Falsely Remembered Beasts

This blog first appeared here: https://wildeasters.wordpress.com/2016/11/24/falsely-remembered-beasts/

The Dodo

The Dodo used to walk around,
And take the sun and air.
The sun yet warms his native ground—
The Dodo is not there!

The voice which used to squawk and squeak
Is now forever dumb—
Yet may you see his bones and beak
All in the Mu-se-um.1

Hilaire Belloc

Extinction began when I was six years old, with Walt Disney’s Fantasia. To the notes of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring I watched the earth emerge from the Milky Way: a violent planet, heaving with the fire of volcanoes. When it calms, the first creatures begin to writhe out of ocean darkness, one wriggling into a fish as it swims across screen, growing larger, brighter, more intricate, until it sprouts legs and crawls onto the land of the dinosaurs. Pterodactyls swoop across lakes catching prehistoric fish, in turn stolen off them by prehistoric crocodiles. Baby Diplodocuses play in shallow water. But the planet is still unpredictable. The dinosaurs’ world soon returns to hostility. Sky turns sickly orange; air is choked with dust. Swamps that had been fought over by the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Stegosaurus now ooze with grey slime. Trees are barren. Hungry and weary, the dinosaurs trudge towards a low, burning sun. Their bodies fall to the ground, one after the other. When the earth’s surface begins to rupture again, the dinosaurs are already bone.

This was my first view of extinction: the event of a distant past, and a different planet. I understood that mass destruction of the dinosaurs was necessary to the creation of the modern world – after all, we could not live side by side. And then, a few years later, I read a very different view of extinction in Hilaire Belloc’s short poem ‘The Dodo’ from The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts. The words seemed to belong to a funny poem, one that had to force the final rhyme of “Mu-se-um”, but the accompanying images suggested a different agenda.

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In the first drawing the dodo is “tak[ing] the sun and air” while peacefully watching two eggs, but it in turn is watched by men with weapons. The dodo looks like it could belong in the Jurassic era, but the men are in relatively modern dress. And then the poem exclaims “The Dodo is not there!” and both bird and eggs disappear off the page.

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Dodos have become an icon of extinction. The sale of a “95% complete” dodo skeleton – for £280,000, plus auction house fees – has just made national headlines. The birds are captivating for their flightlessness, their comical faces, for the way they appear both mythical and familiar. There are said to be only twelve genuine dodo skeletons in existence, a fact confused by convincing scale models that make them seem more common. At the Horniman Museum in south-east London, visitors are fooled by an early twentieth century dodo, made from plaster and chicken feathers, that sits alongside the museum’s genuine taxidermy. Unlike other extinct animals, the dodo feels like a creature that I’ve always known. Did I first learn of it from Hilaire Belloc, or from the dodo in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? At what point did I know it was real, and that I would never see one alive? The dodo has always been there as the dream of a falsely remembered beast.

horniman-dodoPerhaps what is most captivating about the dodo is our culpability in its demise. We can attribute the extinction of the dinosaurs to the climatic and geological changes of – as it seemed to a six-year-old – a capricious planet. The extinction of the dodo is due to humans – those who hunted it, destroyed its Mauritian forest habitat, and introduced animals such as pigs and dogs who ate its eggs. The last sighting of a dodo was in the mid-1600s. These humans are our near relatives.

The dodo is an early example of our direct role in extinction. This is a role that has exacerbated in the last few centuries, and accelerated in recent decades. In the last ten years, animals that have been declared extinct include the Yangtze River dolphin, the Bramble Cay melomys (a small rodent), Ridley’s stick-insect, and the Alaotra grebe. A recent report warns that by 2020 we are likely to have lost 67% of the wild animals that existed in 1970. The main causes for such extinction include destruction of habitat, hunting, and pollution: all down to humans.

Last week, an article in The Guardian asked why we didn’t grieve for extinct species, referring to the lack of rituals available. Our mourning is further complicated by the vast number of deaths that there are to grieve for – an act that has proved similarly difficult when the deceased are humans. On 1st July this year, young men wearing World War I uniforms appeared in public spaces across the UK. They were at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow; at Queen’s University in Belfast; I passed by them in London’s Waterloo station on my way to work. The cards they carried detailed their name, regiment, age, and date and place of death. The last was always the same: 1st July 1916, the Somme.

The men – 1,500 of them in total – were part of a project by the artist Jeremy Deller, who had been asked to commemorate the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, when almost 20,000 British men were killed. Deller was clear in his aims: “I quickly realised that what I didn’t want was a static memorial that the public went to to be sad. In the 21st century I felt we had to do something different […] I wanted to take it to the public.”

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Photo of ‘We’re Here Because We’re Here’ from The Guardian.

The project became a kind of “counter-monument”: a monument that seeks engagement from its audience and negates indifference. Yet responses to Deller’s work are helped by the relative proximity of the First World War, and personal connections (my great-great uncle William Pickard was killed in it). Commemorating the mass death of non-humans is complicated by the prospective mourner’s lack of emotional attachment. A named individual – Martha the last passenger pigeon, Cecil the lion – can help to provoke a stronger response. The imagining of such an individual occurs in David Quammen’s 1996 book The Song of the Dodo, where he depicts the sad demise of the last dodo on earth, “a single survivor, a lonely fugitive at large”, her last egg eaten by a monkey, her mate clubbed to death by a sailor. Ursula K. Heise has noted that it is only through this depiction that Quammen can translate the loss of an entire species into a narrative, and that using a female “allows him to portray her in the well-worn elegiac clichés of the bereaved mother and wife.”2

As with Deller’s feeling that “in the 21st century […] we had to do something different,” recent years have seen the introduction of new ways to mourn for extinct species. In 2011, the first Remembrance Day for Lost Species took place. This day now occurs annually on 30th November. It was devised by members from arts organisations including ONCA, the Dark Mountain Project and Zoomorphic, and artists and writers from across the globe.

rdls_logo-copyThe Lost Species Day website maps events that are happening around the world to commemorate this year’s Remembrance Day.  In Colorado, a tattoo artist is offering to tattoo participants with a selection of extinct animals, each marked with an hourglass (a similar project in 2009 saw one hundred species “ambassadors” tattooed in Salford).  In Brighton on 30th November there will be a parade and an evening of storytelling; at a yoga hall in Montana, a bell will be rung 108 times. The Montana event takes inspiration from Buddhism, while a suggested ‘Extinction Grieving Prayer’ on the Lost Species Day website has been devised by a Christian minister.

As the Lost Species website itself states, “there is no single ‘right’ way to hold an event to mark extinction.” Perhaps one way could simply be to take Belloc’s advice and visit “the Mu-se-um”, to see the bones and beaks of creatures that will never take the sun again.

Footnotes

1. Hilaire Belloc, The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts (Dodo Press, 2008).
2. Ursula K. Heise “Lost Dogs, Last Birds and Listed Species: Cultures of Extinction.” Configurations v. 18, no. 1-2, (Winter 2010): 62.

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New poem – Moving

On October 3rd I moved from London to Colchester. In Castle Park the trees were also in a state of flux and so I wrote this short poem.

Moving

When we arrived the new town
was dressing itself in autumn

kicking a golden slipper
out from behind green curtains

flaring scarlet underskirts
to let us know it would be beautiful

flipping each leaf over like a card
and every one a winner

reminding us that boxes
could play alone with their shadows

and the season would unfurl
like an old cat waking up in sunlight

most alive most radiant at this,
the beginning of its dying.

 

The brilliant Eventus Magazine, which publishes stories and interviews relating to travel, has just featured a piece I wrote on Iceland. Also worth reading is Sean Rowland’s story ‘A Home Unknown’ about returning to his birthplace of Quito, Ecuador, which he left when he was three years old.

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Leaving London

I moved to London during the twenty-first’s century Big Freeze, although the name came after. Back then it was simply December 2009, and when the first snow settled in Peckham a month later I absorbed it like water, the way I had already absorbed parts of London; the stale air of commute, the mice skittering like marbles behind the skirting boards at night, the single bed in the study of a friend of a friend.

My view of London, from that room, was of its sky. Although the room was on the ground floor, the only window was a skylight pointing up at grey, cotton-wool air that yawned over the city. On weekdays my alarm woke me up at 7am; on weekends the light slipped into my room like milk into weak tea. One Saturday when I opened my eyes to darkness the clock read midday. Three inches of snow had fallen overnight and rested thickly on the skylight. As they melted, the light dripped in.

That winter I learned London with my feet. When the trains that normally took me to London Bridge were cancelled, I told the company for which I was interning that I wouldn’t make it to work. They were a big publishing house, paying me £50 in one large red note each week, a note spent on train fare and root vegetables. On my day off I walked slowly through powdery streets to Peckham library, and then west to Camberwell. At night on my way home I found new routes through the backstreets of Dulwich and Nunhead, sliding down the centre of glittering and empty roads.

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In her essay “Sebald in the City” on the writer W. G. Sebald, Gillian Beer notes how the view of cities changes for inhabitants and incomers:

“For the inhabitant the city is largely local, focussed in nearby streets and in the invisible presences of buildings and people who once were in those streets […] For the incomer, on the other hand, cities are received as a series of impressions disjunct, with occasional pinpoint places intensely realised, jostling each other in no particular order.”

Despite living for seven years in London, I never felt like an inhabitant. The city remained at “pinpoint places intensely realised.” Sky, seen prismed through ice. Small bursts of breath in the shadows. I left that first room after six months; I left the next room six after that. In seven years I lived in seven buildings. I was never local.

In Patrick Keiller’s 1994 film London, the city’s identity is regularly mused upon by the unseen Robinson, his words reported to us by an unnamed narrator. London is deemed “unsociable”, “too private”, too “absent” to know. My own restlessness felt matched by a city that had 119 new 20-storey buildings proposed between 2015 and 2016, where the skyline seen from Telegraph Hill formed a shifting erratic heartbeat. Shop ownership changed rapidly, pop-ups popped up and stayed. Last week, returning to my Lewisham home after a month away, I wasn’t viewing the “invisible presences of buildings and people who were once in those streets” so much as searching for my own remembered path around its roundabout roadwork labyrinth, and wondering where it had gone.

During the last two years in London I studied for an MA Wild Writing, part-time, at the University of Essex. Twice weekly I took the train out of London from Liverpool Street to Wivenhoe, and walked the two-mile path along the River Colne to campus. In autumn I saw estuarine mud begin to shimmer through trees as leaves fell and the waders appeared, heard the surety of spring in nightingale song, watched migrant hawkers drift through the sticky dregs of summer. “To be recognised and accepted by a peregrine you must wear the same clothes, travel by the same way, perform actions in the same order,” wrote J. A. Baker in his 1967 work of nature writing, The Peregrine. Despite working for the Chelmsford branch of the AA, Baker could not drive and travelled everywhere by bicycle. The Peregrine’s concern with pesticides may have affected the whole of the UK in the late 1960s, but it is a local text. Baker had a patch, and knew it well.

In a few days I move from London to Colchester; from city to town. After that first, white winter, I never tried again to know London so hard by feet. I found Time Out, the TfL website, friends directing me to locations they knew. I moved mutely between pinpoint places. I learned the streets from smeared bus windows, or not at all, from underground carriages where the map is geographical fiction. I never had another skylight, shunting instead between windows that looked onto other windows. But my final room in Lewisham is at the top of a three storey flat. Taking the stairs up from the bedroom leads past glossy terracotta tiles to a door. When you pull back the bolts it sounds like horses kicking. When you step out on to the roof and look up, everything is sky.

 

 

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Poetry Book Society Competition

Very pleased that my poem ‘Bee Summer’ has been awarded second place in the Poetry Book Society 2015 National Student Poetry Competition (a second poem, ‘Swoose’, was highly commended).

There’ll be an event at Goldsmiths on 9th March with readings from prizewinners and the judge, Andrew McMillan, whose recent Physical is one of the best new poetry collections I’ve read. You can read the full anthology here.

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memory maps

As part of the MA Wild Writing at Essex I’ve taken a module on memory maps and psychogeography; unaware that it would involve a short writing session at the end of each session. The below were all written in class.

Object (i)
My office in Battersea is adjacent to a bus depot and downwind from a coffee factory. Outside, the air burns with diesel and blackened toast. Standing by the window of the first floor kitchen I can look down on the spiked fence and gravel that separates the walls by ten feet. Sometimes a fox sleeps there, curled in the shadow of bus garage wall. He’s a soft clenched fist, an orange ouroboros. The 9 to 6 passes for weeks without sight of his indifferent body. When I see him I’m elsewhere; the backyards and gardens that he’s slipped from.

Boundary (ii)
Convoy’s Wharf, site of the old Deptford dockyard. The point at which concrete connects with the cold grey lap of the Thames. They were going to turn it into homes, 3,000 of them, stacked one on top of each other like shipping containers. The site lies on the operating table, its veins and arteries cracking the pavement. The plants that find home here are outcasts: nettles, wild rocket, queen anne’s lace. Buddleia waves purple heads. The last building is large as an airport hanger, church-quiet. It could hold a prayer were it not for the windows, systematically punctured, letting the sky fall in.

Place (iii)
Curtains open on laburnum, masking half a square of sky, oak, high grass before it’s hay. There used to be more of this. Now perhaps two spring days a year, two hours in two spring days. Time is marked with yellow flowers. Every minute since would have been different, if I’d opened to bricks.

Home (iv)
Breath collects on the window and covers the clock tower. Fried chicken air freshener is piped in at unpredictable intervals. Years of other people have clotted the carpet. The room is mine, not mine. Each monthly payment is balanced against the city, its glass angles and growing bulk. We are weightless here.

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urban wanderings iv

Intake Manor Park The Wicker Norton Freshville Hackenthorpe Shalesmoor Wombwell Catcliffe Brincliffe Attercliffe Ecclesall Woodhouse Wybourn

sheffield

There are several towns and cities in the north of England that I have only experienced while waiting to get somewhere else. Lancaster, on the way home from Windermere. Doncaster, on the way to York, not wearing enough clothing for January. Manchester, on a ten-hour coach journey from Glasgow to London on New Year’s Day. Most were experienced while changing trains, and you don’t get much from a train station; they follow the same codes, have the same Costas and Whistlestops, and the only sign that you’ve gone somewhere is the change in accent over the loudspeaker.

A couple of years ago, on the way to a campsite in Edale, I stopped at Sheffield. There was just under an hour’s wait between trains, which I spent in Sheffield Tap, the pub next door, with a pint of cask ale. From the window in the pub I could see Park Hill, the brutalist council housing estate that was listed by English Heritage in 1998 and is now being renovated. On the way back to the station I ran my fingers through the huge cylindrical water fountain in Sheaf Square and then headed to platform 2C and the tiny, two-carriage train to Edale.

I saw a similar Sheffield this weekend: good beer, steep hills, modernisation and dilapidation in equal parts. We walked everywhere, led by my friend Stuart (who lives there). It’s hard to get a handle on the geography of a city as a whole when you follow someone: the map your head makes is linear, and then streets connect unexpectedly. But being a passenger lets you take in the transition between different areas.

Stuart lives in a terraced house on Shoreham Street, approachable only by the back yard, which opens onto a vista of red brick roof tops, chimneys, washing lines and fences. It’s a house where the stairs are a few inches wide and ascend sharply, as if the building is breathing in. Stuart lives in a room that just accommodates a small double bed and wardrobe so the rest of us stayed at the Ibis Budget Hotel, out of town near the Meadowhall shopping centre and next to a giant ice rink. On Saturday morning the pollution was so bad that when we looked out of our fourth floor window the air beyond the ice rink was a bright haze. The road that led back to Sheffield’s city centre was empty of people, host to the large hardware stores found in retail parks and also several ‘adult shops’ with non-adult names like Hanky Panky.

The city centre made me feel the same way that all town centres do: tired and a bit sad, like I’m pushing an invisible buggy on my way to BHS to buy towels. The money that the council had to develop it fell through with the market crash in 2008. In 2013 they started plans to regenerate it again. Currently the city’s buzz is concentrated on the indoor Moor Market, with stalls selling fruit, cheese pies, dog treats, wool, and craft beer.

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Moor Market replaced the old Castle Market, Sheffield’s ’cavern of weirdness’. Castle Market was the more interesting and jumbled centre, but fell out of line with the Millennium Square fountains and the tropical Winter Garden, the image of a shining successful town. It was empty when we passed by, and so were the surrounding buildings: a local co-op was closed, pubs were boarded up. Walking along the River Don, just north of Castle Market, it was barely any busier – a man in flip-flops dropped bread down on the ducks below, watched by a couple of people sat outside the Riverside pub.

Kelham Island, the site of the old iron foundry and a power station, and now home to an industrial museum, epitomised a juxtaposition between old and new. The balconies of modern riverside flats faced a large closed factory, its windows either boarded up or smashed. Next to them, The Chimney House was taking advantage of the latest trend for dilapidated chic and would not have been out of place in east London, “a Grade II listed building […] with a respectful nod to its industrial roots but with a realisation for its eclectic present and future.” But perhaps this is the best option for many of Sheffield’s empty buildings, which can’t stay empty forever.

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Five minutes walk from Kelham Island are the Fat Cat and Kelham Island Tavern, both serving a huge selection of local ale that included mild and porter. It was here we found people: not in the front of the pubs but in the gardens, circled by walls and drinking beer, with the old chimney looming into view over the top. There was still space for us to sit. Pubs like these are rare in London, where beer gardens are crammed full on a warm spring day. The same goes for the Nichols building, selling antiques over two floors – a Shoreditch equivalent would be ten times as busy and twice as expensive.

In comparisons to London the capital comes out unfavourably. The pubs are one element; in London I get tired of floorboards and flocked wallpaper, and roast dinners for £15, and having a straight choice between Doombar and London Pride. Perhaps it was down to the haze but the sense of time felt different too. A friend noted that it was hard to shake off the ‘London walk’ – the speed at which you weave between hordes of tourists and march down escalators. When I stood still in Sheffield to look up at the layers of chimneys and roofs, no one walked into the back of me.

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rural wanderings iii

shoeburyness

Shoeburyness, south-east Essex. The walk to East Beach from the station takes you alongside a single-track train line, held behind mesh and kept neat from weeds. Following it to the source leads you to gates, and high, barbed-wire topped fences, beyond which squat the anonymous buildings of the Ministry of Defence. The train track runs along the perimeter and snakes behind a corner. In Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film, Stalker, a trio of men smuggle themselves into ‘The Zone’ – a landscape beyond the rules of physics – on a railway work car, the gates opening and shutting behind them. Today the track is silent; the entrance is closed. The fence is pockmarked with warnings of what happens to trespassers, but the so-called firing range looks peaceful: trees stand in a recently trimmed lawn.

Opposite the MOD is a drive leading to an innocuous estate of bungalows, purpose-built for retired employees. A silver car is parked in a driveway, a wheelbarrow rests. It may feel like there is something dangerous in the quietness, but this could be any other seaside resort.

There is no human activity behind the fence on the walk down the road to the sea, although a new MOD warning is in place at every few metres. In the sand the fence runs out. You can feel its invisible line alongside you even if the clusters of seagulls care nothing for the unexploded munitions they stand on. A spine of columns leads down the sand towards the distant tide, which is too far out to be heard. A woman walks a little dog. There are birds in the water and birds in the air, and the pools on the sand reflect the sky. The morning’s shadows point towards the MOD.

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Shoebury Common Beach, late afternoon, is a different place. The tide is in, the orange sun is drifting, and daytrippers who have braved the cold are packing up. Beach huts are strung along the promenade and run down onto the beach. The numbers are uniform, on little plaques, while some have additional lettering: Haddock’s Plaice, Rest Ashored, Our Oyster. A few are named for people: Pat’s Pride, Jim’s View. The funeral director’s sign across the top of the beach shelter hints at the age group who settle here. Most huts are padlocked shut for winter, but a few of the more modern ones are occupied: behind a sliding glass door a man and woman sit facing the sea.

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My great great aunt, Ann, had a yellow and white beach hut along the sand leading to Thorpe Bay. She was standing in the beach hut with her husband, Frank, in 1984 when he collapsed from a heart-attack. Winnie, their friend, was waiting in the car with their little black poodle; Winnie was the one who called the ambulance. Frank was dead before he reached the hospital and Ann never went back inside the beach hut. At some point a friend must have come in and cleared it for her, removing the personal items – the last objects that Frank touched – to strip it out for the new owners, while the sun spangled on the waters.

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