Like many cities (though fewer and fewer every year), Melbourne has two daily newspapers: a tabloid and a broadsheet. The broadsheet is called the Age, and in the Saturday edition of that paper there’s a “lifestyle” lift-out; lifestyle in this case encompasses everything from reading books to going to movies to eating at cafés. Last Saturday the cover story of this section of the Age was about bird-watching: coinciding with a panel at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, the story dared to suggest that bird-watching had somehow become cool.
Bird-watching will never be cool. It may be accepted; it may be pursued more broadly and more openly than has usually been the case; but it will never be fashionable. Still, that shouldn’t concern us – by ‘us’ I mean those of us who can in an instant identify any small bird that flies across our field of vision; I also mean, broadly, people – as there is very little in human life that is more useless than the concern with what’s “in” and what’s “out” at any given moment.
Nonetheless, we all trade in guilty pleasures. In an age of mass-market irony and insincerity, the idea of taking genuine and undisguised pleasure in something is unsettling, for ourselves and for others. Yet it’s wearying, this constant watching of our backs, this looking over our shoulder to see if anyone’s laughing at our joy. I’m going to be thirty-three in a week’s time; I’m tired of underselling my love for the various idiosyncratic pieces of cultural flotsam and jetsam that make up my particular emotional and intellectual landscape.
As a child, of course, I didn’t have nearly such a thick skin when it came to other people’s bemused or disapproving responses to my enthusiasms. When my classmates asked me, with a tone somewhere between confusion and astonishment, if I was a bird-watcher, I’d always downplay my answer: sort of, sometimes, not really. I was, though: for a long time in my childhood there was nothing that gave me greater pleasure than borrowing my father’s pair of Zeiss binoculars, putting my copy of Simpson and Day’s Field Guide to the Birds of Australia in a bag, throwing the bag over my shoulder, and disappearing into the bush for several hours. I can still remember vividly the sensation of picking grass-seeds off the thick knitted cotton of that bag.
More than anywhere else, this passion manifested itself at Brogo, my parents’ holiday house, about which I’ve written many times before on this blog. I’d sleep on the window seat in the sitting-room of the house, even though it meant having to pack up my bedding each day and remake the bed each night, because by the windows there I’d get woken up by the rising sun, and I could rush out of bed, hurriedly get dressed, and head out up the road through the forest as the birds around me began to awaken.
The road was ideal for bird-watching not just because it provided easy access to the forest, but also because it went through a number of habitats: it skirted along the top of a rainforest gully in which could sometimes be seen shy but beautiful Wonga Pigeons (Leucosarcia melanoleuca); Satin Bowerbirds (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus); even Spotted Quail-thrushes (Cinclosoma punctatum); near the gate it passed through a patch of dry acacia forest which, though less rich in birdlife than other habitats, was more open and thus provided better lines of sight.
Most of all, though, the road passed through – and still does pass through – wet sclerophyll eucalypt forest, which covers the great majority of the property. The tall, thin trees of this forest hosted innumerable birds (I eventually catalogued nearly one-hundred species across the whole property) from Crested Shrike-tits (Falcunculus frontatus) to Varied Sittellas (Daphoenositta chrysoptera) to Honeyeaters (Meliphagidae) of all kinds – but there was one bird that I saw in those early years of my bird-watching life that though it had no markings at all was as beautiful a bird as I’ve ever seen. It was as pale and as silent as a ghost, and it haunts me still.
It lived in only one patch of forest, or at least I only ever saw it there, and I only ever saw it in the early morning. It was a White Goshawk, a name as evocative as it is simple: in the muted, toned-down colours of the Australian bush it shone as brightly as a beacon, and thinking back to the bird now I wonder how it ever managed to catch and eat another creature at all; it’s not so fanciful, recalling the astonishing sight of it, to imagine that animals were simply mesmerised by its beauty.
The White Goshawk is a mutation, of sorts, but it’s not an albino: it’s a variation, a sub-species of the Grey Goshawk. It’s the only all-white raptor in the world – the kind of fact that is simultaneously useless and captivating. Being the same species, Grey and White Goshawks interbreed freely, and after observing the White Goshawk for years I started to see a Grey Goshawk, too; but it was never as entrancing as its white cousin. There’s a particular brightness to the white feathers of birds – perhaps it’s because birds are so meticulous about bathing (they have to be: there’s scarcely a more favourable habitat for parasitic lice and ticks than the warmth beneath a bird’s tightly-packed feathers), but the white of a bird is unlike the white of any other animal. It’s astonishing; it’s dazzling. When the White Goshawk shone from its perch on the branch of a thin eucalypt it was instantly noticeable, even if it was still, and silent, and watching. Whenever I raised my father’s binoculars to observe the bird it always seemed to be watching me back, with eyesight that was so keen as to be beyond my imagining.
Children are scattershot in their passions, but wholly devoted to them while they last: like the white beam of a torch their minds focus on one interest, examining it thoroughly, before moving onto the next; and the next; and the next. I was an avid bird-watcher for many years, but eventually, in my late teens, I drifted away from it. I can’t say why; I don’t love birds any less now than I did then – I suppose I found other things to maintain my interest. It’s only when we’re adults, I think, that we develop the ability to balance our passions alongside each-other; to pursue various curiosities with equal attention.
But I suspect that most of us never quite recapture the intensity of those youthful fascinations. I love few things more than reading, but I don’t read now with anywhere near the intensity that I read in my childhood and my teenage years, when summers would pass spent prone on the sofa, reading for five or six or seven hours at a time; when books would be finished in a day. (It’s not entirely a bad thing that my reading habits have been tempered with age: back then, in the manner of children, I prided myself more on the volume of books read than the degree of appreciation or understanding I got out of them.) Likewise, though nowadays I’m still given to periods of passionate devotion to particular books or films or bands or hobbies, for the most part those passions are gone in a few days or a few weeks, leaving only a faint but lingering glow in my mind as any evidence of the bonfire they once lit in my imagination.
I noticed when I saw the Grey Goshawk, but when I stopped seeing the White Goshawk I didn’t notice at all. We don’t think of the lives of wild animals; we don’t stop to imagine that those lives must end. By the time the White Goshawk disappeared – silently, unobtrusively – from the forest around my parents’ holiday house I’d already moved onto the next bird, I was determined to build the list – and then by the time I started to drift away from bird-watching I hadn’t thought about the White Goshawk in years. I’d almost forgotten that it had existed at all, that bird that had so dominated my imagination just a few years before.
I was growing then, and changing: hurtling along that unmappable road from childhood to adulthood. I was discovering things that are defining parts of my life now: music, in particular, and cooking. I’d never had the slightest interest in cooking as a child, and then, in my teenage years, suddenly something clicked. Perhaps it was simply that I cooked a meal, and enjoyed the process; but I began to love cooking. I began to become incapable of living a life that didn’t involve cooking dinner every night. I enjoyed nothing more than spending two hours in the kitchen, when my family had gone out for the night, and cooking an amateurish curry while listening to music turned up so loud that I could barely hear the sound of oil sizzling in the wok.
I’d discovered music some time earlier than I discovered cooking, and by the time I began cooking in earnest I’d discovered – through reading a review in the newspaper of his album Fairytales for Hard Men – the Scottish singer-songwriter Jackie Leven. A bought only a few albums of his – I had almost no money, and all of it was provided my parents ostensibly so that I could buy clothes, and Leven had a bewilderingly large discography of which only a small amount was available in Australia back then, in the nineties – but those few albums I came to possess dominated a period of my life and, I realise now, changed who I was and influenced who I became more than any other musician has been capable of doing before or since.
Through Leven’s habit of featuring poetry readings on his albums I was pulled deeper into a love of poetry that had already been created by exposure to my fathers’ books; many of the poets Leven featured or mentioned in his liner notes and who I hadn’t previously heard of became favourites, such as Anna Akhmatova; Osip Mandelstam; James Wright. Leven’s music – yearning, heartbreaking, sometimes almost embarrassingly heartfelt – touched me deeply then, when I was first starting to become aware that the world was too often marked by disappointments; yet suffusing his music there was also something that I’d never heard in music before, and have rarely heard since, certainly not music in the broad field of “rock”: a strength and resilience that came not from obstinacy, nor from stubbornness, but instead from tenderness. Leven’s songs are full of weary, broken-down, hard-won goodness that’s astonishing to encounter in any work of art. The nineties was the decade of the Sensitive New-Age Guy – they’ve become a joke since, but they were a real and genuine cultural force back then – but Leven’s songs stood apart from that sometimes feckless and easily maligned group; the kindness in Leven’s music came from pushing through bitter experience and emerging on the other side; to borrow a phrase from Seamus Heaney, writing about the poet John Clare: he “resolved extreme experience into something gentle”. I don’t think there’s a phrase I’ve ever read that’s made a deeper impression on me than that phrase has: it elevates gentleness to a position of nobility. Trying, in my late teens, to figure out what it was to be a man, I discovered Jackie Leven striving through his music towards the same position.
We live in an astonishing world, though, and there are more things to discover and to love than we could ever exhaust in a hundred lifetimes. I loved Jackie Leven’s music deeply and passionately and ravenously for several years, and then I moved on. I’d remember him every now and then, and feel that I ought to listen to him again; but somehow it never quite happened. There’s nothing more difficult to recapture than a faded passion. I continued to love Leven’s music – but I stopped listening to it.
Then, last November, dispirited by a search for employment that had gone on for six months, disheartened by the effort of trying to get a novel about decency and kindness published in a harsh publishing environment, flicking in boredom from webpage to webpage, I came across news that was shocking, and heartrending, and saddening, not just because of the facts of what I read but also because those facts conjured ghosts of memory that had long since faded into the trees, their absence unnoticed. With a pang of nostalgia, sorrow for my lost childhood, I read that Jackie Leven had died. He’d had cancer. He was sixty-one.
For the first time in years I went to my CD collection and I pulled out my copy of his great album, Forbidden Songs of the Dying West. I had it on my iPod, too, but it was essential to listen to it, after all this time, and in memory of the man, on CD: to slide the liner-notes out from the CD case, as I had so many times all those years ago; to flip that little booklet open and read again Leven’s impassioned and direct blurb on the first inside page. As Leven sings, in the second verse of the album’s opening song, “Lonely in a café/Staring at an empty plate/In the sorrow of the traffic/I felt my mind disintegrate”, I read once more his recounting of the news of the death of Gerald Durrell, whose books I borrowed – stole, for I never gave them back – from a girlfriend of my brother’s and read avariciously as a child:
I was listening to BBC Radio News, and the man announced the death of the much-loved naturalist Gerald Durrell. He talked about how Durrell had avowed that he preferred animals to people. Asked why this was Durrell said something like this: ‘Well animals don’t drive cars, they don’t make nerve gas, but most important of all, they don’t go to cocktail parties’.
This was at 3 pm. At 5 pm the news item was repeated but now the reference to animals not making nerve gas had disappeared. Quite apart from why, where had the nerve gas gone? Even in death, especially in death, Gerald Durrell’s song about nerve gas had become forbidden – a Forbidden Song of the Dying West.
I’d be lying if I said that in the last ten months I’ve listened to no music but Jackie Leven’s; or even that I’d listened to his music very much at all. I listened to those few albums of his that I still possess, and I searched the record shops near me for others, but he’s even less well-known now in Australia than he was in the nineties; I could have ordered some online, but I’ve never been overly fond of that; and besides, I didn’t have very much money. But now that I’m older I find that memories of my youthful passions appear from time to time, brightly, like a white bird in a forest; like a message of tenderness in a culture of casual fury. Whether we’re the sum of our parts or more than that I don’t know, I’m still too young to say; but one way or another those parts make us up. We move, and move on, and move on again; we gather as we go. Many years ago, starting form little more than an impulse, I gathered Jackie Leven’s music to me, and I’ll have it with me always: from time to time I’ll raise my eyes to Jackie Leven, and I’ll find him staring right back at me.
Image sourced from http://www.parks.tas.gov.au/