Wednesday, 11 March 2009


(Thanks to:

There’s a pair of Great Crested Grebes on the Thames near here, among the ducks, geese, swans and coots. For me as a kid they were mythical birds in my bird book … (parenthesis about my bird book: Ward Lock? From Daly’s Bookshop on Sunbridge Road, Bradford, bought with my dad one Saturday morning in a trip into town on the bus, down the long hill from Wibsey… Later, the Observer Book of Birds, of which the other day I found a badly damaged copy left by a tramp in a lockup cupboard beneath our flats) – and (Resumption of Foregoing, as Flann O’Brien says in At Swim Two Birds) to see them I'd have to go to some equally mythical stretch of water called a mere or tarn – wild, bleak, mysterious, bull-rushed or reeded, the water black, the skies louring… Where the grebes are in that photo is far too sunny.

Later, I thought of a mere as the water in Tennyson to which the dying King Arthur was taken by Sir Bedvere, who

bore him to a chapel nigh the field,
A broken chancel with a broken cross,
That stood on a dark strait of barren land.
On one side lay the Ocean, and on one
Lay a great water, and the moon was full..

Indeed, Arthur orders

“take Excalibur,
And fling him far into the middle mere:
Watch what thou seest, and lightly bring me word."

Bedivere instead hides the sword and twice lyingly reports

"I heard the ripple washing in the reeds,
And the wild water lapping on the crag."

That’s exactly a mere. I tell you where there's a mere like that: under a crag below Hadrian's Wall.

The third time Bedivere does as told and throws Excalibur:

But ere he dipped the surface, rose an arm
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
And caught him by the hilt, and brandished him
Three times, and drew him under in the mere.

Thus the meaning of the grebe for me is suffused with Celtic twilight. Finding it on the placid bourgeois southern prosaic Three Men in a Boat Thames is an instance of how in modern times the world has got disenchanted.

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