The bridled was always my favourite, a white ring and slashed stripe giving the bird a bookish air, wise, like it was privy to some essential truth. In late spring and early summer, the breeding months, I see the guillemots giving indecipherable lessons up there on the sheer cliff-face to their tottering young.
The bridled is not a sub-species, just a variation on a theme. The female only lays one mottled egg, conical, resting upon a ledge high up above crashing waves. The loomeries are such a sight. The bridled guillemot, my favourite living bird.
Scientific opinion, what I’ve read in my yellowing books and brought up online, says the spearbird too mated for life, like its smaller cousins. A solitary egg, no replacement if the first was lost. The old maritime stories and seafarer tales say you could see the adults floating boat-like, their children perched on their backs.
I take Denny and Bill, as I do every morning, for a long walk, past my neighbour’s house displaying a tasteful blue plaque like the ones you see everywhere in certain parts of London. Marcel Duchamp stayed here, once, just over a century ago (“I am not dead / I am in Herne Bay”). Simon loves this fact, loves that quote, says that’s how he felt growing up here.
My circuit takes me along the street, off Mickleburgh Hill, holding the straining Jack Russells back as we cross the Beltinge Road leading into the town centre, then onto green slopes that curve leisurely down to the Thames Estuary. Late spring sunshine sparkles on the water and I can see container ships out near the horizon. The blue-bronze statue of Barnes Wallis, who bounced his prototype bombs up the coast at Reculver, stares out to sea. A solitary herring gull perches on his head, mottling his shoulders with guano.
I let the dogs off the lead, throw them a chewed tennis ball. They bound off, fetch it back to drop at my feet. It’s soaked with drool and falling apart. We repeat this process as we work our way down to the seafront, stepping off grass onto concrete and walking in the direction of Reculver, the towers a lonely landmark. Today I can’t see them very well; there’s a haze in the air, an intimation of summer, making the towers a blur, the sandstone cliffs an orangey smudge. Out on the horizon where the container ships and Thames barges glide, the Maunsell forts dream of war and the white wind-turbines spin slowly. I walk a good mile along the front until Denny and Bill start to tire, then take the steep path up through the Herne Bay downs, the dogs bounding through cow parsley and nettles, disturbing dunnocks and sparrows. These common birds are part of my daily ritual, providing a necessary rhythm and repetition that helps fill Maggie’s absence. We do get surprises here in Kent though. Don’t be fooled. A whitethroat. A rust-coloured butcherbird, its larder stocked with large insects and small mammals impaled on sharp thorn. I keep notes of all unusual reported sightings. A little auk spotted down in Dungeness (I imagine it in the shadow of the nuclear reactor, bobbing in sight of shingle and a famous cottage). A black guillemot far from home, spotted near Reculver towers.
It’s still early and only a few other dog walkers and joggers are about. Just how I like it. I’ve been walking these routes for 40 years now, seen so much change and so much stay the same. At the top of the downs, on a bench I had dedicated to Maggie (she loved this spot), sits a sad-looking and stubbled man swigging from a can of something obscured in brown paper.
Was the spearbird ever knocked off course and washed up on this shore?
They say, once, you could see whales off this coast.
I’ve only just got in with Denny and Bill when the doorbell rings. They go mad as they always do, yelping and jumping about excitedly, as if this has never happened before.
I go to open the door. Down Denny, down Bill. It’s just Simon, I say, just Simon and Ade. I feel silly still in my walking boots, dry mud flaking off onto the carpet, my outdoor coat military-green and still buttoned up.
Hello dad, he says before I’ve even fully opened the door. My son, 36 years old and back in Kent after a decade and a half in the metropolis. I see Maggie in him.
You off out? he asks with a wink, ruffling the back of Denny’s neck who growls contentedly, looking at my boots and coat. Just got in with the dogs, I say, and it feels weak, but Adrianna, Simon’s partner, beams and says, Hello Gerry, you alright? And I feel that I am.
I’ll put the kettle on, I say.
She’s cut her hair. I like her.
I’ve seen black guillemots in their natural habitat, sooty pigeon-sized cousins of the spearbird with lipstick-red feet. They’re Celtic birds to my mind, nesters in Ireland, the west coast of Scotland, the Orkneys and Shetland. I’ve never seen any in England, never knew if that Reculver sighting was correct. When I saw them myself, it was many summers ago on the Isle of Man, when Simon was still little. One of the trips we used to take. They seemed so regular and then they just stopped. I struggle to remember the last trip we all took, together. I remember feeling, there on the island, like a family. Dad, mum, son. Egg mayonnaise sandwiches wrapped in cling-film, sweet thermos tea, a creased RSPB guide.
It’s a strangely quiet bird, the black guillemot. Simon says he can still remember that trip, wondering where the manx cats kept their tails. I remember a local fisherman saying something to me in his language and laughing.
Simon doesn’t visit as much as I’d like, but he’s getting better as we both get older, and I enjoy dusting off the photo album. Now he’s moved back to Kent I’ve seen him more in three months than I have in the last five years.
Simon and Ade are early. April is coming to a close, with the first few days of real warmth making themselves known, the world waking up from an endless winter of floodwater and apocalyptic predictions. Showers, spreading greenery, early hayfever sneezes, a slight sweat when I take my walks still kitted out in my winter gear. Yesterday I saw my first swallow of the year and jotted the sighting down in my notebook. Date, time, location. I would have remembered, but it feels important to document these things.
I pour boiling water over instant coffee, black and sugarless for all three of us. Maggie always insisted on buying the good stuff, boiled it up on the oven the old fashioned way, refusing both glass cafetieres and the instant supermarket stuff. She ground her own beans. Ahead of her time in that sense, I suppose. I can’t be bothered with all of that if I’m honest.
Jenny not with you? I ask Adrianna. With her dad, she says, and sips from her steaming mug. I wish Maggie were here to see her son like this, recovered from a divorce that broke his mother’s heart more than his. I wish she were here to see him with someone who makes him happy. He’s said to me, privately, after a few whiskies we had on Christmas Eve, this is the first time he’s ever felt real happiness. I never knew what it meant, until now, he said. And children? I asked. I’m happy to be a step-dad his reply. I don’t want to create a kid who would have to feel the things I’ve felt. I hope you understand.
Maggie’s not here. There’s only us, and I’m glad they’re with me. It’s funny, I remember Ade as a teenager. When they were together the first time round in the 90s. Life can blow you off course, yet we can still find our way home.
Saw my first swallow today dad, says Simon, in a way that feels genuine, more than just making the effort. He’s smoking one of those battery-powered things, clouds of sweet smelling apple vapour mingling with the coffee steam. Time to try and quit, he says, and I agree. I smoked myself, for 20 years, but I just can’t picture myself doing it now. It gives him a pensive look as he sucks vapour into his lungs.
My cat Sandy comes in through the flap purring. She weaves and winds between Ade’s legs. Ade leans down and strokes the cat’s guillemot-black fur. She’s wearing a frayed top with the sleeves rolled up, multicoloured like a puffin’s bill. I go to the cupboard to find some cat food. I can see the bowl’s empty.
I like razorbills too of course, their thick-beaks zebra-striped and imposing. Aptly named. It’ll take a finger off. Closest in look to the spearbird (the bird I dream of, what a sight to see!) You’ll find no razorbills on the coast of Kent either. Certainly not in Herne Bay. Simon sometimes asks me why I don’t just up sticks and head out to the coast of Wales, Ireland, Scotland, the places I say I really love, and I do love them, but my only answer to him is this place is my home. Where I lived with Maggie and where he grew up. Where the bench dedicated to his mother sits staring out over the murky estuary. Where a depressed Duchamp boarded, planning his next move and where I walk the downs daily with Denny and Bill avoiding teenage cider drinkers, solitary fisherman, too-fast cyclists, nervy dog walkers, couples arm in arm, toddlers yelling at the bruise-coloured sky. This is my home. Roman ruins and wind turbines, retail parks and concrete, oystercatchers and turnstones. My home of 40 years. A coast where I can watch the storms galloping in off the horizon. The strange joy of seeing it rain there and not here. Remember Simon, I say, I am not dead, I am in Herne Bay. He always laughs at that. He’s moved to the outskirts of Faversham, not too far away. Something must have drawn him back. Maybe it’s all just random circumstance but I don’t see the world that way.
I can’t live near my guillemots. The auks represent the journey, going somewhere far away and deep inside, familiar but elsewhere. Loading the boot of the car, packing the binoculars and telescope, the travel toothpaste and miniature bottles of shampoo. A sacred place outside my life. I don’t want to spoil myself and become bored of the things I love.
I wish I could describe to him my dreams of the spearbird, the great auk. Little-wing, gairfowl, icon of extinction, parallel penguin, bird I will never see.
I wish I could explain my fantasies of orca pods, herds of walrus, the deep north. Visions of ice floes and whaling ships, when a bird bigger and brighter than the guillemot and razorbill flew underwater and nested on Icelandic, Newfoundland, Scottish rock. I wonder what dreams occupy my son at night.
At South Stack, on my yearly trip, I see puffins. They make me think of the books Maggie and I bought Simon in the 80s. That little black and white mascot, grinning if a bird could grin. Me in my spectacles like a bridled guillemot, reading him story after story.
I suppose they do look childish, those playful and mischievous burrowing birds. I see the puffins, rainbow bills drooping fry, and I see a hungry caterpillar, a painted tyrannosaur, Mr. Fox loping in front of a harvest moon, a small boy sat on my knee, the sad-happy memories that flesh out my nostalgia.
Once I spotted a Brunnich’s guillemot, I’m sure, but I was alone and it was never confirmed. I could have called it in on one of the twitcher lines. But I took pleasure in the notion if no one knew but myself, was it ever really there? If a tree falls, and so on. Twitchers are collectors, joyless list compilers and I don’t understand them.
We sit around the coffee table and talk, how Ade’s daughter from her first marriage, Jenny, is doing at school, how retirement is treating me, how the festival they both went to in Winchester, months back, went (I’m strangely jealous, I love my music, but the thought of it tires me out). How Simon’s new job is going. He’s commuting to London two days a week, working from home for the rest. Never thought I’d be one of those people, he says. Leaving was like a painful breakup.
We sit and drink our coffee, a lull in the conversation.
Then Simon says, through clouds of apple vapour, dad I have an idea. Let’s go see your guillemots. South Stack, go with you on your trip. I want to do stuff like that again, he says, take Ade to see it too. I keep telling her about how beautiful parts of Britain can be. She’s promised to go just to shut me up.
He does keep going on about it, says Ade, grinning, mischievous like a puffin. I nod, feeling happier than I let show.
There’s choughs there now too, I say, and my son smiles and drains his coffee. Sandy eats noisily from her bowl.
Simon was 12 when I saw little auks fluttering out near the horizon, at least ten of them, starling-sized and in a hurry. It was 1991 on the north Norfolk coast but he says he can’t remember clearly. A lot of it blends together, he says, it’s only now that I’m trying to pick it all apart and stick it all back together again in a way that makes sense. He has a way with words, my son.
During that trip we camped in muddy fields, laughed at the rural Norfolk accents, enjoyed the already ageing rides at Great Yarmouth. We ate plates of heaped meat at Fatty Arbuckles somewhere in the town centre, tired and hungry. A sad place really. I have a photo from that trip of a fallen pillbox, the cliff that held it finally given way to quietly eroding wind and rain. Upside down, half-submerged in the damp sand, cold puddles of salty rainwater pooling in the gloom. It’s a fate that will befall Reculver and my home; but I view the uncertain shores I love as a dialogue between land and sea, a conversation I’m not privy to. I don’t really believe in endings. Nothing ever ends. There is only change.
I have a picture on my mantelpiece of Simon, my only child, standing on Kodiak Island in a cagoule and chunky boots with pigeon guillemots nesting behind him. After the divorce he travelled a lot. He said it kicked something inside him back to life, all of a sudden he could remember the Isle of Man and South Stack and even bits of north Norfolk. How going away, seeing all these wonderful places in a world he never knew could be so big, made him see where he was, where he lived, in a new light. He took stock and reassessed where he was from. I know that’s a bit obvious, he said, but it’s true.
I’ve never seen pigeon guillemots, rarely travelled outside of Europe and now I’m getting too old even if I had the urge. He says I should visit a few more places before time runs out, he’ll even go with me, see those birds I only know from books and Attenborough and my magazines. The ones we always fantasised about going to see, chatting away in the car, back in the 90s. The picture is enough for me, I say. And at night I have the spearbird.
One of those magazines, dated May 1995, is stained a deep red from wine Maggie spilled one Christmas. I never threw it out. It’s still perfectly readable. Its cover a striking photograph of a razorbill.
I’m aging. Every night is a night of 19th century dreams where I hunt down the great auk, the king of them all, giant flightless father to both guillemot and razorbill. I’m keen for its down, stuffing for my pillow on which to rest my hunt-tired head, hungry for the meat and feather that earns me my living. I taste its flesh, cooked over sputtering flame, rich and gamey. In the petrified ruins of Neolithic fires, they find the spearbird’s remains. Gnawed bones, bits of wing, beaks used in long forgotten ceremonies.
How we project onto the natural world. I love the deep north. I visited the Scottish isles a few times, always hoped to see orca but never did. Photographed bullet-fast gannets, floating terns, seals spinning in the brine. I remember a few old fishermen speaking Gaelic as they hauled nets from icy water. Lessons out of reach.
In the islands of Scotland, Newfoundland, Iceland, the deep north, my mind wanders. I watch the lunar cycle at Callanish. I boat to the nesting sites. I take the eggs. It was my hands that throttled the life from the final great auk. It was my heel that landed on that last egg. I wake sweating, heart pounding, thrilled and appalled. I should dream of my wife more, and feel guilt.
I own a reproduction of Keuleman’s illustration of the great auk up in my study that I try to imagine in life and in motion. Such poetic names there were for this creature; spearbird, gairfowl, little-wing, names that crossed from Norse to Basque, from Old Irish to Inuit.
I stayed with Simon in London before his marriage all went wrong. We visited the Horniman Museum, just the two of us. I looked at the sad taxidermy, and there it was, my spearbird, plastic-eyed, blind like Barnes Wallis but seemingly at peace. Only much later did I discover the truth; a facsimile created from the feathers of other birds. Guillemots and razorbills. Afterwards we looked out over the city from Forest Hill, a sweep of landmarks from Battersea, dead even then, all the way to the towers of commerce in the east. Times like that, I admit, I missed London a little.
In Liverpool they keep the Earl of Derby’s great auk egg. Mottled shell on cotton wool, resting forever behind glass in a lacquered wooden box. I saw it, in the 90s, a few months before Maggie spilled her wine.
The telly burbles quietly, this year’s annual documenting of the spring awakening on the BBC. I flick through a book Simon bought me for my 65th, the accompanying hardback to an exhibition along the coast in Margate. He says he knows the artist from his life in London. I’ve been to the Gallery, and enjoyed it.
Guillemots crowd the screen while an enthusiastic voiceover tells me reassuring facts I already know about breeding habits, single eggs and precarious ledges, threats to their environment, differences between winter and summer plumage. The negligible difference between bridled and common. Denny and Bill doze at my feet dreaming their dog dreams. Sandy bats at the screen trying to take down birds hundreds of miles away. I’ve seen her do this many times but it still makes me laugh. I named her after a folk singer I used to love. Where does the time go? Sandy’s nearly 12 now, the old girl, and going deaf. Never littered, I had her fixed, for which now I feel a strange guilt.
Simon and Ade stayed most of the morning. He helped me shift some stuff to the dump. We took another walk with the dogs along the downs in the afternoon, more swallows in the sky.
We made plans for Wales, for Anglesey, for South Stack. For the guillemots.
I’m not from Kent; by which I mean I wasn’t born here. I spent the first 25 years of my life in London, born to parents in a nondescript part of Islington before the chattering classes, vegetarianism, and aspirational lifestyles took root. My early childhood days were spent in a city that was slowly licking its wounds, rebuilding after a war that had necessitated the Maunsell forts in the estuary, the bouncing bombs of my shit-stained statue, the pillbox that would be swallowed whole by Norfolk sand. I was born in 1949, a baby boomer, one of the luckiest generations in history, or so I read. So Simon has told me too; even shouted it down the phone once.
I was a child in the monochrome 50s. I can’t remember the trip with my parents to the Festival of Britain in ’51. They always talked about it. Even had a photo, my black-and-white toddler-self in front of a murky Thames. Later I’d look at the Southbank and find its brutal concrete unnervingly fascistic, Germanic in a way nobody wanted to admit. On the Thames, I always loved watching the cormorants, fanning their reptilian wings as they perched on the remains of the first Blackfriars Bridge. I loved the weird anachronisms everywhere in the city. As if we couldn’t clean up behind ourselves properly, got bored halfway through.
In the 60s, I entered adolescence. I remember unease and protests. Not much swinging. Pesticides poisoned peregrines, dropping them from the sky in the name of progress. Back then I would never have described myself as an ornithologist or a birder or even someone with any real interest in nature, though I must have had something inside me or how else would I be the man I am today? My mother and father, war-shocked city people, neither pushed for nor prevented any interests of mine. I was always grateful for that. My father fought in Burma, always intimated he’d seen worse things that anyone would, or could, ever know. I think he enjoyed that. I always held the absurd desire to ask what birds he saw in those jungles, craving stories filled with bamboo and junglefowl. There was a sense he felt my generation weak for not having suffered sufficiently.
Maggie was a year younger than me. I met her in the approach to my 21st birthday, 1970, such ancient history. I was listening to folk rock LPs and so was she and I suppose I must have offered to buy her a drink in our local pub. She was a friend of a friend (Where are all those friends now? We all melt away) and what can I say, we hit it off, we fell in love in the way that people used to. Her family were from Kent, and we visited them down on the coast and it was there that I saw oystercatchers skimming in over the water at dusk, Maggie’s hand in mine, the sun a bloody orange. I listened to the water lap at the splintery groynes at Seasalter and watched the oystercatchers land. Soon after, I bought my first bird book in a charity shop in Canterbury, and though I’m not sure Maggie ever understood it all in quite the way I did, I think she was happy I had an interest, a hobby, even though I must have infuriated her at times. At least you’re not one of those football thugs, she said with a smile. And that interest, my beloved guillemots and choughs and puffins, it took us all around the country and we got to know, really know, the place we lived in and I loved her for the fact she came with me. Now at night I think of her but I dream of the spearbird.
Maggie always said she thought it was attractive and almost exotic that I was a Londoner, born and bred, and I told her that I felt the same way about her being from the coast, given the opportunity to have some peace and quiet after a life of city streets and bomb craters. London was depopulating rapidly when we met, flights out to the new towns, better housing and perceived better qualities of life, Londoners fleeing into Essex, to Milton Keynes, and many like us, into Kent. She was a returnee, me the immigrant. We left London in 1974. I can’t believe you left before punk! Simon says. It was never my thing, really, I say. He rolls his eyes at this, incredulous that I was never as angry as him. Maybe I was lucky.
Simon wasn’t born until 1979. We went through five years of trying and a miscarriage that nearly broke us. I remember days in ’77 when Maggie would sit at home with her sisters and they would talk and talk and console and I felt I was intruding somehow so I’d take solitary walks along the downs with the binoculars that I still own (vintage, I suppose) looking out at a horizon punctuated by the Maunsell forts, yes, and Reculver too, but many years before the turbines would split opinions along this fretful coastline. In those days she was so sad, seemed so small, and I just didn’t have the words. I walked the coast until my feet blistered, drove south into the Romney Marsh, crunched over shingle in sight of the power station and looked for crossbills on the Dungeness reserve. Left early in the mornings when Maggie was with her mum to walk the Blean Forest paths. I watched the birds, and it helped, it really did. Gave me a sense I could deal with it all. Gave me the strength to be there for my wife. We headed through the winter of discontent towards the 80s and Simon came along. The only one I want, said Maggie, I just couldn’t go through with all that again. She was right, she couldn’t and neither could I.
After I take the dogs for their walk I take a wander into town following the seafront. It’s a Monday and quiet. I pass Barnes Wallis, the gull shit piling up on his shoulders. I get a text from Simon: Looking forward to the weekend dad! Glad we’re doing this.
Friday we’ll set off for South Stack. I’m heading into town to get a few things, a new pair of decent boots, perhaps get a late breakfast in the Beano café.
Out the way granddad!! Laughter. A few teenagers on skateboards and BMXs speed past me, caps rustling in the wind, rushing toward the arcades and the pier. I sigh.
We’ve crossed the border into Wales. Simon drives as Jenny dozes in the back seat, a Puffin book clutched in her hand. Adrianna sits next to her daughter dozing also, hands resting on her lap. I sit next to my son. Once it was me in the driver’s seat. He looks so like his mother. One of Simon’s reggae compilations leaks quietly from the speakers. Not my kind of music but I say nothing.
He begins to talk.
Do you think about mum? It’s three years already.
I know son. Every day.
Do you get lonely?
Sometimes. But I’m happy on my own. I’m glad you came home, you know.
I am too. When was the last time we did this? I remember being on that back seat, you and mum in the front. But I can’t remember when the last time we did it was. It was in the 90s. I can’t believe how long ago it all feels.
It’s certainly been a while.
I need to add some new memories to it all, you know? It’s hard to put into words, I just really wanted to come back, with Ade and Jen. Just describing it doesn’t do it justice, does it?
No it doesn’t. I know what you mean.
Now we’re back, now I’m near you, I want to try and do more of these kinda things, if you do?
I’d like that a lot son.
We’re at South Stack among groups of other birders, telescope tripods hung over their shoulders like the carcasses of a fresh kill, earnest men with beards and bulging bellies, with patient wives who sip tea from plastic containers. The cliffs are teeming, the whir of wings everywhere, life so abundant it seems nearly impossible and in this moment everything seems okay.
We set up a good spot, my tripod wedged into the earth and telescope set up. Jenny peers through a miniature set of binoculars and points, tugs my sleeves and asks, Uncle Gerry, what’s that? She points at buzzing wings and a rainbow bill. That’s a puffin, Jen, just like on your books. She giggles.
There’s not an inch of space wasted. This bird city, every possible ledge, crevice and cranny occupied by puffins, razorbills, and guillemots. I spy a waddling pair of bridleds, guide Jenny’s gaze to them and she asks why they’re wearing glasses, and it’s my turn to laugh. Ade and Simon are talking a few feet away from us with soft smiles. I think he’s talking about Maggie but I can’t quite hear. They’re holding hands. Then he grabs his binoculars suddenly, a childish happiness gripping him, says look look, choughs! And we all see them, their pointed beaks deep crimson and feathers coal black, something once gone that now is not.
I train my telescope on the loomeries. Down near where sea meets cliff, I see it. That white spot under the eye. The useless wings. The parallel penguin of my deep north, it’s found me after so long. My great auk, my gairfowl. It startles and dives beneath the waves. Little-wing. Nothing ever ends.
Look, I say to my son.
Illustration of great auk by John Gould, The Birds of Europe, vol. 5 pl. 55 lithograph by Edward Lear with hand coloring. 30.2 x 44 cm (image); 38.3 x 55.5 cm (sheet), courtesy Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.