Tuesday. It snowed a lot on sunday, after friday’s snow had half melted and the streets and pavements were dark and dirty, and it’s still here, still white, though it mostly dripped off the branches in yesterday’s brief sun. Yesterday I cut a path on the pavement from just beyond the pedestrian crossing to roughly number 47, more than a hundred yards; and brushed it clean and as it grew dark and the street lights began to show tiny glints of frost I sprinkled half a bag of cooking salt which I found in the cupboard, less than a kilo, and that was enough to dampen those crystal lights and give the surface friction. It doesn’t take much salt. Today the council workers are out with their barrows which distribute rock salt like one of those devices you wheel over grass to spread fertiliser.
As well as the sunflower seeds the birds have peanuts, which they’re not so keen on. I brought the peanut feeder down to near the Irish yew and filled it before christmas but there’s still plenty left. Are the peanuts too old? They were at it just now though, tits and the woodpecker. And I’ve started putting out breadcrumbs and other bits and pieces for the birds that don’t cling or eat big seeds, so now we have dunnocks feeding, blackbirds, the pair of wood pigeons and robins of course, as well as great tits and blue tits, the occasional chaffinch, the odd coal tit, and the glorious woodpecker.
James Sweeney! the romantic life of a roadie in the seventies and eighties, the old banger of a guitar. Alcohol: ”can’t live without it, can’t live with it.” He always had kind words for my gardening, and joined in sometimes. I’ve a photograph somewhere of him in the greenhouse, a watering can carefully lifted up to water plants on the bench. I gave him a copy of it, he said, “I could give that to my mum, if I knew where she lived.” Not so unusual maybe to have lost contact with your mother, though I remember I found it shocking at the time, more unusual to then still want her to see him doing something, making himself useful. He does something he feels good about, and immediately wants his mum to see him doing it. And his Birmingham accent, his heavy, soft face, the shoulder length greasy hair, still dark. In all the raucousness and aggression and boasting at Cedar’s, his mildness and passivity stood out. He made me feel that my work was worthwhile, he probably did more for me than I could do for him. It was he who made me first feel that a lot of what we do is more like working in a hospice than anything else, easing the way to death rather than setting out on the road to Recovery. James died quickly in the end, of liver failure.
As I was getting up this morning what made me think – If Osama bin Laden was evil, in his merciless pursuit of what he saw as wickedness, how many of our generals and other soldiers, kings, judges, inquisitors and other religious leaders were also evil? And that trick which licences cruelty, the denial of the humanity of others, of black people, jews, communists, heretics and also fascists, gypsies, paedophiles, murderers, drug dealers, witches, industrialists, soldiers, policemen, man united fans – there are so many ways in which other people fail to be human, there’s nothing we do quicker than cursing. Then I remembered a time at Millennium Green when I caught the dog once again bloating herself as fast as she could with a pile of disgusting old rotting food, and I lost my temper with her kicked her into the van and hit her in the face as she cowered, until she bared her teeth at me, like an uncertain grin, frightened and defenceless except for that gesture, and I was overcome with shame.
In 1964 when I was seventeen I spent three weeks staying with a family on a farm in Hülptingsen, a village near Celle, a town near Hanover. One sunday afternoon some neighbours came round and I was introduced to one man with whom I shook hands, and then someone said (something like) ”there! That didn’t hurt did it! You’ve just shaken hands with an SS man! Not a monster, is he?” and everybody laughed except me. Of course he wasn’t a monster. How much easier if he had been. The problem is that he was fully human, fully banal. This was two years after the Eichmann trial, and I must have already been familiar with the phrase ‘the banality of evil’. After the war, before he escaped Germany, Eichmann had spent two years living in a remote village on the Lüneburger Heide, the Lüneburg Heath, close to Celle which was later used for tank exercises by the occupying British forces.
We visited the church of St Michael in Hildesheim which was framed with wooden scaffolding as it was slowly, patiently restored with blocks of pure, white limestone hauled up block by block by rope and pulley, in the same way as it had been built a thousand years earlier.
Frau Bode sat me down and told me that they knew nothing of what was happening during the war. And she was worried that I ate so little. Actually I was stuffed. I got terrible constipation to which I could not confess. In the end I almost shat myself when I got back to Southampton.
They’ve brought ibex back to parts of the French and Italian Alps where they’d been hunted to extinction, reintroduced beavers to the Scottish highlands and the great bustard to Salisbury Plain – they tried at least – and the wild boar has reintroduced itself after escaping from captivity in the south west. Can’t we have a few sparrows? What is it about ‘charismatic’ creatures – the red kite and the white tailed sea eagle are two others which have been reintroduced successfully in recent years. But anyway, isn’t the sparrow charismatic? Has it not at least acquired charisma in and through its decline? Give us a few. I promise I’ll look after them.