Pot-shot summer with no room at the inn


Summertime, and the living is easy . . . for me, anyway.

I sit in my study here in Kurohime with the window open, shaded by the lush green leaves of oak and maple, cherry and birch, hearing only the cool rush of the Torii River and the chitter of little birds nesting in the air vent. I do recall, with sympathy for those who dwell there now, summers in Tokyo where — as in most of Japan’s big cities during these hot and humid months — the whole purpose of life becomes a scurry from one tall, cold glass of draft beer to the next. As well, I recall far cooler summers in the Canadian Arctic, but the one that lingers in my mind now is the last summer I spent in Britain.

I had left St. Paul’s Teacher Training College in the genteel Cotswolds town of Cheltenham just before I was going to be kicked out for doubling up as a professional wrestler. The college didn’t think it was dignified. Then, after two expeditions to the Arctic, I yearned for wild places, and so with my 20th birthday looming I ended up as the assistant warden of Lundy Island.

Lundy Island lies between the coasts of Devon and Wales, in the Bristol Channel. For a long, long time it was ruled by the piratical Marisco clan, but back then in 1960 it was privately owned by the Harman family, whose loot came from its worldwide water-drilling enterprises. The warden and I lived in an old stone lighthouse where nature-loving, bird-watching visitors could find cheap lodgings — in short supply given the island’s permanent population of around 20. Part of my job was to do household chores, peeling potatoes, airing blankets, washing dishes, emptying the “honey bucket” and so on.

Otherwise, I helped the warden in his research on migrating birds and the myriad seabirds that nested on the cliffs or, in the case of puffins, in burrows on the steep upper slopes. Often this meant dangling from a rope, grabbing noisily protesting young gulls, fulmars, cormorants, kittiwakes, guillemots or whatever off their nests, while their parents screamed and dove, pecking and dive-bombing as their struggling offspring puked noxious fishmuck all over me. I would ring them, then shout up the numbers for the warden to record. There was no point me trying to write them down because the pages would get obliterated with bird goo. Lovely job really, dangling there like a clumsy spider, waves crashing on the rocks below and the warden yelling down instructions accompanied by an occasional shower of dislodged stones.

After work, we’d wash and coil the rope, then go straight to the pub. He’d go in and chat with other islanders and visitors, no doubt wisely pontificating about the island’s wildlife and the 400-odd species of birds that either visited or lived there. I would have to stay outside, sipping my beer, all alone. The stink on me was so bad that not even the dogs would come near me.

Oh aye, I was a fishy lad that summer.

In the 1950s, a horrible viral disease called myxomatosis that infects rabbits was deliberately and illegally introduced from France to Britain by farmers who wanted to slash the thriving rabbit population. Easily spread by fleas and mosquitoes, myxomatosis was deadly. We country boys would carry sticks to whack rabbits and put them out of their misery. None of us enjoyed this, but the poor rabbits wandered about, out of their burrows even in the day, blind, deaf and hideous with tumors.

It had been a strict Lundy policy not to allow this disease to infect the island, and as a consequence we still had thousands of healthy rabbits. A lot of people in Britain used to enjoy wild rabbits for food, but of course this part of their diet was taken off the menu by myxomatosis. In North Devon, though, people knew that Lundy rabbits were good, and they quickly sold out when they appeared hung up in a certain butcher shop in Bideford.

I owned a very accurate long-barreled .22-caliber rifle, and I was encouraged to shoot as many rabbits as I could. We ate rabbits cooked in many ways, gave them away to other islanders or exchanged them for beers at the pub. The ones that had been cleanly shot, without damaging the meat, we sent twice a week to the butcher in Bideford and were paid 2 shillings and sixpence each. I could sell as many as 60 a week, and as my weekly pay was only a pound (20 shillings), this rabbit money was more then welcome.

Lundy was an ancient and magical place, with its own rules. The island then even had its own penny-like coinage and postage stamps — both called Lundy “puffins” — that were equivalent to slightly less than a British penny. These puffins were not legal currency, and were recognized only on Lundy, but it shows how independent the place was.

For centuries, the waters around Lundy had been a traditional fishing ground for certain Breton fishermen, who came over with pots to catch lobsters. This was illegal, and the British government’s fisheries patrol boats would be on the lookout for the fishermen from Brittany, while islanders on the cliffs would be on the lookout for the patrol boats so they could warn the fishermen. On the rare occasions that a Breton boat was nabbed, it would have had “engine trouble,” or there’d be some other highly implausible excuse the islanders would all solemnly vouch for. There had long been various agreements you see, agreements that were especially profitable for both Bretons and Lundy Islanders during the Napoleonic Wars. After all, war with France never made the British lose their taste for brandy.

That summer, when a Breton fishing boat came in, I hunted hard for a couple of evenings, shooting and cleanly gutting a dozen rabbits. In the late evening of the third day, the boat was anchored in the lee of a cliff. Earlier on, with my binoculars, I’d watched them pull their pots, so I knew the time was right.

From the top of the cliff I shouted down in French, asking if they would like some rabbits. (I’d spent some time in France when I was 15 as an exchange student and knew that the French loved to eat rabbit). The fishermen looked up and I held up a rabbit for them to see. Shouting back and forth they understood that I had 12 rabbits, and would exchange them for the same number of crabs. I had been told that they often would give crabs for favors, as the crabs, also caught in the pots, were not as valuable as lobsters.

I lowered the sack of rabbits down the cliff on a climbing rope, and waited for the fishermen to fill it with crabs, which I then hauled up. To my delight, I found not only a dozen large live crabs, but also two bottles of wine — one white, one red.

The fishermen and I, both delighted with the exchange, waved happily to each other and shouted “Merci! Merci bien!” Then I toddled back to the old lighthouse with the heavy, wet sack over my shoulder. I have no doubt at all that those Breton fishermen dined heartily on wild, healthy Lundy rabbit, which must have been a rare treat what with myxomatosis having swept France before it came to Britain. On our part, the warden and I cracked and slurped on boiled crab, glugging wine with gusto and agreeing, with increasing enthusiasm, that free trade and amicable international arrangements were altogether fine things.