April - May 2006
Gillian Clarke’s Journal
by Gillian Clarke
The swallows are here. They arrived before Easter, the very pair, we must assume, that nested here last year, raising three broods of young on the same beam in our barn. Now they are back from Africa. There they were, one cold early April day, trying the air above the garden and Cae Blaen Cwrt for familiar places and perches. They settled for a while on their old favourite top branch of the weeping birch by the pond in the field. Then, after much aerial preambling, they slid their low-flying jet shapes through the gap over the big barn doors, like jets daring the deep valleys between mountains. Last year Jac got one of the final brood. It had just learnt to fly. Jac snatched it from the air as David rushed to open the big doors so that the young bird might see its way out, A black cat, his mouth full of inky blue black feathers. After watching the parent birds successfully rearing three broods, it was a terrible sight. This year we have new rules: the barn doors are kept shut and the cat flap locked to keep the cats out. The cats’ winter night quarters in the hay are banned in spring and summer. There are kennels, little sheds and a poly-tunnel where they must seek their shelter now.
Song-birds all over Britain are being killed at such an unprecedented rate by cats and grey squirrels that their numbers are in serious decline. This is the warning from a survey just published. Domestic cats usually bring their kill home to consume or abandon on the doorstep or the kitchen floor, so we know our cats’ prey. Although occasional bodies of young birds are brought - a robin, a redstart, a snipe - they are rare. Our cats prefer fur to feathers, mice, voles, sometimes a rat, a weasel, and many rabbits. We are grateful to our cats for keeping rabbits from our vegetable garden and the house free from vermin. In his younger days Jac’s main prey were young rabbits, one a day when he was at the height of his powers. Nothing pleased him better than fresh rabbit. He killed it quickly, and ate it bones and all, leaving nothing but the gut. Sometimes he would eat his fill and disappear to sleep it off for twenty four hours, leaving the ‘trousers’ for the other two cats. This is typical wild cat behaviour. Lions, tigers, eat all they can when they can, because tomorrow they may eat nothing at all. This kill is natural, and seems fair, even decent. The cat kills to eat. Jac is a very big cat, lean and muscular, half-Siamese, half farm cat. His Siamese genes give him muscular strength, great size and the instinct and ability to catch and kill prey almost as big as himself. In his heyday, he wasted nothing of his kill. There is a belief among some Native American tribes that if you hunt to kill, you must use every single part of the animal you kill, wasting not a feather, not a pelt, not a bone. They believe this respects the animal and reveres its life, teaching us how to live with life and death.
It is difficult to protect birds from predators, and from our own mistakes. Song-thrushes never came to our hill in the past. The land to the west rises to a thousand feet. Our increasingly leafy eighteen acres lies a little lower and in the lee of it. Some of our neighbours’ fields are entirely tree-less, the criss-cross scars of old hedgerows visible in aerial photographs. In such exposed fields the rain and wind from the west scours and sours the grazing and the sheep have no winter shelter. Before they saw the errors of their ways, the European grant-givers paid farmers to cut down hedgerows. Now the pressure is commercial. Every year the profits are smaller, the machines bigger. Last year a contractor’s harvesting machine on its way to a neighbour’s mega-field was way too wide for our lane. Its wheels straddled the tarmac leaving it untouched, gouging the narrow grass verges and crushing the banks of the open ditch which carries flood from the road in heavy rain. It ripped branches from our over-hanging tunnel of trees wild laburnum, cherry, rowan, elderflower, hawthorn, high enough for all normal loads and careful drivers of lorries, tankers, tractors and trailers to pass without difficulty, as occasionally they must, down our lane.
A decade of tree and hedge planting since we bought, and ‘saved’, our 18 acres, has brought back the song-thrush, the dragonfly, the early purple orchid, and many other flowers of the field. The avenue of hornbeams between the fields known as Cae Blaen Cwrt and Cae Bach, planted as a millennium gift to the planet, flanked to its north-east and south-west by new, sheltering hedges of mixed, native species, and a grove of young trees, is now a place of dappled sunlight, birdsong and wild flowers. It’s a nursery for ewes with new lambs for a few weeks in spring. They soon nibble it clean of old winter grass. We find sheep don’t eat daffodils or spring leaves when there is enough grass beneath their hooves.
So, the song thrush. This year, in winter, we cut back an overgrown hedge of gorse, and laid it in a row along Cae Delyn, (so called because it is shaped like a harp), intending to return and burn it within the permitted period for gorse burning. Time passed, leaving us with a dilemma. The gorse could not remain on the hay-field. One April evening, we decided to remove and burn it, examining each branch carefully before burning. Darkness fell, and there was just one small pile left for the morning, when David returned to place the last antlers of gorse on the white circle of still smouldering ashes. The very last branch contained a thrushes nest with one, cold blue egg. The nest had been built parallel to the earth, so it had been done since the hedge was cut. Probably the thrush deserted it the previous evening, because of our presence and the smoke. Burning gorse so late, even long-cut gorse, is some kind of crime. We ought to have cleared it in winter, well before the nesting season.
Guilt, and regret, shadowed us for weeks. Birdsong is not for our pleasure. It is the sound of connection, of the link between bird and bird, bird and nest, parent-bird and nestlings. We benefit from the song bird’s presence. The thrush feeds on the snails that destroy the produce in our garden. We live with nature if we are to live at all. Then, one evening this month a thrush sang again in the beech brake at the end of Cae Blaen Cwrt. There is no evening song like it. The thrush sings in rhyming couplets, the poet among birds, as Browning knew:
‘That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over’
It is, however, the blackbird that has most clearly spoken for connections this spring. It has sung all day, every day, everywhere, pausing only in the darkest hours of the night. At dawn it is the first and clearest song. It does not stop for rain. Indeed, it seems to love the rain, as if each drop eased the song more fluidly, more fluently from its throat. My daughter emails from the city, from a terraced house with no front garden at all, and only a tiny back yard which she has filled with greenery, flowers and scents like a miniature Eden.
‘What’s this bird singing all day?’ she asks. She describes the song, a sweet repeated song of four notes. It is a blackbird, hidden deep in a fig tree and overhanging lilacs in the garden back-to-back with hers that nobody, thank goodness, has bothered to tidy and tame. Perhaps, tonight, there is a blackbird singing in every garden in Europe. Medieval poetry, and early Irish and Welsh poetry, is full of blackbirds. It is, I think, the Muse.
Last week, in France, the blackbird’s was the only voice I heard in Oradour-sur-Glane, a village near Limoges, in the Limousin. In the village streets there were people strolling, but no one spoke, or smiled, or acknowledged another. The small sign we passed at the gates to the village read, SILENCE. We needed no such prompt. Ahead the street took an elegant curve into sunlight, as in most charming old villages in rural France. But in Oradour the houses gape, roofless, windowless, like skulls in a charnel house. Every terraced house, detached house, the Mairie, Post Office, three schools, a surgery, several dressmakers, cafés, hotel, bar, grocer, butcher, baker, farrier, ironmonger, garage, the great, medieval church, these and all that had served the village, flanking the street ahead and all adjacent streets between lost gardens and rows of sweet chestnuts, were torched by an occupying SS division of the German army on the 10th of June, 1944. First all citizens were ordered to assemble in the village square. There they were separated into groups and herded into Oradour’s larger buildings, women and children into the church, men and boys into several barns. Then the soldiers shot the men and fired the barns. Five boys and young men escaped.
In the church, the herded women must have heard the commotion. One woman, Mme Rouffanche, survived by jumping through the glass of the great window behind the altar, and pretending to be dead. She is the only witness to what happened in the church. A few soldiers placed a ‘box …from which hung strings which trailed the ground’ close to the nave. It exploded, filling the church with smoke. The women rushed into a side chapel. The soldiers fired a volley of shots into them, then piled straw and wood on the bodies and set fire to it.
Connections. I was seven. It was two days after my birthday. I remember it well, remember the presents I had, the antique tea set from Ga, my grandmother, the new dress that my mother had made with red and blue taffeta bought with all the clothing coupons she and the family could muster. There was nothing to buy for birthdays in the shops, so we children were given more precious things, though we hardly knew it then. My father found a French musical box in a junk shop. Beautiful, crafted, its oak lid inlaid with mother of pearl scrolls and a little ship. I have it still, and the tea set. They are here, in my study. Treasures.
While I romped on Ga’s bed and raced about the house, excited, the forces of good and evil were mustering elsewhere. A terrible violence, and much suffering, lay days away. I know now, in a sudden revelation brought by an unsolved, undated memory, that my father had wind of something being planned. He was a BBC broadcasting engineer, which was a ‘reserved’ occupation. Such work was considered important to the war effort and those thus engaged were not called up for military service. Also, the BBC was in a unique position to sniff the wind for signs of the way the war was going.
I knew, even on my seventh birthday, that ‘there was a war on’. That was why we were told to eat up, turn the lights off, waste nothing, expect nothing, be thankful for everything. I followed the rules, without the least understanding of what war meant. Except that my mother’s friend Ena came to our house to cry a lot. Her husband had been a pilot in the RAF, and he’d been killed’. He was ‘a hero’, they said. Also, just along the coast from our house in Barry, near Cardiff, the Germans had bombed the harbour. We had a hole in our dining room window made by a piece of shrapnel. Sometimes I had to sleep under the stairs, or with my mother and baby sister under a shelter like a metal table. Mostly Ga and I were safe a hundred miles away, at Fforest Farm, in Pembrokeshire, but for my seventh birthday we were all together in Barry.
I have never before understood or been able to date this memory. My father woke me one night a few days before my 7th birthday. I was counting the days already, trying on the new dress while it was still full of pins. He lifted me onto the windowsill, pulled back the curtains and pointed into the night sky. ‘Look’, he said. ‘I didn’t want you to miss this.’ The sky was full of aeroplanes. Lights. I remember the sound, the deep organ music of their growling. Hundreds of planes from, I suppose, RAF St Athan in Glamorgan, and elsewhere, flying south over Barry, the Bristol Channel, and, I now believe, over the English Channel to France. It must have been the early hours of D-day, the day of the all-out push to liberate France. Where does memory come from, suddenly making sense of itself 60 years after the event?
In Oradour this early summer, the ruins are a monument, masonry and metal making a shape of the past, timbers burnt, roofs and upper floors fallen. Remaining in every house is what was left after the looting and burning: iron bedsteads, Singer sewing machines, bicycles, wine racks, pumps, sundry machines, cars burnt in their garages, We know the people’s names: M.Avril, Mme Reignier, J. Rouny, Doctors Paul and Jaques Desourteaux, father and son. We know their work, their trade, their professions. Seamstress, glove-maker, dentist, doctor, teacher, butcher, baker, hotelier, and all the others who made up the community of a perfectly ordinary village.
Four days after the D-day invasion, two days after my seventh birthday, while my mother stitched into the night on her Singer sewing machine, making my taffeta party dress, the regional commander of the SS, the first regiment, der Fuhrer, of the Das Reich division, was planning the destruction of Oradour. On June 10th, some of those who died were seven year old children, ushered with their teacher from their schools by the soldiers. For three of the girls, it was their birthday week too. For one, Michele Vauchamp, her birthday was to be her death day.
Something about its silence,
a black machine, gold finery lowered
and locked for good under the lid,
the silent treadle, little drawers of silks,
spare needles rusting in their paper cases,
calls up the thought of a small foot rocking,
a delicate ankle bone in grey lisle
lifting and falling to an old heartbeat,
silk slipping under her hand
like the waters of the Glane under the bridge.
Treadle and thread and woman singing
in another language sixty years ago
one warm June afternoon in Oradour,
before the sun fired the west window of the church,
before the last tram from Limoges.
We walked in silent Oradour, listening to the blackbird’s orisons. The church is a beautiful ruin, the flagstones of its floor laid unevenly like a shore from which seas and centuries have receded. The bell lies where it fell under the tower, tortured by fire into a huge, deformed lump, its tongue welded into its throat, vestiges of the words once engraved about its rim still legible, but senseless. In a side aisle stands the confessional, unburnt, sheltered under a part of the church that is roofed with stone. The bodies of two children were found inside it. It keeps its secrets, the complexities of love, courage, betrayal, loss, grief, goodness and greed that go on anywhere where we are human. One day, a sin confessed. Next day, it’s all over.
In the car on the way back to our home for a week in a lovely Limousin farmhouse, conversation gradually returned, though somberly. All who see such things must understand why the European dream is so much more valued by those whose experience of war was this. We had never heard of the atrocity of Oradour-sur-Glane until a year ago. Most people haven’t. Everyone should be told what happened there.
Auburn Limousin cattle lay flicking their tails in deep grass over the auburn soil of the fields. Further south limestone-pale Charolais graze on limestone terrain. The weekly markets sell the produce of the fields all around us. The wine carries a hint of the taste of the very rock beneath our feet. The glory of what’s local, and continuous, and part of a culture that is deep and ancient and human.
The end of May. Hay-on-Wye Festival of Literature time, where the blackbird is still singing, A few years ago in Hay it sang all of a rainy day till dark, and again from 3 the following morning. I know because I was commissioned to spend 18 hours in Salem Chapel writing a poem in response to a live performance of Eric Satie’s ‘Vexations’. Composed of 18 notes repeated over 18 hours, it was played by a team of many pianists. Making way for each other, the pianists smoothly exchanged first the left, then the right hand, and never a lost note. I got sleepy and cold, but not bored. Hearing the piano repeating its notes was no more boring than listening to the sea break on the shore, or the blackbird’s four-note song sung over and over. The piece was broadcast live on Radio 3, and the poem at dawn, accompanied by a recording of the very blackbird singing outside the chapel, the presiding muse of the poem.
Erik Satie and the Blackbird
The blackbird sings
for eighteen hours
with a bead of rain
in its throat.
First notes at first light.
Four in the morning
and he’ll be there
with his mouth full of gold.
The piano crosses an ocean
on one wing,
noon to midnight
and through to dawn.
This is the nightshift,
you and the rain
and the pianist awake,
navigating the small hours.
While the blackbird sleeps
under a dark wing,
the town breathing,
the wash of a car on a wet street,
the world turns over
in the dark. The sleepless
travel on. They know by heart
their own refrains.
The pianist doesn’t turn the page.
Just back to the top
where music collects
opening its throat to the rain,
and somewhere two bells
count down the hours
towards first light, landfall,
the downpour of a blackbird singing.
From Making the Beds for the Dead (Carcanet)