“…May your last recital / Embody this growing proximity to tomorrow / may you lose your voice in song at this darkening border.”
- David Coates, House Sparrow
I’d taken the first opportunity to flee the city for a brief time. Enjoy some sunshine down on the coast, show my non-British friends something other than angry motorists, fried chicken boxes and Olympic diversions. I sit in my mother’s back garden, the heat pressing hard against my rapidly reddening skin, relishing the lack of engine growls and beeping horns. This isn’t nature, but there is a hell of a lot of life here. Something I’m trying to cultivate back in Hackney, little successes, here and there, but not like this.
Gulls, black headed and herring, wheel overhead, emitting piercing cries as they perch on chimneys and red tile. Buddleia shifts slightly in hot breeze, butterflies and bees crawling over the purple flowers, doing what they do, what they have always done.
A large flock of house sparrows ripples through the bushes, suddenly corkscrewing as one through the sunshine before alighting on the tasteful middle-class pine decking my mother had put down three years ago. Now, it shows signs of mildew. They’re going for the seed of course, the seed I put down a few minutes ago, nagged by my mother into doing so. The others are inside, showering, gulping down that last bit of coffee, brushing cigarette stained teeth, deodorising. I sit. I watch the sparrows.
You just don’t see them in the city, not in London, any more. Only last week I had been added to some round-robin email led by some woman from the RSPB, imploring residents of my postcode to note down any sightings of the bird. Why not, worth a shot.
As the years had trickled by I’d allowed the world to become ordinary and taken the sparrows for granted. A fixture in the anthropomorphised literature of my childhood, roosting in the lofts and attics of Redwall, was disappearing for reasons unclear and disconcerting. Maybe they had just lost interest.
‘Remember when you were young, the buddleia would be crawling with butterflies’ says my mother, stepping out into the garden, sipping milky tea. I do remember. Despite the abundance of wildflowers at the back of the garden, they too are diminished. We all know that if the bees and butterflies go, so do we. My answer is to make passing references, nod my head portentously, look at the problem out of the corner of my eye, do nothing but notice.
Out back, in the patch of overgrown foliage, a debatable wasteland, new houses are sprouting, apparently flaunting various pieces of planning restrictions. The development took out a nature corridor and now my mother no longer sees bats on summer evenings but people need a place to live, I suppose. My brother and I would play out in that useless bit of space before its potential was realised.
I ask the question ‘Didn’t that used to be?….’ a lot these days.
My life is full of holes and naked disappearances. Events and experiences pass through me, water through a colander. My chest tightens as I put down feed for the sparrows in the shadow of these new buildings. Here, out of the city they are still in abundance, flitting from branch to branch, throwing up dirt into the air as they roll in dust-baths, picking furtively at the seed left for them. I wonder what my friends who emigrated to Australia are doing, what birds they see in their gardens, in their parks and on their phone lines. In these pockets of sunlit non-reality, I can dream of getting away from all this and learn to disappear.
The other night, I idly flicked through absent friends’ photographs in the digital albums of the new world. They were sunny and far away. Clicking back through my own timeline, pixels of ex-girlfriends hugged tight, a mate’s boozy wedding, younger punk rockers with familiar faces in sweaty embraces, nights in that venue on the Holloway road that turned into a fucking Costa Coffee, pictures of times spent in building’s that didn’t just change but were demolished. The act of remembrance comes hard, a deep dredging, pulling teeth, exposing those dead white things to the harsh sunlight.
I try and join the dots and put together how I ended up here, on this day, watching the dying sparrows, sipping this awful tea, wishing I could disappear.
I sit in the hot summer sun, a blessed relief after weeks of torrential rain. With time to idle, I conduct internet research on how to encourage wild bird populations in my Hackney garden. I get the feeling any nature writer worth their salt would not admit to using the internet. They would not live in London.
I was not given the gift of inherited lands and friends who owned tracts of woodland. No one offers me a place to crash in their rural retreat, no coastal cottage nor sylvan shelter.
I am a squatter in a haunted ruin, taking temporary shelter in a world of disappearances. The sparrows, butterflies, friends, family, warped streets, the buildings that now only stand in memory. The past is neatly diced and packaged.
I walk up the shabby Deal pier, passing dangling fishing lines, trays of squid-bait, beer-bellied fishermen with accents more London than London. I arrive at a modern café, incongruous, a few diners and black coffee-drinkers who pay ludicrous prices considering the setting. Thin plastic Union Jack bunting flaps in salt breeze. Off in the distance, the White Cliffs are visible, the ferries crossing over to France. What became of the Cinque Ports?
On Margate sands I can connect everything with everything. Every grain of sand on the beach is an undiscovered world, a fantastic metropolis of fresh futures waiting their turn. I muse, like the rest, on who constructed the shell grotto as I lick emulsion white ice-cream with visiting companions, looking out at the sweep of the coastline, the shabby charm of the tidal pool (pictured in Whitstable galleries) ,the Turner Contemporary daubed with Olympiad-pink, standing as a final full stop to our story.
A small hut crouches by the gallery.
SIINEMA AMNESIA – THE WASTELAND
As squatters in Britain’s history, we make use of the things once forgotten, unloved and neglected. Told we’re not wanted, nuisances, a fly in the ointment of progress. Those who claim ownership to this history, those who hold the superior firepower in the memory war, they want their property back.
The niches we found, breathing space and a place to simply be, uninterrupted, are being filled in and plastered over.
The sparrows decline as I decline. I scatter seed into the flower beds and the birds come, along with collared doves, chaffinch and dunnock. It’s a form of regeneration.
The high street of Deal is an amnesiac’s wasteland. The story we look for is in the wood of the pier, below the shingle, in the sigh of the sea. Herring and black-headed gulls are in abundance here, feeding on greasy dropped chips and scraps of battered cod. They mill around beetroot-red families who rest on benches, mobiles clutched hard. Their child familiars lap at lollies. The sun shines, at times.
At a dappled church out near Hythe, rain-pitted carvings of the Green Man peer out of religious architecture. Strange, I think, for a pagan being of bud and briar to be carved in stone. John Barleycorn and I are becoming better and better friends.
The town of Sandwich is wealthy, an English idyll, forgetful of its days by the sea, all silted up and cut off now. A Cinque Port, landlocked, liberated from purpose. That’s how you become truly free.
‘Didn’t that used to be…?’