Killing a swan was once considered an act of treason and still today you can end up with a large fine, even a prison sentence. I didn’t know that when I was 14 and didn’t know that summer day in the school holidays that I would be killing a swan.
There were four of us on our bikes with fishing tackle in canvas bags, keep nets, tins of worms and fishing rods strapped to the crossbar. We raced each other along the banks of the River Lea, the river that runs out of the Chiltern Hills through Hertfordshire before meeting the Thames at Bow. We dropped our bikes in a pile, attached the holding nets to the soft earth bank and cast our lines.
The fish filled the river, tightly packed, and pulling them out of the flow was as easy as picking apples from a tree. It was so effortless that, boys being more concerned in the contest than the activity, one of my friends devised a method to make the pursuit more engaging. We affixed to our rods two lines and two hooks, then three, then four. We were now able with care and luck to pull out four wriggling silver fish at once.
The sun browned our arms and glinted like swirling blades on the surface of the river. We were living in the present of an endless day from a childhood summer belonging as much to imagination as memory. Even the fish, as if by osmosis, were in collusion with our youthful needs. Our keep nets were growing full – what we intended to do with so many fish had not yet occurred to us.
Eternity and Me
We had just reached the stage when we were yanking them out four at a time when a family of swans appeared around the bend upstream, a large male, a female and seven cygnets in a flotilla that moved in file as if connected by hidden wires. We had layered our stretch of the river with ground bait and, with the fish responding so obligingly, the last thing we wanted was this unforeseen intrusion.
We tossed small stones to drive the swans back upstream. But they were fearless creatures that would take bread from your palm and looked back with disdain in their coal black eyes. They refused to acknowledge our threats and, staying on course, were about to pass our private spot. We clapped our hands and beat the water with our rods making seismic waves on the surface. I bent and, without searching, my fingers found the perfect stone: plump, oval, flat-sided, heavy without being too heavy, a stone with some tenuous connection to me and eternity.
Killing A Swan Tableau
Though I merely threw the stone at the moving tableau, not a particular swan, like a Zen archer’s arrow, I knew as the missile left my hand that it would find its target. The stone hit one of the cygnets and broke its neck. The swans continued their approach as if there were a vindictive and unbreakable bond between them and me. Finally, the mother swan turned. She steered her dead offspring with lowered beak and guided the flotilla back upstream. The male followed.
My friends were quiet at first. Then they began shouting, waving their fists as if they, too, were connected by strings, the ties of the herd – the shoal. You murderer. You killer. You termite. Killing a swan is illegal. All the swans belong to the Queen.
I left my fishing tackle on the river bank, extricated my bike from the tangle and cycled home alone. I had never liked fishing that much and killing a swan, a cygnet in fact, even worse, had a long lasting effect on me. My family had only recently moved to the countryside where boys hunted and fished. I would never pursue these sports. I learned to smoke and spent the rest of the summer in the company of Orwell, Camus and Kafka.
Killing a Swan Upset the Queen
The boys were mostly right. Technically, the Crown doesn’t own the swans but with a right of claim passed down through the centuries the monarch is the de facto custodian. Unlike chickens, geese and ducks, swans cannot be fully domesticated. This means only those who own a lake or a moat can keep the royal fowl. The quid pro quo is that only those who own them can eat them.
Killing a swan in the 13th century could land a man in the Tower of London. In the 15th century, wealthy people attained the right to buy, sell and eat swans by purchasing a ‘swan mark’ from the Crown. The impression on a swan’s beak as proof of ownership is one of the oldest such property marks in England.
The swan as a heraldic emblem was first employed by Godfrey of Bouillon, the King of Jerusalem and hero of the First Crusade who died in 1100. Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin borrows from the legend and tells of a mysterious knight who arrives in a boat drawn by a swan to help a noblewoman in distress. He marries her but forbids her to ask his origin. She later forgets her promise and he leaves her, never to return.
I smoked for the next 25 years – Gauloises as an existentialist teen. I stubbed out the last one aged 39 but continue to dip into Orwell, Camus and Kafka. I still haven’t forgotten the little cygnet with the broken neck.