The Glummest Rook
In June 2013, I spent a miserable four weeks as a visiting scholar in Maynooth, Ireland. In an academic sense, it was pretty great, but I was quite severely depressed, even if I still didn’t want to admit it. This was my second stint at the college, after six months as an exchange student back in 2010-11. It was a traditional Irish June: about four days of sunshine and the rest of it cold and wet like any November.
Every evening I’d cross the bridge from the South Campus across the railway and the Royal Canal to the disgustingly filthy house I’d rented sight unseen for the month, and the wintry smell of peat and coal fires would trigger memories of my earlier stay in Maynooth – fully recursive memories, indeed, of crossing the very same bridge and smelling the very same smoke.
My office on the first floor of the IONTAS building overlooked a flat roof on which throughout the day rooks would touch down, hang around for a bit, and then take off again. I like rooks and crows and jackdaws, and indeed corvids more generally. They’re clever and playful, and the goth in me, conspicuously manifest when I was a teenager but largely immanent since, digs their chthonic blackness. Though I also like magpies and jays, which are more Eurodance than metal, I suppose.
From this trip, there’s one rook I remember in particular. It was a desultorily rainy day and the poor bastard just looked so bedraggled, so sad, so utterly run-down. At the same time, it also seemed to be just sulking, like some bolshy teenager. Overall, it emanated a clear sense of exasperation at the grey fucking pissiness of the summer.
I took a picture of it. It sat there for a while, head lowered, perfectly hangdog, before shaking itself out of its slump, ruffling its feathers, and setting off again, business as usual. Because of the double glazing I could never hear the birds, but I like to imagine it produced a single huffy caw, a single avine ‘oh, fuck it’, before flying away, shruggingly.
Historically, many types of corvids have been associated with death and war. Scavengers with eerie, otherworldly calls tend to have this effect, I suppose. But I’ve never actually considered them to be intrinsically unsettling or ominous. This one too was mostly endearing, and because it reminded me so much of myself, it became, for the moment, some sort of spirit animal. Sure, by attributing it all sorts of human qualities I was just anthropomorphising it, but doing so was, in a sense, an act of autobiography.
I don’t know what it is about Maynooth, but every time I spend more than, say, a week there, I seem doomed to have to trek home across land and sea, rather than by air as planned. Though I’ve spent six or seven months of my life there, my main memories of the place, coal and turf and corvids notwithstanding, are of trying to get away from it.
In December 2010, Europe was blanketed by heavy snowfall, and across the continent many thousands had been stranded and were scrambling to get home for the holidays. My younger brother was living in northern Finland at the time and found it all hilarious.
While he was laughing at us from his in-laws’ triple-glazed home in Lapland, I was in Maynooth and desperately wanted to leave. The pipes in the jerry-built Celtic Tiger semi I was living in had fully frozen, as had the rest of the street; the house was poorly insulated even by the deregulated standards of the early-2000s Republic; and my housemates had all found themselves somewhere warmer to spend the holidays.
The moment I got through security I was informed my flight to Eindhoven had been cancelled, so I had to join the mad press of vexed passengers trying to find an alternative form of travel to get home for the holidays. The earliest flight the airline could put me on was the day after I was due to fly back to Dublin, so sail and rail seemed the most propitious option – Dublin, Holyhead, London, Harwich, Hook of Holland, home.
Already on board the Irish Ferries vessel Ulysses, a serious migraine set in. With a rapidly dwindling store of painkillers I was able to mitigate it just enough to remain haltingly functional, but the stopover at Holyhead, five hours in sub-zero temperatures, was rather too much. By the time I was on board the train to London I couldn’t think straight anymore.
Sitting next to me was an astonishingly kind elderly lady from New Zealand. Her husband Peter was snoring away in the row behind ours. They hadn’t been able to wangle bordering seats in the rush for tickets following the weather lockdown. We chatted, or rather, she talked and I smiled queasily, feeling guilty for my lack of gregariousness.
She eventually noticed my discomfort. And though Peter and she had also run out of painkillers, they had some left-over antibiotics which might help? I thanked her but – migraine or no – I strongly had to repress the urge to rant about the cavalier overuse of antibiotics and the rise of multiresistant bacteria like MRSA, which had helped kill my Grandad just two years earlier. Also, I wasn’t suffering from Old World cooties; I just wanted my fucking head to stop throbbing.
We arrived in London hours late, but at least the Boots at Euston stocked a fine range of OTC analgesics. Though my phone was almost dead, my dad was still able to inform me that he’d managed to book me a place on the Stena Line service from Harwich to Hook of Holland the next day.
Zonked out on painkillers, I was half-tripping most of the way to Harwich, but distinctly remember trudging back and forth across town through the snow, heavy suitcase in tow, to find a hotel room in this once glorious seaside resort now overrun with panicky travellers trying to get to the Continent. Finally, the receptionist at the fully booked Premier Inn managed to locate the last rooms in town, and ordered a cab for me and Boeb, the Dutch-Surinamese man who’d come in at the same time as me.
Even our bloody ferry was delayed for hours, and we had to bide our time on board. Boeb turned out to be one of the most successful duck farmers in Surinam, as well as a prominent supplier of second-hand diggers. He also owned a petrol station and a fine range of somewhat improbable life stories.
In Hook of Holland, I ran into a marvellously echt Rotterdam couple I’d first met in my migraine fug the day before on the train from Holyhead. They were in their late fifties or early sixties, adored Ireland, and for a while even considered moving there to run a B&B. However, she explained, ‘we’d love to, but we’ve been saying we won’t move before ma snuffs it, and she’s a sprightly 91 and shows no signs of slowing down…’ I don’t think they told me their names.
Door to door, it took me a full sixty hours to get home. The Big Snow Odyssey quickly became a classic in my repertoire of travel stories, though it’s since been bumped down by that time I missed my flight home from JFK because I’d met someone nice in a bar. But then I always tend to focus on the frustrations and inadvertencies and absurdities of my peregrinations, not on the useful lessons I might have picked up along the way.
In June 2013, I’d just arrived in Ireland for my visiting scholarship, had spent a few days at a conference at NUI Galway with a friend, had taken the Bus Éireann service back to Maynooth, and had then spent an hour or two shopping in Dublin, where a seagull shat prodigiously on my head.
Just after I got back to Maynooth I got a phone call.
Peter, my dad’s youngest sibling, had suffered a massive epileptic fit. The ambulance was too late, and he duly died. My Uncle Peter was just a touch otherworldly. He was, in general, a gentle man, sometimes too humane for his own good. I inherited his collection of Wodehouse and Pratchett novels and a book by Bertrand Russell.
Having grown up in England, as a young man Peter had spent some time at the seminary in Maynooth before accepting that the meaning of life can be coded in ways other than the divine. He eventually landed in Oxfordshire, to become an accountant and a bedrock volunteer at the local RC church.
Myself, I’d been an atheist since the age of fourteen or so. I’d been a good Catholic altar boy, so knew what I was rejecting, doctrinally speaking, and to this day only engage voluntarily with religion as a research topic. Still, I couldn’t really find fault with Peter’s deeply felt faith, I suppose because he never struck me as too dogmatic. He died too young for that, maybe.
Since Peter’s death hadn’t been anticipated, his funeral was pushed back, pending the post-mortem and the coroner’s report. As such, there was no need for me to leave Maynooth at short notice. Rather than flying to England within days for the ceremony before returning to finish my stint at NUIM, I sat out my fellowship as scheduled, depression reinforced by my shock at Peter’s untimely, and supposedly preventable, death.
Instead of booking a new flight I decided to once again take the ferry across to Holyhead and then travel by rail to my aunt’s, where we’d be staying, before driving back to the Netherlands after the funeral with my parents and siblings. This was, at least the first leg of the journey, the same as three years before.
The Dublin – Holyhead – London connection had been sold to me then as a smooth sail-and-rail experience, but what they failed to tell me is that the so-called connecting train to London departs some five hours after the last ferry comes in, and that pretty much everything closes overnight at the Holyhead terminal. In 2010 I didn’t know this and it made for a very cold and very miserable night. In 2013 I was prepared: I’d an improvised pillow and an extra jumper to hand, and had sunk a few nightcaps on board the Ulysses.
For reading, I’d brought a study of Edmund Burke, though admittedly the reason I chose this ‘pretentious, moi?’ paperback by way of on-board entertainment rather than something lighter was not simply my interest in the writing but more so the hope that I might impress some stray PhD student with hipster glasses, grandmother skirt, and family-size vocabulary.
The book was Seamus Deane’s Foreign Affections – and obviously I’d partly selected it because of this very title, which I’d mentally repurposed as a dreadful meta pun at once pre-emptive yet hopeful. Like many scholars working in Irish Studies, I’ve probably read more about Burke than I’ve read by him, but we all know that to be considered an intellectual you only have to give the impression of being tolerably conversant with this sort of stuff. I made a point of reading the book very demonstratively while working my way through a family-size Cadbury’s Dairy Milk.
Not that much came of it on this occasion, though. As was to be expected, I disembarked alone, more bleary- than starry-eyed, anticipating not, as imagined, a brisk romp in a public loo (not that I’ve actually ever had one of those) but at best a few hours of restive kip on a cold blue bench in the sodium-glare terminal. This was a better metaphor for grief anyway.
One of my favourite hatchet jobs from the London Review of Books is Christopher Tayler’s review of Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel (22 August 2002). I’ve not read the book itself, though I’ve felt compelled to read some of de Botton’s other writings, if mostly to validate my instinctive rejection of his Disneyfied philosophy.
Tayler quotes copiously, dredging up and neatly splicing the sort of boilerplate aphorisms de Botton hawks by the cartload, such as ‘the pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to’. Cue stock photo of backpacker, arms outstretched, silhouetted against a mountain vista: this, of course, is only a more prolix way of saying ‘the journey is more important than the destination’, the sort of quasi-profundity people paste across their Tinder profiles to evince their love for the life of the mind.
I refuse to countenance the narrative that travel is an inherently soul-affirming or transcendent enterprise. In my experience, it’s never particularly enriching while we’re still in transit. It’s only the stories we tell afterwards, I think, that grant a sense of distinction to the privations we endure en route.
Even so, it’s indisputable, I suppose, that both times I took the long way home from Maynooth, the journey itself was, in some sense, more valuable than the destination. In an email to a friend, I wrote about the 2010 adventure that it ‘wasn’t even that bad all things considered, as I always love talking to all sorts of people I wouldn’t normally encounter’. But it’s merely a function of contrast, really. The benefit of an experience like this depends on the dynamic between goal and trajectory. Though this too, of course, only boils down to yet another dreary truism.
Quite some years after returning from Ireland and starting a new life as an accountant in Banbury, Oxfordshire, my uncle Peter had got married, if not at all happily. He loved his son and his stepdaughter dearly, but just before his death he and his wife had got separated, and for the better indeed. Still, this left us with a conundrum when he died adrift, miserable, and with a formerly married man’s Last Will and Testament now redundant: How to tell his story?
In early July 2013, we buried Peter not in a plot in Banbury, Oxfordshire, but rather in Brackley, Northamptonshire, where his parents, my Irish Grandad and English Grandma, already shared a grave.
I’ve only ever been able to deal with powerful emotions through the templates provided by literature, music, art, film. The graveyard at Brackley had by this stage been home for some twenty years to the earthly remains of Cusacks, yet seemed quite devoid, I don’t know why, of the birds necessary to fulfil its wonted brief as a garden of death. And so, my imagination, rooted equally in personal memory and cinematic tradition, has been planting corvids there, crows and jackdaws and, yes, my rooks from Maynooth: caw, caw, caw.
I’ve never seen them blacker.