One day this week there was an unusual degree of noise from the crows. Investigation with the binoculars revealed a tractor working in a field on the skyline across the valley, and behind it, crows clamoured in large numbers.
I thought of seagulls behind a ploughing tractor, but instead of wheeling white gulls stark against rich brown earth in winter light, I was watching black crows against yellow stubble in the bright light of early summer. What was the tractor doing? Spraying? Gathering in a crop? Whatever its task, it had the crows in a frenzy.
With its work done, the tractor retired and the crows settled. They settled in a single body in the field, which was practically obliterated: a swathe of black overlaying the ochre. Occasionally something would spook them and they would rise as one, cawing and screeching; spiraling and weaving fantastical patterns in the air: a corvid murmuration. The uproar at these times reached across the valley, harsh and raging until they calmed again. Even at this distance there was a sinister tone to these risings. I thought of Hitchcock and shivered despite the sunshine.
The following morning offered us weather I’d not experienced before. It was oppressively humid. The air was thick and heavy with moisture; clammy – and cold. There was no warmth at all. It was uncomfortable, unpleasant and unsettling.
There was a noise at the back of the house: a noise which increased in intensity until it became a tumult. The crows had moved. They were here – outside the back door – and their numbers were increasing.
I felt compelled to investigate. Our back door is at first floor level, opening onto a wooden deck which has trees along the back of it. I opened the door. The cacophony was deafening. Crows cawing and flapping; magpies strutting and cackling.
There were birds above the door – on the roof which begins just inches above the lintel. They were in the trees around the decking.
And they were in the air: making short darting flights. From tree to tree they flew. From tree to roof; from roof to tree. I may love birds but I am also a coward. I was afraid to look up. I knew the crows were gathered there, right above my head. I could sense them; I could feel them. I kept my eyes ahead and downward. The noise and their numbers were more than intimidating. I simply stood there: watching and wondering; wondering what to do.
As if there was anything I could do.
Under the pandemonium, another sound. A plaintive meow reached my ears: Harri. Astonishing that I heard her in the midst of the fervour. The birds’ raucous symphony presented as a constant din, but there clearly were spaces and intervals that my ear couldn’t discern – and into one such interval came the tiny cry.
She was cowering under the decking; I could see her now. I called her. Had she not responded, would I have gone down the stairs to retrieve her? I’d like to think so, but I’ll never know: she streaked up those stairs, eyes wide, body close to the ground, and she flew inside, visibly terrified. I shut the door gratefully, genuinely shaken, and comforted myself as much as Harri.
The field – some distance away on the other side of the house – was now entirely empty. And after a few more minutes, there was silence. The birds had gone. Whether they left as a rampant army or flew off on their own separate quests, I don’t know. I only know that there was silence.
I should mention that throughout this incident B was sitting in his usual chair, drinking his usual coffee and reading the news on his tablet. He never turned a hair. When I told him what I’d seen, his response was noncommittal: a morning grunt. There were more important things happening in the world than the noise of a few flapping crows. It caused me to reflect for a while on the sensitivities of writers and the fact that throughout my life I have been attuned to atmospheres. The feeling that a situation engenders in my mind is what stays with me – far more vividly than all the other sensory details. Something I shall think on further – when I have finished thinking about the birds.
When the birds had gathered in the field, I had thought of Hitchcock. This morning when they gathered at the house, I thought of Daphne. For The Birds is Daphne’s story and she wrote it after watching gulls behind a ploughing tractor on Menabilly Barton farm. She had watched them circling in vast numbers and wondered: what would happen if they attacked?
Hitchcock bought the rights to The Birds after his success with Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, and his version of The Birds is a great film. But it’s a long way from Daphne’s original story both in location and plot. Only the concept remains. As I understand it, Hitchcock read a story just the once. If he found a concept in it that touched him from that one reading, he took it to a team to develop the story into the film he wanted to make from it. The introduction to my Virago copy of The Birds and Other Stories is a fascinating essay on the differences between filmmakers and authors. Both are story-tellers but there the similarities end. More for me to think about.
I also learned from this introduction that Hitchcock and Daphne were good friends. I’ve read a lot about Daphne, including her biographies, but this fact hadn’t resonated before now. Hitchcock had directed her father in Lord Camber’s Ladies in 1932 when Daphne was just becoming known as an author. They shared an interest in elaborate practical jokes. Apparently, he followed her career closely. He bought the film rights to three of her works: Rebecca was published in 1938; Hitchcock’s film was released just two years later.
Getting back to The Birds, I’d like to think that because of their friendship, Daphne didn’t mind that her short story was all but obliterated in the film.
Only the concept remained: what would happen if they attacked?
And I’m thinking: surely there’s room here for a new version, a version closer to the original – set in Cornwall and following the original story? Apparently there is a new film in the offing, though with no indication of when, or if, it will ever be made. It’s described as ‘a remake of Hitchcock’s film’. But reading through the threads on IMDB regarding a remake of the film vs a version of the original tale, I learned these fascinating facts. (Fascinating to me at least.)
There was another novel, also called The Birds, also with the theme of bird attacks, written by one Frank Baker and published in 1936 by Michael Davies. Like Daphne, Baker lived in Cornwall which I believe is where he set his book. His publisher, Michael Davies, was a cousin of Daphne’s. And Daphne worked as a reader for Davies – but not in 1936, at which time she was already published herself and living in Alexandria. Baker said in his autobiography that his story was based on an earlier book called The Terror, published in 1917 by Arthur Machen. When the film was released, he considered litigation against Universal Studios but was counselled against it. An interesting example of the premise that perhaps there really is no such thing these days as an original idea. And another author for me to add to my ever-growing list of Cornwall-related books and writers.
Regardless of this digression, will somebody please make a Cornish version? My experience on that cold, clammy, ominous morning in early summer would make a disturbing scene in the build-up…