A careless act


Farthing Downs, London, January 2014

From the hawthorn trees comes the sparkling sound of thrush and finch chatter. All around the landscape is weighed down by weeks of rain, the sodden grey and blackness, but this conversation lightens the scene. A flock of goldfinch burst into the sky, skipping through the air in their piecemeal flock. Their yellow wingbars flash against black feathers like miniature human warning signs. I train my binoculars on the thorns and see a redwing sat in the branches, contributing to the bird discussion. As I step towards them it ends instantly and so I turn and take a path to leave them.

The stumps of ash trees glow resinous on the hillside, the felled trunks lie supine beside them, the bark darkened by rain, the green and blue lichens thrive without a care for the tree’s demise. The brash has been piled and burned in elevated corrugated iron beds, and to many people this would seem like a careless act of deforestation. But it’s not. Farthing Downs sits on a bed of chalk and is home to a vast array of wildlflowers which are disappearing from the English countryside. The City of London Corporation are here engaging in a battle of restoration. Further along the path a black-headed gull skates low over the lane – I’ve not seen them so close to the grasslands here – propelling itself up and into the wind. Its relationship to winds so cold and blustery seem uneasy, and against this vista of meadows and woods, all the more unique.

Everyone knows a herring gull when they hear one

Everyone knows a herring gull when they hear one. Step off a train in Brighton on a summer’s day and you’ll hear their laughing call extend all the way to sea. It’s the sound used in TV and the movies to establish seaside towns. Two years ago I sat in Pavilion Gardens, green ash leaflets fanning against a blue sky, graduands strolling around with their grinning parents, when a bird poo bombshell exploded all over me. The velocity was shocking. I thought I had died and gone to graduation. The crap covered my hair, face, chest and arm. My companion was caught between the need to console and gloat. ‘You have to laugh, or else there’s nothing you can do,’ she said. ‘I’ll get a cloth.’

That day I learned some respect, seagull-style. My admiration for this bird is strange, a love unrequited on the animal’s side, a little masochistic on mine. I went to university in Liverpool and lived in a flat in the very heart of the city. My bedroom looked-out upon a row of fast food and booze outlets siphoning their stench out onto our balcony. At night we would peer over the ledge and watch the overblown shadows of rats moving between bins and under cars. Squalls came from that chasm after dark, and deep, booming voices often extinguished them. During my tenure, Saturday nights in Liverpool city centre were accentuated by the boozy rowing of couples, up against the walls of bars, stumbling across the pavement like seamen. But above it all something else was happening.

On a fine spring evening in my first year we lay on our backs on the grass verges beneath the Anglican cathedral.

‘Look!’ I had shouted, ‘a shooting star!’

‘No, you bloody idiot, it’s a seagull,’ was my acquaintance’s reply.

Smaller gulls, probably black-headed gulls, would catch the orange colour of streetlamps as they flew over. My inebriation did the rest. In the spring and summer months, when the gales which blow up and down Renshaw Street had died away, the angelic shapes of white gulls would waft down the road. Take the view from the corner of Rodney St., where Hardman St., meets Leece St., looking down onto the old Rapid Hardware store. When the sun set between the cormorant-esque liverbirds, the silhouettes of gulls moved like ashes from a fire, drifting on a light breeze to and from the Mersey.

From my old window, what I now know to be a newborn juvenile herring gull would call to its parent, waiting there for long periods of time, a bit like a package dipped in soot. Its bill is coal-black, a dusty grey hint to its body, ending in the white of its head. I have a polaroid picture of an adult herring gull perched on the rail looking into my room, a white-washed statue. The irony of the erroneous term ‘seagull’ is that now foodstocks have diminished in the bird’s natural coastal habitat, herring and black-headed gulls are coming inland to feed from the waste we leave in the street. They don’t merely follow the trawler anymore but the tractor. I recall a flock of feral pigeons, birds deriving from the cliff-dwelling rock dove, being dive-bombed by a herring gull over the scraps of chicken wings thrown into the road outside a fast food joint on Bold Street. It was like the moment the Tyrannosaurus Rex rears its head in Jurassic Park.

Whichever monstrous gull it was that crapped on me in Brighton, I forgive it. The presence of these birds on the margins of my youth have defined a remnant of my past with perhaps a little more tenderness than one might expect.