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Death And The Dartford Warbler

How do you write about your father?

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

When I was ten years old I witnessed a miracle. An Eleanora’s Falcon swept through the evening rain almost within touching distance of my bedroom window. Naturally I rushed to tell my father. ‘You don’t get Eleanora’s Falcons in Carlisle,’ he replied, without looking up from the pile of his own bird-sighting recording notebooks spread out on the desk. The silence that followed was broken at last by the striking of a match. ‘What did it look like?’ he asked, when on lighting his pipe he realised I was still there. Standing in a cloud of paternal tobacco smoke and scepticism, I tried to recapture the clarity of the vision. ‘It’ll have just been a pigeon,’ he adjudged, and any chance of my earning an entry in his extra-special notebook of remarkable sightings evaporated.

He may have been right: you don’t get Eleanora’s Falcons in Carlisle — you don’t even get them in Northern Europe; Eleanora’s Falcons are birds of Homer’s Mediterranean. But would my father have given more thought to his part of the conversation if he’d known that I’d remember it for the rest of his life? Maybe he did, because as he lay dying the Eleanora’s Falcon made an unexpected, astonishing return.

With just days left to live, he suddenly managed to break through the drugged drowsiness to lift a hand and point. ‘Dartford Warbler,’ he said. Following his finger, I looked through the ward window to where a pallid cube of greenery could be seen enclosed in the tiny hospital courtyard. A low sprawl of bush, a single tree and some strimmer-stricken grass, all that was left to him of the wildernesses he had loved all his life. It was a role reversal: there was as much chance of entering Dartford Warbler into the remarkable sightings book here as my own flight of fancy 30-odd years before. Yet — ‘Dartford Warbler,’ he maintained, finger pointing as adamantly as his telescope used to.

Focusing on the trajectory of the gesture, I realised he was pointing to the wall where, sure enough, I found an oddly shaped paint blob. Perkily tailed, prominently beaked with a slightly crested head, the mark was indeed an uncanny daguerreotype of a Dartford Warbler. ‘Or maybe,’ he said, with the smile that he had so improbably found on our journey together in the ambulance a month previously, ‘it’s an Eleanora’s Falcon.’ We both broke into laughter, and for a few moments the cancer ward became absolved by a memory of evening rain and a blaze of imagined Mediterranean sun. A day later he died.

This is the first time I’ve ever written about my father. A decision was made right at the start of my career: I would never write about him nor about the rest of my family. In fact I was having nothing to do with the whole Tolstoy happy/unhappy family thing. Did I realise that by doing so I’d be turning my back on one of a writer’s most valuable raw materials?

Some of the greatest characters in literature are fathers; some of fiction’s most compelling crossroads form where fathers and sons meet, journey together, or fight and part. The greatest pleasure I have ever received from any book at any time was in primary school when the teacher read us Danny the Champion of the World. I used to look forward to those Friday afternoon sessions with a physical ache. Here was a father who would do anything for you. Wash you in a sink, teach you how to mend a car, take you poaching in the dead of the night, challenge the hateful powers that be, and then tuck you up to sleep with a story. Above all, here was a father for whom you would always be the champion of the world. No need for Danny to conjure up inappropriate birds from the rain.

Then there’s Dickens’ Joe Gargery in Great Expectations. Providing a love as unconditional and durable as one of his own anvils, this gentle giant is one of the great father figures in literature. Part of me will forever be that little Pip riding on Joe’s broad shoulders as the blacksmith runs through the early pages of the novel alongside the troops searching for escapees from the prison hulks. As the great empty marshes threaten them on all sides, and the dykes bristle with nettles and cannibalistic convicts, and the bogs heave with Pip’s guilty secrets of having helped the fugitive, Joe whispers in Pip’s ear: ‘I’d give a shilling if they had cut and run…’

Examining all facets of the father and son relation in sharp, objective clarity, Great Expectations is one of those rarities, a novel that grows with you, as though Dickens personally rewrites it as you enter each new life stage. If Roald Dahl’s poacher is an unalloyed fantasy figure, Joe Gargery is very much tempered in the furnace of reality. Not only is Joe not Pip’s dad (in modern terms he’s a kind of stepdad) but Pip also treats him abominably — as can happen. ‘I used to hate Pip’, my own father said when, during the last hours of his life, our conversation lurched crazily and wonderfully to Dickens. ‘You know, the ingratitude. And the way he wants to be a toff. But then I can understand him too.’ I nodded before adding: ‘You’d probably have a good chance of seeing a Dartford Warbler on those marshes.’

There are plenty of nightmare fathers in literature too. For every Atticus Finch standing up for justice and gently passing on moral values in To Kill a Mockingbird, there’s a King Lear petulantly demanding public avowals of affection or a Denethor, from The Lord of the Rings, who, unjustly neglecting one child in favour of the other, tragically drives his younger son on a suicide mission as the orcs assemble at the river.

I wrote earlier that this is the first time I’ve written about my father; I was of course lying. The truth is that not only do all writers write about their family, they write about little else. How could you do otherwise? Your early family members form the geography you must negotiate. They are the ecosystem in which you evolve. Even when you try and avoid them, they’re dictating the detours.

With the death of my father, I have been wondering exactly how he has shaped my work. It’s not by accident that my novels are filled with the landscapes and wildlife that he loved. Not by chance either that characters, whether they’re human or animal, as in my children’s fiction, are so often adrift in those wild places searching for, amongst other things, a father. And it’s certainly not by chance that I’ve become a nature writer. Where I differ from dad is that for me everything I see, from the forgiveness of a birch tree growing on a disused petrol station’s roof to the robin I might encounter every day, is an extraordinary sighting. After all, the unremarkable flash of a wood pigeon through rain is enough.

After a lifetime of disconnection from my brother and me, of being a distant figure wandering with his notebooks and binoculars through the dwindling wild places of Northern England, of being in effect the great absentee ornithologist – Dad, I know you’d agree with those statements – the last few weeks of his life were as extraordinary a sighting as could be imagined. For us both. Laughter might have been in short supply through my childhood, but we made up for it in hospital when all the frustrations of the years were unteased and then teased by us, and all the absurd failings that can characterise both fathers and sons were forgiven, accepted, a subject for mirth. You say pigeon, I say Eleanora. Who would have guessed that someone could have died from pancreatic cancer with a smile on his lips? Or that a son might watch his father die like that, and smile back?

Jonathan Tulloch hopes to live long enough to hear a corncrake from his backdoor step.

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