Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Birding characters

Yes, it's another one of those 'in the good old days' posts, but before you think 'here he goes again' just remember that today will be your good old days in thirty years time...

The seed for this particular post came via a number of Facebook posts and tweets emanating from last weekend's Rutland Birdfair, mostly from grizzled old geezers who are all the wrong side of 40 - but what with global warming, social unrest, looming financial collapse and our impending doom courtesy of a rogue black hole, I reckon it might just be the right side to be of 40! But I digress. These chin-dribblers were all reminiscing about the good old days and how exciting, fulfilling and friendly it all used to be. I looked at the pictures that were posted, populated by long-haired, denim and/or ex-military clad youths, smiling out from the past, looking at us in our gull-obsessed present (stay there boys, you've only got five species of gull to worry about in 1977!!) Of course this was more than enough to encourage me to think back to the late seventies, to remember hitching to Norfolk and Suffolk, to recall ticking off famous birders in The George Pub at Cley, to bathe in the glory of big passerine falls at Dungeness (passerine migrants, remember them?) and to realise that, as birders, we were surrounded by characters. A right old motley crew of characters, but people who made you put down your Nickel Supra telescope and gawp. Do such people exist in birding circles today?

There were the nicknames - not just nicknames that were known locally, but nicknames that were known nationally - Mutley, Spiny Norman, Captain Ticker, Dipper, IBP - I could go on. And then names that, when mentioned, could silence a room as these names carried instant respect, awe and myth - these names had found rarities, travelled to exotic countries, slept in every bus stop between London and Cornwall. Many had worked on Shetland, earning vast sums of money (by late 1970s standards) by cleaning and cooking for the oil industry, only to spend all of the said amount on foreign birding trips, dope and beer. And that was another thing about a lot of these characters, they were social misfits, certainly as far removed from the stereotypical birdwatcher as could be imagined.

Some were considered dangerous - even prone to violence. Fools were not suffered gladly. Cliques were formed and you could forget about joining them as they wandered around in their own universe, where shit-hot birding and an unparalleled knowledge of the best places to pick up lifts to the next big bird were just for starters. A gaggle of such men (they were all men) standing at a bar at Cley/Portland/St. Mary's was given a wide berth unless you were trying to ingratiate your way in. I've seen people try, buying the 'names' drinks all night only to be cruelly rejected as the last orders were called. A few sported lurid hair cuts, think Travis Bickle (Google him) crossed with a Firecrest.

They all had the contacts. Those hard earned phone numbers that were the key to building up a network of rarity informants. And here we meet another set of characters, the hardy souls who acted as the conduits for bird information. They must have had very understanding partners or parents, as every evening, especially on Fridays and Saturdays, they were taking calls from all over Britain, from oiks like me asking "Anything about?" I hated having to phone one of these numbers as I didn't really know the people involved and felt self-conscious doing so. I used to wait for Nick Gardener to do the phoning as he had a swaggering confidence that would always result in getting the gen (good 1970s birding word there...) I believe that 'our' information came largely from Dave Holman, John Miller or Phil Vines. Having said that, there was always a supporting cast of back-ups, such as the 'Incredible String Band' from West London, populated by a load of geezers with nicknames (Surf, J, Bolin and that's just for starters)

Does the way that we communicate today eradicate personality, at least on such a national level? I'd like to think that there is still a right old cast of rum characters out there birding, people that, in 30-40 years time will be remembered fondly (or with fear!). Birding wouldn't be half as much fun without them...

4 comments:

  1. Oh happy days, before kids, a mortgage and commitment! I remember spending the autumn of `71 with Mutley (having hitchhiked to Norfolk from Herts.) based in the old barn at the back of Walsey Hills and most of those degenerates you mentioned kipped there from time to time. Tim Lawrence, Richard Millington, the Midwich Cuckoos and Spiny Norman were all regulars as was that nutter Franco (whatever happened to him?). It got so bad while Franco was there that we moved out temporarily and crashed in various hides and the coastguards at Cley. You talk about characters, and I`m sure there were more about then, most of `em in the Dun Cow or The George, which today are bloody gastro-pubs can you believe - no room for fags, farting and swearing now! But there was one old bloke who used to fascinate me as a young lad, someone Micklejohn, cant remember his first name, might have been Ron, but he used to hold court with RAR on the East Bank overlooking Arnold`s Marsh. He had a Father Christmas style beard and smoked an old briar which regularly set fire to his whiskers! It was hysterical, us young `uns used to crack up, and there was all sorts of foreign bodies in his beard - I swear there was a Wren nesting in it! I could ramble on all night about the old days, I`m sure there`s plenty of material for a comedy style book, now you may have got me started on something there Steve...

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    1. Well, that's your next project sorted then Paul... those characters couldn't have been made up, could they - authentic eccentrics and nutters!

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  2. that West London crew Bolin ,The Gnome , JW ,Tony Smith & Franco are all still extant ..Tim Lawrence & Lester Colfer sadly both gone

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    1. Who could forget Lestet's bush hat Geoff, or the gangs very specialised sense of humour?

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