Testaments to the Living World

J. A. Baker

J. A. Baker

J. A. Baker (1926-1987) was an amateur ornithologist who cycled around the Essex countryside in the 60s, observing the bird life. Little is known about him, except that he worked for the Automobile Association but did not possess a car.  

He wrote a book about his observations of the wintering  peregrine falcon, The Peregrine, which was published in 1967. This beautifully written work has since acquired a unique status, transcending many other works in the genre with its poetic power – at times like Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Windhover, elsewhere marked by the author’s admiration for Ted Hughes. It is, in a remarkable way, the closest any human being gets to actually becoming a wild creature – the hypnotic absorption is so complete, the language so vibrant and evocative.

The whole book condenses 10 winters of observation into one, and the  overarching lesson it teaches is how to “see” and marshal the powers of language to preserve the freshness and truth of that vision. The film director Werner Herzog has famously championed the book, saying that it has “an intensity and beauty of prose that is unprecedented” and calls it “the one book I would ask you to read if you want to make films”. 

A few illustrative extracts, chosen almost at random:

“The sky peeled white in the north-west gale, leaving the eye no refuge from the sun’s cold glare. Distance was blown away, and every tree and church and farm came closer, scoured of its skin of haze. Down the estuary I could see trees nine miles away, bending over in the wind-whipped sea. New horizons stood up bleached and stark, plucked out by the cold talons of the gale.”

“The tide was rising in the estuary; sleeping waders crowded the saltings; plovers were restless. I expected the hawk to drop from the sky, but he came low from inland. He was a skimming black crescent, cutting across the saltings, sending up a cloud of dunlin dense as a swarm of bees. He drove up between them, black shark in shoals of silver fish, threshing and plunging. With a sudden stab down he was clear of the swirl and was chasing a solitary dunlin up into the sky. The dunlin seemed to come slowly back to the hawk. It passed into his dark outline, and did not reappear. There was no brutality, no violence. The hawk’s foot reached out, and gripped, and squeezed, and quenched the dunlin’s heart as effortlessly as a man’s finger extinguishing an insect. Languidly, easily, the hawk glided down to an elm on the island to plume and eat his prey.”

“At two o’clock, a crackling blackness of jackdaws swept up from stubble and scattered out across the sky with a noise like dominoes being rattled together on a pub table.”

I read this in the same week that I read Brian J. Ford’s Sensitive Souls (1999), a magnificent study, rich in the latest scientific information and insight, that debunks man’s sense of his own superiority and illustrates how all of life – animals, plants, bacteria – is sentient in ways we would never have suspected, often with a rich emotional life and complex sense of family and social structure.

The case he makes is that we are all “cousins” in life, and should act accordingly. The back-cover blurb says the book “offers an all-embracing new vision of life”, which indeed it does. As I read it, images of Gulag livestock rearing and abusive abattoirs constantly came to mind. This book, and Baker’s, go a long way towards opening our eyes to the incredible beauty and complexity of the natural world, but also to how far we have debased it and, in so doing, debased ourselves.

Badger’s Bike Squad

screen-shot-2016-10-30-at-10-06-38Badger’s Bike Squad (BBS) comprises Adrian Mathews (Badger), Steve Birkbeck, retired British detective and stand-up comedian manqué, and Yves Krier, French playwright, wit and raconteur. Once a week this intrepid trio sets out for a one-day cycle ride, a different person devising the route each time and ensuring that there’s a decent auberge at midway point for lunch. The aim? A nice day out, a bit of a laugh, a cycling challenge, and to discover the highways and byways of rural Touraine.

The latest round trip of 58 kilometres was to Chinon, taking in the ruins of an old abbey (where the final campaign against the English was decided upon), Emilien’s excellent wine cellar and the beautiful old town of Chinon. But the adventure was not without its mishaps. You can watch the video by clicking HERE

A video of the previous ride down the valley of the river Creuse can be viewed HERE.

Watch this blog for further BBS escapades!

The Saint-Epain - Chinon round route.

The Saint-Epain – Chinon round route.

Badger's Bike Squad: Steve Birkbeck, Adrian Mathews (Badger), Yves Krier

Badger’s Bike Squad: Steve Birkbeck, Adrian Mathews (Badger), Yves Krier

 The Badger Song, written by Steve Birkbeck

I’m pedaling on for Badger
He’s in front, he’s in front
I’m pedaling on for Badger
He’s behind, he’s behind
No matter where I am
Paris or Vietnam
Badger is always on my mind

I’m spinning spokes and flying with the wind  
I can hear gears a-changing Badger’s close behind
He’s closing in so fast
My legs aren’t going to last
Badger is always on my mind

The skies go on for ever
The mountain climbs are tough
When I fear I will surrender
When I feel I’ve had enough
Badger’s there beside me
He whispers words so kind
Yes Badger, Badger, he’s always on my mind.

VERSION 2.

CHORUS:
Badger on the run
We’re going to have some fun
When bikes run free
We know that he
He’s the One.

Badger thinks of things that might have been
Of all the valleys never seen
And so he pedals on in song
Rolls towards another dream
We’re not so far behind
Badger’s always on our mind.

CHORUS

Badger’s kind, Badger’s calm,
Badger’s wisdom does no harm
There’s no one he cannot charm
For everyone he does belong
So pedal on to search and find
Badger, he’s always on our mind.

CHORUS

 

Blackberry Way

img_1408One of the joys of a dawn cycle ride in mid-September is that you can skip breakfast and head for your favourite blackberry bushes. In the shops, a tiny punnet of blackberries costs at least 3 euros, and they’re probably imported from Mexico. Out here, they’re free – and plentiful. This morning I must have eaten over two hundred, while humming Blackberry Way of course – The Move’s 1968 hit, and probably one of the most depressing songs ever penned. Tomorrow I shall stick to quoting Sylvia Plath’s mesmerising poem Blackberrying which includes the lines: “I come to one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies, / Hanging their bluegreen bellies and their wing panes in a Chinese screen. / The honey-feast of the berries has stunned them; they believe in heaven.”

It is a sad reflection on our day and age – and our churlish abandonment of Mother Nature – that if you Google “Blackberry” the entire screen fills up with references to the make of mobile phone, with not an edible soft fruit in sight. 

Blackberries are rich in dietary fibre, vitamin C, vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin E, anti-oxidants and minerals, and they are very low in calories. However, let it be admitted, loud and clear, that they are also outrageous imposters, since they are not in fact berries at all from a botanical point of view.  But then neither – I hear you groan – is a mobile phone. At least the fruit of the humble bramble looks somewhat like a berry. Ah verily, ’tis not alone his inky cloak that can denote him truly…

A blackberry isn’t a single fruit but a circular arrangement of 80 to 100 drupelets, like a miniature bunch of grapes for the dining-room table in a doll’s house. After this morning’s overdose, I was inclined to believe they also had hallucinogenic properties, since shortly afterwards I came face to face with a vision of an abandoned trampoline in an otherwise empty field. However, I took the photograph below to confirm that it was not a trippy apparition induced by blackberry delirium. At any rate, it inspired the following immortal verse. 

The saddest thing I’ve ever seen
Is an abandoned trampoline.
Yet show me the man who would not renounce
A trampoline that’s lost its bounce…
 
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Genillé Under the Occupation

Owner, Château de Rassay

Owner, Château de Rassay

Southern Touraine plays a special role in the story of the Occupation in the Second World War, because it was at the frontier between Nazi-occupied France and the so-called “zone libre”, and there was a great deal of resistance movement across that border, the infamous “ligne de démarcation”. The country roads around here are dotted with memorials to freedom fighters shot dead by the Nazis.

The historian Christophe Meunier took us on a fascinating trip around Genillé (which was initially in the free zone) to view sites connected with the war, and speak – in particular – to the owner of the Château de Rassay (photo above), who remembered this period well from his childhood. In the grounds of his château, a military camp was built to control the frontier posts and when, on 10 November 1942, the Wehrmacht invaded the free zone, the camp was deserted. However, from June 1945 it received 432 Polish workmen who had been deported by the Germans to help build the Atlantic Wall. A couple of buildings from this camp remain, along with a concrete water tower, and the owner told us how the Polish were disliked, because they managed to get their hands on goods that the French could not, and re-sell them at inflated prices – this at a time when rationing continued until 1949. 

We saw the Villa du Breuil, where the mayor under the occupation, Georges Giraud, lived. He was appointed because of his sympathies with Pétain, but was put into great difficulty when he came under increasing Gestapo supervision. Then one night he disappeared, and no one knew where he had gone, not even his wife who was known to have a loose tongue. As they said “To a woman, a secret is a piece of information that you only divulge to one person at a time” – a comment that the ladies in our group found hard to stomach. We then visited La Thibaudière, a neo-gothic gentilhommière which was where Giraud sat out the war in secret, hidden by a friend. 

The owner of the Rassay château said that his father had met Pétain in Vichy during the war and he was scarcely lucid, well into his 80s – a forlorn relic of the hero days, as victor of the Battle of Verdun.

The Château de la Bourdillère in Genillé was occupied by two famous actors, Claude Dauphin and Rosine Deréan, the latter a movie star of the day. Both hated the Nazis. Claude took off on a British submarine for England, while Rosine became a resistance fighter, secretly accommodating British parachutists who were picked up in the area. She was denounced and went to Ravensbrück Camp. She survived the war and returned to Genillé, but found it difficult to get back into the film world. She died in Genillé in 2001. 

Rosine Deréan in Lac Aux Dames

Rosine Deréan in Lac Aux Dames

The little details of rural life at this time were interesting. Under the occupation, country dances were forbidden, but they continued privately, in isolated farms. Our Rassay man’s mother cycled in to Loches to shop, and had to cross a resistance barrier on the road on her way there. On her return trip, she took a different route to avoid the barrier, only to come across a German barrier on another road, not even a mile away. Your bike, apparently, had to be watched with eagle eyes, since bike tyres and inner tubes were a precious commodity. As for petrol, it was virtually non-existent. 

As Christophe Meunier pointed out, one subject that – even today – is scarcely mentioned is collaboration. However, he managed to find a couple of resistance fighters to talk to his students, and they recalled how a local shopkeeper had been shot at the end of the war as a collaborator. I also heard that a farmhouse in the area still will not sell today because it was home to a couple of collaborators in the war. The suspicion and secrecy that must have reigned in all households at the time must have left a deep impression on the national psyche. 

We learned that the resistance groups were organised almost like trade guilds – one that was made up mostly of actors and writers, another that was devoted entirely to gaining information, and so on. And when France was occupied, for four days – 10 to 14 June 1940 – Tours was the capital  of France, with the head of the government, Paul Reynaud, living at the château de Chissay. 

When I first came to Touraine in the late 70s, the elders of my village were full of tales of this period, and in particular of perilous journeys across the ligne de démarcation, helping British parachutists to get into Free France by concealing them under piles of potatoes in a cart, for example. Many of those people are now gone, but one can only imagine the tensions of everyday life in a small village like Genillé when you have an active resistance group living alongside the “milice” – one’s former friends and neighbours – those Frenchmen who swore allegiance to the occupying power, or at least to Vichy.

 When I think of this period, I think of Louis Malle’s brilliant 1974 film, Lacombe Lucien, the story of a boy who is snubbed in his attempts to join the resistance and joins instead the French Gestapo – wielding terrible power over his elders and betters because of his hatred for those who had spurned him and his inchoate passion for the daughter of a Jewish tailor who, under ordinary circumstances, would have been unattainable to him in every way. The film is all the more poignant in that the darkly farouche actor who plays Lucien, Pierre Blaise, died aged 20, along with all his passenger friends, in an accident at the wheel of the car that he bought with the money he made from the film. 

Remaining building (once a kitchen), from the Rassay Camp

Remaining building (once a kitchen), from the Rassay Camp

Water Tower, Rassay Camp

Water Tower, Rassay Camp

Villa du Breuil

Villa du Breuil

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Our guide and mentor, Christophe Meunier

Our guide and mentor, Christophe Meunier

In Praise of Swanage

P1050705They say that you know when it’s summer in England because the rain is warm. This pretty much sums up our summer break in Dorset, at least from a meteorological point of view. The evenings, however, were cold enough to merit a fire in the stove and the purchase of second-hand pullovers since none had been packed. However, such mild creature discomforts pale into insignificance beside the occasional highlights of our sojourn, one of which was the discovery of Swanage.

I had always assumed Swanage was in Wales, confusing it with Swansea, so the signposts to Swanage around Corfe Castle came as something of a surprise. We dropped in on this charming Victorian seaside resort after a brief “Rip-Off Britain” stopover at Studland Beach – £3.75 for a tiny bottle of weak beer in the café and colossal parking fees that made us feel, on returning to the car before the ticket had expired, like sitting in the car to enjoy the rest of our temporary lease on this five-star carpark. 

What was remarkable in Swanage was that nothing was spoilt. The English are so good at spoiling things architecturally, that it is a small miracle that this place has been overlooked. Once a fishing port, then an export port for Purbeck marble, Swanage has been a seaside resort since the mid-19th century and has the usual avenues of stately B&Bs and Guest Houses, and a long frontage with clock-towered wooden bench-shelters, deckchair rentals and cafés. The narrow beach was well-frequented when we were there, though with only the most intrepid dipping their toes into the water, and the two amusement arcades were doing a roaring trade. We played the coin cascade machines – machines which, by some obscure law of quantum physics, never deliver the teetering cliff-edge of coins and interspersed five-pound notes that appear to be perpetually on the point of cascading. 

One of our reasons for coming here had been to enjoy some fresh seafood – oysters, mussels, winkles, whelks and shrimp. Despite a sign strapped to a lamppost announcing a “Shellfish Festival” at a place called the New Inn, there was no address on the flyer and the pub in question proved impossible to find, as did another pub that was recommended for its fruits of the deep. There was one café on the front that served seafood but the prices suggested that the clientele was composed entirely of Russian billionaires. 

We wandered past a cocktail bar that seemed to accommodate the entire population of 30-somethings in Swanage, and an old pub that literally had no customers whatsoever on a Sunday afternoon – despite the doors being wide open – perhaps something to do with the “bar staff wanted” sign in the window. We ended up in a little pub off the beaten track called the Red Lion which was remarkable for the cheapness of a round. In Rip-Off Britain where two pints and a half, with a couple of bags of cheese and onion crisps, can set you back nearly 20 quid, the Red Lion managed to charge half that – while also offering a folksinger of doubtful merit who had been consigned to a courtyard shelter in the rain. The pub had little signs where now-dead customers had once sat, one of which, after naming the deceased and providing his dates – one Lenny Deamer, who joined the celestial congregation in 2005 – read “Elvis Has Left the Building”. Was he an Elvis impersonator? Was his dog perhaps called Elvis?

The quest for shellfish was abandoned, as it nearly always is on the English coast these days. I can remember seafood stalls along English seafronts stocked with everything, or the days when seafood sellers would come to London riverside pubs with baskets of cockles and shrimp. In central France, where one couldn’t be further from the coast, seafood galore is available for the asking. So what happened in England? We nevertheless enjoyed splendid fresh fish n chips on the front – washed down with Piddle Premium Ale (its name, a self-fulfilling prophecy) – served by an incredibly emaciated young Bulgarian immigrant who bowed down and wrung his hands as he spoke, exactly like Uriah Heep in Dickens, perhaps in a fit of post-Brexit grovelling for extended residence rights.

A little research into Swanage didn’t teach me much, other than that there’s a crater on Mars named after it, Basil Fawlty was supposedly born there, it is called Knollsea in Thomas Hardy’s novels, and Paul Nash, the painter, enjoyed a spell here, composing an essay called “Swanage or Seaside Surrealism” in which he describes the town as having something “of a dream image where things are so often incongruous and slightly frightening in their relation to time or place.” One such incongruity is a monument on the seafront to King Alfred’s naval victory over the Danes in 877 AD. It consists of a stone column topped by three stone cannonballs, looking more like a pawnbroker’s sign. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but there weren’t any cannonballs – or cannons, or gunpowder – around in those distant days. However, for the sake of surrealism, let’s just say there were…

Swanage also has a little steam railway that actually runs, with one stationery carriage at the station where cream teas are served, coin-op telescopes and a touching sign over the Tourist Office that reads “Please Bring Lost Children Here”, which seems to me a splendid idea. We definitely loved Swanage!

Get Me Out of Dear Old Blighty

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 12.57.31From 38 degrees C in Touraine, to 20 in Dorset, the English Summer once again lives down to direst expectations. However, it was masochistic British fun, reminiscent of schooldays and corporal punishment, to cycle this morning round the abandoned Tarrant Rushton airfield – with its concrete runways, perimeter road and hangars – in pelting rain and glacial winds. The airfield was used for glider operations in the Second World War, launching the famed Pegasus Bridge operation on the eve of D-Day. The pilots who left from here were the first to touch French soil on D-Day. The previous day we had left French soil via Brittany ferries, with machine-gun-toting soldiers patrolling Cherbourg and every passenger subjected to body searches and exhaustive luggage searches. Nazis, jihadists, migrants… still going strong, this fortress built by Nature for herself. 

Yesterday, a fête in Blandford Forum was washed out by rain, then the entire town forced indoors by a horrific stench of manure that suddenly wafted in like a Biblical plague from surrounding fields. We took refuge in Tesco’s. At the fish counter, we reached for two little bags of overpriced mussels only for the spotty white-hatted youth working there to stop us and point at the notice saying that service on this counter stopped at 7 pm, and it was now 7.02 pm. On a previous visit to the same fish stand, we asked for oysters and had to explain to the girl serving there what oysters were: this time, they had some – 10 miserable little molluscs arranged in two lines, 50p each. Ah, this royal throne of kings, this Brexit isle…

In the words of the great francophile Orson Welles, “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.

 
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An Evening at Les Wagons

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 10.52.10Les Wagons, at Saint Branchs in Touraine, is a unique theatrical space composed of three former SNCF freight wagons, welded together. It can accommodate an audience of up to 110 people. The venture began in the early 2000s, launched by Thierry Tchang Tchong and Anne-Marie Renault, and every month the theatre hosts shows by professional artists, musical or theatrical, and is also a place of cultural exchange, including writing workshops based on short stories and poems. I was honoured to be asked by Anne-Marie Renault and Annie Parot to present myself and my writing on stage, on Friday 3 June 2016. Despite transport strikes and continued flooding in Southern Touraine, there was a good turn-out. However, the musicians who were supposed to perform in the second half of the evening didn’t show up because their instruments were stranded in a flooded basement somewhere. As a result, we held the fort – with a very lively and entertaining exchange with the audience, and a vin d’amitié at the end. Little theatres like Les Wagons have difficulty surviving financially, with very few subsidies, so I wish them well. The venue reminded me of the Norfolk bungalow my family used to stay in when I was a child, which was also composed of three former railway carriages. My thanks to Anne-Marie and Annie for the invitation and a very stimulating discussion.

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© 2018 Adrian Mathews