Tim Dee introduces an extract from his upcoming book ‘Landfill’, published next month by Little Toller.
Landfill is a book about gulls and people who watch them and also about the various places gulls can be seen these days. It is therefore a book about rubbish and the sifting and sorting and reworking of rubbish and rubbishy places that the gulls are doing in Britain today. It is therefore also a book about the organising of things: birds, rubbish and people, and it is interested in how, as they have moved among us in the last one hundred years, gulls have come to occupy and to feed different places in our minds. What we think of them has changed as they themselves have changed how they live. Did they choose to do this or did we make them? This question plays across Landfill.
The following edited extract comes from near the end of the book.
A few years ago my parents, in their late seventies, moved to Minehead. It was a mistake. They quickly became stuck in the seaside town with no easy means of getting anywhere else. We joked about the last resort. My father lost his nerve as a car driver and got scared of the hills of west Somerset. My mother suffered a period of illness that left her immobile and trapped indoors. They survived, but it was tough for a time. Dad could manage the level roads to the supermarket and went on little sorties, bringing back titbits to try to revive his permanent bride. She was confined to the front room, and he, like a bowerbird, decorated it with cheap CDs and discounted pastries. Sitting at her side, he leaned in to show her his billets-doux.
I went to help and to be as kind as I could, but by mid-afternoon on most visits I needed air. I would take my binoculars and walk to the front. There’s a bit of beach there, and a freshwater drain that opens below the sea wall and spreads across dark worn pebbles. Herring gulls and black-headed gulls wash in this stream, and I hoped that if I watched, I might pick up one of the rarer gull species I was trying to learn about.
I didn’t. But my walks to the front became more common. My father, having nursed my mother, got ill himself and had become increasingly static. I drove from Bristol to change light bulbs, cut the grass, jettison mouldy gooseberries from the fridge, and organise trips to the local dump, a strictly no food waste place with metal skips for sorted recyclables. In the house, stuff had built up that needed clearing. But getting rid of your life is hard. My mother, a would-be life-laundress, offered me my pick of the paintings on their walls and then found reasons to deny all of my choices. My father sanctioned my clearing various bin bags of plastic tubs and boxes, only for me to see his bent frame falling slowly into one of the skips as he sought to retrieve a favoured yoghurt pot which he had emphatically not authorised for extinction.
Dad’s spine had jackknifed and his heart was weakening. Mum was still lame. Baby, their ginger and white cat, got ill as well and had to be shaved. Dad took to carrying the cat around by wedging it between his thighs and stomach. He walked from the front room to the kitchen looking like a veteran miner, stooping from his shift, blinking into the light, and cradling a sack of golden nuggets, the last haul of his life.
I topped up the seed and fat balls on the bird table and asked about gulls in the garden. There are herring gulls working the town from overhead all day long and one – both my parents insisted it was just one – came down most mornings onto their pocket-sized lawn and browsed freely. Baby wasn’t eating well and recently Gilbert the gull had been enjoying a lot of old cat food. A stale doughnut, put out just that morning, was probably snaffled by him as well. He waited on the roof above their bedroom and they often heard his claws on the tiles and the gutter.
We tussled over what I might take on my next dump trip. Dad gave up some newspapers he had vetted, but others that hadn’t been fully read still hummed for him with latent energy and had, therefore, to be kept. There was a skull of yellowing paper that could have been a wasps’ nest. I put my fingers through it and fished out a booklet on how to pass the eleven-plus. I’m fifty-seven and my children are in their twenties, my sister and her boys are not far behind us. The exam disappeared from most of England in the 1970s. The booklet remains in Minehead.
Even as I wonder what world is to be won by this, I know that in my own bat cave in Bristol I am the author of similar madnesses, comparable hoardings for unlikely tomorrows. There are shelves but there are a lot of books beyond shelving, there are vinyl records and record players, stuffed birds and old bird reports, there are old radio tapes and old radios, there are towers of CDs, there are works on foolscap, roneo and video, there is a mothy rug, a box of feathers, some baskets of stones, another of blown ostrich eggs, there are mantelpieces decked with whalebones and bird skulls, there is half a table of fulgurites, gnarled glass fingers of lightning-struck Saharan sand, there are rings from dead birds. And, until it died itself, I had a frozen-up freezer; which melted onto my floor and out slid a grey mullet hooked from the muddy tide of the Wash, along with some defrosting peas, a barn owl’s wing sliced from a roadkill, an ice-cream pot filled with ancient mulligatawny, and the disassembled paw of an aardvark found on a dirt road in the Northern Cape.
Wasps make magnificent homes for themselves but every winter all of the builders die. Many of us know this and its wider implications, but most of us also live as if this weren’t true.
At my parents’ house, I opened a cupboard in a lean-to that had once been a car porch. It was full of water-stained stationery, memo pads, notebooks and some rusted paper-clips. None had been used and all were now useless. Dad shouted ‘No!’ and did his best to hurry towards me. Not even the yoghurt-pot rescue had exercised him as much. I stopped my bagging. As he walked away, I could hear effort in his chest, a wet wind of muddied air, like the sea’s breath at a shore or, as Robin Robertson says in his poem ‘A Seagull Murmur’, ‘the mewling sound of a leaking heart.’
There was wine at lunch and cheesecake. The heating was working overtime. Dad remembered his National Service duties in Plymouth Sound, where he fired twelve-pounder guns at a radio-controlled target boat called the Queen Gull. I’d heard of the gun batteries before but never of their marks. After coffee, both parents dozed in their armchairs. I stood up to get some air and walked to the front. It was a blowy day. The first sand martins of the spring had been seen in half-a-dozen places across southern England, pioneers of the incoming season. But though today’s wind had come out of the south-west, winter was in it still. My eyes swam with tears. It was one of those days when the Atlantic bullies the Bristol Channel, requiring it to awake its faith, up its game, and audition for sea. Though the washed out wet-waste of half of England and Wales kept the water brown, like potter’s slip, there were deep troughs and white-crowned waves and everything streamed.
Herring and lesser black-backed gulls spun out of the cloud base and came down like squalls, bright lit by spears of sunlight between broad shawls of grey rain. The Minehead Chamber of Commerce had posted a sign with a picture of a herring gull outside the mini-golf café saying Please Don’t Feed Me. I crouched beneath it to watch the birds. The tide was out, the beach wide. In the first water, three sickly herring gulls were washing themselves. Two of them had one leg that hung uselessly. All their steps were hops. The third had wing feathers that had been half eaten away. Those that remained were stained – it looked like it had fallen into something corrosive. It was drinking heavily.
Further out, at the limit of my binoculars’ power, many more gulls splashed and washed in the spreading tongue of Minehead drain water where it debouched into the brown fringe of the sea. There was quite a crowd: five hundred herring gulls, one hundred common gulls and a dozen each of lesser and great black-backed gulls. I thought of the holy dirty water of the Ganges – its lower reaches declared a ‘living entity’ in 2017 and, shortly after, reported ‘dead’ – and of the outlets, just up the estuary, of the nuclear power plants, Hinkley A, B, and one day C.
One bird among the many detained me. The stormy evening was floodlighting everything where the sea began, and one gull shone out still more, even though it was a third of a mile away. A ghost gull – the colour of dirty ice or wood ashes. It was smaller than the herrings and more delicately built with longer wings. Its body was mucky but overall it appeared much brighter than any other gull. It was like an ice-light or snow-lantern on the shore. Its primaries were the whitest part of it. It looked like it was thawing. I knew it at once as an Iceland gull, only my third ever and the first I had found alone. A full adult would have been whiter still. This was an immature, but I was too far away to properly age it by calculating the full extent of youthful dirt that it wore. I loved it immediately nonetheless, and I knew, as I watched its northern light dimming through the Somerset dusk that I could escape with it.
Tim Dee’s Landfill is published by Little Toller. It will be the CBTR Book of the Month in October. Caught by the River has been a friend for several years (“continuing thanks”) and a CBTR event in Bristol on 5th October will help launch the book…