ESCAPING CAPTIVITY WITH CROWS AND STEVE MCQUEEN

In 1949 the following paper was published in Ibis the official journal of the British Ornithologists’ Union. The title was: Rook and Jackdaw Migrations Observed in Germany 1942-1945.

1942-1945? Wasn’t something else going on in Germany then?

So who exactly was doing the observing while Europe was being torn apart by the Second World War? The compilers of this article were John Buxton, Peter Conder and George Waterston, who were POWs in Germany at the time. There were many ways POWs sought to escape the boredom of captivity: reading, acting, playing music, painting, doing academic courses of various different sorts, sports, escape activities and yes, bird watching.

The amount of time they put in was extraordinary. Here is a run down of an average day’s bird watching during the summer :

6-8.30 watching

Breakfast/parade

9.30-12.30 more watching

lunch

1.30-5.30 watching again

Tea

6-9.30 more watching with a break at 19.30 for supper

That is a great many hours to look at the sky. These men were incarcerated in Germany where most of the camps were situated away from towns and cities and many were in wooded areas. In addition officers, unlike the ORs, did not have to work and therefore had time on their hands. The 16 page note they produced had the occasional wry aside that bore witness to the extraordinary circumstances of their observations. For example it was noted that the rooks enjoyed feasting on fields covered in human excrement!

In his wonderful book Crow Country Mark Cocker has this to say about the obsessional aspects of bird watchers:

‘Perhaps all monomanias … are a way of offsetting some deeper pain in life.’

Well, I think in this case it’s highly probable that the pain was that of captivity, hunger, boredom, and anxiety about loved ones back home and how the war was progressing. Looking into the air, looking at birds which were free to fly where ever they wanted maybe gave them some reprieve from their incarceration.

Waterston suffered severe kidney damage when he was captured in Crete in 1941 but took an active role in the Dössel camp bird watching. However in 1943 he was allowed to go home because of his ill-health. Another bird man, his friend Ian Pitman, demanded to be repatriated at the same time. When he was challenged as to the fact that he seemed in perfect health, he took out his glass eye and slammed it down on the German Commandant’s desk and was thus sent home with his friend. After the war the two of them bought Fair Isle in the Shetlands and established it as a migration study site. Condor and Waterston became two of the leading environmentalists of their age. John Buxton became a distinguished Oxford don and poet.

In the film The Great Escape  there’ s a scene where the prisoners are being given a lecture on birds and it’s a cover for them forging documents.

Finally, for those of you who like your escapes a bit more physical. Here’s that famous attempted escape sequence with Steve McQueen and the stunt he executed himself. An iconic film star, a tasty motorbike, some beautiful mountains and quite a nifty bit of music to accompany it as well. Elmer Bernstein wrote the score. He also wrote the film scores for The Magnificent Seven and Thoroughly Modern Millie amongst many others. If you’re interested in finding out how crows figure in my book Far Away here’s the link:

http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=3292

How do you escape? Motorcycles or bird watching? Or … ?

Sources: Mark Cocker: Crow Country, Midge Gillies: The Barbed-Wire University.

USES OF ENCHANTMENT

Part of my book Far Away contains a fairy story written by one of the POWs who is incarcerated in a camp in Italy during the Second World War. It is about  a young girl, Pelliger, who is raised by crows and longs to fly. This post is about how I came to write that part of the book. First, I came across a letter written to my father, Robert Blake, by his Uncle Norman before he was captured. In that letter my uncle wrote about reading a recently published book called The Sword and the Stone. This book by T.H.White is about Merlin teaching the young Arthur, who becomes King Arthur, about the natural world. I’d read the book at school but not really registered that it was published in the 1940s, so I was surprised to see it mentioned. I dug it out and re-read it and enjoyed it as much as I had as a child. I was intrigued that my uncle had liked the book and rather surprised that he’d read it.

‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’

ALBERT EINSTEIN

At the same time, regular walks were taking me along the towpath that runs between Putney Bridge and Hammersmith Bridge and I began to notice the crows. At that time they favoured a group of trees at a junction where you can turn off the main footpath toward The Barnes Wetland Centre. Then one day I was walking along and came across a corvid mini-drama. A very large baby crow was standing in the middle of the towpath. It seemed about twice the size of an adult crow because it was so fluffy and had rather a beguiling mohican. It was doing what babies of all species have a tendency to do, it was bouncing around quite happily without any sense of danger and in the process completely terrifying its parent. I stopped and waited. Eventually, after a lot of shrieking from the nearby trees, the baby got the message and bounced off the path into a bush and I continued on my way.

‘The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue …’

BRUNO BETTELHEIM: THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT

Over the weeks  that followed the crows continued attracting my attention. I loved the way they surfed on the air currents above Putney Bridge and perched on the top of the street lights there, clinging on even in the face of brutally strong, feather-ruffling winds. I saw them lined up on the stone wall embankment in the grounds of St Mary’s Church, Putney, waiting for the tide to go out. It’s below this wall that the bottom of the river is revealed first and the crows hop about picking up food from the exposed river bed and cheeking the seagulls. I loved their chattiness, their cleverness and what appeared to me to be their distinct sense of humour. I also began to notice the musicality of their calls. I had always associated crows with a distinctly harsh ‘caw’ but as I listened to them more and more I realised that sometimes their calls were distinctly mellifluous and rather tender.

‘When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract and positive thinking.’

ALBERT EINSTEIN

Then I began to write my story, mainly during these walks, in small notebooks. I had no idea how it would fit in but it was presenting itself to be written, so I wrote it. To be frank I was puzzled and rather infuriated. I couldn’t see what it had to do with the rest of my novel. What on earth was I supposed to do with it? But write it I did.  In the end I wrote much more of it than I put in the book. I hope this doesn’t matter. In a sense my book is about the puzzles and incomplete stories that one generation hands down to the next and what we do with them. Within that context I hope it works but to be honest I still don’t really know.

Looking back I think the ‘uses of enchantment’ for me was that I, like my character, needed another story to be immersed in. Thinking my way into the lives of starving, bored, frustrated and imprisoned young men was grueling. Maybe the story gave me and my character some respite from that.

One thing I do know is that writing the fairy story changed my relationship with crows completely. I live on a main road in London and within spitting distance of a part of the District Line which runs overground.  Consequently, there’s a lot of traffic noise but in the early morning, as the sun is rising, it’s as quiet as it gets and it’s then when I hear the crows nesting in the plane trees across the road. There they are, those clever, funny, fiercely communal, chatty birds. To greet the day in their company is always a pleasure.

I’d highly recommend Crow Country by Mark Cocker. He’s a completely stunning writer and here’s the link to his website: http://www.markcocker.com

I also read and loved In the Company of Crows and Ravens by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell.