An extract from Jan Morris’s ‘In My Mind’s Eye: A Thought Diary’, our Book of the Month for September, newly published by Faber & Faber.
What is it with the birds? What are they on about? How do they steer? What are they up to? Who runs them? I can’t make them out at all.
This morning, I walked along the edge of a tidal meadow near our place, half grassland, half saltwater pools, and there I came across a multitude of Canada geese, plus a few whooper swans, all nibbling away at the grass in frenzied unison, as it were. After lunch, I went back to take another look at them, and lo! – every single one of those creatures, every one of those twitching, nibbling bundles of bird had vanished.
Where had they gone? Who ordered them to go? Where had they come from? Why did they come here? Who marshalled them? Why?
I don’t really want to know. I’m very pleased that they did come, and flattered that they should have flown, in their elegant V-formation, I assume, halfway across the world to our particular corner of another continent. I am glad that, so far as I know, years of scientific research, by generations of specialists, have not revealed to us (or to me, anyway) how birds work, how they remember those immense migratory journeys, how they know when to change course, or even how the halfdozen crows on the telegraph wire outside our house suddenly and unanimously decide, one and all, to take off and go home.
I spent an evening once at a shearwater colony in Australia, watching the little birds, as night fell, unerringly flying back to their own particular burrow in the dusk. Not a flicker of hesitation, not a single second thought, only swift, sudden swoops out of the sky on to the sand and into the underground. And I was proud to think that perhaps the most famous of all shearwaters should have been at least parttime Welsh. The small island of Ynys Enlli, Bardsey to the English, is almost within sight of my home, and it was the destination of the longest avian flight itinerary ever recorded – the halfcentury career of a Manx shearwater which, in its annual migrations between Cardigan Bay and the coast of South America, flew a million miles, or ten times to the moon and back.
What an impertinence, to ask it how it was done! No, let all the birds, big and small, friendly or aloof, keep their grand mysteries to themselves and leave us simple humans marvelling.
I am happily susceptible to the abstraction the Welsh call hiraeth. Dictionaries define it simply as longing, but to Welsh poets down the generations it has meant far, far more. The fourteenth-century master Dafydd ap Gwilym, for instance, declared it variously the Son of Memory, the Son of Intention, the Son of Grief and the Son of Enchantment. Fortunately, the conception has always treated me kindly, and twice, in the course of my daily exercise, it has given me a moment of epiphany – a brief lovely conviction that all would eventually be well, for me and for all others, as the old world turned again.
And lo, it happened to me once more today as I walked up our lane. I paused for a moment to take in the beauty of the morning – blue, blue sky with soft and genial clouds, two high trails of aircraft hastening romantically to the west, a dusting of snow on the mountains, a squawking of rooks somewhere and fifty-nine sheep (I counted them) speckling the Parrys’ fields all around. Eureka!
When I got home, I found an email from America, almost despairing at the miseries of everything – terminal depression, my friend thought, in a devastated country ‘spinning downward’. I replied at once, with a loving message that all shall be well, all shall be very well, straight from the Son of Enchantment.
In My Mind’s Eye is out now and available here, priced £16.99.
You can read Horatio Clare’s review of the book here.