On 54 Morning Lane by Suky Best by Jonathan Burt


'The ways in which we see birds, render them in texts and images, are all subject to quite specific interactions that are rooted in history.'


Rilke opens the Second Duino Elegy:
‘Every angel is terrifying. And yet, alas,
I invoke you, almost deadly birds of the soul,
knowing about you.’[1]

We cannot choose what haunts us, and even if we somehow will the haunting to affirm that there is something beyond or otherwise, we cannot be assured that we could ever control that which appears. Like memories that we cannot rely on, or that surprise us by their power, or become lost leaving incomplete fragments.

In Suky Best’s fascinating and poetic 54 Morning Lane, (an intriguing title, with morning’s connotations of arrival and lament) the house that the owls inhabit has its own ghosts already, that paradoxically entrap the birds and root them to the cusps of the most important questions that the original film, This Happy Breed (1944), asks. When does a house become a home – a distinction made in the opening voiceover? And towards the closing of the film, what happens to rooms when people leave and a house is left empty – as Frank Gibbons asks his best friend Bob Mitchell on the eve of the general moving out? Does any residue of the most momentous events in the twenty year life of an ‘ordinary’ family remain beyond being silhouettes of pictures and objects left on the grimy walls? (Silhouette effects mark both these films transience.)[2] Are the characters merely on the outside of the major historical events they witness between 1919 and 1939, or in any way constitutive of them?

And these questions have to be raised for the owls too because this is the space they inhabit, house no. 17 of This Happy Breed and no other. The four scenes of apparition in 54 Morning Lane are absolutely key to the most important features of David Lean’s film, turning on absence (the empty house [54 ML scene 1], the departure of the daughter Queenie in the night [54 ML scene 4]), love (the refusal of marriage to Billy Mitchell [54 ML scene 3]), and death (the delivery of the news of the son and his wife’s death, Reg and Phyllis, in a car accident [54 ML scene 2]).[3]

One cannot unsee This Happy Breed any more than one might be able to see it in the same way after 54 Morning Lane. And the reason this matters, the importance of where the owls are seen, is that animals are subject to the same questions as humans, as to where they inhabit and what remains of them in their own absence and departure, in their interplay with the coming and going of humans (the opening and closing of doors, entrances and exits, that are again such a feature of This Happy Breed). What is the difference between a house and a home (a location and a habitat), how are they situated in the history they find themselves in, what effect do they have on that history?

In the way that, say, species of birds had their patterns of migration and habitat altered by the war, inhabiting the bombed out buildings of London, adapting to wartime ecologies and the altered landscapes of the battlefield.[4] In 1918, for instance: ‘in consequence, in villages where every house and tree is destroyed, only the wayside crucifix left standing, you find as many nests as possible packed in between the figure of Christ and the Cross.’[5]

Daphne du Maurier’s short story The Birds was suggested in part by the Blitz, an association that Hitchcock likewise remembered from personal experience. (‘The bombs are falling, and the guns are going like hell all over the place. You don’t know where to go... You’re caught! You’re trapped!’)[6] But the linkages between birds and war go deeper than these symbolic associations, given that the development of ornithology in twentieth century Britain, the very manner in which birds have come to be seen and all that that implies, was profoundly influenced at many levels by wartime experiences of bird life.[7]

Attention to birdlife by many soldiers often sharpened the perception of the dividing lines of war. ‘You will have a terrific tearing and roaring noise of artillery and shot in the dead of night ; then there will be a temporary cessation of the duel, with great quietness, when lo!... Out come the nightingales, right about the guns... and beautiful thoughts come along to relieve you from the devilment of war.’[8] Prisoners of war used bird-watching as a means of escape, discipline, and education.[9] Bird spotting and the spotting of warplanes became entangled in various ways in the early 1940s, as was the association of bird watching with ideas of Englishness and patriotism, embedded in responses to the landscape and nature.[10] Even if we are unaware of these histories, the ways in which we see birds, construct them, render them in texts and images, are all subject to quite specific, concrete, interactions that are rooted in history. In other words the animals that haunt are never entirely spectral.

At the beginning of Desmond Morris’s Owl, he relates the story of how, as a boarding school pupil walking in the countryside on a summer afternoon, he found a badly injured owl which he had to kill. ‘I looked at the owl and the owl looked at me... and as we stared at one another I felt a huge emotional attachment to it and a burning anger towards the humans who, directly or indirectly, had caused its wounds. The year was 1942 and World War II was raging across Europe. Somehow, this blood spattered owl standing in the corner of a sunlit Wiltshire field seemed to symbolise all the countless humans who would, inevitably be wounded on that day across a whole continent... to this day I still feel terrible about that moment whenever I think of it.’[11] The point of contact is transformative for the rest of Morris’s life, which reminds us that even when carrying the heaviest symbolic weight, the owl will always be rooted in particular histories, even when it seems most on the outside.

To return, at the end, to the second Duino Elegy:
‘For it seems that everything
hides us. Look: trees do exist; the houses
that we live in still stand. We alone
fly past all things, as fugitive as the wind.
And all things conspire to keep silent about us, half
out of shame perhaps, half as unutterable hope.’[12]



[1] Rainer Maria Rilke, Ahead of all parting: the selected poetry and prose of Rainer Maria Rilke (Modern Library: New York, 1995), p. 339.

[2] Ronald Neame said about the grime on the walls, ‘in order to make Technicolour less glorious we had to exaggerate the age and the dirt on everything before it would show on the screen. The tide mark round the bath, for example, the stains on the wall and the paintwork – it all had to be too much to make it come out right.’ Quoted in Kevin Brownlee, David Lean: a biography (Richard Cohen Books: London, 1996), p. 172. This parallels the deliberate crudeness Suky Best uses to get her collage effect with the emphatic green outline round the owls. On Max Ernst and birds, and also the collage of creatures haunting his The Master’s Bedroom (1920), see Jonathan Burt, ‘Animals in visual art from 1900 to the present,’ in Randy Malamud (ed), A Cultural History of Animals in the Modern Age (Berg: Oxford, 2007), pp. 163-194; especially, pp. 170-171.

[3] There were extra light requirements for the filming of this scene for the long tracking shot looking out onto the garden, in which the news of death is given off screen. This provoked a heated argument about the needs of the film versus the needs of war, between David Lean and Bert Batchelor, the ETU shop steward. See Brownlee, p. 178.

[4] See, for instance, Stephen Moss, A Bird in the Bush: a social history of birdwatching (Aurum Press: London, 2004), p. 164. See also Hugh Gladstone, Birds and the War (Skeffington and Son: London, 1919).

[5] Bird Notes and News, 8 (2), (Summer, 1918), p. 15.

[6] Camille Paglia, The Birds (BFI: London, 1998), p. 9.

[7] I would not want to suggest that the symbolism on screen is itself impoverished for all that. For the richness of bird imagery in American cinema see Raymond Bellour’s recent analysis of The Birds, and birds more generally, in his Le Corps du Cinéma: hypnoses, émotions, animalités (P.O.L.: Paris, 2009), especially pp. 499-507. Bellour unpacks the Hitchcock film at many levels, from the human relationships of the plot, to questions of life and death, Deleuze’s meditations on time and movement, and the chronophotography of bird flight in the work of Jules-Etienne Marey.

[8] Moss, p. 114.

[9] Moss, chapter 10; Midge Gillies, The Barbed-Wire University: the real lives of prisoners of war in the Second World War (Aurum Press: London, 2011), pp. 185-6, 264-8.

[10] Helen Macdonald, ‘ “What makes you a scientist is the way you look at things”: ornithology and the observer 1930-1955’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 33, (2002), pp. 53-77.

[11] Desmond Morris, Owl (Reaktion Books: London, 2009), pp. 10-11. See this book more generally for the symbolic and mythological associations of owls throughout history.

[12] Rilke, p. 341.


Jonathan Burt began working on the history of animals full-time in 1994 and co-founded the Animal Studies Group (UK) in 2000. He is the author of Animals in Film (2002) and Rat (2006), co-editor of the collection Killing Animals (2006) by the Animal Studies Group, as well as numerous articles and reviews on aspects of animals in history.

He is also the creator and editor of the Animal series published by Reaktion Books, which won the UK National Book Award for Best Designed New series in 2004. In 2011 Jonathan is writing a novel which may or may not be about animals, and an essay on birds and Bill Viola.