“James Hunter falls through morning.
The water is as jarring as solid earth, and shockingly cold.”
James is a pilot in the RAF. He hopes he might get picked up in the Channel by a British ship but “when he sees the shine of a black boot resting on the gunwale and above that a gloved hand holding a pistol” he gives up that hope. The soldier grins at him and says, clearly, in English:
“For you the war is over.”
The camp is deep inside Bavaria and has a limestone building that houses the Germans and eighteen one-storey wooden bunkhouses each of which houses 112 men in fourteen rooms each with a coal-burning stove, a table and four bunks. James used some slats from his bed to fashion a small desk. The prisoners use the knotholes in the pine wall boards to hide small things they know the Guards will confiscate. Their inadequate meals are buoyed up by Red Cross parcels. On three sides the camp is surrounded by dense forest and on the third is a river. There is a tripwire around the camp and in front of the river and fences topped with barbed wire.
Prisoners who are officers do not have to work but some seek out something to occupy their time and minds. “Escape is the most popular pastime” and tunnelling uses many hands preferably of small men but the risk of discovery is high.
James was captured in the winter of 1940 and in the spring he starts to frequent the part of the camp facing the river. He studies the river at first noting that it has widened and increased in volume, covering the rocks that protruded in the winter. It moves quickly and he studies how fast the leaves move downstream and around the bend. He considers making a study of the river but restricted access is discouraging. He hears a bird singing and “all his thoughts are silenced”. He locates the redstarts on a stone wall and “the beauty of their song and the splash of red on their tails made him decide to study them for the length of time he was to be kept in the camp.”
One of the things he contemplates is the question of whether some birds are “better singers than others, and if this constant song was a rejoicing in their abilities.” He takes note that their song “begins as a melody and ends in dissonance, as though the song itself come undone in the process of singing it, finishing up with all the right notes presented in completely the wrong order. ” He realized he needed to document what he is observing and begins to come regularly with a notebook and pencil and to sit quietly and not draw the attention of the guards.
James married Rose six months before he was sent overseas as a pilot. They lived in a small cottage near the Ashdown Forest that was once a shepherd’s hut. James tells his bunk mate that his feelings for and about Rose are private. “Harry snorts with laughter, slaps James on the shoulder. “Have you not noticed where you are? he says. “There’s nothing here that’s private, old chum.” James believes that “by keeping his feelings private, he keeps them active.”” The men sometimes get letters from home in which wives and girlfriends tell the men they have found someone else and James dreads getting such a letter.
The Kommandant learns of James’ study of the redstarts and sends him a German guide to birds which James tries to return but the Kommandant encourages him to keep it if only to improve his German. He reads to James from the entry on the redstart: “The heart of the redstart beats at fourteen times the rate of the human heart,” reads the Kommandant. This is approximately 980 beats a minute.” He encourages James to keep the book.
The Kommandant read Classics at Oxford and taught at the University of Berlin. He tells James “Like you, I am not a soldier.”
Unusual relationships develop sometimes in places they might seem least likely to be found and their short duration may make them particularly meaningful.
James has a sister named Enid whose flat is bombed in London and who must move to stay with Rose briefly. Another relationship of short duration. Enid and Rose both write to James but they talk very little about him. We learn much from their letters.
All the data James collects in prison will become a book after the war. Will the characters in the story do as well?
There are some actual events in the story which did occur and upon which the story is loosely based. From the Author’s Note:
“There was a Wellington bomber that crashed on the Ashdown Forest during the Second World War, killing all members of the six-man crew.
There was a German prison camp Kommandant who took a prisoner to see some cedar waxwings in a nearby forest.
And there were birdwatchers during the way in some of the prison camps. One of these wartime birdwatchers, John Buxton, wrote a book about the redstart that is still regarded by many as one of the most comprehensive single-species studies ever undertaken.”
A soothing, calming, sad and inspirational wee book. If you haven’t tried Helen Humphreys’ work this is a perfect place to start but there are many others too: The Lost Garden, Afterimage, Leaving Earth, The Reinvention of Love, The Frozen Thames, Coventry and more. Enjoy!