Caught by the River

The Bird Effect Diaries

Ceri Levy | 10th September 2010

The diary of the making of a film. and an on going fascination with birds and their accompanying cast of human characters. By Ceri Levy.

Tuesday January 5th

Today I am off to Liverpool to meet Clem Fisher. She is the Curator of Vertebrate Zoology at the Liverpool World Museum and looks after the collection of bird skins that they own. I met her at the Bird Symposium in Oxford in December and she invited me along to view their birds as I was interested in exploring the world of extinction and they had several extinct species in their collections. All through the Xmas period I had said to myself that I wanted to start the year with a bang and get on with filming and meeting people and here I am in the first week of January on the train up north. This is how it’s got to be this year, non-stop and full steam ahead for The Bird Effect.

It’s a grey, cold day as we set off from London and the weather seems to deteriorate the further north we go. Soon it becomes a snowscape outside and we are surrounded by a blizzard. The train creeps into Liverpool Lime Street and as I get off the train I decide to go to the taxi rank where I discover that no one else is waiting for a taxi. For a brief moment I think to myself that maybe this is my lucky day. A porter walks past me, looks me up and down as if I’m an imbecile and decides to let me in on the secret that there are no taxis and there have been no taxis in three hours. As they say, when things look too good to be true they usually are.

I look at a map and work out where my hotel is. It’s quite a way especially with all my equipment. I head outside to a scene of apocalyptic proportions. Traffic is gridlocked in every direction. The pavement is sheer ice. People are falling over. Shops are closed. Shopping bags lie spilled upon the glaciers of Liverpool, their ready meals strewn across this snowy wasteland. Men and women are crying on street corners. The shop shutters have been pulled down in all directions. What have I walked into?

I phone Clem, who is stuck at home. She is waiting for a hip operation and is concerned about the state of the sudden iciness that surrounds her home. I tell her not to even think about coming out and suggest we see how the weather is tomorrow. She feels bad but I say it’s just not worth the trouble as the conditions are treacherous. I head down the hill towards the hopeful sanctity of my hotel at the docks and I have to concentrate to keep from slipping and falling like so many do on this public ice rink. It takes the best part of an hour to slide to my hotel. Where are the huskies when you need them? Once inside my hotel room I look outside my window to watch the unmoving snake of un-charmed traffic. I meet a friend of mine who has appeared at the hotel and we decide to go for a drink. It is five in the afternoon but the majority of pubs are shut or shutting at 6 so the staff can find a way home. We are booted out of the pub at 5.50. It feels like the war and even the beer is being rationed. I suggest to my friend that he should get back home as he has to get a train and the last one to his neck of the woods is in half an hour. I slither with him to the station and wish him Godspeed! The city has come to a complete standstill. I return to the hotel and I notice outside my window that the traffic I looked at an hour or so ago has moved possibly three yards. Welcome to Liverpool. It’s closed.

Wednesday January 6th
Quietness abounds around town this morning as I head to the World Museum. It is still icy under foot and Stephen Guy, the Press Officer for the Museum, has come to meet me as Clem is now definitely snowed in and wisely staying at home. He has defied the weather and walked several miles to get in to see me and to make sure I haven’t had a wasted journey. On a day like this I really appreciate his generous spirit. He takes me to meet Tony Parker from the zoology department, who takes me round the collection in lieu of Clem and I am staggered by what I see. This makes the trip totally worthwhile, although I know that I will be coming back soon as I also really want to chat on camera with Clem. But no matter, as Tony is a great host and I learn so much from him as he guides me through the collection. I see drawer after drawer of birds, which are impaled on sticks so they can be picked up and examined without damaging their feathers, and they make me think that they are akin to bird lollipops. I look at trays full of hummingbirds, finches, birds of prey and a collection of the sadly extinct Passenger Pigeon. I am shown a Great Auk egg, which is spectacularly beautiful and huge. It is splattered in black like a Jackson Pollock action-painted egg. I admire gigantic seabirds, which were collected over a hundred years old and there is an acrid stench of the sea and oil, which is nothing less than distinctly unpleasant. The intervening century of life for these birds in their cabinets and drawers has been unable to clear the fetid sickening aroma from their bodies.
Passenger Pigeon Lollipop
Jackson Pollock’s Auk Egg

I also admire the Liverpool Pigeon, a.k.a. The Spotted Green Pigeon, which is the only specimen of its type in the world and of course is not from Liverpool at all. No one knows where it came from although the general feeling is that perhaps it was from one of the Pacific Islands. It is a beautiful mystery bird.
The Liverpool Pigeon A.K.A. The Green Spotted Pigeon.

Stephen takes me for lunch when we’ve finished our tour behind the scenes, and I can recommend eating the great homemade food in their cafe. Stephen proves to be a wonderfully entertaining host and I discover he is a Liverpool historian of great repute. I tell him that I recently discovered that I have much more family history than I realised in Liverpool itself. My father always told me that our family had come from Russia to escape the Jewish persecution in the 1870’s and that they had bought tickets on a boat bound for the promised land of New York. One day on board the ship they were told that they had arrived in The United States and had made pretty good time. They marched off the boat and as it sailed away from the quay they discovered that they were actually in the slightly less glamorous surroundings of Swansea! In a moment of boredom last year, while my wife, Jackie, was researching her family tree on I decided to have a quick look at my family’s history as I never really knew much about my heritage. Within a few quick inquiries I was captivated and had learnt more about my ancestors than I had in my entire time on this planet. I also discovered that my father’s family was not dropped in Wales but Liverpool instead, where they stayed for the next thirty years or so and only then had moved to Swansea. I also discovered that the family were hawkers of pictures, ie art dealers, with a frame maker, and a glazier also in the family and all in the same house. I found out they lived in Mountfichet Street in Liverpool and Stephen told me that was an area surrounded by merchants houses and so it would seem clear that my family were selling art to the wealthy. As a way of funding my films I buy and sell art and had no idea of my family’s business acumen and here I am one hundred and forty years later doing exactly the same thing. We always like to think we are unique but here I am carrying on a family tradition I knew nothing about, although my father sold art, as well as being an art critic and writer, so it’s obviously in the genes, and I have discovered that I am a Scouser, and a mongrel one at that. So I’m a Scouse, Welsh, Jewish, Russian! No wonder I’ve got short legs.

As I slide my way to the station I see a rare sight as a taxi approaches with it’s light on. I hail it immediately and he pulls up beside me and I get in. Once inside, the driver and I start talking about the chaos and how the world as we know it has ground to a halt. He says, “ That Hitler couldn’t have been too clever. All he had to do during the war was chuck snowballs at us and not bombs and we’d have been defeated! We’d all be Germans now if he’d had the nous to do that!”

At the train station no one at Virgin can help the queues of people wanting to get to London and no one knows if there are any trains. I know that mine is not meant to leave for a few more hours but as the staff think the trains won’t be running by that time anyway, they stamp my ticket, which allows me to get on any train that may or may not appear from now on, although it is unlikely to be for at least another hour and they urge everyone to clear the ticket office and to come back later. The people dissipate from the area in a resigned manner and I decide to go for a pint. As I leave the office I see a train pull in. It’s from London and I ask one of the staff on the train if it’s going to London. He says yes but that the train is turning around immediately. I jump onboard and within minutes we are off heading slowly but surely towards London. I wonder how many of the throng that were told to come back later have got onboard. I feel lucky as we leave the snow wreckage behind. Above me the sun bursts through the melting snow upon the glass roof like a constructivist painting. I have escaped.

read Ceri’s earlier diary entries HERE.