, fixed upon the chance of a meal.

Ahead, the road dipped. In the dip lay a sea of chocolate-smooth water, stretching some 20 metres. I stopped. The water overlapped the verge at the centre of the sea. To drive through a flood, one keeps the throttle active, especially if the exhaust tailpipe submerges. The murder is in letting that pressure go, when the water will rush up the tailpipe to the engine and all is lost. Fearing being astray, I reversed the long lane back to the junction.

Resisting the lure of the satnav, I struck out along the road. At Melton, a junction painted with hieroglyphics I could not decipher took me in confusion onto a road flowing towards a destination that surely was not mine. I stopped in the mouth of a junction leading towards a used car showroom and turned on the satnav. Her instructions directed me to a road at the next junction, yet I inexplicably found myself driving a road she did not intend. Quite how I had mistaken her instruction, I do not know. In a land of fields and gates, the flash of water and light spangled my vision and obscured my sight. Time pressed upon me, anxiety rose with the slow traverse of the minute hand of the clock on the dash. At last I was able to stop and turn. Anxiety reduced slightly, attention to route redoubled, travelling in the right direction did not seem a certainty.

I drove the road towards Orford. Rendlesham Forest bounded my margins, the flicker and flash of the low sunlight through the straight boughless trunks of the trees running tickertape in my wake. I stopped, pulling in between and SUV and a campervan nattily decorated with ‘Dia de Muertos’ livery. I stood in the fringes of the forest, in that lofty space, and considered the dry season, how a sandstorm might look, and where I would shelter in this landscape.

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20/20 Vision

Terry Flower writes a poetic piece about a trip to Orford Ness.

Late January. Orford Quay. Cold Westerly.

Do not leave your car unattended.

A low winter sun at its zenith raking across the landscape and bringing everything into textured focus. Sharp as the wind, cutting across my face. No summer haze to
distort this lenticular vision. No summer picnic. It only takes two minutes in a tender to slip across the Ore. The chill factor doubles on a journey of weightlessness. Then boots find terra-firma-friction on the concrete quay the other side.

Here history and memory striate and synchronise like the furrows of the vegetated shingle. Another hundred years leaving vague but stubborn stains on this iron-ic island. Part abandoned war-laboratory, part wild-life sanctuary.

Home to…
Brutalist bunker.
Redundant concrete fence posts
stripped of chain link now piled in rusty
nests.
Lagoon cockle and
starlet anemone.

Round the decay, with elemental stealth, nature is winning this war. Whether we call it continuous ruination or curated ruination, the effect is the same. Lives and purpose become faded and fretted. And, like the bunker, we bank them up with shingle against the blast of time. Collective memory isn’t the clean straight line of a radar signal. It’s a hare’s path, stop-starting and jagging this way and that over the stones that we find hard to walk upon.

4 years after her husbands death my mother-in-law still cannot bring herself to throw away his clothes for fear that in some way it may diminish 60 years of love.

Photo by Malcolm Brown

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Visiting Ronald Blythe

Sarah Beavins writes about a visit to writer Ronald Blythe in his Wormingford home.

We walked the high-sided track down to ‘Bottengoms’. Blythe’s poem ‘Down to the Dwelling House’ is about this track, sunken through years and carts and feet and cattle. The grass centred flint trackway is sheltered by the tall banks. Now, in late October, the banks showed tired, tangled vegetation, settling in for winter. The exuberance of March growth is half a year away. The track is in good enough condition for most vehicles to pass, though Saab and Mini owners may have misgivings about their exhausts.

The house sits enfolded in gentle valley and trees. A dog-walking woman visits ‘Ronnie’ before we go in. Ronald Blythe does not lack either company or care. We wait under an oak that is busy yellowing its leaves. The lane is overhung with autumn. Branches will be bare soon. A mossy stone path leads to the low, wide front door. There’s a blue plaque outside to John and Christine Nash.

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Photo by Malcolm Brown

Stepping through the front door, we entered a neat room with a broad fireplace, herringbone brick floor, beams and single bed with a dressing gown draped carefully over it. It was tidy, there was little clutter. Moving towards to middle room, some of the loose bricks chimed underfoot. Blythe had described that sound as ‘zylophonic’. I couldn’t imagine that sound before, but they sounded exactly like that, and brought a grin of sheer delight to me.

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Photo by Malcolm Brown

We jostled into the central room. Ronald Blythe stood in bright blue jumper and pressed beige slacks, his mid length white hair combed carefully, his complexion pale, translucent. He is not a tall man. I felt as if we were to have an audience – which I suppose we were. We went one by one to shake his hand. He showed keen interest, looking directly at us. He is an observer. Sharp blue eyes missed little about each of us, I am sure. In the moments that I had his full attention, I liked him. Some folk, you just know, are good folk.

He asked us to sit down. We were not quite sure what to say, were almost shy, in awe. I looked around the low beamed room, and was taken with the plumbing. An artful plumber, unable to site pipes in the wall, had run and flowed the copper pipes in ranks around the beams, feeding the radiators and rendering the ground floor toasty warm. I remarked that I liked the overlay of old with new. Ronald spoke a little wistfully of the vast fires there used to be, how cold winters had been, and how pleasant it is to have central heating.

One of his cats was sociable. There are two cats, Ronald calls them both ‘Cat’. I muse that there is power in naming things, and not naming them sets them free. Maybe that was his point. The other cat was not there. Perhaps our concentrated adoration of a being other than itself caused its disaffection and absence.

One of our cohort smiled almost all the time we there. He knows much about Ronald and his work, and has met him before. I took some photographs for him of him and Ronald. The pleasure shining from his face was a joyful thing to be around. There was a warmth that was not about heating.

Ronald said he had often cooked on the range back in the days when the Nashes lived here. It took time, he said. There’s an electric cooker now. The house was full of cigarette smoke back then, everybody smoked back then. But he didn’t. I volunteered that I’m a flaky smoker and go in cycles of smoking and not smoking. Ronald looked straight at me and said kindly ‘Oh my dear…’ but it wasn’t censure.

Discipline was important to John Nash, Ronald said. Nash painted, drew or created in the mornings whether he felt like it or not, and that example had been a lasting influence. An artist of any kind must apply themselves in that way, and writing was no different. He speaks softly but clearly and precisely. I imagined his voice flowing in church.

We left when Ronald’s lunch arrived. I squatted down by his chair to thank him and put my hand on the arm rest. He covered my hand with his hand, warm, long fingered with raised veins. These hands, these writer’s hands, had never embraced the computer age. His writing was with pen and paper, or later, a typewriter. He was content with his achievements, experiences and honours, square with the world, I thought, and he communicated quiet humility and love of life.

I am delighted and humbled that I had the pleasure of spending a little time in the presence of Ronald Blythe. The blue plaque outside the house will one day be joined by another. It is usual for 20 years to elapse from someone passing to the siting of such a plaque. It is my hope that Ronnie’s joy and sweetness in life endures, and that the start of the countdown to that second plaque is years away.

Post script: I mentioned the trip to a friend who hails from Manningtree a few days ago. He laughed, and asked if he had his clothes on. At my puzzled look, he said that ‘Ronnie’ had been well known as a naturist, and had often been found gardening unashamedly naked. My liking for Ronald grew even greater with this tale.

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Little Gods of the Field

Jo Gerrard writes about her search for the elusive corncrake on the tiny island of Iona.

 

I sit at the long wooden table: highly polished, sticky circular residue soiling the shine, a bowl of imitation iron fillings – I investigate with taste; it was locally sourced seaweed, dried and crushed into sprinkle sized portions. As I pick out the remnants of the sea vegetable from my molars I am asked the usual conversation starter question: ‘What brings you to Iona?’

I pause. I inhale a long deep breath. I hesitantly reply, aware of the mawkish response: ‘I just woke up one day with it on my mind.’ There is a nod of recognition. Most people seem to have had the same experience; the same answer to the same question. It’s like a phone ringing and ringing waiting for someone to answer the call. I picked it up. So did the middle-aged man opposite me, and the woman sat on the sofa whilst reading a book about migrant birds. The only one who didn’t is the elderly man I shared a room with. He had been dumped here by his family who were on holiday in Scotland. The conversation had been soundtracked by a long-haired man sat crossed legged in the corner strumming a guitar. I called him ‘two chords’ as that appeared to be all he knew. It was apt; the same repetitive revelation spoken to the same repetitive C and G chords.

The small talk ends abruptly. The door swings open. A woman in her 40s bounds in with the respiratory effort of someone crossing the finish line of a marathon.

‘I’ve … seen … one!’ she wheezed in-between words. ‘I’ve … seen … a … corncrake!’

The scattering of people in the communal room make coos of congratulations and awe. Even Two-chords downs the guitar for a brief moment to acknowledge her great feat of observation. The woman pulls at a tube hanging out from her rucksack that was still laden on her shoulders. She sucks on it like her life depended on it. It probably does; the tube was connected to an oxygen canister. This woman had hiked over the island for days seeking out this bird – with a heavy gaseous bottle on her back which was her lifeline – yet I was lolling about dreamily. I’d achieved little other than a ‘Celtic tan’ (my skin was beginning to match the hue of the red ensign flag), and a few pictures of oystercatchers. And now I am brimming with curiosity: what was this corncrake? And what made it so special?

Corncrakes are not much bigger than a blackbird, and are related to coots and moorhens – however, unlike them, corncrakes live on dry-land. Their scientific name crex crex is onomatopoeic; their call is rasping like two wooden combs being rubbed together. I’d heard it many times on the island. I knew it was a corncrake, yet I was never really compelled to seek it out. I wanted to see whales, dolphins, eagles – I wanted the full tourist experience! The big hitters! I wasn’t interested in small ground-nesting birds. When I was back at home I looked into this troubled bird. Changes in farming habits has meant the population has declined dramatically in recent years, with up to 60% of chicks being killed by usual mowing practices. What also prods my intrigue is how, up until relatively recently, people believed they went underground, or turned into moorhens in the winter. When so much mystery has been uncovered, the corncrake clings onto an air of myth. It has been found as far as the Congo, and Kathleen Jamie called them ‘Little Gods of the Field’ in her book, ‘Findings’. That is what they are: mysterious, elusive, and if we listen we can hear their call, but we rarely see them. I now have an unquenchable thirst. I must see a corncrake.

The next three visits to Iona I made attempts to spot one. I camped out in tent-breaking gales, torrential rain, a brief spell of unseasonal snow, and blazing heat. I heard corncrakes everywhere. They teased and taunted me with their crex crex that seemed to be coming from every direction. I visited the puffins on Staffa again, I saw dolphins, whales, a black otter, seals, oystercatchers, sandlings, dunlins, plovers … a whole array of wildlife … but no corncrake. I give-up. I admit defeat. Perhaps it is just the thought of them that is magical. Maybe it is like Christmas Day, when after all the presents have been opened there is a slight pang of disappointment – the anticipation has been dissolved into empty boxes and torn paper. The myth of the corncrake is the charm. I don’t want to see one. I don’t want the magic to go.

On the next visit I relax. I sit on the beach reading and watching the ring-necked plovers run in and out with the tide. I look for green stone, witnessed spectacular sunsets, and hike across the little island to the most inaccessible parts – envious of the buzzards above cruising the thermals as I wearily wish I was fitter. As part of my tradition formed by a solitary mind, I run up Dun I and wash my face in the Font of Youth (still awaiting results), and then slowly descend the hill which seemed to be getting more perilous after each trip. I stroll back along the road heading to the White Strands beach (allegedly where monks had been repeatedly slaughtered by Vikings) when … what was that? In my periphery I spot something small and brown. I turn my head. A downy looking bird stares back at me. We both freeze for a split second, both shocked by the existence of one another.  Then it bolts across the field into the undergrowth: gawkish, inelegant, much like Sesame Street’s Beaker in a panic.

I am annoyed, but the rush of adrenaline betrayed my outward peevishness. I saw a corncrake. There was no one around to share my joy. I grab my phone and searched for someone to text – no one I knew would be interested, but I am. I care. I’d seen this bird and someone was going to hear about it. Then I remembered: there is no phone reception on this island.

The next day is my last on Iona. I do the usual as my tradition dictates: wander the shops, light a candle in the chapel, have a Windswept beer, and panic a little about weather vs ferry. I stroll up towards the Machair and spot a small crowd at the foot of a private garden. They hold up cameras and phones all pointing at this patch of long grass. I hear a nearby crex crex. My pace unconsciously increases in speed like an inner desire has overtaken my legs and now marched them to stand beside a camo-clad man holding a long lens that probably cost more than my car. I sidle up beside him; he appears to be the best to befriend at this moment.

‘It’s just there,’ he says, pointing at the grass. His grey beard doesn’t conceal the satisfied warm smile. ‘Just up from that rock.’

I see it. Between the blades of lush green grass and pink wild flowers is a Little God of the Field calling out to the females. It is so close I can see its beak opening as it crex crex. I’ve now seen two corncrakes in as many days, and this time it has been shared with equally as surprised spectators, and equally as in awe of this bird.

I don’t stick around for long. I don’t want to take the moment for granted. I’ve stepped into this magical world of the corncrake long enough and do not want to impose like an over-staying guest. I thank the birder and go on my way. I meander up onto the beach with a contented step and watch the plovers running in and out with the ebb tide. I while away the hours as I wait for my ferry just finding joy in being part of the landscape: quiet, still, observing, alone. Slowly I begin to understand the call from this little Isle in the West. Iona.

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Jo Gerrard is currently studying the MA in Wild Writing at the University of Essex after completing her undergraduate in Creative Writing at Greenwich. Her main interests lie in faeries and folklore, however she is a keen birder and often loiters in the shadows with binoculars seeking out those feathered friends.

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