21 November 2009

The Geese of Oxhey

When my novel, The Earth Goddess, was published in 1984, I'm pretty sure I was interviewed by a local newspaper in Watford, the Review. I can't imagine why else the editor should have invited me around that time to do a weekly nature-piece. The paper was one of the freesheets that so flourished in those days and so annoyed the town's householders who, every Thursday afternoon or evening, had to bend down and pick the thing off the mat.

My stuff hardly fitted with the other editorial matter, but I was glad of the £35 a column they paid me. The editor called it "Natureview", which wouldn't have been my choice, but there we are. The job lasted for just over a year, when I became the victim of a cost-cutting exercise. The paper itself subsequently folded, if you'll pardon the expression.

Anyhow, I was reorganizing my hard disc when I came across the files (originally composed on an Acorn Electron!). Many of the pieces are local, even parochial, in tone and content, but nonetheless may be of interest. Read in sequence, they form a sort of diary, and I thought it might be a nice idea to reproduce them here in chronological order. I have mislaid the original cuttings and am not sure of the date on which any given piece was published, though the sequence certainly began in November. If I publish one a week from now on, each will be appearing on its approximate 25th anniversary.

The Geese of Oxhey

Lying in bed, you hear it approaching from a great distance: a mad, clamorous honking as of two hundred unreasoning taxi drivers caught in a jam, but the horns are all mobile and airborne and pass just above the rooftops and on their way. You turn over and try to get back to sleep. There is nothing you can do about the noise, or the fact that it has woken you at daybreak many times before. If you live anywhere in Oxhey or West Watford or Rickmansworth you must resign yourself to the knowledge that you have geese for neighbours.

They are Canada geese, big, handsome birds, brown and black and white. The flock numbers two or three hundred, and spends its time in a selection of favoured spots up and down the chain of gravel pits between Oxhey and Denham. The geese are discerning gourmets. They know all the choicest pastures. One of their favourites is the broad expanse of playing fields at Merchant Taylors’ School. There, while one or two keep watch with upraised necks and black, suspicious button eyes, the rest are browsing by the running track, expertly cropping the grass to a regulation length. It is an hour after dawn, a time at which, even in the autumn, few people are about. The sky is blue; the distant school, the cricket pavilion, the black, sawn-off uprights of the rugby goalposts standing about here and there on the field, are all made indistinct by mist. The geese continue to feed. The turf is littered with their large, greenish mutes; the flock has advanced across the running track, and crumbs of white adhere to some of the dark, webbed feet.

Suddenly another neck goes up, and another, and yet more. On the far side of the field, where the path adjoins the netting fence, the sentinels have seen the feared and hated shape. A man. With him is a lesser animal, a dog. The geese know what that is.

They wait, growing more restless, as the man approaches. He is walking through the dew, wearing gumboots and a green coat. He throws a stick and his dog runs for it. Now the geese are distinctly unhappy. One begins to honk, and others take up the complaint.

The dog is within a hundred and fifty yards, and behind the dog is the man. The dog makes a dash for the birds: in a rush of wings and honks they are taking flight, two hundred times fifteen pounds or more of goose. A ton and a half of them gaining air and space. From behind you can see the pattern made by their rumps and inner and outer tail feathers: intense black, a broad crescent of purest white, more black. The pattern is barely visible on the ground. It is made to be seen only in flight, a warning, an alarm signal, or something to follow, holding the flock together in its journeyings. These geese are not truly wild. They live as wild birds, but their forefathers were captives on ornamental lakes. Before that they really were wild, in North America, which is where each autumn the Canadas still travel down from the Arctic states to winter in Mexico and along the Gulf. In New England at this time of year the geese are passing through; in Old England they have no intention of going any further than over the hedge and away from the man and his labrador.

They circle the gravel pit and make as if to settle; but then, at some mysterious signal, a decision is made and they circle again, settling instead on the adjoining water of Hampermill Lake. By now the honking is reaching its climax. The other, more sober, birds of the lake – the solitary heron standing on a log, the grebes, the parties of mallard and shoveler – refuse to take note of the fuss. They have heard it all before. The geese are swimming about; some have climbed the bank and are already inspecting the pasture there. But the grass by the lake is inferior, fit only for the coots and moorhens to graze. Better pickings are not far away, just over there at Brightwell’s Farm, not a furlong from the northern margin. In groups of five, ten, twenty, thirty, the geese leave the lake, rise just enough to clear the yellowing hawthorn trees of the hedgerow, and settle once again to feed.

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