There are few signs of getting older more damning than taking part in the RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch.
I suppose beekeeping gives it a close run for its money, as do lawnmowers, but it always with a sense of misplaced irony that we begin our annual hour’s vigil at the kitchen window, believing that it is a small price to pay for not having Chris Packham anywhere near our consciences in the following twelve months. Bill Oddie is bad enough, but at least he has been funny at some stage in his career.
An hour is a long time to sit still look at a series of small colourful things with wings eating peanuts out of a wire tube, so it was not long before my mind started to wander. Punctuated by the occasional requirement to write down things that looked more like classified football results than anything else (eg ‘Goldfinch 2; Nuthatch 1’), I thought about the molehills on my lawn, England’s dismal showing in the Barbados test, and the fact that it was a mere 106 hours before I could once again become an alcohol-drinking carnivore.
Some way into this process, and for no particular reason, an odd thought struck me. The thought was that, in our hamlet of 25 dwellings, the people that I knew who had died now outnumbered the current residents of the village by about 75 to 62. One of the side effects of returning to the village of your birth is that you have as many friends in the graveyard as you do in the pub; silent friends whose more or less colourful pasts have been smudged by time onto a cheerful impressionist canvas. Vicar after vicar has enthused about them over their coffins and vicar after vicar has laid them to rest in the Wealden greensand of the churchyard.
I remember them. Len Page who dispensed cheer, stale bread and sugar prawns in his village post office before he was run over by the gas delivery man outside his shop; Charlie Wilson who lost all his toes when a 45 gallon barrel was dropped onto his left foot; George and Violet, my parents’ old neighbours, who exchanged snails between gardens when unobserved. Brendan, the loss of whose right arm in a motorbike accident in Fittleworth was always somehow sold to us children as having had something heroic to do with D-Day; Mrs. Stillwell, who shouted at us when we annoyed her, and Mrs. Wadey who told us not to listen to her. Bill Butt the carpenter, who lived and worked in the house where I now live and work; and Gwynneth Cooper, who followed him here, and introduced me to gin when I was about sixteen, and cigarettes a year earlier. Bill Bowker would not recognize the Horseguards Inn that he used to run, where beer, cider and abuse was what was on the menu, not the haute cuisine that won it Good Pub Guide Pub of the Year five decades later. Jim Bennett, who paid me £0.25p an hour in that summer of straw-cart where, to my glorious astonishment, I was allowed to drive tractors for the first time. Mr. North in River, who dobbed me in when I topped up my pocket money by selling him a load of my parents’ goldfish when they were away on holiday. Lady Pooley, who we never saw.
All of them lie horizontal now in the uneasy fraternity of death, their gravestones a solid memorial of how we used to be. Not better than now, and not worse, just different.
I’ve always tended to think of continuity as more of a straight-jacket than a privilege, but I suppose age changes everything. Those teenage years, as Paul Simon sang, spent longing to get out of the place, ‘twitching like the finger on the trigger of a gun’, they get replaced by the solidity of knowing what is around you, whether you like it or not. And by a differing interpretation of what constitutes an adventure.
Great-spotted woodpecker 1; House sparrow 5.