The Cory’s Shearwater. A compact and aerodynamic sea bird with greyish brown colouring and a distinctive white, dark trimmed underwing. There’s a little valley that slopes down to Tarifa town from the hills behind it and the skies above the valley are packed with them. There are many more than I’ve ever noticed before – more even than the ever present gulls it would seem. At first I imagine that they’re back in this part of the world for winter having spent summer further north. A little reading later and I realise that they are not arriving; they are gathering for departure.
The Shearwater doesn’t have a north-south migration pattern. They summer in the Mediterranean (and why wouldn’t they?) nesting in the cliffs of the sea’s many islands and in the winter they migrate to the Atlantic, fanning out in every direction – some of them as far north as the coasts of Ireland and Britain. Rotten choices for a winter getaway if you ask me but who am I to speak? This year, I’ll be following them.
For birds migration is life; life is migration. They’re rather good at it. Routes are well established and pinpoint timing is instinctive. There are no questions. You don’t hear about any dissent in the ranks; anti-migration movements or campaigns for a sedentary lifestyle for example. With the approval of the people at Nike, they just do it. They live it.
People, on the other hand, generally avoid migration unless strictly necessary. Generally. The great human migrations have been fuelled by war and hunger, scarcity and abundance, the odd dollop of exploratory spirit, but in the main by gnawing need. We certainly don’t undertake it so lightly that we do it once a year, Florida being a notable exception. It is for us a great upheaval, a struggle – at best a necessary evil embraced only by those who flee danger or chase a better life.
It was always my intention when we came out here, our intention I should say, that we would show up in our respective home territories (Ireland and Germany) at least once a year. Sometimes I would accompany K on her trips to Germany and sometimes I wouldn’t, but I would always make it back to Ireland in any twelve month period. It’s an appointment I have missed, just, so it feels good to have booked a trip to Dublin this November.
If any of you have ever had any involvement in any of the great institutional traditions – New Year in Times Square, an Olympic ceremony perhaps, Proms at the Royal Albert hall, Carnaval in Rio – then you will have experienced just a glimpse of the depth of feeling that Sunday Lunch At The Grahams’ engenders in its attendees. It is a beacon of shining light in a world growing dimmer! A bulwark against entropy and decline! A last bastion of gentility in a sea of barbarism! And also, usually, a right piss up.
It might be at Uncle J’s or it might be at Aunty E’s. If it’s at Aunty E’s we will have the additional resource of the magic grotto under the stairs; in all the years I’ve been visiting that house (my whole life – my father grew up in it) the grotto has never run dry – it is probably one of the world’s major wine producers, after France and California. If we drink enough of it there will be Planxty, and if things get really out of hand the biscuit tin of family photos will be produced. It’s a unique collection of family snaps in that none of us have any idea who the people in the older images are – they just seem to look a bit like us. We enjoy speculating about them when very drunk. Since I am back on a plane to Spain at an ungodly hour on Monday morning it might be better if this particular Sunday Lunch doesn’t turn into a “photies” occasion.
My mother, it turns out, is a migratory bird herself. After many years of Floridian and Californian warmth on the other side of the ocean, she has returned. Not to Ireland, but to England; it was our home for a time and is where my brother still lives. She has convinced my stepfather S, an American, to live there, which I think is ample testament to her powers of persuasion. And so I will find myself there this year for Christmas after a decade away, in a town that in terms of memories probably constitutes more of a home town for me than Dublin does – I was an adolescent there and a lot of shit goes down during adolescence. K is coming and I may be able to point out a few of the landmarks of my youth to her, as long as they haven’t demolished them to build another shopping centre.
I will have the company of a nephew and two nieces for whom I have been a shamefully absent uncle. They’re grown now and my niece, R, has two young children I’ve never met, so it will be a family Christmas on a level we haven’t achieved, as a family, for a very long time.
In both locations, and especially in Dublin which is coastal, I’ll keep my eye out for the Cory’s Shearwaters. Despite my difficulties in arranging what for them is a thoroughly unexceptional journey, I will feel that we have something in common.Follow @RobinJGraham