I grew up in Cambridge and spent so much of my life by on and even in the river, the River Cam. To see it now, sluggish and smelly and turgid it doesn’t look very much, and even when I was a child it was already becoming polluted; but even so we boated on it, we cycled by it, we swam in it… and whenever I read ‘The Wind in the Willows’ my memories come floating back:
`I beg your pardon,’ said the Mole, pulling himself together with an effort. `You must think me very rude; but all this is so new to me. So–this–is–a–River!’
`THE River,’ corrected the Rat.
`And you really live by the river? What a jolly life!’
`By it and with it and on it and in it,’ said the Rat. `It’s brother and sister to me, and aunts, and company, and food and drink, and (naturally) washing. It’s my world, and I don’t want any other. What it hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing.”
There was always life on the river, and in the river, fish of all different sorts and water-birds, particularly ducks, moor-hens and swans. We steered well clear of swans, nasty, vicious, hissing things, but so beautiful to look at as they swam or drifted by. They have such elegance and grace, and yet an almost spiteful temperament. The Danny Kaye song from the Hans Christian Anderson story about the ugly duckling was also very familiar to me; I knew what cygnets looked like, and knew how they changed into swans… “a glide and a whistle and a snowy white back and ahead held noble and high…”
As a child without a television, I had read about black swans but never seen any; they sounded so exotic, and glamorous, compared to our formal and elegant white beasts. So when, a couple of years ago I saw a beautiful pair, not in Australia, their natural habitat, but the Netherlands, I was disproportionately excited!