The archdeacon is one of the colourful local characters who live here. Irascible and combative, he is nevertheless an important part of the social life of this small portion of the watery world. He’s a feral domestic duck with a chequered past and a strong sense of his own importance. A rather restless, listless day resulted in me drinking a lot of tea and reflecting on him and the work of Donna Haraway.
16th April, Saturday
"I like it up here. It's not miles away from anywhere, but it certainly feels like it. The broad sky. The rise of hill. The tawny dried stems of last year's grass that rustle in the breeze that surfs over the hill's crest.
I could walk to the top and look down on the world beyond but I won't, because then I'd know I am not on a fellside in Teasdale, buttoned with gentians and quartz, with the smell of tent canvas and crushed grass and the brassy shine of a primus stove.
And I'd know that the world is waiting for me, even now, seeping across the borders of my mind."
In this episode I read the first verse of John Betjeman’s poem ‘Upper Lambourne’. You can read the full poem here: Upper Lambourne. You can also hear John Betjeman read it on this video: John Betjeman reads ‘Upper Lambourne’.
I also refer to the work of Donna Haraway. She has written a lot on this subject, but arguably she is best known for her essay 'A Cyborg Manifesto'. There are also numerous short (and long) videos on YouTube in which she presents her ideas in an accessible way.
For more information about Nighttime on Still Waters
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In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.
Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence.
Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.
All other audio recorded on site.
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A listless day - beautiful full of Spring's vigour, but somehow a bit flat too. Or, I should say, it's me that feels a bit flat. The kind of day when the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak... or should it be the other way round? Actually, it’s both.
I tried to walk it out earlier this morning, along the towpath, before it got too crowded. It was a nice walk, but it didn’t ‘walk IT out’, not completely. I pottered through some jobs that needed doing. Cleaning out the stove, making bread. There are some heavier-duty jobs waiting, but I just can’t summon the energy or the inclination today.
It’s the sort of day that four or five years ago Penny and I would have just headed out – across the fields to a horizon that struck our imaginations. Or, more latterly, sat on the grass together, played ball, watched the myriad creeping things scuttling through the grass roots. Penny would lie, with her paw on the ball, tongue out, while I… well I just got lost in strange worlds – mental orienteering – or just listened to the rooks and the woodpecker’s yaffling laughter.
And so, I make myself a third cup of tea and scan the water for friends. But the sun is warm and they’re either too busy or snoozing, nestled in the long grass or dozing on one leg on the bankside. Even the swans are occupied with the nest, although for most of the day it has been the male who has been sitting on the egg.
And suddenly it strikes me. You know who I would really like to meet up with? The archdeacon. But he too is nowhere to be seen. This is very much his territory, but, from time to time, he will strike off, on his own, for who know what reason.
Initially, he was one of a pair. Domestically bred ducks – then set free into the wild – although neither really ‘free’ or ‘wild’. Being domestic ducks they were much bigger and stronger and more assertive than the local mallards here, and they created havoc because of it. Bullying and terrorising the loose community established here. They were complete menaces, which earned them the nickname of the Kray Twins (after the London Gang leaders).
For the sake of the local ducks, last year, steps were taken to rehome them elsewhere. However, only one could be caught. This left this ex-Kray on his own. He quickly settled down, still bullish, still using his weight and build to good effect. He often seems to team up with a couple of non-paired mallards drakes, possibly juvenile. And swim and stomp their marks upon the territory; an unholy triumvirate.
When I see them coming, they always remind me of the little clique of trouble makers you get in every classroom; belligerent, snarky, big stars in the small night skies of their making. But I have also seen a change. He’s much more of the larger winter community, sleeping within the scattered huddles around the waters-edge. There have also been times when his bluff has been called and he too gets picked on and chased off.
If the gangster remains in him, it is because that is the nature of ducks – the Peaky Blinders of the cut. Chancers and opportunists. Always on the look out to take advantage of something new and exploit it. Cheeky, fierce, full of life and spirits as resilient and irrepressible has hard rubber balls.
A sudden squabble. A flurry of quacks and feathers and there he is. Racing across the grass. Neck lowered towards a female. Her partner bustles behind him, squawking and chattering. She turns, faces him down, her mate cuts in front and heads him off. Almost immediately necks are relaxed. He drops his head, plucks at the grass. All three shake their feather loose, wings flustered, tails wagged, and the couple saunter casually off to the bankside and dip down into the canal.
No, there may not have been a conversion transformation – for which I am glad as it would have robbed him of his essential ontological being and made him less rather than more. A lesson that we humans have not always got right.
But, without his brother, he is DIFFERENT.
Instead of the vivid, shocking green heads of the drake mallards, his head is a rich chestnut brown. His plumage could be a paint colour chart of 50 shades of brown, but the white dog collar of the mallard is still visible, giving him that rather old-fashioned clerical look – although of an altogether different tone to the priestly look of the heron. The office of bishop or vicar would not sit easily on this duck’s shoulders. Too imposing a figure to be simply a deacon, perhaps an archdeacon would fit him better.
Within English literature – particularly under the influence of Anthony Trollope – the archdeacon resides as a particularly distinctive trope. Irascible and often opinionated, men – and it is pretty much exclusively men in these roles – who are so adept at the political games they play with such acumen and skill.
I am heavily informed by the 1982 BBC television adaption of Trollope’s The Warden and Barchester Towers starring Donald Pleasance as the almost saintly Septimus Harding and Nigel Hawthorne as Archdeacon Grantly. Nigel Hawthorne, probably better known for being Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister was magnificent in it, blustering and cajoling as he slipped effortlessly between the circles within circles of village, shire and ecclesiastical politics.
Trollope, himself, described Archdeacon Grantly as “Looking like an ecclesiastical statue … a fitting impersonation of the church militant here on earth; one hand ensconced within his pocket, evinced the practical hold which our mother church keeps on her temporal possessions; and the other, loose for action, was ready to fight if need be for her defence’.
But, like all of Trollope’s characters, Grantly is a complex character, no character is wholly good – even Harding has his imperfections and no character, even the obnoxious Obadiah Slope (masterfully played in this adaptation by Alan Rickman) is wholly bad. Grantly is a man of passion and force, but he has a heart beating within him and as the chronicles progress, we begin to value him all the more.
In a similar way, our archdeacon does just what Grantly does. He plays the system he knows so well, not for mendacious or even unethical reasons. It is just that he is what he is. He is the epitome of the fable by Aesop; the scorpion who stings and kills the frog carrying him across the river – he cannot deny his own nature.
If he can out duck the other ducks, it is because we have bred him to be that way. To be bigger, weightier, stronger.
Like Archdeacon Grantly he has the wit and strength to get his way – though, again like Grantly, not always – and I am in no moral position to judge him for that.
Ecofeminist and philosopher Donna Haraway talks about entanglement, the often messy mesh of entangled relationships that bind and form living species on this planet. That no species lives as an individual. In some respects, this is nothing new, ecologists of the 60s and 70s had told us this. What is new and quite shocking to some is the rigorous and robust way Haraway applies this to our own species. Still rooted in the Victorianisms of our scientific grandfathers (and I mean grandFATHERS) and the theologies of the scholastics and early rationalism, we are not temperamentally suited in the west for such ideas. Scientifically, philosophically and theologically many have found the words of Haraway difficult to chew upon and the blurring of, once so comfortingly fixed boundaries.
However, it is on a much broader level that the archdeacon reminds me of Haraway and entanglement. The archdeacon’s life is an entangled life. Bred for what humans considered to be optimal efficiency, he is now the monster in Eden. His entanglement with humans has created him too big, too strong to smoothly fit in. Our entanglement with ducks has created his dilemma. He is too successful and because of that condemnation of his behaviour rains down upon him from the law courts of our moralities. As Haraway argues, our relationships with other species around changes and moulds us, but, especially for the archdeacon, we change them. It is for this reason, no matter how appealing the dream might be, we can’t suddenly take our hands off the natural world and assume it will reboot back into Eden. If we can ever re-wild, the wild will look very different from the images we often conjure in our minds. The pink and red spots Roman blood on a daisy may be poetic and picturesque, but our fingerprints on our environment are very real and natural, but we need also realise that they cannot be undone. We have all lived together – sometimes well and sometimes not so well – for too long.
As twilight was falling, I was waiting by the water’s edge for Donna to come home, and there he was, swimming in the dusk, a tawny figure with perhaps just a few hints of green on his russet brown head. He swam over. A mallard drake following a little behind. Like Archbishop Grantly, I think I am beginning to know you a little better and see the heart behind the bluster.