A Ballad to the Brightening Moon – 110227

In the spring of 1910 Sir Edward Grey and Theodore Roosevelt set out along the River Itchen in Hampshire to listen to birdsong. Last week we followed them. We didn’t set out on a pilgrimage – just a mixture of historical curiosity and the waking and scratchful urge of all hibernating animals to check the progress of the flowers after a cold winter. But the day became spiritualised, the walk became a wake. Perhaps all walks are pilgrimages of a sort.

The day will be remembered by us for ever. But not for sunshine and catkins as we had hoped. Although there were plenty of the latter and we had a little sunshine – at least for the first hour, before heavy and persistent rain showers, hail like polystyrene balls, thunder and – well I suppose that was about it, but it did get tedious and, after standing in the hail at Sir Edward Grey’s cottage at Itchen Abbas, drawing no warmth from the bricked-up chimney (the footings of the cottage and the chimney survive), we never really escaped the damp or the feeling that the spring celebration of the babbling, translucent chalk stream, liquid larks and green spikes hadn’t been snatched from us like a Pre-Raphaelite Proserpine drugged, gang-raped and dragged by her willow-golden hair back into Hades.

To be fair, the day was never really going to quite recover from the journey down, the sudden instinctive sense that something was not at all right, the plume of smoke rising above the trees, the debris in the road – perhaps a bumper or something – but why are there cars parked on the hard shoulder? Why people running back up the motorway and now the sudden realisation that the burning bush, half-way up the bank is in fact a car and that no one in it is any longer alive and that the smoke that now mingles with the smells peculiar to our own car – dampness, walk-mud, screen-wipe and stale sandwich crumbs – is mixed with eternity. I turn the music off. There are, I think, ten or twelve cars already stopped to help. We drive on for twenty minutes in silence. I turn the music back on.

Sir Edward Grey’s brother, George, was killed by a lion in Africa back in the days when hunting lions was a mark of thoroughgoing good blokehood – like speeding today, or making jokes about Mexicans. Some of the lions found their way back to workshops in Piccadilly where Rowland Ward, the most famous taxidermist of his day would arrange them in exhibition cases “as though in the middle of deadly combat,” fashion into trophies for proud sportsmen or jewellery for the ladies.1

Theodore Roosevelt met Rowland Ward several times when he visited England in 1910 after his famous sporting invasion of East Africa.2 Less than a month after leaving office (he was the 26th President of the US and served from 1901-1909), he and his son, the unfortunately-named Kermit, invaded the dark continent with nothing more than a handful of sportsmen and scientists and a wedge of cash to pay the several hundred or so local porters and guides who would grease the wheels of their Olympic ambition. They also carried four tons of salt to cure the skins. The total bag, when the smoke settled, was a thousand specimens, over half of which were shot – or at least claimed – by Theodore and Kermit themselves. It included 164 different species, 500 big game including nine lions, eight elephants and thirteen rhino.

Theodore’s passion for the natural world developed in childhood – he had, like Walter Rothschild, his own museum in the childhood home in New York, and he might well have become a scientist had his life not taken him in another direction. He was also an avid reader and a travelling library accompanied him on the African pilgrimage. Sixty books, bound in pigskin because the books needed to be hard wearing:

“They were for use, not ornament. I almost always had some volume with me, either in my saddle-bag or in the cartridge-bag …. Often my reading would be done while resting under a tree at noon, perhaps beside the carcass of a beast I had killed, or else while waiting for camp to be pitched; and in either case it might be impossible to get water for washing. In consequence the books were stained with blood, sweat, gun oil, dust, and ashes; ordinary bindings either vanished or became loathsome, whereas pigskin merely grew to look as a well-used saddle bag looks.”3

I imagine him poring over In Memoriam – Tennyson was an early favourite – resting under a tree whilst the blood drained out of a 15,000lb bull-elephant into the dust of the Athi Plains, it’s hide destined for the American Museum of Natural History, or perhaps to be shipped to London to be made into Wardian Furniture.

“Elephants do not at first glance seem to lend themselves as articles for household decoration, and yet I have found them most adaptable for that purpose. The head is, of course, preserved and mounted separately, but the skin may be converted into innumerable amber-like articles of domestic utility. The thick slabs of the hide can be turned into table-tops, trays, caskets, and other articles. An elephant’s foot will make an admirable liqueur stand.”4

Sir Edward Grey, who history remembers as the Liberal Foreign Secretary who’s watch coincided with the start of the First World War (it was he who said the often quoted lines: “The lamps are going out all over Europe: we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”) was also a keen fisherman and bird watcher and a knowledgeable writer on those subjects. For many years he and his wife had a holiday cottage in Itchen Abbas in the valley of the Itchen, a wide, multi channelled and fast flowing chalk stream that rises near Alresford in Hampshire and runs through Winchester to Southampton. Before setting out on his sabbatical, Roosevelt signalled, via the US ambassador, his desire to walk in spring with someone who could introduce him to the songs of the birds English countryside. This was communicated to the Foreign Secretary who realized that he needn’t call in any outside help – he knew just the man for the job.

So it was that in the spring of 1910 the two men met under the clock at Waterloo Station 5 and travelled alone to a country station where a car was waiting to take them to the start of their walk at the village of Tichborne. One hundred and one years later we were following, more or less, the Centenary Walk 6 downloaded from the internet though we started at Alresford, where the bus dropped us off, and finished at Winchester where we were parked. We followed the river several miles through water meadows, detouring up the valley through unremarkable farmland – and the ubiquitous golf course – where the river past through private land. It could have got tedious but the river more than made up for the detours – the water meadows saved from the plough by the marginal nature of the land. One crop that was thriving was watercress – we had past a number of farms and farm shops on the bus ride from Winchester: Hampshire is the centre of UK watercress cultivation and Alresford (pronounced Arlsford) is the watercress capital. Grey was impressed not only by Roosevelt’s knowledge of natural history but also of literature and especially poetry. He quickly saw that the ex-President knew all about English birds (Grey could not say the same about American) he simply wanted to hear them. He was particularly impressed with the blackbird’s song, which he rated higher than the thrush. It had, Grey would later quote the US ornithologist, Frank Chapman, a “spiritual quality.”After a few miles, – the Centenary Walk finishes at the village of Easton – the car picked them up and took them to the New Forest for a different song menu and from there Roosevelt travelled on to Southampton and from there to America. We heard rooks and jackdaws, larks, woodpeckers – we even saw an egret – but – I have no claim to expertise – and looking back their voices are strangely muted; drowned out by the rush of the water over the weir and, beyond Easton, by the bass tinnitus of the motorway. From here the landscape is marginal in a different way: blighted with out of town offices and warehouses, dark underpasses, where an outdoorsman could hide out with a .22 rifle and never be found, feasting royally on rats and watercress, discarded mackerdees from the dogging lay-by, bathing once a fortnight in the warm diesel run off from the slip road.

Just under a year after his pleasant afternoon with the Colonel on the banks of the Itchen, Sir Edward Grey’s brother was dead, mauled by a lion which he was stalking near the Athi River in British East Africa (now Kenya). “The lion,” it was reported in the Times, despite having already been shot twice by Grey, “flung his victim to the ground and commenced to worry him just like a dog would a mouse.”7 Pluck notwithstanding – he was according to witnesses “perfectly collected” after the attack and able to advise his rescuers how best to help him – he died of his wounds at hospital in Nairobi a few days later.

In September the same year the skin and the skull of the lion that killed George Grey was duly sent to Rowland Ward’s workshop at Piccadilly by Sir Alfred Pease 8 “who gave the animal [presumably the lion rather than George Grey, though this isn’t clear from the text] his coup de grâce at one yard’s distance.” What Ward did with them is not recorded. I can’t imagine them decorating the cottage in the valley of the Itchen where the Foreign Secretary and the Colonel had taken tea and discussed the spirituality of the blackbird’s song whilst butterflies brushed the honeyed bower with immortality and the crystal water babbled like an echoey playground its crystal waters not trapped in concrete once, not once on its concreteless unmolested journey to the jelly green sea.

And it struck me that a modern Rowland Ward would work with scrap metal and rubber rather than skin and bone. The car, not the lion, is the object of our desire and the engine of our destruction. A taxidermist could make a killing from an artfully arranged energy-absorbent polymer-based bullbar (wall-mounted or free-standing), windscreen bead necklaces, tyre bath mats (bald as a condom – they were never going to stop), skid-pattern wallpaper – lifted direct from the road with a steam iron and transferred to a premium paper of your choice.

In his memoir Rowland Ward singled out one or two of the more curious items that had been sent to him – though a sensitive reader might find many of the objects that arrived at the workshops in Piccadilly a little strange: the adult gorilla sent from the Congo in a cask of rum, a seal shot by a bargeman near Woolwich, Lady Flora, the celebrated shorthorn heifer, or London Jack, the famous collecting dog of Waterloo Station who collected money for the orphans of railwaymen killed at work during the early days of steam. 9 Ward himself singled out, as well as a plover caught by a mussel and the regular occurrence of larks hit by flying golf balls, the case of “a rook which had been hung up for a “scare-crow” and became the home of a wren’s nest.” This last example caught my imagination. It spoke to me about resilience and survival. It also seemed to provide an unflattering metaphor for a certain type of life writing. Then the penny dropped. It wasn’t anything to do with writing at all. It wasn’t a metaphor; just something we all do, some of us every day, others at weekends and holidays. Without so much as batting a fraction of an eyelid – not even the slightest quiver of the tip of an eye lash. We climb into our cars and turn on the ignition.

But enough. I’m ranting like a cornered dictator. The last few days have been cold in this part of the world. The drive back from Winchester took four hours. We were stuck behind another accident. Two accidents, in fact. At the first firemen had lifted the roof off one of the crashed cars like a crow prizing open a fat juicy mussel. At the second, a few hundred yards away, a car had spun off the roundabout into a ditch like a severed pony from a fairground ride. Looking up I thought I saw a riderless horse wheeling, smoking, powering across the grey starless reservoir.

We will go back to the Itchen when I’m less fragile and bitter; when winter has arced and shattered into flower and perhaps some sad-eyed poet can bring a harp and hymn a ballad to the brightening moon. 10

Notes:

1 I must admit it came as news to me that lions are still being hunted, perhaps to extinction, particularly by a small but influential clique of – mainly American – hunters who have a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for lion-based furniture and jewellery products. See:

“African lions under threat from a growing predator: the American hunter”; Suzanne Goldenberg; The Guardian, Tuesday 1 March 2011

2 Ward’s friend, the professional hunter R.J. Cunninghame, led the Roosevelt expedition.

3 http://www.theodoreroosevelt.org/life/pigskin.htm, [07 March 2011].

4 A Naturalist’s Life Study in the Art of Taxidermy, Rowland Ward, F.Z.S., Lon. Rowland Ward Ltd., 1913, “For Private Circulation”

5 Edward Grey recounted his walk with Roosevelt at an address delivered at the Harvard Union on 8 December 1919, after Roosevelt’s death in January that year, and published in essay form in Fallodon Papers, Edward Grey, Viscount Grey of Fallodon, woodcuts by Robert Gibbings, Constable, 1926. The essay, “Recreation,” is also online at Project Gutenberg:
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/17956 [07 March 2011] PS – They may not have met under the clock per se. I’m not sure of the protocol for serving Foreign Secretarys meeting ex-US Presidents at London rail termini for semi-official birding expeditions.

6 The Grey-Roosevelt Centenary Walk is described on Hampshire County Council website at http://www3.hants.gov.uk/walking-country/grey-roosevelt.htm
where a PDF map of the walk route is also available to download.

7 “The Late Mr. George Grey.; Story Of His Fight With A Lion.” The Times Feb 27, 1911

8 Sir Alfred Pease, a Liberal politician and MP from 1895-1902 “owned” an ostrich farm near Nairobi and entertained many hunters there including Theodore Roosevelt on his gap year safari.

9 Now in Tring Museum.
http://www.nhm.ac.uk/about-us/news/2008/april/victorian-fundraising-dog-comes-to-museum-at-tring18492.html [07 March 2011]

10 “In Memoriam,” Alfred Tennyson, Online at The Tennyson Page
http://charon.sfsu.edu/tennyson/inmemoriam.html [07 March 2011]

LXXXIX

“Or in the all-golden afternoon
A guest, or happy sister, sung,
Or here she brought the harp and flung
A ballad to the brightening moon.”

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