Monday, 24 February 2020

Loss and legacy

Most generations will claim their time and legacy as something of a golden era, particularly when looking back on their formative years. This is particularly true of any group of enthusiasts, whose collective memory will be bathed in sunshine and a shared nostalgia that brings back incidents and events with an almost overbearing clarity - there is happiness in the reconnection but a sadness that it has long gone and cannot be relived.

The twitching fraternity of the late 1970s to early 1980s have a genuine claim to be a’golden generation’. The possibilities of what rarity could make it to our shores were being re-written with every passing year; the number of birders that chased rarities was increasing; more rarities were being found and the prowess in bird identification kept increasing. But maybe more relevant was the demographic of the twitching crowd - it was largely made up of young birders, mostly men, in their mid-teens to early thirties.

Society was quite different back then. Car ownership was lower, mobile phones did not exist, expendable income was at a premium, rarity information was largely through word-of-mouth (a network of birders joined by hard won telephone numbers) and, for the hard-core, the way to travel from rarity to rarity was often by the law of thumb - hitch-hiking. This ‘band of brothers’ had no spare money to use on accommodation if the need arose, so dossing in bus shelters and out-buildings was the given choice. Given the ‘Kerouac-flavoured’ feel to the scene, the ‘drop everything at once’ response to the news of a rare bird and the camaraderie that such life choices created, it is no wonder that a sub-culture was formed and that legends were forged. Birders who went for everything, undertook tortuous cross-country hitches, underwent epic fails, got covered in farmer’s slurry or drank 12 pints in an evening in the George became known, forming a part of the birding myth. Many had nicknames, and these were whispered with a certain reverence by us ‘bit-part players’ when their owners turned up at a bird, or in the pub.

A couple of days ago, one of this crew, this birding tribe, left the arena. His name was Keith Lyon and he owned one of the most recognisable nick-names of all - Dipper. I met him regularly during my twitching time, but couldn’t claim to have known him. I have been reading his friends tweets in response to his passing, and it has been touching to do so. He was obviously a popular person, a bit of a character and a touchstone for their shared time. Photographs have been posted of young lads larking about, draw-pull telescopes being waved around, faded colour memories of long hair, army surplus, flared jeans and a lost innocence. Even to an onlooker such as myself you can feel the warmth and sadness. As this generation ages there will be other losses, and with it comes reflection - reflection on what they/we had and what they’ve/we’ve lost. There will be many of Dipper’s friends looking back on those days right now, reliving a bird, a journey, an incident. His memory lives on, wrapped up in birding. What a charming legacy to leave.

6 comments:

Derek Faulkner said...

That's a lovely post Steve and while I never got into the twitching stuff I can understand the camaraderie that was shared by those guys. Myself and three friends did a lot of hitch-hiking in the 1960's, just a sleeping bag each and sleeping in woods, bus shelters, subways, and lots of adventures shared during those times, that we still talk about today.

Steve Gale said...

Thanks Derek. My days of twitching, hitching and dossing were relatively brief, but they did supply me with plenty of memories.

Gavin Haig said...

As Derek said, a lovely post Steve. It's a scene I was never part of. Although young, I was a married dad with a mortgage in my full-steam twitching days. And I suspect the best of it was over anyway by the end of the '70s, before my time. That's not to say I don't have a stack of great twitching memories, just that few of them involve dossing in bus-shelters and subsisting on Mars bars! Or hitching!

Tony Morris said...

A very evocative post, nostalgia is running through my veins. Thanks Steve.

Mike Langman said...

Great post Steve, sums it all up beautifully. Great times, great friends, learnt so much from each other and fundamental to my birding right through to today. As you say the logistics of doing anything then as a teenager and into my early twenties were not easy and usually a team effort. All of this made for lovely stories of people, places, birding success and failures that swept through the birding brotherhood through conversations. People like Keith where an instrumental part of those days for me and many others too.

Steve Gale said...

Gavin, Tony, Mike - thank you for commenting. As much as wallowing in nostalgia and remembering those who are no longer with us is a celebration, it also makes us come to terms with our own mortality. Bittersweet...