Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Strained metaphors

   I remember once being on a barge, sailing into a lock in rural France, it was February and snow was on the ground. I was standing on the fore-deck waiting for the moment when I could throw a rope over a bollard to slow our entry. The landscape, so desolate at first sight, was dotted with life. The tops of an avenue of tall trees, stark and leafless against the white sky, were animated by raucous rooks competing for the safest nest sites at the centre of the colony. Looking around I saw a pair of mallards, a moorhen, a couple of coots, a robin, a white-headed wagtail, a grey heron, a blackbird and three or four house sparrows. No mammals or fish were to be seen and it was too cold for insects, but birds were there. They're virtually always there, everywhere we go.

   Not too far from me is a huge municipal tip (un mega-décharge). It is newly-constructed. There were protests regarding its location, some imaginative hoardings were put up, I particularly like the Munch one;

   I felt strongly that it should have been built in someone else's back yard, but despite my throwing my weight behind the anti-mega-décharge campaign (I joined the tail end of a march for a few minutes once – I was going that way anyway), the tip was built nonetheless.

   I passed it the other day -

    - and was struck by its resemblance to London Zoo's Snowdon Aviary;

   Despite having very different aims the main function of both structures is to prevent the passage of the ubiquitous bird. I prefer the profile of the mega-décharge, I find its simple lines more harmonious.

   I think a little background information helps explain the unusual appearance of the second piece. When Lord Snowdon (along with Frank Newby and Cedric Price) created his eponymous aviary in 1960 he had recently, and in some haste, married fellow hedonist Princess Margaret. It was a strained union (they divorced after 18 years) whose dynamics were reflected in the aviary's design – the tensions are obvious and the main players are simply poles apart.

Twas the Rooks who taught men
Vast pamphlets to pen
Upon social compact and law,
And Parliaments hold,
As themselves did of old,
Exclaiming, “Hear, Hear,” for “Caw, Caw.”

And whence arose Love?
Go, ask of the Dove,
Or behold how the Titmouse, unresting,
Still early and late
Ever sings by his mate,
To lighten her labours of nesting.

Their bonds never gall,
Though the leaves shoot, and fall,
And the seasons roll round in their course,
For their marriage, each year,
Grows more lovely and dear;
And they know not decrees of Divorce*.

Taken from “The Paradise of Birds” by W. J. Courthope (1873)

* The lifespan of a Titmouse in the wild is 18 months. Context is everything.