Of peonies and perception

Other people’s words about … memory

That was the beginning of that summer, which merged in many of their minds with other summers, but was remembered chiefly as the summer that young William was born, and there was that sad matter of the other baby; but remembered by Polly as the summer that [her cat] Pompey died and his splendid funeral; remembered by old William Cazalet as the summer he clinched the deal over buying the Mill Farm down the road; remembered by Edward as the summer when, offering to stand in for Hugh at the office, he met Diana for the first time; remembered by Louise as the summer she got the Curse; remembered by Teddy as the summer when he shot his first rabbit and his voice started going funny; remembered by Lydia as the summer she got locked in the fruit cage by the boys who forgot her, went off to play bicycle hockey and then to lunch and nobody found her until half-way through lunch (it was Nan’s day off) and she’d worked out that when the gooseberries were over, she’d die of nothing to eat; remembered by Sid as the summer when she finally understood that Rachel would never leave her parents, but that she, Sid, could never leave Rachel; remembered by Neville as the time his loose tooth came out when he was on his fairy cycle which he could only dismount by running into something so he swallowed the tooth and didn’t dare tell anyone, but waited in terror for it to bite him inside; remembered by Rupert as the summer when he realised that in marrying Zoe he had lost the chance of being a serious painter, would have to stick to school-mastering to provide her even with what she thought of as the bare necessities; remembered by [Edwards’s wife] Villy as the summer when she got so bored that she started to teach herself to play the violin and made a scale model of the Cutty Sark which was too large to put into a bottle, something she had done with a smaller ship the previous summer; remembered by Simon as the holidays Dad taught him to drive, up and down the drive in the Buick; remembered by Zoe as the frightful summer when she was three weeks late and thought that she was pregnant; remembered by the Duchy as the summer that the tree paeony first flowered; remembered by Clary as the summer she broke her arm falling off [her horse] Joey when Louise was giving her a riding lesson and when she sleepwalked into the dining room when they were all having dinner and she thought it was a dream and Dad picked her up and carried her to bed; remembered by Rachel as the summer she actually saw a baby being born, but also the summer when her back really started to go wrong, was only intermittently right for the rest of her life. And remembered by Will, whose first summer it was, not at all.

From ‘The Light Years
by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Today’s quote is a long one, so I’ll keep my own words short. Howard in this passage describes, poignantly, two things — first (and most obviously), the way our experiences are filtered by our own perceptions and then, further, by our own memories, so that the way one person remembers something can be entirely different from the way another remembers it; and second, she describes the summer of 1938, which was the year before World War II began, though Howard — deliberately, I think — does not say so in this passage, and does not have her characters remember it that way.

Every time I read this passage I find myself sympathising with a different character, or nodding in recognition at a different character’s thoughts or feelings. And then, in turn, I find myself thinking about my own memories, and re-examining them, and wondering how someone else, going through the same things, would perceive and remember them …

Where song begins

Other people’s words about … birdcalls

A bird calls with a sound like a pot being scraped,
and the moist air is cool on our skin.

from ‘The Collaborator
by Margaret Leroy

I love the way that worlds sometimes collide in the space of a few words. What kind of bird is Margaret Leroy describing here? I’m not sure: the characters in her book live on the Channel Islands during the Occupation in World War II — which is a long way from Australia.

And yet when I read her phrase, I thought instantly of our native red wattlebirds.

Wattlebirds (from a photo of a sheet of Earth Greetings wrapping paper: https://www.earthgreetings.com.au)
(from a photo of a sheet of Earth Greetings wrapping paper: https://www.earthgreetings.com.au)

Australian birds are known for their startlingly loud calls. In fact, biologist Tim Low has devoted a whole book to this theme. In Where Song Began, he proposes that Australian plants produce such an abundance of nectar that some birds — honeyeaters in particular, including wattlebirds — have evolved with strong aggressive tendencies, which enable them to fight over and defend their sources of nectar. Their loud, harsh calls are a part of that aggression. (You can find a brief summary of this argument here.)

I have struggled for years to come up with words to describe the calls that red wattlebirds make, here on my blog and elsewhere. They are a mixture of chuckles, coughs, clicks, screeches, rattles, squawks and whistles: you can hear a sample on the website Birds in Backyards, which provides a link to a recording on this factsheet. (Click on ‘Top 40 Bird Songs’ at the top of the factsheet, and then click on the ‘Soundfile’ for the red wattlebird, which is the fourteenth bird on the list. But turn your volume up first. Wattlebirds are very noisy.)

Wattlebird on a wire
Wattlebird on a wire

The recording misses something, though, as do my words. Neither effort really conveys the sound of the wattlebird’s call accurately: somehow, Margaret Leroy’s words come closer.

Serendipity, perhaps? Now, whenever I hear a wattlebird call, I will think of these words.