Around twenty years ago, in the annual anthology New Writing Scotland, I published a pair of poems featuring birds. At its launch I was recounting to one of the editors, poet and biographer James McGonigal, my mortification at the one, wholly surprising, distinction of my shambolic youth: coming first in my school year in 1974 for the English O grade exam. As retiring as a snipe, I had suddenly found myself as a result the red-faced subject of teachers’ attention. I discovered that ‘success’, even at that modest level, was not to be countenanced. ‘The English teachers at Irvine Royal all started treating me,’ I said to Jim, ‘like some sort of closet prodigy. But I just wrote about my interests. My essay was about finding my first oystercatcher nest. For the poetry, I chose John Masefield’s ‘Reynard the Fox’ instead of Hughes’s ‘Jaguar’. For the book question, I wrote about the AA Book of British Birds. I practically knew it off by heart at fifteen. I used to read it every day.’
‘1974? Irvine Royal?’ Jim gave me an appraising look. ‘An oystercatcher’s nest? Masefield? The AA Book of British Birds? I think I marked your exam paper,’ he said. ‘I was a newly qualified teacher. After me, your work had to go to the Chief Examiner and then on to a more experienced marker. They must both have corroborated the marks I gave it. My only doubt had been because I’d thought: “This young person is obsessed. Their writing’s entirely about nature!”’.
And it was true. Many years later, I encountered a lad in my poetry workshops with a related obsession. No matter what you asked him to write, in whatever setting, he would find some way of introducing a dinosaur. A T. rex, for instance, would materialise inexplicably over the baked bean tins in a supermarket aisle. At every session he’d set conspicuously on the table before him his own talismanic book: How to Keep Dinosaurs, by Robert Nash. (He also chose for me a spirit-dinosaur, but that’s another story.)
I had a fellow feeling, naturally enough, for this wee boy, as for any youngster susceptible to losing themselves wholly to a subject not likely to cause them harm, and so, however briefly, to stave off the world’s uncertainties. That was me at fifteen, manoeuvring even the terms of English O grade questions so I could write about my own obsession: nature, and especially birds.
The country caravan site I’d been moved to in Ayrshire with my family when I was thirteen was a very different place from the rambunctious Geordie site, full of other teenagers, near Gateshead, that we’d come from. It was October, 1972. A grey silence and uneventfulness descended. I’d had a brief, later-considered-shameful interest in collecting birds’ eggs — still, if only just, part of working-class culture for schoolboys in the early seventies. In my new surroundings I began noticing birds themselves simply as an antidote to boredom. Rescued by this fresh enthusiasm, I would pore covetously over the range of binoculars in my mother’s Freemans catalogue, which had the great advantage that you could pay up your purchase by a manageable pound or so each week. I was soon the owner of a boulder-heavy, un-ideal pair of Pathescope de Luxe 16 x 50s, bought out of ignorant optimism, paid up by golf-caddying and farm work. I would wander the countryside lugging them for many hours at a time at weekends. A tall, ornamental Wellingtonia still stood as part of the former walled garden of the caravan site’s privileged past. Because the site was on a hill, the tree could be seen from anywhere for miles around. It was a useful compass point. I would choose a direction to explore, and walk off, vaguely aware that Scotland had no law of trespass and that I couldn’t get lost. Frequently, I would be gone until dark.
In a quite possibly lifesaving way, via the marvel of binoculars, birds took me out of myself as surely as a road out of a slum. (The Scottish poet Andrew Young has a luminous poem, ‘Field-Glasses’, which evokes the attraction of watching birds through these optical aids. At its end, he is gazing into his own afterlife.) The universe of birds out there had an objective, clear reality, Latin-named and factual, compared to the massive uncertainties, hormonal and secular, pressing in on my gangly, leaky-wellingtonned, teenage self. (As far as I know I was the only Catholic at my Protestant secondary school in the most brutally secular part of Ayrshire. I risked violent discovery daily.) Birds supplied a great salving sanity. Many years later I had a visceral realisation of this among the then-huge North Hill ternery on Papa Westray in Orkney: thousands of terns with their blade-clash cries, going about their business, having migrated from Antarctica, as utterly indifferent to the human world as if it didn’t exist.
Highlights: my first-ever tawny owl, which I’d known was in residence by its dropped feathers and pellets, high among the leaves of a late summer beechwood twilight, briefly visible being mobbed by blackbirds and thrushes. Or the brilliant, still September afternoon at Bogside mudflats when little stints, one of the world’s smallest wading birds, were so hungry and keen to feed at the edge of the intrickling tide that they ignored us as we watched them, every detail in their feathers visible, from just a few feet away. (It was one of those autumn days of such cloud-reflecting loveliness you hardly know what to do with yourself.) Then there was the first heron I’d ever seen. Surprising as a flying coat, it erupted out of a marsh one otherwise-uneventful March evening. With ponderous wingflaps, legs straight out behind it, long neck coiled back against its breast, spear-beak pointing ahead, it flew silently away against a dark valley backdrop silverlit by rain.
That was one of the things I loved about birds: their unexpectedness. Yet I was never a ‘twitcher’ turning up to tick some rare and obscure warbler or wader off a list. It was the sense of unexpectedness, though, that would take me to local sandpits where wading birds on spring or autumn migration would drop in to feed. What could turn up? Oh, anything. Once, it was a Wilson’s Phalarope blown across the Atlantic. Named after the Paisley-born ornithologist Alexander Wilson, it was exquisite in its light-stepping slenderness. It was only the eighth or ninth time the species had been recorded in Scotland. No one would have believed the two inexperienced seventeen-year-olds, of whom I was one, had my friend not taken a photograph.
A bird whose nest I never found, and which indeed I seldom encountered, was the woodcock. Mysterious, secretive, odd, a wading bird evolved to living in broadleaved woods, its eyes set high on its head for all round vision — I think of it as a sort of metaphor for poetry, or of the mindset out of which poetry gets written, or perhaps for a particular type of poet: certainly the young poet I later became. Not only did I not want to be known, then, I considered it a virtue to be as reclusive as possible — Emily Dickinson fashion. What mattered was the writing.
Ted Hughes, writing about his well-known poem ‘The Thought-Fox’, once famously compared poems to animals. I have always thought of them more as birds. And perhaps birds, are, too, a sort of poem: ending, it may be, in air, from primeval beginnings — ‘out of the bestial sources’ as a poem of mine once put it. They are feathered contemporary dinosaurs that have evolved into the creatures of hollowed bone and brilliant plumage that flit in and out of our everyday world. Birds and poetry also share numerous associations: ideas of flight (aesthetic and literal); unpredictability; an animal intensity which doesn’t care a whit for respectability and is thus deeply appealing. Lastly, both poetry and birdwatching contain a sense of quest, one to an inner world, one to an outer. Sometimes nothing happens. But sometimes it is the Great Northern Diver in resplendent breeding plumage, velvet-dark back white-diamonded, I saw once off a remote Atlantic island, bobbing unsinkably among wavecrests.
I still notice birds about me every day. Goosanders shelter below a weir of the river Clyde in blustrous October weather. Parties of long-tailed tits flit with their chirring calls through the leaf-stripped woods. My noticing, though, may not have quite the intensity of forty-odd years ago. Yet, sitting down to attempt a poem, I am again that teenage self, up early on a weekend morning, live with anticipation. I imagine his awkward form, at the edge of a wood, say, his face exuberant at some happy sighting as darkness comes on; where someone else, not given to that particular obsession, would have seen – if they’d noticed it at all – only a nameless and nondescript bird.