“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilisation surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronise them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”
Henry Beston, 1928.
As strange as it may sound, one of my first friends in Tangier was a nine year old cockerel named Birdy.
He was handsome and strong and the most wonderful companion. As a single woman, it might sound rather odd that the line above isn’t used to describe a man that may have crossed my path and showered me with love, rather, an animal who had a brain probably the size of one of my teeth.
Raised on a country property, I grew up with animals but was a late comer in truly understanding them. My sisters were good with horses, I was intimidated by them and frustrated that I couldn’t canter freely across fields with my hair blowing in the breeze like they did in Enid Blyton novels. Rather, I would more often than not, fall off them and be left lying in a tussock with tears streaming down my face.
The house kitten hid in an old dairy near the garden shed, and when I’d try to catch her, she’d race of in the other direction, hissing as she did so.
I loved our dogs but was never really all that enamoured, I’d say ‘sit’ and they too, would run in the other direction.
And, don’t even get me started on the subject of sheep.
When I was older, just before my 30th birthday, I was given a beautiful nine week old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who I promptly named Saffron. Saffron became something of a best friend to me; now that I had my own pet, I learned to love her and care for her like a child.
My heart was broken when she died aged eight, because she had seen me through many trials, tribulations and very happy times; always with a kind and wise head resting on my shoulder. Her intuition was strong, as is the intuition of all animals, they are intelligent and wise, and as Beston wrote, ‘they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear’.
Birdy, as much as he was a cockerel who couldn’t speak English, was always happy to see me when I would drop in for lunch with his constant companion and the man who introduced me to Tangier, Jonathan Dawson. When I stayed at Jono’s flat whilst mine was undergoing a facelift all those months ago, Birdy would race up onto my bed after he’d made his first morning call, which came immediately after the call to prayer in the mosque across the way. His pecks were relentless.
‘They’re kisses,’ Jono would say, and of course I believed him.
Birdy died last week, and while he was loved and revered by so many, I have no doubt, just like Saffron, that he will be happily in heaven with all the other animals who left this earth before him.
Birdy’s death came just a week before the 100th anniversary of the Armistice being signed on the 11th of November, 1918, and, while not too many cockerels went into battle, I have to say in the lead up to Remembrance Day, it did make me think a lot about the role in which animals play in the lives of humans.
When Dad and I visited the battlefields of the Somme just over a year ago, we came across a new memorial outside Pozieres, still covered and one that my father was desperate to unveil and have a look at.
‘You cant just uncover it Dad’ I pleaded with him, half laughing and half wanting to run in the other direction as he drew closer on foot. ‘Yes I can, Darling’ he assured me, ‘it is a memorial to the animals lost in the battle of Pozieres, we must have a look’.
My pleas were realised after we were (thankfully) distracted by a man named Neville who had moved to Pozieres from Bendigo, Australia, to caretake at the memorial, undertaking tasks such as mowing the lawns and minding the covered statues. I was so grateful when we found Neville.
A week later, on Friday the 21st of July, 2017, dogs, horses, ponies and pigeons were amongst the crowd at the unveiling of this new memorial honouring the thousands of animals who never returned home.
Over nine million animals from all sides died during the First World War, not one was a volunteer, and in the case of all the surviving Australian animals, nil were allowed to return home.
Australian WW1 correspondent, Charles Bean wrote, “ the animals came to know when a shell was coming close; and if, when halted, the horses heard the whine of an approaching salvo, they would tremble and sidle closer to their drivers, burying their muzzles in the men’s chests”.
Animals often served as mascots during war, raising the spirits of the troops through their natural affection and innocence. One of the most famous mascots was a black bear from Canada named Winnipeg, who remained with his unit for several months. Later placed at the London Zoo, he made a great impression on A.A Milne and his son, inspiring Milne to write Winnie the Poo. In a general manner, during war, cats are said to have been greatly appreciated and could traverse No Man’s Land without coming to any deliberate harm.
When I traversed the busy Rue d’Angleterre, Tangier, at 10.45 on Sunday morning last week, only a minute late for the Remembrance Sunday service at Saint Andrews Anglican parish of Tangier, I encountered seemingly a thousand kittens stalking the street, while others slept under taxis waiting for their next fare.
Pigeons were shooed from the busy Berber market where women sit each Thursday and Sunday morning wrapped in their traditional red and white Berber dress, topped off with wide brimmed straw hats covered in pompoms.
Upon entering the church gardens which house a divine cemetery, birds chortled in abundant trees and I almost shed a tear, as the sound of bagpipes ushered me into the church.
In 1880, Hassan I of Morocco donated land to the British community in order to build a small Anglican church in Tangier. After the church was built, it was found that it was not sufficient for the increasing number of worshippers, and a new one was built in 1894 which became what we know today as the Church of Saint Andrew.
The interior is designed as a fusion of numerous styles, notably Moorish. The tower is shaped like a minaret and the Lords Prayer is carved in Arabic over the alter.
As I took my seat on Sunday morning, I cast my eyes over the congregation. Pretty hats atop English heads were smattered through the middle pews, and members of the Royal Air force and Navy sat proudly up the front, alongside the Deputy Head of Mission from the British Embassy in Rabat. If my memory serves me correctly, there was also the Commanding Officer of HMS Sabre, as well as a representative from the Gibraltar Defence Police. Regular Sunday parish goers, many of them migrants who have fled various West African countries, nursed children in their laps and we began with a rousing version of God Save the Queen. At 11am precisely, the bugler led The Last Post; always in equal parts as haunting as it is sobering. Almost on cue, the call to prayer could be heard from the mosque in the grand socco, just as the service came to a close.
We remembered them, before spilling out into the church yard where wreaths were laid over the thirteen English headstones in the tiny Commonwealth War Cemetery on the east side of the gardens. Chatter was abundant as the African boys took to their drums, chanting tunes about peace on Earth, and at this point I took a moment to observe the names on the headstones in the beautiful gardens.
The writer David Herbert, has a simple headstone under a tree alongside the path leading up to the church, where inside, a plaque can be found commemorating Emily Keene, famous for introducing the cholera vaccination to Morocco. Major Harry Twentyman, Sir Harry Maclean, Paul Lund, and the writer Walter Harris, can also be found in the garden amongst almost two hundred other names who both lived and died in Tangier, many of whom are fondly remembered by people still living in Tangier.
As I finished my meanderings, I found the graves of Alexandria-born Claire de Menasce and her second husband, Commander Roy Howell RN. De Menasce was the mother of Claude-Marie Vincendon, the third wife of Lawrence Durrell whose brother Gerald, wrote one of my favourite books, ’My Family and Other Animals’ in a stunning memoir of his childhood on Corfu.
The churchyard scene on Sunday could have been lifted from Gerald Durrell’s rightfully adored book. Chatter in English could be heard through the trees, pigeons crooned, and kittens scattered through the bushes as I walked in their direction. Webs woven by spiders in established English trees twinkled with late morning mildew, and the bagpipes played us out of the churchyard, just in time for lunch at Jono’s.
Which, as always, was great fun and the only thing missing was Birdy.
This week as we’ve reflected upon the memory of the men and women who have put their lives on the line in war – all wars, senseless and sad as they are, I have also enjoyed the reminder that in times of both war and peace, animals have remained one step ahead of us – their masters and servants, providing companionship and protection with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained.
Remembering Birdy and Saffron, and all of our furry, fluffy and feathered friends. 100 years on from the ‘War to end all Wars,’ we can only hope for peace in the world, but it is comforting to acknowledge the important role that animals play in our lives, each and every day, just as Durrell and Beston have done in their poignantly written pieces.
Which will also live on.