All the way down eastern European rivers such as the Danube and the Elbe are buried so-called ‘hunger stones’, laid down during droughts in Medieval times so that, in future droughts, the local population would know tough times were coming. ‘If you see me,’ runs the most famous of these on the Elbe in the Czech Republic, ‘weep’.
This long, hot summer of 2022 has exposed those stones again, both physically and metaphorically.
But those stones have always struck me as rather unhelpful, in that most people were presumably intelligent enough to understand that they were experiencing a drought already, without some voice from beyond the grave rubbing it in.
Which is why I am not going to write about what I really wanted to, because by half past noon tomorrow you will be miserable enough to have seen that ‘stone’ again for yourself, and will be running, like me, for the drinks cabinet. You don’t need me to alert you to it.
Instead, I want to mention two hobbies that have brightened my week.
The first was a falco subbuteo, to give it its Latin moniker, and it gave me the second most exciting bird sighting I have had this decade. I was working up on the South Downs, moving past a high hedgerow, when a charm of about 50 goldfinches burst out across the track no more than ten feet from my face, pursued by a dark, determined, aerobatic hobby. This hobby was a bit of an old friend, in that I had seen him around the farm several times, chasing, and seemingly being chased by, swallows. But I had never seen a wild bird of prey so close, quite close enough to glimpse details of its plumage and the dropping of its talons for the kill. If the kill happened, I never saw it, as it had all gone out of sight by the time it might have happened. I hope it did. Much as I love goldfinches, they are having a bonanza year, and there are far more of them than hobbies, who I also love that little bit more. If I have learned anything this year of walks, it is the importance of finding that awe in nature that is deep within every one of us; and that experience was, in its truest sense, awesome.
The second hobby was in my kitchen, when a friend asked me how my new hobby career was going along.
It’s a development on the more common ‘how’s retirement going?’ or ‘are you enjoying your semi retirement these days?’, and the more disguised ‘it must be so lovely for you to have the time to sit and read the newpapers again’.
And it doesn’t matter much. It is all well meant. But it is intriguing nonetheless, because presumably if I had retrained as a pharmacist, or set up a little grocery store, people would be asking how the job was going, and I would still be in the gang of people who have a serious, sensible working life.
I’m not entirely sure why a man of 62 writing for a living should be assumed to be following retirement dream but, if it’s true, it’s definitely a more active and fun retirement than I had been looking forward to. It gets me up at 5 a.m regularly, and has me learning more in a week than I managed at school in a term. It has revealed, a bit like that hunger stone, the most enthusiastic and excitable part of my body that I have ever seen.
But to save anyone asking again, my hobby career is going great, thanks. I’m churning out words which populate sentences, which build into paragraphs, which come together as chapters and, occasionally, see the light of day as real books.
Which is kind of all I ever wanted to do.