Friday, 30 May 2014

The Missing Forecast

These light mornings, I am often drifting in and out of sleep - or, sometimes, annoyingly wide awake - in the early hours, so I frequently catch that glorious incantation, the Shipping Forecast, on Radio 4 at 5.20am. Or at least the start of it, for this recitation of sea areas and meteorological formulas ('falling slowly', 'fair becoming poor', 'backing westerly', 'losing its identity') is notoriously soporific. This morning I must have been sound asleep, so I missed a national calamity - at 5.20am Radio 4 listeners heard not the Shipping Forecast but the continuing World Service, which carried on until 5.40am before the BBC was able to repair matters - too late, too late. There was the inevitable Twitter mini-storm, some listeners inquiring if this was a sign of imminent nuclear armageddon (there's a vague urban myth to the effect that not broadcasting the Shipping Forecast will be a secret signal to our nuclear submarines to fire their missiles). Well, it is all a sign of how deeply entrenched the Shipping Forecast is in our national culture. For most of us, of course, it serves no useful purpose and is largely incomprehensible, but it operates at some deeper level as a quasi-liturgical celebration of our maritime heritage and our status as a sea-girt island afloat on mysterious waters, storm-prone but somehow ordered.
  I have posted the Shipping Forecast poems of Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy often enough - here they both are, with a Larkin thrown in - so instead, as a service to readers, I have topped this post with a handy, cut-out-and-keep chart of all those sea areas whose names we love to hear.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

A Scene from Nature

Spring being nearly over and the weather having taken a turn for the dismal, Springwatch is back with us. You know - the seasonal wildlife extravaganza fronted by creepy Chris Packham, gurning Michaela Strachan and eminently slappable Martin Hughes-Games.
 Last night's show offered an especially edifying vignette from nature. The Springwatch cameras have been trained round the clock on a bitterns' nest, where three chicks were successfully hatched - but alas, early yesterday morning one of the chicks was dead in the nest. Mother bittern tenderly took her late offspring in her beak, tilted her head back and painstakingly swallowed it. This was not easy - it was a well-grown chick - but mother bittern persevered until she had swallowed it entirely. But that was not an end of it: next mealtime, there she was again, regurgitating the semi-digested chick as food for her remaining brood, who tackled their sibling with gusto, but did not get very far with it. So the mother scooped up the remains and subjected them to further digestion. A second regurgitation proved successful and popular, and very little remained of the unfortunate chick.
Nature, eh - don't you just love it...

'Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life'
As Tennyson put it in In Memoriam A.H.H. - writing a full decade before Darwin went public and confirmed Tennyson's darkest intuitions about how Nature works. The poets always get there first.

Dabbler alert

There's a little something by me on The Dabbler today, about the 'funniest woman in the world'...

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Carl Larsson: More than Charm

Born on this day in 1853 was the Swedish painter Carl Larsson. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that this supreme master of the blissful, love-infused domestic interior (and exterior) and celebrator of the joys of family living had a wretched start in life. He was born into poverty and lived his early years in squalor, thanks largely to his drunken, emotionally incontinent father, who rejected Carl with the words 'I curse the day you were born'. Amazingly, the young Carl was rescued by a teacher at his ragged school who spotted his talent and urged him to enrol in the art school of the Swedish Royal Academy of Art. He took a while to find his feet, but once he had married his beloved Karin, switched from oils to watercolours and found his theme, he never looked back.
 Larsson and Karin between them virtually created the 'Swedish style' that ultimately conquered the world under the dread name of Ikea. Carl's paintings have never lost their popularity, but there is more to them than their obvious and immediate charm. Larsson is a deft colorist and a formidable draughtsman, with an astonishingly sure line, and his composition and framing are often extraordinarily bold and original. His pictures remain fresh and even arresting, offering something much more interesting than a mere celebration of cosy gemutlichkeit.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Lost and Found

Two pieces of good news over the long, rainy Bank Holiday weekend. One was that the lovely and vanishingly rare Fen Violet has been found again at Wicken Fen after a decade-long absence which had seemed final - rediscovered in the course of a routine plant audit, not of a specific search. The other cheering news was the discovery in the Congolese jungle of a peat bog the size of England that had somehow escaped the attention of the scientists until now. It's good to know - and salutary to remember - that there are still vast areas of the planet that even now are essentially uncharted territory (not to mention virtually the entire floor of the deep oceans, of which we know less than we do of the Moon). And, of course, the more you look, the more you see - and the more you see there is to see. There is always more...

Monday, 26 May 2014

'Human murmurs for example...' Mercier and Camier

I mentioned a few weeks ago that on my last visit to Derbyshire, I picked up in My Favourite Bookshop (The Bookshop, Market Place, Wirksworth) a copy of Samuel Bekett's Mercier and Camier. I have now read it - and it was, as I suspected, a reread; there were passages, especially early in the book, that rang familiar after, what, 40 years? It was, I must report, better and much funnier and more readable than I was expecting; indeed this one is a veritable page-turner, a joy to read, for its dark comedy, the seething life in its every sentence, and above all its preechoes of the great Beckett that was to come.
  Mercier and Camier is a transitional work - the transitional work - in Beckett's canon, the first he wrote in French and the one in which the old Beckett, with his hyperintellectual fireworks and Joyce-soaked Dublinism, makes his last appearance, and the Beckett who would write the trilogy, the great short fictions and the plays speaks clearly for the first time. It was written in 1946, and for a long time Beckett withheld it from publication - until 1970 in fact. Then, four years later, came Beckett's own translation - substantially different from the original - and that of course is what I've just read (in a 1999 reprint).
 Mercier and Camier themselves - two queer, young-old, tramp-like figures who try and fail first to meet up, then to make a journey out of a city (of course Dublin), reason and destination unknown - clearly foreshadow Vladimir and Estragon, while the landscapes of bog and moor, and the darkening tone, towards the end suggest Molloy. But it is the emergence of the true Beckett voice that matters most. The novel begins complete with omniscient narrator - who from time to time loses patience with his work: 'What stink of artifice', 'End of descriptive passage' - and it is even (at least as compared to the glorious mess that is Watt) almost shapely, with a helpful synopsis of the story so far, every two chapters. But along the way come sentence like this:
  'With what relief the eyes from this clutter to the empty sky, with what relief back again.'
Or passages like this:
  'Here would be the place to make an end. After all it is the end. But there is still day, day after day, afterlife all life long, the dust of all that is dead and buried rising, eddying, settling, burying again. So let him wake, Mercier, Camier, no matter, Camier, Camier wakes, it's night, still night, he doesn't know the time, no matter, he gets up and moves away, in the dark, lies down again a little farther on, still in the ruins, they are extensive. Why? No knowing. No knowing such things any more.'

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more...

Mercier and Camier ends with a chapter described in the synopsis as 'The life of afterlife'. The final paragraph is very beautiful. I shall end with it:
 'Alone he watched the sky go out, dark deepen to its full. He kept his eyes on the engulfed horizon, for he knew from experience what last throes it was capable of. And in the dark he could hear better too, he could hear the sounds the long day had kept from him, human murmurs for example, and the rain on the water.'

Thursday, 22 May 2014

'That Katy Perry... She's nice, her'

Having always believed that Sir Geoffrey Boycott's sole connection with the world of pop music is that he shares his date of birth with the artist known as Manfred Mann, I was rather startled to come across this story of our Boycs securing a backstage rendezvous with his favourite singer, Katy Perry (at what, according to Mrs B, was the only concert he's ever been to). I wonder what they talked about - England's prospects for the summer, the intricacies of the LBW law, the Duckworth-Lewis Method? Or was our Geoffrey just, like, Wow?

Wednesday, 21 May 2014


The world is too much with me - the world of work, that is, not the rest of it, which is rather too little with me if anything. But I have been reading, a few poems at a time, Kay Ryan's wonderful collection The Best Of It. And here is one, a little tour de force in which Ryan once again entirely upturns our habitual lazy way of looking at things. Who but she could make a construction site - and an image of the strenuousness of life - out of a spider's web?


From other
angles the
fibers look
fragile, but
not from the
spider’s, always
hauling coarse
ropes, hitching
lines to the
best posts
possible. It’s
heavy work
fighting sag,
winching up
give. It
isn’t ever
to live.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Lime Hawks and Nightingales

The lime - or linden or line - is a fine and noble tree, but it could hardly be more ill suited to urban planting. Its growth is far too vigorous - the lime strives continually to be a really big tree - and it attracts aphids that drop sticky secretions onto any cars parked below. However, the lime trees that line many urban and suburban streets do play host to the beautiful Lime Hawk Moth. At this time of year, if you keep your eyes open and have luck on your side, you might well find a newly-emerged Lime Hawk spreading its wings on a lime tree trunk. Last night, as I was trudging home along my local high street, I glanced - as I always do, more out of habit than expectation - at the trunks of the deeply unpromising row of asphalt-embedded limes that line the pavement. And there was a splendid Lime Hawk Moth! My first of the year, and my first ever on those particular trees. It's a sight that always lifts the spirits - and, in my case, takes me straight back to boyhood, when my father taught me about the Lime Hawk and the other unexpected natural wonders that lie about us, even in suburbia, if we only look.

Later, in bed, I caught a short Radio 4 programme celebrating the 90th anniversary of the first of the famous outside broadcasts in which Beatrice Harrison played her cello to the nightingales in her Surrey garden - if nightingales they were... We heard a little of Beatrice (Elgar's favourite cellist) talking about the occasion in her fabulous pre-war posh tones, and bits of the recordings, but much of the programme was taken up with the presenter, a folk singer called Sam Lee, singing in a rather dirge-like way to the (genuine) nightingales, who didn't seem too inspired by his efforts. Happily, however, there was room for some of Keats's great Ode - and, less obviously, of John Clare's The Nightingale. A nice way to end the day.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Grizzled, Chequered, Subfusc, Celestial...

Sunshine and blue skies yesterday had me seizing the day by heading for the Surrey hills. Exploring a little way beyond my usual haunts, I was soon delighted by the sight of my first Grizzled Skippers in many years. I always seem to miss these pretty little moth-like butterflies, although - as readers of this blog will know - I'm something of a magnet for their close cousins, the Dingy Skippers (try 'Dingy Skipper' in the search box above). The Grizzled Skipper is more chequered than grizzled, but the Chequered name is already taken, for a species that is just hanging on in western Scotland. The Dingy too could do with a name change from its present unflattering handle - how about the Subfusc Skipper? Means much the same but sounds more mysterious...
 The Grizzled Skippers were but the prelude to a glorious display of butterfly beauty - Adonis Blues were flying! The first I spotted was a female (darker and less spectacular than the male) which obligingly settled long enough for me to confirm that she was indeed an Adonis. Then came the unmistakable males in all their glory - first one, then more, some flying singly, others chasing each other at speed up and down the sun-baked downland slope. I must have seen nearly 20 in less than an hour. Spotting a male Adonis - especially the first of the year - truly takes the breath away (this was the 'Dartford Blue' that Grimaldi chased obsessively). That blue! It is surely the nearest thing in nature to the blue of Heaven that the Renaissance painters strove to depict. Perhaps the Adonis should be called the Celestial Blue - but Adonis, the archetype of youthful male beauty, is a good fit. An Adonis with no need to adonise...

Friday, 16 May 2014

One of the Last

I came across this extraordinary photograph - at once comical and sad - the other day. It shows an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker - a bird of legendary rarity, almost certainly now extinct - perching on the head of James Tanner. Though he looks like a weather-beaten backwoodsman, Tanner was a Cornell graduate student who spent two years, from 1937 to 1939, studying Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers in the Singer Tract, an expanse of virgin forest on Louisiana's Tensas river, publishing the results of his researches as his Ph.D. dissertation.
 Tanner estimated that there were then no more than two dozen Ivory-Bills surviving in the whole of America, with no more than eight in any one place. The only hope of saving the species was to preserve the Singer Tract untouched. But the logging rights to the tract had already been sold, and a desperate campaign by the National Audubon Society only speeded up the rate of tree felling. A purchase offer by the Audubon Society's president was turned down, and the lumber company got to work in earnest. Visiting the Singer Tract in the winter of 1943-4, conservationist Richard Pough found one female Ivory-Bill in a patch of remaining uncut forest. She was still there in April 1944, and that was the last time anyone definitely saw an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. 

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Nick Clegg, Twisted Firestarter

I can't resist passing this story on, simply because it is so funny. There is something indefinably but gloriously ridiculous about the outwardly bland Clegg, and stories like this one bring out this curious quality in the man. As arson goes, singeing cacti is very much at the 'did not inhale' end of the spectrum, but this is as one would expect. I wonder if that spell of community flowerbed-digging sparked Capability Clegg's enthusiasm for landscape design. I hear his plans for Squire Cameron's park are now well advanced. Work will begin in earnest when Milliband comes to power - the undeserving beneficiary of Clegg's blocking of constituency boundary reform.

Over on the Dabbler...

You'll find my piece on Jack Buchanan, 'the last of the knuts', handsomely embellished with audio-visual extras...

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Wallace Stevens, Street Fighting Man

I had always believed that Wallace Stevens, poet and insurance company executive, led a life of exemplary dullness, all but devoid of incident. But then I came across a passing reference to the time he punched Ernest Hemingway on the jaw...
 It happened in Key West, where Stevens was on a visit. 'He came again sort of pleasant like the cholera,' noted Hemingway, clearly no friend of the man from Hartford. 'First I knew of it,' writes Hem in a letter to Sara Murhpy, a wealthy friend, 'my nice sister Ura (Ursula) was coming into the house crying because she had been at a cocktail party at which Mr. Stevens had made her cry by telling her forcefully what a sap I was, no man, etc. So I said, this was a week ago, ”All right, that’s the third time we’ve had enough of Mr. Stevens.” So headed out into the rainy past twilight and met Mr. Stevens who was just issuing from the door haveing [sic] just said, I learned later, ”By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now I’d knock him out with a single punch.’
 Stevens, according to Hemingway, took a swing at him but missed, and Hem struck back. 'Was very pleased last night to see how large Mr. Stevens was and am sure that if I had had a good look at him before it all started would not have felt up to hitting him. But can assure you that there is no one like Mr. Stevens to go down in a spectacular fashion especially into a large puddle of water in the street...' Stevens, however, did manage to land what Hemingway calls his 'Sunday punch' on Hem's jaw, breaking his hand in the process.
This unedifying incident ended with Stevens limping away to recuperate, telling his wife back home that he'd hurt himself falling down stairs. According to Hemingway, the poet apologised 'very handsomely' to Ursula, and the two men quickly made up. Note that at the time of the brawl Hemingway was a fit and muscular young man in his 30s and Stevens was a 56-year-old sedentary office worker. Stevens seems to have borne the younger man no ill will, however, and often told the tale of  'that time I punched Hemingway'.
 Will I ever be able to read The Idea of Order at Key West again without getting an intrusive image of Stevens' fist making contact with Hemingway's deserving jaw?

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Braque Day

There's a bit of a workstorm raging at NigeCorp, but it's time to put up a picture - and what better pretext than the birthday of Georges Braque, born on this day in 1882? He was famously the co-creator, with Picasso, of Cubism, on which they worked together intensively from 1908 to 1913. Braque survived the years of collaboration with Picasso's rampaging ego, and indeed was a perfect fit with his fellow artist, to such an extent that their works from this time can be almost impossible to distinguish. 'It was like being roped together on a mountain' Braque recalled. You bet it was...
 For myself, I have never warmed to pure Cubism, a style that seems more interesting - perhaps necessary - than beautiful. I prefer Braque's freer, more relaxed and colourful later work, produced in the years after the Kaiser War (in which he sustained serious head injuries), and indeed right up to his later years. He died in 1963 and is buried in the graveyard of the clifftop church at Varengeville-dur-Mer near Dieppe. His stained-glass windows in that church are very beautiful, but (in Cole Porter's word) unphotographable. You have to see them in situ, as they are. Vaut le detour - and then some.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Smoke and Learn

The local charity shops seem to be conspiring to return to me the natural history (as we called it then) books of my childhood. A few weeks ago, it was the Ladybird book of British Birds and Their Nests; this weekend, in the window of the Oxfam shop, it was An Album of Animals of the Countryside, a cigarette card album issued by John Player & Sons ('Price one penny'). Naturally I bought it on the spot (price £4.99). My father had this album, kept from his younger days, and I enjoyed browsing in it from time to time. I imagine it was eventually thrown out in one of my parents' house moves...
 A relic of the days when smoking was regarded as not only healthy and wholesome but potentially educational - smoke the ciggies, collect the cards and learn more about the world - the Album of Animals of the Countryside is, within its small compass, wonderfully informative, as well as pleasing to the eye. The sepia and pale green cover, with its lovely image of Harvest Mice, has a deft line drawing of a Red Squirrel on its verso - the first of several dotted through the album, culminating in a charming vignette of a Fox crossing a field under a full moon. The graphic style might be described as post-Edwardian, and this album seems to have been first issued around 1918 and stayed available until the 1940s.
 The images on the cards are in colour, well designed to present the animal as clearly and completely as possible, in characteristic pose and habitat, and they appear to have been adapted from photographic images. There are 50 of them, all present and correct, showing a good range of mammals, reptiles and amphibians - a selection of 50 species made today would probably look much the same, though the terrain has changed: we now have 18 species of bats to choose from, for example, and successful introductions and escapes like the Muntjac and Sika deer and the pernicious Mink. The Red Squirrel, at the time of the Album, was 'found over the greater part of Great Britain and Ireland, but is getting rarer in many of its former haunts' (and is now long absent from them). By contrast, deer are very much more abundant now than then, as are Foxes and (of course) Grey 'Squirrels'.
 As for rats, I was intrigued to read that the Black Rat is 'once again the dominant species' in London. Not any more it isn't, and the Black Rat (or Ship Rat) hangs on only in a few small colonies in our port (or former port) cities. From the card caption in the Album I learned that the now ubiquitous and thriving Brown Rat was 'first recorded in England about 1728'. Indeed, until the time of the Crusades, these islands were free of rats, black or brown. The things you could learn by smoking your way through pack after pack of John Player's instructive cigarettes...

Friday, 9 May 2014

'When no bait avails...'

"Your husband is very lucky," observed Smithers,
"to have ornithology to fall back upon when fishing fails."

— Cyril Hare, Death Is No Sportsman

Now that - taken from a little-known English 'golden age' whodunit by a barely remembered author - is not the kind of quotation you expect to find as epigraph to a Kay Ryan poem. But such it is, and here is the poem it heads, When Fishing Fails (in the 1994 collection Flamingo Watching, collected again in The Best of It)...

'When fishing fails, when no bait avails,
and nothing speaks in liquid hints
of where the fishes went for weeks,
and dimpled ponds and silver creeks
go flat and tarnish, it's nice if
you can finish up your sandwich,
pack your thermos, and ford
this small hiatus towards
a second mild and absorbing purpose.'

That half-rhyme of 'thermos' and 'purpose' is surely unique...
 As for 'Cyril Hare', this was the pseudonym of a county court judge, Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark. He was born, I was interested to learn, at Mickleham Hall in the village of that name, hard by butterfly-haunted Box Hill, and he died in the nearby hamlet of West Humble (where the great scientist James Jeans also lived). I knew the name 'Cyril Hare' from my father's collection of green-and-white Penguin whodunits, but never read one as far as I recall. The best known of them, Tragedy at Law, has been widely praised as one of the best murder mysteries set in the legal world, and has never been out of print. A couple of other titles have been recently reprinted, but Death Is No Sportsman is not among them. Apparently it's an ingenious tale in which the investigating detective cracks the case by acquiring a knowledge of the finer points of fly fishing. I hope Kay Ryan enjoyed it...

Thursday, 8 May 2014

John Snagge: The Counterculture Connection

One of the more surprising facts about John Snagge, the old-school BBC radio announcer and boat race commentator ('I can't see who's in the lead, but it's either Oxford or Cambridge'), who was born on this day in 1904, is that we was the guardian of a legendary figure of the English counterculture, Wally Hope. Born (in 1947, into a wealthy family) Alexander Graham Russell, later Philip Russell, then Philip Hope, 'Wally', as he finally became, embraced the counterculture with fervour, rising through the ranks of the Dwarves (Notting Hill's answer to the Yippies) to become the founder of the Stonehenge Free Festival.
 This first took place at the Summer Solstice of 1974, with musical accompaniment by synth pioneers Zorch (named for the sound made by molten plastic dripping from a burning milk crate hanging from a tree), and would have attracted little notice if Wally hadn't got 30 like-minded souls to stay on afterwards, in a field by the stone circle. Styling themselves 'the Wallies of Wiltshire', they established 'Fort Wally' and showed every intention of staying put. Attempts to evict them led to a High Court trial, duly reported in The Times:

'A  strange hippie cult calling themselves 'Wallies' claim God told them to camp at Stonehenge. The Wallies of Wiltshire turned up in force at the High Court today. There was Kris Wally, Alan Wally, Fritz Wally, Sir Walter Wally, Wally Egypt and a few other wandering Wallys. The sober calm of the High Court was shattered as the Wallies of Stonehenge sought justice. A lady Wally called Egypt with bare feet and bells on her ankles blew soap bubbles in the rarefied legal air and knelt to meditate. Sir Walter Wally wore a theatrical Elizabethan doublet with blue jeans and spoke of peace and equality and hot dogs. Kevin Wally chain-smoked through a grotesque mask and gave the victory sign to embarrassed pin-striped lawyers. And tartan-blanketed Kris Wally - "My mates built Stonehenge" - climbed a lamp-post in the Strand outside the Law Courts and stopped bemused tourists in their tracks. The Wallies (motto `Everyone's a Wally: Everyday's a Sun Day') - made the pilgrimage to the High Court to defend what was their squatter right to camp on Stonehenge. . . the Department of the Environment is bringing an action in the High Court to evict the Wallies from the meadow, a quarter of a mile from the sarsen circle of standing stones, which is held by the National Trust on behalf of the nation. The document, delivered by the Department to the camp is a masterpiece of po-faced humour, addressed to "one known as Arthur Wally, another known as Philip Wally, another known as Ron Wally and four others each known as Wally". For instance, paragraph seven begins resoundingly: "There were four male adults in the tent and I asked each one in turn his name. Each replied `I'm Wally"'. There are a soft core of about two dozen, peace-loving, sun worshipping Wallies - including Wally Woof the mongrel dog. Hitch-hikers thumbing their way through Wiltshire from Israel, North America, France, Germany and Scotland have swollen their numbers. Egypt Wally wouldn't say exactly where she was from - only that she was born 12,870 years ago in the cosmic sun and had a certain affinity with white negative. Last night they were squatting on the grass and meditating on the news.'

 Heady times.
 The Court found against the Wallies, so they moved to a patch of common land a few yards away, where they hung on until after the Winter Solstice. Wally Hope, who regarded himself as the leader of this open commune, would wander around telling anyone who could be bothered to listen that Sun worship was the key to everything, and that he had met the reincarnated Jesus Christ in Cyprus.
 Wally Hope died of an overdose in 1975, in allegedly mysterious circumstances, following a drug bust and a spell in psychiatric hospital. Conspiracy theories sprang up instantly around his death (and were revived by the political punk band Crass, whose 1982 release Christ: The Album was a concept album based on the life and death of Wally Hope), and his ashes were scattered, fittingly enough, at Stonehenge. He was just 28 when he died - still two years short of the age at which he would have come into the family money.
 Heaven knows what John Snagge made of it all.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Amusive Birds

I seem to become more of a hirundophile with every passing year, especially when it comes to  swifts. Mahlerman's delightful contributions under yesterday's post ('the same weight as a used tea-bag') spur me to continue on a swiftian theme.
 The great pioneering naturalist Gilbert White was fascinated by 'these amusive birds' and observed them closely over many years. Here he is on their aerial mating:

'The fact that I would advance is, that swifts tread, or propagate, on the wing; and I would wish any nice observer, that is startled at this supposition, to use his own eyes, and I think he will soon be convinced.  In another class of animals, viz. the insect, nothing is so common as to see the different species of many genera in conjunction as they fly.  The swift is almost continually on the wing; and as it never settles on the ground, on trees, or roofs, would seldom find opportunity for amorous rites, was it not enabled to indulge them in the air.  If any person would watch these birds of a fine morning in May, as they are sailing round at a great height from the ground, he would see every now and then, one drop on the back of another, and both of them sink down together for many fathoms with a loud piercing shriek.  This I take to be the juncture when the business of generation is carrying on.
As the swift eats, drinks, collects materials for its nest, and, as it seems, propagates on the wing, it appears to live more in the air than any other bird, and to perform all functions there save those of sleeping and incubation.'

There's a lovely descriptive passage a little farther on:

'In hot mornings several, getting together in little parties, dash round the steeples and churches, squeaking as they go in a very clamorous manner; these, by nice observers, are supposed to be males serenading their sitting hens; and not without reason, since they seldom squeak till they come close to the walls or eaves, and since those within utter at the same time a little inward note of complacency. When the hen has sat hard all day, she rushes forth just as it is almost dark, and stretches and relieves her weary limbs, and snatches a scanty meal for a few minutes, and then returns to her duty of incubation.'

'A little inward note of complacency', 'stretches and relieves her weary limbs'. They don't write natural history like that any more... These quotations, by the way, are from letter XXI (September 28th, 1774) of the Natural History of Selborne.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

The globe's still working

A warm, sunny Bank Holiday yesterday, and there I was sitting in the garden with Mrs N, munching a meditative cheese sandwich and listening to the new Willie Watson CD (plain and rootsy, highly recommended) when I briefly glimpsed something in the sky that sent me haring down the garden for a better view. And yes, there it was, circling lazily - a solitary swift, the first of the year! No other 'first' lifts the heart like this one...
 And later, towards evening, there were two more, circling each other, low down over the rooftops, and then another solitary. Summer is here. Or, as Ted Hughes put it, 'the globe’s still working , the Creation’s / Still waking refreshed.'

Monday, 5 May 2014

Blind Willie's Glorious Afterlife

On this day in 1898, the great blues singer and guitarist Blind Willie McTell was born to an old-time bluesman's life of poverty, disease, alcoholism, tomcatting and obscurity, broken only by a few recording sessions that brought him neither fame nor fortune. He had an unusually sweet and pure voice for a blues singer, and his way with a 12-string guitar was fluid, musical and effortlessly brilliant. Here he is in action, singing Lord Send Me an Angel (apologies if the video starts with a nerve-jangling ad)...
  For an obscure bluesman (who died just too early to be rediscovered in his lifetime), Blind Willie has had a glorious afterlife. Leaving aside the numerous covers of his songs, he has had a big influence on - and been admired by - everyone from Taj Mahal to the White Stripes, not to mention Ralph McTell, who even changed his surname in homage to Blind Willie. But you know where this is heading, don't you? To one of Bob Dylan's very greatest songs - Blind Willie McTell, mystifyingly omitted from the 1983 album Infidels and released as a bootleg outtake. Enjoy it here...
 Yes, nobody could sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell. And nobody could write a song like Bob Dylan at his best.

Thursday, 1 May 2014


From that invaluable resource the BBC News website, I learn that the dimpled pint glass (with handle) is making a comeback from the brink of extinction and is being readopted in pubs the length and breadth of the land...
'For the dimpled jug, that was supposed to be that.
But, having stared extinction in the face, the dimpled glass is returning...'
 In classic BBC News style, every conceivable ramification and implication of this story is chased down and gummed to death. But at least I learned a new word from it - 'nonic' (n), which is the name for those 'straight' glasses that have a slight bulge towards the top.
 I suppose we retroprogressives should rejoice at the return of the good old dimpled jug. The trouble is that these days, every time I envisage such a tankard, the hand, the paunch, the blazer, the face and then the full entirety of a beaming Nigel Farage forms around it. Half man half tankard.