Fox and badger: encounters with remarkable animals

FeaturedFox and badger: encounters with remarkable animals

In the summer of 1983 we were holed up in a cottage in the rolling Shropshire hills just outside Clun. Walking along a woodland track one evening, we encountered a badger, a meeting so rare and magical that the memory of it – the subject of an earlier post on this blog – has remained to this day. Last weekend, back in the same neck of the woods, we had another remarkable encounter – this time with a fox.

Meeting a fox is not that unusual, whether in town or country. But the circumstances of this encounter were strange. We were driving  out of Clun along the A488 when we noticed the fox ambling along the grassy margin at the side of the busy road. We slowed, then stopped, and the fox, possibly a young female, paused too, inquisitive about us and showing no fear of the car. She looked in superb condition, a very fine animal with black-tipped ears and elegant charcoal shading to her white-tipped brush.

For several minutes we watched entranced while she, too, stared back at us.

a fox in her fox-fur
stepping across
the grass in her black gloves

It was only when our dog stood up in the back seat and peered at her through the window that the vixen turned tail and disappeared through the hedge.

It isn’t unusual to see a fox during daylight hours. They often hunt for food in the daytime, especially when they’re feeding a litter of hungry cubs – another factor making it likely that our fox was a female.

There was a further twist to this story. Two hours later we returned along the A488 and, at the same spot, saw the fox again – this time on the opposite side of the road. Strange coincidence!

Seeing a wild animal so closely and long enough to study her every detail made for a priceless moment; but, on a busy A road, also provoked fears for her safety – as envisioned in Simon Armitage’s poem, ‘The Fox’:

Standing its ground on the hill, as if it could hide
in its own stars, low down in the west of the sky.
I could hit it from here with a stone, put the torch
in the far back of its eyes. It’s that close.

The next night, the dustbin sacked, the bin-bag
quartered for dog meat, biscuit and bone.

The night after that, six magpies lifting
from fox fur, smeared up ahead on the road.

Alice Oswald expresses the same sense of the animal’s vulnerablity in her poem, ‘Fox’, giving voice to her midnight food-seeking vixen: ‘my life/is laid beneath my children/like gold leaf.’

I heard a cough
as if a thief was there
outside my sleep
a sharp intake of air

a fox in her fox-fur
stepping across
the grass in her black gloves
barked at my house

just so abrupt and odd
the way she went
hungrily asking
in the heart’s thick accent

in such serious sleepless
trespass she came
a woman with a man’s voice
but no name

as if to say: it’s midnight
and my life
is laid beneath my children
like gold leaf

 

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Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita braid tales of Wales and Senegal

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita braid tales of Wales and Senegal

After seeing Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita once again last night at the Liverpool Philharmonic Music Room, and to celebrate an outstanding concert, here’s a repost that records the first time we saw the duo – in October 2014. Continue reading “Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita braid tales of Wales and Senegal”

On the road to the last resting place of Wilfred Owen

FeaturedOn the road to the last resting place of Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen died on 4 November 1918 – seven days before the guns fell silent. Yesterday the centenary of his death was marked in the village where he died by a ceremony in which the Last Post was played on a bugle Owen took from a German soldier killed during the battle to cross the nearby Sambre-Oise.

This is a repost of the account of my visit in 2014 to the place where Owen spent his last hours.

Owen was killed on 4 November 1918, on the Sambre Canal which passes through Ors, a village in a wooded valley some twenty miles to the east of Peronne and the Somme river.  Owen and his platoon had spent the previous night in the cellar of a Forester’s House in the wood outside Ors.  Owen is pretty much unknown in France, but I had read that the villagers, noticing that a great number of British visitors came looking for Owen’s grave and the exact spot where he had been killed, and asking to visit the cellar of the Forester’s house, had decided to turn the Forester’s House into a monument to the poet, commissioning the British artist Simon Patterson to turn the building into a place for reflection and meditation.

WIlfred Owen Forester's House original

La Maison Forestiere as it appeared before Simon Patterson’s intervention

The house, originally slate-roofed and of red brick with grey shutters, stands on a main road into the nearby town of Le Cateau-Camresis.  Patterson decided to preserve the exterior of the house, but to remove the roof and gut the interior.  The roof was replaced by a structure that appears normal when viewed from the road, but from other angles takes the form of an open book, with spine uppermost, the ‘pages’ constructed out of glass to admit maximum daylight into the interior.

Most dramatically, Patterson had the entire building rendered in brilliant white,  giving it the appearance of a solid sculptural object, and making the house stand out like ‘bleached bone’ (Patterson’s words) against the dark forest beyond.  You are reminded, too, of the rows of white gravestones in a British war cemetery.

The brick-lined cellar where Owen and his platoon spent their last night remains untouched, but the interior of the house has been gutted, leaving an open white space, lit from above, and the walls clad with translucent glass onto which are etched drafts of Owen’s poems.

Owen Foresters house Owen Foresters house 2

Simon Patterson’s newly-realised Forester’s House

Once I learned of this place I was keen to visit.  But I was disappointed to discover that on the day that I would be at Ors, the Forester’s House would be closed.  However, the tourist office website indicated that it was sometimes opened at other times for group visits.  I emailed to ask whether a group would be visiting on the afternoon I passed by, and whether I could tag along.  To my surprise, I received a reply offering to open the House just for me.

I arrived at the agreed time, and was met by a guide from the tourist office at Le Cateau-Cambresis who first of all took me down the steps into the cellar, which remains untouched and is accessed by a curved ramp, alongside which runs the text of Owen’s last letter home to his mother.

Wilfred Owen letter Maison Forestiere

Owen’s last letter inscribed on the ramp to the cellar of La Maison Forestiere (photo: magicspello.wordpress.com)

Entering the cellar, you are struck by how crowded it must have been that night when 29 soldiers were holed up here, smoking like chimneys.  As you begin to absorb the surrounding a recording begins of Kenneth Branagh reading Owen’s last letter to his mother.  It is observant, amusing – and deeply moving.

Owen Foresters house basement

Owen’s letter was designed to reassure his mother, saying nothing about the impending attack, but instead poking fun at his comrades (‘So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 ins. away, and so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges & jolts’) and offering witty pen-portraits of the men (‘a band of friends’) crammed into the small space around him:

To Susan Owen
Thurs. 31 October [1918] 6:15 p.m.

[2nd Manchester Regt.]

Dearest Mother,

I will call the place from which I’m now writing ‘The Smoky Cellar of the Forester’s House’. I write on the first sheet of the writing pad which came in the parcel yesterday. Luckily the parcel was small, as it reached me just before we moved off to the line. Thus only the paraffin was unwelcome in my pack.  My servant & I ate the chocolate in the cold middle of last night, crouched under a draughty Tamboo, roofed with planks. I husband the Malted Milk for tonight,  & tomorrow night. The handkerchief & socks are most opportune, as the ground is marshy, & I have a slight cold!

So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 ins. away, and so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges & jolts. On my left the Company Commander snores on a bench: other officers repose on wire beds behind me.  At my right hand, Kellett, a delightful servant of A Company in The Old Days radiates joy & contentment from pink cheeks and baby eyes. He laughs with a signaller, to whose left ear is glued the Receiver; but whose eyes rolling with gaiety show that he is listening with his right ear to a merry corporal, who appears at this distance away (some three feet) nothing [but] a gleam of white teeth & a wheeze of jokes.

Splashing my hand, an old soldier with a walrus moustache peels & drops potatoes into the pot. By him, Keyes, my cook, chops wood; another feeds the smoke with the damp wood.

It is a great life. I am more oblivious than alas! yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, & the hollow crashing of the shells.

There is no danger down here, or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.

I hope you are as warm as I am; as serene in your room as I am here; and that you think of me never in bed as resignedly as I think of you always in bed. Of this I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.

Ever Wilfred x

Owen last letter

Owen’s last letter

From the cellar, my guide led me into the main house where you enter a large, empty space with no photographs or war memorabilia – just Owen’s handwritten draft of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ reproduced along the walls.  The lighting is dimmed and the words of Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ in the poet’s own handwriting is projected onto the facing wall as Kenneth Branagh reads the poem.

Dulce et Decorum

The interior of the Forester’s House (photo: Zoe Dawes, www.thequirkytraveller.com)

As a teenager, overwhelmed by the power of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, I would never have imagined that one day I would be here, in the place where Owen spent his last hours.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Ors canal

The Sambre-Oise canal where Owen and his companions died

Shaking hands with my helpful guide, I left for the place where Owen and his companions met their fate, on the banks of the Sambre-Oise canal just outside the village of Ors.  The operation planned for 4 November 1918 seems almost suicidal. In order to cross the canal, the British soldiers had to install a floating bridge under fire from the German machine-guns positioned on the opposite bank.

At 05:45 on 4 November, Owen’s battalion went into action. Accompanying them were men of the Royal Engineers whose task was to assemble, on the canal bank, the sections of the prefabricated floating bridge. The operation had barely started before it was over. A few men managed to cross the canal, but the bridge was destroyed. Hopelessly exposed, a great number of the British soldiers fell under German  machine-gun fire. Among them was Wilfred Owen. Futility?

He was twenty-five years old, had published four poems and had written a hundred other unpublished texts half of which had been produced between 1916 and 1918. Two days later, on 8 November, Owen was awarded the Military Cross for his exemplary conduct in an earlier action. On the same day, he was buried in the small square reserved for British military graves in Ors village cemetery. The war ended three days later, and in Shrewsbury, on 11 November, as the bells rang to celebrate the Armistice, Owens’ parents were handed the telegram that all parents feared receiving.

Ors communal cemetery Owen grave

Wilfred Owen’s grave in Ors Communal Cemetery

From the canal, I went to the communal cemetery in the village of Ors, where Owen is buried, along with his companions who also died in the doomed action on the canal. While I stood there, the last line of another of Owen’s great poems came to mind: ‘Let us sleep now …’. ‘Strange Meeting’ was written in the spring or early summer of 1918. Siegfried Sassoon thought it Owen’s passport to immortality:

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand pains that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For of my glee might many men have laughed
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we have spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with the swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now . . . .”

In his lifetime Owen published only four poems. It was after the war, championed by the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden, that Owen  would finally gain the recognition he deserved.

Ors communal cemetery 2

Ors Communal Cemetery

In The Ghost Road, Pat Barker’s novel which featured historical figures such as Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, alongside fictional characters like Billy Prior, she vividly imagines the disaster at the canal bank:

Bridges laid down, quickly, efficiently, no bunching   at   the   crossings,   just   the   clump   of  boots on wood, and then they   emerged from beneath the shelter of the trees and out into the terrifying openness of the bank. As bare as an eyeball, no cover anywhere, and the machine-gunners on the other side were alive and well. They dropped down, firing to cover the sappers as they struggled to assemble the bridge, but nothing covered them. Bullets fell like rain, puckering the surface of the canal, and the men started to fall. Prior saw the man next to him, a  silent, surprised face, no sound, as he twirled and fell,  a slash of scarlet like a huge flower bursting open on his chest.  Crawling  forward, he fired at the bank opposite though he could hardly see it for the clouds of smoke that drifted across. The sappers were still struggling with the bridge, binding pontoon sections together with wire that sparked in their hands as bullets struck it. And still the terrible rain fell. Only two sappers left, and then the Manchesters took over the building of the bridge. Kirk paddled out in a crate to give covering   fire, was hit, hit again, this time in the face, went on firing directly at the machine-gunners who crouched in their defended  holes only a few yards away. Prior was about to start across the water with ammunition when he was himself hit, though it didn’t feel like a bullet, more like a blow from something big and hard, a truncheon or a cricket bat, only it knocked him off his feet and he fell, one arm trailing over the edge of the canal.

He tried to turn to crawl back beyond the drainage ditches, knowing it was only a matter of time before he was hit again, but the gas was thick here and he couldn’t reach his mask.  Banal, simple, repetitive thoughts ran round and round his mind. Balls up. Bloody mad. Oh Christ. There was no pain, more a spreading numbness that left his brain clear. He saw Kirk die. He saw Owen die, his body lifted off the ground by bullets, describing a slow arc in the air as it fell. It seemed to take for ever to fall, and Prior’s consciousness fluttered down with it. He gazed at his reflection in the water, which broke and reformed and broke again as bullets hit the surface and then, gradually, as the numbness spread, he ceased to see it.

[…]

On the edge of the canal the Manchesters lie, eyes still open, limbs not yet decently arranged, for the stretcher-bearers have departed with the last of the wounded, and the dead are left alone. The battle has withdrawn from them; the bridge they succeeded in building   was   destroyed by a single shell.  Further down the canal another and more successful crossing is being attempted, but the cries and shouts come faintly here.

The sun has risen. The first shaft strikes the water and creeps towards them along the bank, discovering here the back of a hand, there the side of a neck, lending a rosy glow to skin from which the blood has fled, and then, finding nothing here that can respond to it, the shaft of light passes over them and begins to probe the distant fields.

Wilfred Owen's regiment

Doomed youth: Wilfred Owen’s regiment

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

In his new biography of Owen, published this year, Guy Cuthbertson offers this assessment of the poet:

Wilfred Owen remains contradictory: not quite a pacifist, he even  hated ‘washy pacifists’; he wrote ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ but he also wanted chivalry; he was the eternal boy who was a grown-up voice in an infantile war; he loved home but was eager to escape it; he was a  Christian of a kind, who disliked the Church; conservative and radical, normal and abnormal; the snobbish supporter of the downtrodden; the poet of modernity who was in love with the past; the realist and romantic; he was an innovative and traditional writer who was devoted to poetry and wrote, in the preface to his poems, ‘Above all I am not concerned with Poetry’; he longed for friendship and solitude; he fought gallantly, and urged his men to fight bravely, in a war he had been reluctant to join and then came to oppose bitterly. This is another part of why the man and his poems are so popular – he can appeal to everyone, and remains intriguing.

The sun rises in Ors, France on the 100th anniversary of the death of poet Wilfred Owen who was killed at the Canal de la Sambre a l’Oise in the morning of the 4th November one week before the Armistice. Credit: Paul Grover for The Telegraph

 

 

Backtracking: jazz encounters in the room of dreams

Backtracking: jazz encounters in the room of dreams

It’s a curious thing, but just as I was entering the time of sleep lost after the arrival of the new pup, I began listening to the new release on the ECM label from the Tarkovsky Quartet. Not only was the album entitled Nuit blanche (‘sleepless night’ this side of the Channel), it also featured a dog on the cover. Not only that, the quartet, founded some years ago by the French pianist François Couturier and consisting of cellist Anja Lechner, soprano saxophonist Jean-Marc Larché and accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier takes its name from the Russian film director whose greatest works include Stalker – which was itself the subject of Zona, a brilliant meandering, meditative book by Geoff Dyer, a bunch of whose books were all that I could focus on in the indolent, zoned-out state in which I found myself. In situations like this you can’t help asking, ‘What’s going on?’ Continue reading “Backtracking: jazz encounters in the room of dreams”

One for Jamal: Not everything is lost

One for Jamal: Not everything is lost

Behind the counter at the newsagent, Jamal looked a little worse for wear: ‘I didn’t get much sleep last night,’ he said, explaining that the start of Ramadan always tended to knock his body rhythms for six. He’d got to bed late after evening prayers, and couldn’t sleep. Knowing he would have to be up at 3am to eat before morning prayers, he’d finally abandoned all thought of sleep. We went on to have an interesting conversation.

Jamal is a scouser whose Yemeni father would once deliver the newspaper right to our door. He says he’s grateful that his mixed ancestry has gifted him with two countries where he feels at home. He says he’s travelled to many countries and what he has found is that people are pretty much the same everywhere. He says all of us, whatever our faith – Muslim or Jew, Christian or Hindu – are taught by our religion that it is right to feed a stranger or look out for a neighbour. But now he is troubled: his Yemeni homeland is being torn apart in a war between Sunni and Shi’ite. His Muslim identity is being fractured. And anyway, there is more to him than just being Muslim. He is English and proud of it; he is Yemeni and proud of that too; he is Liverpudlian and proud of it; he is European and proud of that too. He is moved to tears by the Manchester bombing – but also by the ISIS bomb that killed 15 and wounded dozens last night as Muslim families in Baghdad broke their Ramadan fast at an ice cream shop.

I said to Jamal, ‘That reminds me of something I read by a Palestinian American poet. I will bring it to you.’ Continue reading “One for Jamal: Not everything is lost”

Days of indolence: reading Geoff Dyer and trying to make progress

Days of indolence: reading Geoff Dyer and trying to make progress

I have never had any problem sleeping, losing consciousness within minutes of laying my head on the pillow. Yet, paradoxically, I have always been a light sleeper, snapping awake at untoward sounds and disturbed by encroaching light. Any happy balance I had achieved between these contradictory poles was instantly shattered when, in late April, we brought home our new Cocker Spaniel puppy. Not only did I get less – much less – than my preferred allocation of sleep (being woken and expected to play chase around the garden at 5am), my light sleeper mode went into overdrive, instantly waking at the slightest movement or sound from the puppy’s crate at the foot of our bed. The pup would shift, then fall asleep, while I lay sleepless and alert until the grey light of dawn spilled through the curtains and our noisy, thoughtless neighbours began tootling their blasted chorus. Continue reading “Days of indolence: reading Geoff Dyer and trying to make progress”

Manchester: the reciprocity of kindness

Manchester: the reciprocity of kindness

In the aftermath of the Manchester bomb atrocity there were so many stories of the kindness offered by strangers to those who were victims, or were caught up in, the attack – the guy who drove through the night, giving lifts home to those stranded; the woman who guided children to the safety of a local hotel; and all those who offered food and shelter for the night. Then there were the gatherings – in Manchester and Liverpool – which were, as one young woman expressed it on Channel 4 News, ‘more about love and not hatred.’

In this respect there was nothing unusual about Manchester. The kindness of strangers, in Tennessee Williams’ memorable phrase, is a quality we see repeatedly after such terrible events. And though the gatherings and vigils that follow might seem, especially for those with a sceptical or cynical turn of mind, predictable, they do perform a valuable service. Not only do they bring us together when we feel at our most frightened and vulnerable, they also remind us, as George Monbiot insists in his column today, that ‘human cooperation and reciprocity are so normal we scarcely seem to notice them.’ It can be easy after this kind of atrocity – one in which children and young people enjoying their first taste of freedom and independence were sought out to be deliberately blown apart – to conclude that there is no humanity, that we are an intrinsically fallen species. Continue reading “Manchester: the reciprocity of kindness”