the robin, herbivores in the garden, patriotism, utopia

Bryn Terfel was on R3, a little caption speech for Mendelsohn’s ‘Elijah’ which he listened to at a concert years ago with ‘tears rolling down my cheeks’. I don’t think they roll, do they? not in the sense of turning over and over like a rolling ball, don’t they just slither? That’s if the emotion is truly great, and Bryn’s emotions always are. More often they appear in small unmoving drops and streaks which either gradually evaporate leaving a faint taste of salt or are wiped away with a tissue or more rarely these days a handkerchief or just the back of the hand.

You know those mad people who walk the streets shouting or muttering or chanting a single phrase over and over again for years? the most famous was wipe ’em out, from the 1980’s in Holloway. we all remember him.

Early this morning (it was some time in september) I thought again about my idea that most if not all gardening is some kind of imitation of the action of herbivores. All that pinching out, cutting back, trimming, nibbling – the goat the sheep the squirrel the deer the horse and best of all the pig, digging, uprooting, and an omnivore not a herbivore and so maybe the closest to us. She’s not a herbivore of course but even the cat has a little scratch to try to cover her shit.

There’s a lovely story about the robin which I’m sure I’ve already written down somewhere. Throughout most of Europe, especially in forests and on mountains, you can see gouges and little furrows in the soil. It’s been ploughed by wild boar.
Robins used to follow the boar, looking for grubs in these disturbances. In many parts they still do, and in Germany – I have this on the authority of a German bird watcher with a zoom lens like a cannon whom I met at Kew, which confirmed an anecdote from a friend – robins are still regarded as a shy, woodland bird, rarely seen in gardens. It was a great pleasure for this German woman to see our cute little tame things. In Britain the wild boar being long extinct the robins turned to their imitator, to the farmers and gardeners who dig and plough and hoe and rake up a whole world of tiny living things and who came to feel affection for the bird. We gave it a whole network of meanings, from multiple associations with the agony of Christ to a link with the victorian postmen who wore red and were nicknamed robins. So robins delivered christmas presents.

I was strangely pleased with the phrase ‘imitate the action of” with its suggestion of deliberation and practise, and stupidly it was a good few years before I realised that of course it comes from one of the most famous speeches in Shakespeare: now imitate the action of the tiger, once more unto the breach etc.

One way to look at gardens is as a system of exclusions and denials, using walls, hedges, scarecrows, poisons, guns, gangs of small children armed with stones, nets and cages. First you exclude the herbivores, then you busy yourself imitating them. but of course although you imitate their actions you choose different subjects.

This photo of sheep topiary on a mountain called Chelmos in the Peleponnese shows a level of skill which municipal landscaping contractors can only dream of.

The ultimate utopian horticultural dream was the 16th century botanical garden which was to be an imitation of Eden complete with animals and birds. That didn’t last long. In my garden the happiness of the birds is disturbed by the cat. On our little lockdown safari she does her own imitation of the feline predator waiting at the African watering hole where lovely gazelles must come to drink.

Thinking again of ‘now imitate the action of the tiger’ from that speech in Henry V which has been pressed into the service of patriotism, I remembered how towards the end of the brilliant Sherlock series on TV Sherlock Holmes, desperate and on drugs lays waste to his rooms in 221B Baker Street, shouting that speech – once more unto the breach etc. I was disappointed in Mark Gattis, I expected something better, more shocking, a different kind of violence, such as Henry comes up with earlier in the play, at the siege of Harfleur, ‘your naked infants spitted upon pikes’ etc. Henry terrifies the Governor of the town by promising rape and slaughter if he doesn’t surrender. See my old post  scum.
This is the speech which was censored for propaganda purposes in the wartime Henry V film. You couldn’t have Laurence Olivier making threats which might seem to back up Nazi propaganda about the British bombing of German cities.

Also hidden or largely forgotten in another of Shakespeare’s history plays is the end of a sentence. All that stuff about ‘this england’, this utopia, set in a silver sea etc. is just the lengthy subject of a sentence, and the end of it is: ‘ is now leased out like to a tenement or pelting farm.’ (I see there’s some doubt about ‘pelting farm’, it could mean paltry or it could be to do with animal skins. But the idea of leasing out the assets of a nation! Parliamentary rhetoric has always fed on Shakespeare, how come we’ve not heard these words from the opposition in recent years? Rhetorically superb – you can slip smilingly through the praises for an idea of England then hit the audience hard with the bitter rhythm of that last line.

Also in ‘scum’ there’s something about the massacre at Limoges which was carried out by the forces of the Black Prince, an ancestor of Henry V. Here the threat of Harfleur was carried out, which threatens the patriotic celebrity status of the prince. When challenged the heritage patriots say, oh, they didn’t kill that many people! Just a really small scale massacre! You can’t trust those medieval chroniclers! (Unless they’re praising the heroic deeds of your warrior prince, naturally.) Or they say, well, everybody did that in those days. Yes, mass murder, looting and rape were pan-european. I love the appeal to the universal in order to justfy the behaviour of somebody who is supposed to be quintessentially, wonderfully ‘english’. A bit like defending delays in the NHS by saying, well, have you ever been to A and E in Spain?
The more history I uncover the more I hate my country. I know this wasn’t supposed to happen, it’s not what the Tories anticipated when they called for the teaching of more British history in our schools. On the other hand, I also come to hate all the other countries too. I don’t mean real countries of course, but countries as strutting boy bands, wrapping the dead in the flag, administering hallucinogenic fantasies to the poor like a date rape.
The idea of utopia is everywhere, like a virus. This is the most extraordinary yet.
‘My family were well provided for…. when I saw my children playing happily, or observed my wife’s delight in our youngest, the thought would often come over me, how long will our happiness last?’
It’s the realisation that there is something unnatural and temporary about current happiness that makes the writer’s sentiments utopian. The lines are taken from the death cell autobiography of Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, who also complains about how difficult it was to watch children going to the gas chambers, though it seems to have helped him to enjoy his own children all the more.

I love scientists. I heard a scientist say a brilliant thing on the radio: ‘if our brain was simple enough for us to understand it, we’d be too simple to understand it’.

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1 Response to the robin, herbivores in the garden, patriotism, utopia

  1. janeandallan says:

    Brilliant. Thank you. I enjoyed every word.

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