Frampton Comes Alive

Novelist and creative non-fiction author Ed Parnell presents a piece inspired by Jeff Price’s research into the projected impacts of climate change on 130,000 terrestrial species at the Tyndall Centre. Ed said:

‘Jeff and I have a shared love of birdwatching and science fiction – when I first met him online his virtual background was a still from the 1972 environmental science fiction film ‘Silent Running’ – so I thought it appropriate to try to bring these themes together in a piece that touches on one of the main tenets of Jeff’s research.

‘The presence in the background of the COP26 talks while I was writing this – waiting to hear whether world leaders might finally begin to tackle climate change and all the other ticking environmental timebombs – also played into the mood of the piece, as did the ongoing Covid pandemic; the subsequent, rather half-hearted conclusions of Glasgow have not done much to allay those fears for the future. Yet nature’s apparent resilience in the face of all this human hubris and indifference does still lend me some optimism. Indeed, even as I type these words, from the corner of my sight an impeccably timed distraction of familiar white feathers flutters up into one of the willows that borders my garden.’

 

Frampton Comes Alive

This is the place where I saw my first. There it was, feeding distantly on the saltmarsh – an out-of-place vision of the Mediterranean.

Half a lifetime later I find myself staring over the same green-and-brown expanse. Sure enough, though it’s largely birdless, I soon locate a little egret on the banks of a muddy creek. Panning across the monotonous vista with my binoculars I detect another, then another, until at least six are in view. Back in 1988 when I watched that lone individual through my new telescope (a recent Christmas present), these small snow-white herons were a sporadic visitor to the UK, and records of sightings had to be sent to the British Birds Rarities Committee to be verified; today the species has colonised much of southern England and, in many places, is a common sight – I even occasionally see them flying over my house, which still causes a flourish of excitement, though they’ve lost the cachet that their earlier status afforded them. They feed in the stream that runs alongside my neighbour’s garden, somehow finding fish in a few inches of muddy water beneath the willows and sycamores, before flapping up to rest on an overhanging bough.

The little egret’s highly visible and ubiquitous East Anglian presence acts as an illusion that tries superficially to beguile me into believing that nature must be in reasonable health. But this is not the case.*  The evidence from so many of the familiar birds I would’ve seen in good numbers back then, like lapwings (peewits as my mum called them) and curlews, is much grimmer: in those intervening three decades their numbers – alongside those of so many other wildlife species – have plummeted.

I’m at the RSPB’s Frampton Marsh, and in the years since I first visited the reserve has changed immeasurably. I originally came here as a teenager on a spring Saturday with the Lincolnshire Bird Club to help survey numbers of black-headed gulls. The gulls, understandably, were annoyed by our presence, deserting their grass-strewn nests on the marsh to hover tetchily above our heads. Later I came in the dead of winter with my brother, the pair of us wandering desolate miles along the sea wall. Once we watched a Lapland bunting on the bank of the River Witham, and on another occasion an even-rarer arctic redpoll that had joined a flock of twite.

The memory of those stray songbirds from the north today seems like a dream.

Despite the ubiquitous wind – I don’t think I’ve ever visited this part of The Wash when there hasn’t been a stiff breeze – it’s a pleasant autumn afternoon and the sun is out. As well as the egrets on the marsh itself, there’s a flock of spoonbills on the new, reedbed-bordered lagoons – the distinctive, statuesque birds, as well as the pools themselves, are both features my teenage self would have struggled to imagine as something that would one day form such a feature of this landscape.

The RSPB purchased the marsh in 1984 to protect the black-headed gulls, as well as many species of wading birds, including notable numbers of redshanks; a few of those are present today, noisy as always. Later, the surrounding farmland was acquired – boundless flat fields butting up to the bank that separated the marsh from the more-solid world – part of an ambitious scheme that got underway in 2005 to create an expanse of wetland.

In 2021, this new habitat has become well established and vast in its scale. It reminds me of the kind of wilderness haven you might find on the Continent; I still can’t believe it’s only a few miles from where I grew up. As I look over, the spoonbills are strung out in a loose line across the middle of the largest lagoon. For once they are active and not lost in head-hidden slumber, sweeping their spatula-like bills through the invertebrate-rich soup of water and mud. I could be in Texel on the Dutch coast, I think to myself, not a few miles outside Boston. The spoonbill is one of the species that the ornithologists and scientists who are modelling the likely effects of climate change on the natural world think is likely to follow the little egret and expand its range and numbers in East Anglia, as well as other areas of the British Isles. Already, a colony exists on the north Norfolk coast, while similar pioneering white waterbirds – the great white and the cattle egret – are following suit.

For once they are active and not lost in head-hidden slumber, sweeping their spatula-like bills through the invertebrate-rich soup of water and mud.

Other exotic avian visitors may also become more regular as our local temperatures rise, including several birds of prey, such as the honey buzzard, black kite, and Montagu’s harrier; the latter having previously been a very scarce breeding species hereabouts, though always on the limits of its range. Back in my teenage years a pair of the beautiful, sleek raptors nested just along the coast in a patch of scrub behind this same sea wall. I have a time-slowed memory of the silver-and-black male passing close by my mum’s Ford Escort, which we were peering out from, as the harrier brought food to its hidden mate. The species is named after the naturalist George Montagu (1753–1815), author of a famous Ornithological Dictionary of 1802, who recognised that two similar smaller harriers occurred in the UK – the hen and his own namesake – and cleared up that the brown female and immature birds were not, as commonly supposed, a separate species from the silvery males. The Montagu’s harrier is today the rarest of our breeding raptors, having virtually disappeared from the UK. One of the few positives of a warming world might be its return, alongside that shift northwards of other Mediterranean birds. The list of what might be lost, however, is frightening – appearances by those Arctic-originating Lapland buntings and redpolls seem far less likely if temperatures continue on their current pathway, and the flocks of twite that were a regular winter spectacle when I came here in my youth seem, even now, virtually confined to history. Even more sobering is the roll call of insects that, before long, may no longer flutter through these big East Anglian skies. Or the list of so-familiar trees – including silver birch, goat willow and horse chestnut – that will find our climate unsustainable if temperatures rise at a level approaching that of scientists’ well-grounded fears. The thought makes me feel conflicted about my enjoyment of the new natural spectacle playing out on the lagoon.

Fear and paranoia were staples of growing up during the late 1970s and early 1980s – though back then it wasn’t an over-heated planet that fuelled my anxieties. Still, I cannot help feeling that my current fears of a burnt-out, wildlife-stripped (or wildlife-modified) world are grounded in similar formative feelings.

I was born as Edward Heath was announcing the Three-Day Week, and though I have no recollection of the power cuts my infant self must have lived through during that period, I do have a memory from towards the end of the decade of my mum, brother and me playing a Space 1999 card game by torchlight on the living room floor: thrills didn’t just come from the birds Mum pointed out on drives around the local lanes – science fiction also held an attraction.

As well as a fear.

Like that I experienced while watching the 1981 TV reworking of John Wyndham’s post-apocalyptic novel The Day of the Triffids. It wasn’t so much the human-dwarfing plants themselves that got to me, but the opening of the story when the protagonist Bill Masen realises he has dodged the blindness that, overnight, has affected the majority of the population who were out enjoying the marvels of an overhead meteor shower. (We learn later of a theory that the dazzling flashes are the result of rogue radioactive satellite weaponry, which may also be the source of the plague that scourges the survivors.) Yes, the triffids themselves – particularly their hissing, rattling sound effects – were disturbing, but they paled beside the thought that you could potentially lose your sight from looking up into the sky.**

Although bleak, Wyndham’s prophetic future vision did at least offer my childhood self the exciting prospect of dodging overgrown rhubarb plants in the post-apocalypse world. A visit at a young age to my dad’s office provided similar warnings of agriculture gone awry – numerous public information posters decorated the entrance stairwell depicting Colorado beetles that looked like something out of a ‘50s B-movie (though in reality the invasive stripy potato pests are only a centimetre long), or slavering bare-fanged rabid dogs ready to jump off foreign ships at the first chance. If not triffids, then perhaps it would be a topsy-turvy universe where monkeys ruled – the world of one of my favourite films, Planet of the Apes, which I’d always try to catch whenever it was shown on the telly.

Contemporary 1980s portrayals of how we were all going to die were generally more down to earth: it would happen as a consequence of a US–Soviet thermonuclear war, an agonising death from burns or a lingering slow passing from radiation sickness in a grim, conflict-blackened England. This was the future according to Threads, first broadcast on the BBC in September 1984. Scripted by Barry Hines, better known as the author of the novel A Kestrel for a Knave, the made-for-TV feature is a grimly plausible foretelling of how the country might fall apart after the bomb. Its opening credits show a garden spider spinning its web, an unsettling metaphor for the brittle ‘threads’ of the title that hold society together. Set in Sheffield, the ordinariness of the film’s location is where much of its power came from – viewers everywhere could relate to and identify with its characters and setting.

Yes, the triffids themselves – particularly their hissing, rattling sound effects – were disturbing, but they paled beside the thought that you could potentially lose your sight from looking up into the sky.

I didn’t watch Threads at the time, though I think my parents may have done: it’s a boyhood viewing experience I would not have forgotten. My own fears back then were less unremitting. Certainly I was scared of dying in a nuclear war – and it was a genuine fear – but I’m not sure I believed it would ever happen. The visions I had were pieced together from the aforementioned sci-fi triffids and man-monkeys, or from slick Hollywood movies like Matthew Broderick’s 1983 WarGames, in which a military computer simulation goes wrong and conflagration is only avoided at the last moment by an unwinnable game of noughts and crosses.

There’s nothing remotely Hollywood about Threads, though. Nothing is sugar-dusted, least of all its use of excerpts from the UK government’s actual series of civil-defence public information films, Protect and Survive:

‘If anyone dies while you are kept in your fallout room, move the body to another room in the house. Label the body with name and address and cover it as tightly as possible in polythene, paper, sheets or blankets.’

I attempt to watch Threads now – the fact that I’m the same age as my dad would’ve been when it was first shown seems significant. I find myself struggling to make it to the end, because it’s a powerful piece of drama that, to an adult viewer, induces visceral terror. The on-screen appearance of the first mushroom cloud over Sheffield city centre wrenches at me and, when the second wave of warheads fall, giving way to images of melting milk bottles, charred corpses, a half-dead pet cat rolling in the rubble, and the likeable characters who we’ve come to know over the film’s first hour left soiling themselves or disfigured and moribund by the blast, it’s hard to keep going. On seeing the deathly cloud rising over the Steel City the main character’s best friend says, in a resigned echo of the last line of Planet of the Apes:

‘Jesus Christ, they’ve done it. They’ve done it.’

Later, we see the next generation of children, feral and half-dead from starvation and the ravages of radiation, viewing a warped VHS of an episode of Words and Pictures in a bare school hall – an educational programme I remember myself being shown at primary school. The flickering visuals show the female presenter jauntily addressing her hollow-eyed audience in a chilling, prescient prediction of their own near-future:

‘Skeletons and skulls of different creatures. We borrowed them from a museum!’

Threads is one of those cultural artefacts that gets widely referred to now as representative of a generation’s fears, a programme we all apparently watched and then discussed in the playground. It’s easy to accept this as fact, but I don’t think it’s entirely accurate – I suspect at the time the film’s reach and impact was more restricted. Certainly, in my case, I was (whether wittingly or unwittingly) sheltered from it – a good thing because, despite my burgeoning love of the terrifying and the macabre, this would have been too dark even for me. It is now, certainly. But there are other touchstone works from the time that did have a similar effect. For my partner it was Robert Swindells’ novel Brother in the Land, which she studied for pre-GCSE English and still talks about with a shudder; it’s another British-set portrayal of the breakdown of society following a nuclear conflict, and features a teenage protagonist, Danny, who is trying to survive the literal and metaphorical fallout. I ask her to describe it.

‘I just remember the radiation sickness and everyone’s hair dropping off in clumps,’ she says. ‘It was grim.’

For me, the book that brought home the reality of what atomic warfare might mean was Raymond Briggs’ 1982 graphic novel When the Wind Blows. My brother, six years my senior, bought a copy on a family summer holiday to the New Forest, and I read it after him. I was already familiar with Briggs’ Fungus the Bogeyman, which appealed to my sensibilities of the time, though that book had given me no warning of what was to come over the following 38 pages. When the Wind Blows featured the same two characters from Briggs’ previous title – Jim and Hilda Bloggs, a simplistic working-class couple with an endearing relationship – the achingly sad Gentleman Jim. We get to see their gently comedic preparations for the possibilities of the impending bomb, realising as readers what they don’t: that trying to survive the effects of the bomb is futile. Like most of Briggs’s work, there’s a bittersweet tone. Jim constructs a shelter by following the instructions in his public information leaflet and resting three removed doors at an angle against the lounge wall, though Hilda points out the impracticalities of remaining inside the makeshift structure for the requisite two weeks:

‘And what about the toilet? I can tell you now, James Bloggs, that I am going to go upstairs in the proper manner.’

When it comes, the blast itself is eloquently effective: a spread in which we can see the ghost of the cartoon strip bleached out below the searing pink-edged heat of a blank double page. Overleaf the colour returns only gradually, from white to red before finally regaining Briggs’s favoured palette of dingy greens and browns in the bottom right-hand corner. ‘Blimey,’ says Jim, and the couple go about trying to reconstruct their existence according to the rules laid down in the official leaflet; Jim’s faith in the government to look after them is touching (‘The Powers That Be will get to us in the end…’), but even I as a ten-year-old boy could see that was misplaced, that no-one would be coming. Over the last few pages, the couple’s appearance gradually deteriorates, the colours acquiring an ever-more Fungus the Bogeyman feel as the radiation takes its toll. We leave the pair in the darkness of their shelter, saying their good-natured prayers, unaware of their inevitable, soon-to-come fate.

Like the way we are living our lives now, I think.

But then I look across at the scene in front of me: the swirling flocks of wading birds on the pools where, less than two decades ago, stood only acres of sterile farmed fields. And, in an instant, the spoonbills take to the sky, their elongated necks stretching before them like compass points as the flock rises together towards the northern horizon.

Despite our immediate, all-too-real fears, we still can cling to some semblance of hope. Can’t we?

 

* The presence of the egrets, Jeff Price points out to me, is actually an indication that nature, given enough opportunity, can adapt to some, small changes – this is the expected adaptation. As to whether they will be able to keep up, he says, is another matter.

** It turns out I unwittingly shared a common childhood fear of blindness that Freud notes in his 1919 essay ‘Das Unheimliche’ (‘The Uncanny’).


Edward Parnell has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. He’s been the recipient of an Escalator Award from the National Centre for Writing, and a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship to fund a research expedition to the Australian Outback.

The Listeners, his first book, won the 2014 Rethink New Novels Prize. His latest book, Ghostland (William Collins, 2019), is a work of narrative non-fiction that was shortlisted for the PEN Ackerley Prize 2020 for memoir and autobiography, and for the East Anglian book awards. Edward is a keen birdwatcher and naturalist, which also informs his work.

Dr. Jeff Price is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and Associate Professor, Biodiversity and Climate Change at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, UEA.  As coordinator of the Wallace Initiative he has overseen the modelling of the potential impacts of climate change on ~130,000 terrestrial species. He was a Lead Author on multiple IPCC Assessment Reports, for which he shares in the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.  His paper on the potential impacts of climate change on the birds of Colorado features in the murder mystery ‘Death of a Songbird’ by Christine Goff.

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