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Winter’s winged pilgrims: on the migration of swans

It’s impossible to regard the natural world without seeing something of our own caught up in it.

Home from home: every winter swans migrate hundreds, even thousands of miles, from north to south. Photo: Jeremy Wodehouse/Blend Images/Gallerystock

Home from home: every winter swans migrate hundreds, even thousands of miles, from north to south. Photo: Jeremy Wodehouse/Blend Images/Gallerystock

On this Fenland day of frost and low sun I’ve driven 30 miles across fields of wheat, wet ditches and willows to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) reserve at Welney in Norfolk. I’m on my annual winter pilgrimage to one of Britain’s finest wildlife spectacles. At three o’clock I’m inside the main observatory, a heated and carpeted structure far from the usual ramshackle hide.

Just as unusual are the crowds around me. There are a few wolfish-looking men with spectacular telescopes. But there are also impressively bouffanted ladies of a certain age looking through binoculars so old-fashioned they resemble opera glasses. There’s a woman in a wheelchair who sang joyously all the way down the bumpy slope to the door. There are teen Goths and toddlers and elderly couples and a tiny baby in pink tights and top. All of us stare out of the panoramic windows at a mile of water broken by tiny islands and dotted lines that are the stalks of drowned grasses and huddles of sleeping black-tailed godwits. The mercury-bright lake is patterned with thousands of birds as far as the eye can see: moving dots that are mallard, wigeon and pochard and miniature icebergs that are swans.

The Ouse Washes are a highly engineered landscape: a lake the size of Loch Lomond appears here every winter and drains to wet pasture in spring. Famed for wildfowling and winter skating, it has become a wintering site for thousands of swans that come here to feast on potatoes left in the ground after harvest, on sugar beet, on winter wheat. These aren’t the familiar mute swans of local parks and ponds. They migrate here from the Arctic: whooper swans from Iceland and Bewick’s swans from Siberia.

To get here whoopers cross the north Atlantic non-stop, flying for 12 hours at roughly 20,000 feet. It’s an astonishing feat of endurance. But it is the smaller species, Bewick’s swans, that are the favourite of the WWT stockman Shaun. “The yellow from their beaks continues up and around their eyes,” he says, reverently. “Like yellow eyeliner. They’re such pretty little birds.”

There’s a bronze bust of the WWT’s founder, Sir Peter Scott, in the corner of the room. He loved them, too. Fifty years ago, he noticed that every swan had a different pattern of yellow and black on its bill. Fascinated, he started naming them and painting tiny swan mugshots of each bird. This developed into a “face book”, a visual catalogue of individual swans that is continued today. Even now, WWT researchers memorise birds by sight and Scott’s initial tracing of swans and their family trees has become one of the longest-running wildlife studies in the world. In conjunction with ringing studies and radio tracking, the data it produces is crucial for conservation. While whooper populations are healthy, those of Bewick’s swans are not: climate and habitat changes seem likely factors in their rapid decline.

When I was small, Bewick’s swans had a particular kind of glamour because they migrated here from the Soviet Union, crossing the Iron Curtain with total unconcern. I’ve often wondered what lay behind Scott’s fascination with them. To an ex-naval officer, explorer’s son and champion glider pilot, the heroic North Sea flights of whoopers would certainly appeal. But it is tempting to imagine that a particular strand of English conservatism influenced his desire to individuate Bewick’s swans, turn them into families rather than flocks, trace their family trees and give them names such as Casino, Croupier, Lancelot, Jane Eyre and Victoria, before they returned to the Soviet Union each spring. It’s possible. Politics is so easily caught up in science, the cold war unwittingly pleated into swans’ rushing, beating wings.

There’s a moment of hushed anticipation as Shaun leaves the observatory to push a wheelbarrow along the shoreline and cast great scoopfuls of corn into the water. We crowd at the windows. A vast raft of winter wildfowl are feeding busily beneath us: conker-headed pochards, mallards, scores of whoopers and Bewick’s swans with cloudy pinions and snowy necks. These birds are fantastically wild, yet here they are, tame as farmyard ducks, feeding in the near-dark under floodlights. The experience is joyous but messes with your everyday notions of what a wild animal is, what wildness is at all.

Something is missing. I leave the observatory and head for the hides next door, raise a narrow window to let in the soundscape outside. What do thousands of Arctic swans sound like? Rather like a vast amateur brass band tuning up in an aircraft hangar. My heart soars. Every few seconds comes a carillon of new voices. The swans are coming home to roost in little family groups, silhouettes that rise over the observatory and plane down to the black water. They are calling to each other in the dark, these beautiful migrants, some of their faces stained yellow, some dark with potato mud, their broad, webbed feet splayed to brake as they descend. They land, call, flap their wings, squabble, dip their heads under the water, preen, drink thirstily.

This is my winter pilgrimage; this is why I came. It’s impossible to regard the natural world without seeing something of our own caught up in it. And what delights me, watching these swans, is how clearly they are as at home here as they are in the Arctic. Their presence here challenges commonplace notions of nativism. Forget Christmas. The swans’ visitations are to me the happiest of winter celebrations. 

Helen Macdonald’s “H Is for Hawk” is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

Photo: NRK
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Skam, interrupted: why is the phenomenally popular teen drama ending before its peak?

The show has been building towards high school graduation – but now it’s ending before its lead characters finish school.

“Have you heard they started their bus already?”
“One month into high school – and they started their bus.”

This Skype conversation between Eva and Isak comes early in the first episode of Skam. The phenomenally internationally successful series follows teenagers at a high school in Oslo. The “bus” they're discussing is a key plot point and concern of the students' lives. That’s because, in Norway, graduating high school students participate in “russefeiring” – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood, a celebration of completing high school, and a farewell to friends departing for university or jobs around the country.

Students gather into groups, give their gang a name, wear matching coloured overalls, rent a big car or a van, and spend late April to mid May (17 May – Norwegian Constitution Day) continuously partying. They call it the “three week binge”. It’s a big fucking deal. 

Skam, with its focus on teens in high school, has therefore spent a lot of time thinking about “russ”. The show, which is set at the exact same time it airs, has followed its four main characters Eva, Noora, Isak and Sana (who each have a season of the show written from their perspective, a la Skins), as well as all their friends, from their first few weeks at school in September 2015. In other words, preparations take years, and we’ve heard a lot about the plans for their russ bus.

In season one, Eva has fallen out with her best friend, and is hurt when she hears she is moving on and has formed a new bus, with new friends, called Pepsi Max.

We meet one of the show’s most prominent characters, Vilde, when we see her trying to get a bus of girls together. The show’s five main girl characters, Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris and Sana, become friends because of her efforts: they bond during their “bus meetings” and fundraising attempts. They flirt with a group of boys on a bus calling themselves “The Penetrators”.

The latest season follows Sana’s struggles to ensure the bus doesn’t fall apart, and an attempt to join buses with rivals Pepsi Max. The joyful climax of season four comes when they finally buy their own bus and stop social-climbing, naming themselves “Los Losers”. Bus drama is the glue that keeps the show together.

But now, in June 2017, a whole year before the characters graduate, Skam is ending. The architect of the girls’ bus, Vilde, has never had her own season, unlike most of her friends. Many assumed that Vilde would have had her own season during her final year at school. Fans insist the show’s creator Julie Andem planned nine seasons in total, yet Skam is ending after just four.

The news that Skam would stop after season four came during the announcement that Sana, a Muslim member of the “girl squad”, would be the next main character. The show’s intense fandom were delighted by the character choice, but devastated at the news that there would only be one more season. “I can’t accept that this is the last season,” one wrote on Reddit.

“I'm so shocked and sad. It’s honestly just...weird. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we’re not getting a Vilde season. Most importantly, it’s not fair that we’ll never get to see them on their russ, see them graduating, nothing. It seems like such an abrupt decision. It doesn’t serve the storyline at all.”

No one has given a concrete reason about why the show ended prematurely. Ina, who plays Chris, said in an interview that “we all need a break”.

Some fans went into denial, starting petitions to encourage Andem to continue with the show, while rumours abound suggesting it will return. 

Many speculated that the show simply became too popular to continue. “I think that the show would have had six seasons and a Vilde season if the show didn’t become popular outside of Scandinavia,” one wrote. “I think the pressure and the large amount of cringy fans (not saying that some Scandinavian fans aren’t cringy) has made making the show less enjoyable for the actors and creators.”

Andem has stayed mostly quiet on her reasons for ending the show, except for a statement made via her Instagram. She recalls how very early on, during a season one shoot, someone first asked her how long the show would last:

“We were standing in the schoolyard at Nissen High School, a small, low-budget production crew, one photographer, the sound engineer and me. ‘Who knows, but I think we should aim for world domination,’ I said. We all laughed, ‘cause I was obviously joking. None of us understood then how big Skam would turn out to be. This experience has been completely unreal, and a joy to be a part of.”

Skam has been a 24/7 job,” she continues. “We recently decided that we won’t be making a new season this fall. I know many of you out there will be upset and disappointed to hear this, but I’m confident this is the right decision.”

Many fans feel that season four has struggled under the burden of ending the show – and divisions and cracks have appeared in the fandom as a result.

Some feel that Sana’s season has been overshadowed by other characters and plotlines, something that is particularly frustrating for those who were keen to see greater Muslim representation in the show. Of a moment in season four involving Noora, the main character from season two, one fan account wrote, “I LOVE season tw- I mean four. That’s Noora’s season right? No wait, is it Willhell’s season??? What’s a Sana.”

Others feel that the subject of Islam hasn’t been tackled well in this season. Some viewers felt one scene, which sees Sana and her white, non-Muslim friend, Isak, discuss Islamophobia, was whitesplainy. 

One popular translation account, that provides a version of the show with English subtitles, wrote of the scene: “A lot of you guys have been disappointed by the latest clip and you’re not the only ones. We do want to finish this project for the fans but we are disappointed with how this season has gone.” They announced they would be translating less as a result.

The final week of the show has been light on Sana. Instead, each character who never received a full season has had a few minutes devoted to their perspective. These are the other girls from the girl squad, Vilde and Chris, and the boyfriends of each main character: Eva’s ex Jonas, Isak’s boyfriend Even, Eva’s current fling “Penetrator Chris” and Noora’s on-off boyfriend William.

It’s understandable to want to cover key perspectives in the show’s final week, but it can feel teasing – we get a short glimpse into characters' home lives, like Vilde struggling to care for her depressed mother, but the scene ends before we can really get into it. And, of course, it takes precious time away from Sana in the show’s final minutes.

Some were frustrated by the characters focused on. “Penetrator Chris” is a particularly minor character – one fan account wrote of his scene: “This is absolutely irrelevant. 1) It sidelines Sana 2) It asks more questions 3) It doesn’t answer shit. This isn’t even Sana’s season anymore and that’s absolutely disgusting. She didn’t even get closure or ten episodes or anything.

“Sana has been disrespected and disregarded and erased and sidelined and that is fucking gross. She deserved better. Yet here we are watching a Penetrator Chris clip. How ironic that it’s not even called just “Christopher” because that’s all he is. “Penetrator Chris”.

It’s been a dramatic close for a usually warm and tight-knit fan community. Of course, many fans are delighted with the final season: their only sadness is there won’t be more. One of the largest fan accounts tried to keep things positive. “I know people have mixed feelings about Skam and who deserves what in terms of screentime this season (etc),” they wrote, “which I totally understand.

"However, everything has already been filmed, so there is nothing we can do about it. I think this last week of Skam will be much more enjoyable for everyone if we focus on the positives in the clips ahead. Skam isn’t perfect. People are allowed to disagree. But let’s go into this week being grateful for everything Skam has given us.”

Some fans choose to look to what the future holds for the show – an American remake. It will keep the same characters and plotlines as the original, and Andem may be involved.

Few think it will be a patch on the current show, but some are excited to have the chance to watch it teasingly as a group regardless. It seems unlikely that the US remake will compare in terms of quality – not least because the original was so heavily researched and tied to Norwegian culture. But for fans struggling to let go of Skam, it can’t come soon enough.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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