A little while back I took some photographs of shore-birds, many of which are migratory and fly to the Arctic in our autumn to breed. Some of the godwits I photographed had orange leg-tags and when I zoomed in I could read the letters and numbers, so I reported these on a website that tracks migratory birds and which tells me these birds were tagged one year ago, in exactly the same place. This means that during 2016 they flew from here, over the South Pacific and southern Asia to China, where for millions of years they have fed on the mudflats in the Yellow Sea between the mainland and the Korean peninsula. Then they fly further north to either Siberia or Alaska. And after the breeding season they fly all the way back. Recently a small transmitter was put in a godwit that flew from Alaska to New Zealand in one go without stopping to eat or rest.
As a result more research is being done about how the birds sleep. We used to think that each godwit would take a turn at the front, go like the clappers for a while and then slip back into the peloton for bit of a rest while fresher godwits moved forward and took over. Not the case apparently. Micro-sleeps is the current wisdom. The birds have a capacity to close down part of their brain while flying. Exactly how they do this, and here’s an ornithological term, is anyone’s guess. Godwit numbers are down this year and the curlew sandpiper and eastern curlew numbers are so far down both are now classified as critically endangered. The reason is that the birds can no longer feed on the mudflats in the Yellow Sea on the flight north. The mudflats aren’t there any more. Despite international agreements on the crucial importance of the feeding grounds of migratory birds, the area has been reclaimed for housing.
For some reason I’ve been to a few florists lately. Last week I went into one about an hour out of town and was having a look around when a man came over and asked what I’d like. I said I wasn’t quite sure and he said that was fine and he pointed and said he’d be over there if I wanted any help. I thanked him and in fairly short order I moved away from the arrangements and settled on some fresh flowers. I caught his eye.
‘Worked it out?’ he asked, coming over.
‘Yes, I believe I have,’ I said indicating my choice, ‘I think I’ll just have a swag of these.’
‘Lilies,’ he said. ‘Yes, beautiful. Good choice.’ And he collected a generous handful and we went over to the counter where he began to wrap them.
‘You’ve been out of the florist game for a while, haven’t you,’ he said.
‘Yes, I have,’ I conceded.
‘Thought so,’ he said, and continued wrapping. ‘We’ve pretty much given up the term “swag” these days’.
‘Really?’ I asked. ‘What expression do we use these days?’
‘Oh,’ he drawled, in what A.A. Milne would call a wondering kind of way. ‘“Bunch”, mostly, these days.’
‘Is that right?’ I said. ‘“Bunch” of flowers.’
‘Yes. A lot of people call them bunches now.’
‘Goodness,’ I said and I paid him and left.
I’ll be going back there. He’s good.
A friend’s house was burgled the other day. A couple of replaceable modern devices were taken and a small amount of cash but the main contribution to her sense of shock and violation was that there was stuff everywhere, books pulled out of bookcases, accounts and professional records tipped out of folders, the filing cabinet upended and the contents tossed about and clothes hauled out of wardrobes and cupboards and thrown all over the floor. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men were quickly on hand and eventually order was restored.
When she was explaining the drama to her neighbours one of them reported that his brother’s house was completely cleaned out while he was away over the summer. Everything worth anything was stolen in broad daylight. The police investigation revealed that entry was effected by jemmying the back door open and the rest of the crime was committed as follows: a large van was backed up to the front of the house at about 9.30 in the morning and for the next hour or so, several men carried things out of the house and put them in the van while another man mowed the lawn.
In 1972 I was driving a delivery van for Barkers, which was a titanic London retail institution in Kensington until encountering an iceberg one night in dense fog about a decade ago. Some of the people to whom we delivered were very grand and a bit Miss Havisham, but a great many of them were kind and interesting. Lady Fremantle, for example, was about 85 and she had a maid who was hot on her heels, so when I arrived with the week’s groceries I’d carry them through into the kitchen. We’d often have a chat and on a cold day we’d sit at the table and have a hot chocolate. If they needed anything shifted, lifted or removed, they’d ask me but ‘only if it would be no trouble’ and if anything needed to be posted, I’d drop it in the mail.
Lady F was from a naval family and hanging in a slightly askew frame on the wall was the first order Nelson had written with his left hand after he’d lost his right arm. There was also a couple called Lord and Lady Graves, who were in films and were stars on the London musical stage and to whom I was delivering one day when I was invited in. ‘Come in,’ said Peter Graves. ‘I’m Peter Graves. You’re a New Zealander, aren’t you?’ I said I was and he said, ‘Yes, please come in. We’re very sad today. It’s is the anniversary of the death of our dear friend Inia Te Wiata. We’re just going to have a quick drink. It would be great if you could join us.’
A bottle of whisky was produced and Peter spoke about the great baritone and we had a quick drink. They then both told some excellent stories and we had a couple more quick drinks before speaking of a great many things and there was some very enjoyable singing at some point and I think we had some salmon as a few more quick drinks were put away. I then left and continued my delivery round, of which I have no clear recollection.
During the 1980s I worked on a television series on which one of the senior writers was James Mitchell, who’d written Callan and When the Boat Comes In and whose experience in writing series television was considerable. After the first script meeting Jim came over and said, ‘We’ve worked together before, haven’t we?’
‘No, I don’t think so,’ I said.
‘Yes we have,’ he said. ‘I’ve seen you before.’
‘I used to deliver your groceries, Jim,’ I said. ‘You live in Bedford Gardens.’ James was a working-class Tory and was inclined not to speak to people who delivered things, but he was always very nice to me after that first script meeting.
One of the advantages of the Barkers job was that if I wanted to go somewhere in London, to the National Gallery or the Tate or the V and A, I could drive up to the front door and provided I left one of the back doors of the van open to indicate I’d just ducked in to deliver something, I could park there as long as I liked.
Long before winning the Nobel Prize, Seamus Heaney was aware of the danger of allowing oneself to be elevated by others. He told the story of Anteaus, a great warrior in ancient Greece, enormously strong and born out of the earth itself. Anteaus would challenge his opponents to a wrestling match in which he would neutralise them, wrap his arms around them and crush them to death. Anteaus was eventually defeated by Hercules. Hercules was a famous warrior too, but he was also very smart and he’d been studying Anteaus. He had worked out that when an opponent threw Anteaus down on the ground, it made Anteaus stronger because he drew his strength from the earth. So when Hercules and Anteaus fought to the death, Hercules defeated Anteaus by lifting him off the ground and holding him up.
Something else we get from ancient Greece is the story of Narcissus, although perhaps our understanding of it has drifted slightly from its mooring. In a nutshell, Narcissus is out hunting one day when Echo sees him and falls in love with him. She follows him and talks to him. She has never seen anything as beautiful as he is and she declares her love for him. When Narcissus rejects her, Echo is broken hearted and disappears, leaving only her voice.
Then Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, punishes Narcissus by leading him to a pool in which he sees an image so beautiful he becomes enchanted and visits the pool each day to gaze at it. Ultimately he realises that the image cannot love him and cannot even exist independently of his act of looking at it. As with Echo, Narcissus’s love is obsessive and unrequited, and he kills himself.
Oscar Wilde, who was a Greek scholar, recognised that characterising Narcissus’s obsession as ‘self-love’ misses the fact that what he is enthralled by is a reflection. It is not himself as he knows himself to be. The image is reversed. He is beguiled by a perspective of himself he hasn’t seen before.
In order to highlight this otherness, Wilde included an addendum to the story in which, after Narcissus dies, the pool weeps and becomes salty with its tears. The forest creatures gather around and sympathise. They understand that the pool would mourn for so beautiful a young man as Narcissus.
‘No, no,’ says the pool, and it explains that it mourns because when Narcissus bent over and looked into it, it could see itself reflected in his eyes.
Wilde’s two sons were brought up under the name Holland after the surname Wilde, previously illuminated by one of the greatest gifts in the history of the theatre, had become associated with what was called ‘gross indecency’. Both Cyril and Vyvyan Holland served as officers in the First World War. Cyril was killed by a sniper but Vyvyan survived and after the war he worked sometimes as a lawyer and sometimes as a writer and translator. In 1947 his second wife, Thelma, who was from Melbourne and who later became the Queen’s beautician, was invited to Australia and New Zealand to give a series of lectures on fashion in nineteenth-century Australia. Between 1948 and 1952 Vyvyan and Thelma Holland lived in Melbourne.
Among Vyvyan’s published works is Drink and Be Merry, which, although it is essentially a book about wine, contains a story about the remarkable skill level of the painters Braque and Derain. The two young men shared a rather long studio and each operated at one end of the room. They developed the habit of throwing things to each other and once they’d reached Olympic standard at hurling and catching any article regardless of shape, they worked out how to throw a carafe full of water underarm the length of the room, spinning it backwards so that the water stayed in it. At the other end of the room the recipient would judge the rotation exactly and would catch the carafe by the neck as it arrived.
At the time it was common to be offered all sorts of wine in a restaurant, but it was difficult to get the waiter to bring water. One evening Derain dressed for dinner and entered the Café de Paris at the fashionable hour and ordered a meal and a carafe of water. A few minutes later, after Derain’s water had arrived, Braque entered and sat at a table about the distance from Derain’s as existed between their easels in the studio. Braque ordered his meal and then stood up and said ‘This is monstrous. I’ve been sitting here for 20 minutes and I’ve asked for a glass of water and what do I get? Nothing!’
Those assembled were further astonished when Derain stood up and said, ‘You want a carafe of water, sir? Voilà,’ and he spun the full carafe over the heads of diners to Braque, who caught it perfectly, slowly poured himself a glass of water and flung the carafe back over the heads to Derain.
‘Thank you, sir,’ Braque said, and both painters sat down as if nothing had happened.
Another admirable piece of spontaneous public theatre was established by the Australian cartoonist Paul Rigby in the late 1950s, through the formation of the Limp Falling Association. Members of the association would gather, often in venues where refreshments were available, and would go limp and fall to the ground. This would happen in the middle of a room or along a wall or at a dinner table and in a couple of more orchestral instances, in a group of 20 down a full staircase. At a time when Australia has lost touch with its identity it is regrettable that not only has this tradition been lost but that there is not a federal Minister of Limp Falling, charged with revitalising an important symbol of folkloric independence. It cannot be that the activity is too absurd. There are many federal ministers engaged in idiocy of a far greater magnitude than going limp and falling to the ground. In fact it might help if some of them made enquiries and joined the association.