1980 Part 5 - mid-summer uncertainties

My time as an art student had come to an end. The social element of college life was something that I enjoyed, albeit on my own terms. I was known as someone that would join in when the collective hair was being let down (and our hair was still long for most of that period) but if a good bird was to suddenly appear, I would be missing. Birding came first. My frequent absences, because of last-minute decisions to go off to Dungeness, Norfolk, or the Isles of Scilly, were just accepted by my peers. In later years, one of my fellow students expressed his admiration for my self-confidence, and my willingness to please myself, not worrying about what others thought. It had come at a price however – whereas others had formed firm friendship groups, I was always on their edge, never one on the inside. I had turned and walked the other way whenever there was the hint of a relationship forming, so focussed was I on maintaining my birding connections. I believed that to show any drop in commitment would somehow lessen my standing within my narrow ornithological friendship group. Most of my friends were significantly older male birders. I can look back now and see how limiting this was to me socially, and possibly stunted emotional development. On the last day of term, after our degree show had been packed away, and the newly fledged alumni were heading off to go on one massive piss-up in the pubs of Epsom, I was having to miss out and attend a job interview in Morden, on the south-western edge of London. To my surprise – and delight – I was hired there and then and asked to return for my first day of employment on Monday July 21st. That gave me over a week of freedom before the world of the ‘grown-ups’ could finally claim me. In my mind, there was only one place to head – Dungeness.

My seven days on the shingle were tinged with a mixture of emotions that coloured the birding somewhat, coating everything in a rumbling disquiet beneath the surface. My choice of career, that of a graphic designer, was the sensible path to take, but it wasn’t what, hand on heart, I really wanted. I sat on the top of the moat, looking out across towards the sea and tried to convince myself that I had made the right choice. In truth, my plans of being able to turn birding into a proper job were ill-thought and lacked commitment. There were few opportunities of obtaining a salaried position to just birdwatch, and most, if not all of them, were low paid. I couldn’t see a viable future that would extend into middle-age - once the drive of youth had burned out, what then? I knew that I was overthinking it, but I was also annoyed with myself that I hadn’t been bolder and that I had surrendered, once again, to my cautious and unadventurous character. Birding had acted as a bolthole and escape from anything disagreeable in life. To try and remain in this safe bubble, kicking the can of ‘commitment’ further down the road, was just a way of prolonging my current life of ease. With some reluctance I parked any notions of having made an irreversible life choice, took solace in the fact that, at 21 years of age, I still had time to change a career path in the near future, picked up my binoculars and strode across the shingle.

Dungeness in mid-July is a charming place to be. The vegetation on the shingle is a riot of colour, and although a little early to expect too much movement from birds, there is enough of it to make any effort worthwhile. Several other birders had made the same decision to use the observatory as a summer base, including Alastair Forsyth and Gary Allport, and we were rewarded well enough to justify our choice. The patch on the sea had encouraged a handful of Black Terns and Little Gulls to stop and feed, with a Roseate Tern sometimes also present. Offshore movements were confined to terns travelling locally to feeding grounds. There was a strong passage of Cuckoos, always a feature at DBO during mid/late-July, but the 25 recorded on 15th was unusually high. Sand Martins and Swifts put on several days of modest southerly movement. On a couple of evenings, we were lured out after dark when both Stone Curlew and Long-eared Owl were heard calling, the latter also being flushed from bushes in the moat. I saw, nor heard, either.

Music played a considerable role for me at Dungeness. Most, if not all the listening of music took place in Keith Redshaw’s back room, generally after we have all been down the pub. Keith had a large collection of albums and I would happily flick through his vinyl and listen while we drank our ‘takeaway’ bottles of Holsten Pils, chatting away until the early hours, sometimes making it through till dawn. There were some favourite artists that we regularly put on the turntable: Kevin Ayres, The Doors (in particular, American Prayer, the Jim Morrison poetry album), Steve Hillage, Fairport Convention, and Caravan – all very much reflecting my older friends’ timelines. Our nocturnal ramblings rarely involved birding, which I found refreshing. If there was a big enough group of people crammed into the comfortable room, an impromptu drumming session would begin, overly merry birders manically drumming for their life on wastepaper baskets, washing-up bowls and assorted bottles. The police were called out by a neighbour on one occasion, and we all blamed Nick R for making the call (with no proof whatsoever it must be said). They were carefree times, and I must admit that they included some of the most pleasurable of all my Dungeness moments.

One evening Keith organised one of his famous moat barbeques. This ensured a gathering of the in-crowd from the sixties and early seventies who all arrived with sausages, beer, and other items to make the evening go with a swing. A large bonfire was constructed in the depths of the moat, which comprised several railway sleepers plus any old rubbish that was lying around. A hi-fi was rigged up on top of the moat and, as the night wore on, dancing figures were to be seen casting shadows on the brickwork of the cottages. The night wasn’t judged a success until the firewalking started. It began with some inebriated birder jumping the blazing mound to be followed by others attempting more daring feats, the highlight being a bare-footed hop through the embers. Whenever I witnessed this ritual, it was Tim Inskipp who went the furthest and then sat with his feet in a bucket of water to heal the blisters he had given himself. I watched the dawn break at 04.00hrs and slowly crawled into a nearby sleeping bag, with others carrying on until breakfast time before sleeping where they fell, oblivious to the visiting birders dropping by the observatory, who stepped over the fallen whilst scouring the moat for birds. It felt to me like a celebration of my Dungeness time - what would that time be like once full-time employment got in the way?

My first week in the job was a strange affair. Office life was a new experience, with its own etiquette and nuances, luncheon vouchers and payslips, personnel departments and men that sat in their own small offices, shut off from the rest of us workers. Some of them you needed to call ‘Mr’, while for others it was OK to use their first name. We were told to be sat at our desk no later than 09.00hrs, were allowed an hour for lunch (and not a minute more) and everyone rushed out of the door, on the dot, at 17.00hrs. It was all very regimented and lacked spontaneity. I was inducted, during my first lunch break, into what passed as the ‘pub lunch’. With three other fellow employees (my line-manager, and two sales reps) we downed four pints in our allotted sixty minutes (so that each of us could purchase a round.) The sales reps then got into their company cars and went off to visit clients, while we returned to our desks to try and fight off the wish to fall asleep. This was considered normal behaviour. To save my money (and liver) I walked the neighbouring streets on the four subsequent lunchtimes, thinking about Dungeness, about what was happening down there, imagining the sounds and smells of a summer on the shingle. I wasn’t happy. I felt trapped. As much as it was in my power to change my direction, I was going with the flow and playing it safe. That first week was the most difficult, as close to being a ‘fish out of water’ as I would ever feel. As a form of compensation, I returned to Dungeness to spend my first ‘working-life’ weekend. It was a depressed couple of days, with me brooding over the fact that I would need to return to the office on Monday morning. I virtually by-passed the Little Gulls, Roseate Tern and Nightingale on offer, watching them with little enthusiasm.

A day on the Hampshire and Dorset border on August 3rd certainly cheered me up. Starting at Handley Hill, we perched on top of a mound that surveyed the corn fields and downland that swept majestically away from us. It was here that a pair of Montagu’s Harriers had bred, and after a ten minute wait the adult female briefly appeared, to be followed by two, darker, first-year birds. They were most active, indulging in much chasing and tumbling before alighting in a corn field. It was then that the fine male arrived on the scene, a most confiding bird that quartered the fields only 50m from where we stood. We were spellbound, accompanied by a Corn Bunting and two Turtle Doves. A brief stop was then made at Beaulieu Road in the New Forest, where two Woodlarks, five Common Redstarts, and two Wood Warblers were recorded.

Beddington had started to warm up nicely, with wader passage well under way (a Ringed Plover, two Greenshanks and nine Common Sandpipers being most notable), and three Turtle Doves, several Yellow Wagtails, a few Whinchats, a juvenile Black Redstart plus a build up in finch numbers that included 300 Greenfinches and 200 Goldfinches. During this spell I added both Greylag Goose and Little Owl to my personal Beddington list.


Ric said…
I can truly say that the first day of work (employment) was one of the worst days of my life.
The last year of freedom I had was when I was 16 years old. It's taken me over forty years to get back that freedom but to quote Leonard Cohen in 'Closing Time', "It looks like freedom, but feels like death, its something in between I guess.
Steve Gale said…
I still shudder at the thought of it all Ric

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