Caught by the River

In Quarantine: a diary (Day 1)

Tim Dee | 18th May 2021

In an adapted hotel in south-west London, Tim Dee has begun the quarantine obligatory for any British citizen returning from a red list COVID-19 country.

A peregrine on the Holiday Inn

Monday 17th May 

The best thing that happened today – my day two but officially Day One of my ten ­– was a peregrine. For two sessions, an hour or so each, a burly adult bird gargoyled the railings and then roof edge of the high-rise Holiday Inn that I can see – and which blocks my view of anything else – from my fifth-floor window. I registered a dark bump with my naked eye and the binoculars assembled a hunched and heavy falcon with an admonitory stare: a banana bright but unfunny beak, talons of the same yellow, a dark mackintosh slung over its back and a puffed creamy breast pretending to be soft. They were on a red list once. For twenty years from the 1960s the peregrine was considered threatened with extinction the world over. I grew up thinking the bird endangered and sickly. Pesticides and persecution harrowed every population. In Britain they retreated – red kites did the same – to the wildest remnants of the country. I saw them first on Cornish cliffs and Welsh mountains. At the same time, I drank down the black milk death fugue of J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine – a book I more and more think of as a novel – and through it was ushered into the fall of all things – birds and men and brightness. 

Now they are heathy again and live among people like never before. Here was one today taking in, with its ten-thousand yard stare, us hutched quarantined types below trying not to be sick. The falcon used the slab of the high-rise like a cliff, pulling into its sight every street’s pigeons below it, and revolving the world beneath its clench until the night flyers would come again – migrant woodcock and coots and ducks and even petrels ­– which it would take by the electric lights of the same cliffs it commanded now. You can see, can’t you, how Baker is not good for anyone else part from himself. Ted Hughes is the same. But the bird even on its own summons this high scented stuff. How not to be gothic when an airborne Cologne cathedral is eating out the heart of every other living thing within the spreading purlieu of its survey?

The treasure of nature’s germens tumble all together, said Macbeth to the witches/wise women, and all this peregrine talk seems extra germane too. I am here indoors looking out on the anthropocene, kept from all that we might once have thought nature is, whilst trying to avoid a wandering virus, nature at its energetic work in the world, and thereby asking questions about all these mixing terms and categories. What is what? Hiding out this week, albeit with a window that opens enough for me to have been stung by a pellet of hail in one of today’s all-four-seasons-at-once moments (there was sleet, thunder, blue sky and hot sun too), I am also trying to teach an online course in nature writing. Definitions, and debate about them, are necessarily part of any conversation around nature and writing and nature writing and (as I have said before without properly saying what I mean by it – though nor will I here) nature’s own writing.  

All of that was in the tutelary peregrine. Anyone might read at least some of it. I kept on returning to the window with my binoculars. Sometimes, between me and the Holiday Inn, some of the other windows had human faces in them too. I tried to angle my optics, so it was clear that I wasn’t spying on my fellow captives. We’ll leave that important job to UK GOV. Finally, when there was no bird, I looked at YouTube to check as many clips from Hitchcock’s Rear Window as I could. The film had swum into my mind as I was scanning. James Stewart, wounded and immobilised, kept in, magnifies his view of his New York City apartment neighbours and draws dark conclusions from what he sees. Next week, I am joining an online festival of birds run by the London Review of Books which includes a screening and discussion of The Birds. I’ve written about that Hitchcock elsewhere (in Landfill), but today it was clear that Rear Window has much more to say about bird-watching than does the film which actually has birds in it. Rear Window also feels like a proleptic dream of all the anxieties of lockdown and quarantine. I don’t think I should watch it in full quite yet, but I will. Our welcome pack here includes contact details for a mental health service. After the falcon, and James Stewart’s zoom lens and my Zoom classroom, the weather closed in. I was glad then to be indoors. On a last look out, I added just one more bird to my woeful list: the black hurry of a carrion crow abseiling through grey sleeted air – more death triggers, with everything dialled back to grim. 

The feedbags begin to accumulate

The compensation of the day was my own urban foraging. No pigeon or petrel required. My keepers provide excellent Indian vegetable lunches and dinners, though I worry about the plastic containers, and the endless sachets of brown sauce and mayonnaise that are now sliding unopened ­– a shoal of little silver fish – about the table I am using for everything. The brown paper bags the meals come in are like horses’ feedbags (and I don’t only say that because I saw the marvellous news story and photos of the quarantining Australian who was also alarmed at the potential waste mountain and constructed a brown paper horse from his meal bags and a pair of cowboy chaps and photographed himself riding his charge around his little stable-box of a room). The breakfast provisions here I find not so tasty and, worst of all, there is nothing other than powdered coffee, long anathema to me. I had no coffee at all yesterday and woke this morning with a headache that I know is a caffeine-dependency pain. Forced into a corner, lit and fig, I overcame my general technical insanity and vestigial puritanism and did, for the first time, a Deliveroo. So wends the world. Two restorative coffees came to my powder-dust compound in eight minutes from a café out on the streets of heaven.  


More – yes – tomorrow from Tim