In 1940 between May 27th and June 4th a remarkable story of heroism and humanity unfolded on the beaches of Dunkirk. Hundreds of thousands of Allied troops were trapped against the sea, pinned between the English Channel and the German Army with little hope of rescue. The shallow, sloping beaches did not allow for access by the bigger boats to enable mass evacuation and although the stranded troops could be seen they could not be reached. Fishermen and yachtsmen from harbours and estuaries along the coast of England set out in many types of small boat to act as ferries between the beaches and the transport ships waiting to take the troops to safety. In one week over 330,000 troops were rescued and many tales of selfless heroism were told.
Philip Rhayadar, a small, stocky artist with a hunched back and a claw hand, has settled into an abandoned and redundant lighthouse. Here, safe from the judgemental assumptions and rejections of others, he paints the beauty he sees all around him. His works are “masterpieces, filled with the glow and colours of marsh-reflected light… the loneliness and the smell of the salt-laden cold, the eternity and agelessness of marshes, the wild, living creatures, dawn flights, and frightened things taking to the air and winged shadows at night hiding from the moon.” Philip harbours no bitterness towards a society from which he feels excluded and he finds respite from the loneliness by caring for the exhausted and hungry birds that flock to the marshes in the winter. One day a young girl arrives bearing an injured snow goose and, overcoming her fear of the ogre that local legend makes Philip out to be, she and Philip work together to heal the bird and, in doing so forge a lasting link. This link draws her back to the lighthouse each winter with the seasonal return of the snow goose. Several years pass and Fritha becomes a young woman, but war has arrived and everything is changing, including how Philip and Fritha see each other. But their time has run out and Philip has set his heart on sailing his little boat across the channel. He is answering the call to save the men who are “huddled on the beaches like hunted birds, Frith, like the wounded and hunted birds we used to find and bring to sanctuary”. Their farewell has been criticised for its sentimentality and the fairytale transformation of how they each view the other, yet to me, there is still a touching poignancy with all that is suddenly realised left unsaid.
Like many people I was introduced to The Snow Goose as a child. I had no concept of where Dunkirk was nor what 330,000 troops would look like, but the story captivated me. My father gave me the book and told me it was a war story about the rescue of many, many men, so when I opened the cover and started reading about the wild solitude of the Essex coast I was convinced he had made a mistake. My 1953 copy has just 25 pages yet the story is neither hurried, nor lacking in description and the account of the actual rescue is related in snippets barely totalling five pages. The prose encapsulates the barren, forlorn and eerie atmosphere of the marshes in winter, where the only sounds come from the wild birds and the rushing wind. Dialogue is minimal until we come to the tales of the rescue, these are then related in a simple fashion and with little preamble, by conversations between a Rifleman and an artilleryman, and a pair of officers. The change in tone from the earlier prose reinforces the shocking contrast between Philip’s almost hermit-like retreat and the scenes on the war-torn beaches. Before you have time to realise it the story ends, the cycle of loss and redemption and loss again has completed another circuit and the loop is tied off.
I love this story, it is so short that I can devour it between dessert and coffee, but it is lodged in my heart. No matter how many times I read it I will still want to read it again, and I will still be giving it the perfect 5.