I was in an appropriately grim mood on my last ditch or to be more accurate ditches as I navigated both the Dollis and the Brent and the headwaters of the Fleet in the misty hills of Kenwood. I felt caged, irritable, locked down, like a zoo animal vainly seeking reassurance on a well-beaten path, a Tourette’s trail of muzzled prayer and self-flagellation. I knew I wouldn’t see a kingfisher catch fire – might as well tickle for trout in a puddle or look for otter spraint in an abandoned dog shit bag hanging in an osier thicket on the newly clipped bank. I was an old testament prophet walking through a valley of desolation. Which is perhaps why the graffiti spoke to me with the voice of prophesy. WANKERS! I assumed that it wasn’t a personal vendetta against the occupants of the houses whose long gardens sloped steeply down to the stream. I assumed too that it wasn’t simply the moniker of a gang with self-esteem issues (though I could empathise with that) – the exclamation mark was too jaunty, upbeat. Perhaps it was directed at Barnet Council who spent thousands of pounds on CCTV to prevent graffiti on a whitewashed bridge just down stream over a river so poisoned with diesel run-off from Henley’s Corner that it hadn’t seen so much as a stickleback in over half a century. Perhaps it was directed at the Mubarak regime, Chechen terrorists or Kremlin boot boys, Richard & Judy, motor journalists with their shit-in-a-blanket prose and big hair, natural history cameramen, two-for-one supermarket offers, Tony Blair, Armstrong & Miller … I’ll probably never know. Maybe none of the above. Perhaps it was simply a nod to what is after all a national pastime. At least in my house.
But what depressed me most was an incident by Highgate Ponds. An altercation (I think about dogs) of which I caught the aftermath, a spectacularly angry man hurling invective back at his opponent: “Act your age not your shoe size.” Strangely weak, and, in a slightly different context, a teensy bit camp, but – believe me – he looked like someone capable of knifing his own daughter. It made me feel embarrassed, anxious – it would have been carnage if the other hadn’t backed down and walked away quietly. I didn’t photograph a pair of cormorants on the island in the pond.
Next day however I came across Edmund Blunden’s poem, “Incident in Hyde Park, 1803.” Plus ça change, I thought, plus c’est la même chose. It is mock heroic, echoes of Alfred Noyes’s highwayman and Alfred Tennyson’s light brigade, pre-echoes of Dylan’s “Hurricane,” about two gentleman, strangers, one a Colonel in the Life Guards and one a Royal Navy Captain who have an altercation about their dogs (both Newfoundlands) whilst riding in Hyde Park. They agree to meet at Primrose Hill a couple of hours later:
“Primrose Hill on an April evening
Even now in a fevered London
Sings a vesper sweet; but these
Will try another music. Hark!”
Shots ring out. The army man is killed and Captain Macnamara wounded. The coroner’s report in the Times a few days later is graphic in its description of the fatal wound. EB doesn’t use the detail in the poem – it doesn’t fit the (bloodless) heroic style which he is satirizing – but it certainly does inform the poem’s indignant tone. Echoes of the butcher’s shop that was the first world war are, one feels, never very far away from the poet’s mind. They aren’t far away in any of his work – even the report of a cricket match written about the same time as this poem in 1930 described the batsman, Duleepsinhji’s, careful examination of the pitch during pauses in play as like a tunneller listening “under the trenches for minute messages of danger.” In its exploration of violence and the way that violence is justified and codified and idealized the poem is certainly applicable to the first world war. It is also very thought provoking today. For all the costume drama and toffee accents, and supporting cast of one-armed servants, coach drivers and dog grooms, it is essentially a story about a gang fight – about as prosaic as a supermarket paddy or a cricket club disco ending in multiple homicide. Captain Macnamara is tried for manslaughter at the Old Bailey. But Captain Macnamara has friends in very high places indeed. Lord Hood and Lord Nelson (“Macnamara has never offended, and would not,/Man, woman, child.”) both step up to the witness stand to provide character references as do “a spring-tide of admirals.” The good captain is, unsurprisingly, found not guilty. Life resumes its ordinary course. Justice is satisfied and, in the last words of the poem, “Honour rides on.”
Or, as the Brent Irregulars might express it, wankers.