Saturday, 15 May 2021

Swifts – Victims of Lockdown?

 My unexpectedly early first sighting of swifts has been followed by, er... nothing very much. Since then I've seen the odd one here, two there, occasionally three, but none of them showing any signs of settling down. It's now mid-May and there's no sign of the swifts that live on our road returning. I'm hoping it's just that the unseasonably cool weather is deterring them, but wondering if there might be another, more worrying factor.
  In the first lockdown one of the things people round here found to do was loft conversion. At times it seemed that every other house had the scaffolding and tarps up and the conversion gangs at work. Then it died down again – only to return as Lockdown 3.0 draws to an end (maybe). Some of these conversions must have destroyed or covered over swifts' nesting sites under the eaves of houses – and, if not, the changed appearance of the houses, and the continuing commotion of building work, might be enough in themselves to deter the swifts. Birds are remarkably sensitive to the slightest change in their immediate surroundings, as anyone who's put up a new bird feeder or moved an old one will know – it can take birds weeks to get used to the new arrangements. Could all this loft conversion activity mean the end of swifts on our road? I devoutly hope not. My eyes still scan the skies every morning and evening, hoping for signs of a return...

Meanwhile, the lockdown continues to reap its human harvest. This morning I discovered that our excellent local picture framer has been driven into despairing insolvency, after 36 years, by the destructive impact of lockdown after lockdown. There is nothing left of this once thriving business but a quietly anguished message in the window. Another victim of lockdown, another loss to the community. 
  And now, as we contemplate the heady prospect of being 'allowed' (allowed!) to eat and drink indoors in pubs and restaurants from Monday, the forces of The Science (with zero-covid nutters now in the ascendant) are mustering to ensure that this dangerous notion of restoring a few of our confiscated freedoms doesn't go any further. The so-called Indian variant is their current pretext – and this despite the lack of any evidence that it is likely to do significant harm in a largely vaccinated population where (according to the ONS) some 70 percent of the population now have antibodies. If the 'government' continues to be led by these people, there is no prospect of the lifting of restrictions promised for June happening on schedule, if at all. So long as The Science is running the show, we're on the road to nowhere. Or rather to ruin. What will happen when we get the next seasonal flu epidemic? Or, perish the thought, when the Chinese, having learnt the lessons of Covid, unleash their next virus on us?


This morning I was startled to discover (via email) that 'Blogger' has deleted four of my posts – quite recent ones – for violating 'community guidelines'. Uh oh, I thought – have I offended against the Woke ethos? Is it all over for Nigeness? No – apparently I've violated Blogger's Malware and Viruses Policy. How might I have done that? And what can I do to avoid offending again? Any ideas? Has this happened to any of you out there? 

Friday, 14 May 2021

Vernal good cheer

 Ah, you might think, glancing at this, he's put up another of those late Manet flower paintings he loves so much. The impression won't last beyond the first glance, as this is clearly not the work of the master. I picked it up this morning in a charity shop (so good to have them open again), recognising it as a copy of one of those glorious Manets that I do indeed love so much. It's not even a particularly good copy – there are plenty of faults, and at least one extraneous mark on the canvas – but it's a spirited attempt, boldly painted, and full of vernal good cheer. It catches something of the spirit of Manet's original, if not its technical brilliance. I couldn't resist it, especially as it was priced at a mere eight pounds. I shall get it framed and find somewhere to hang it.
The painting it copies is this one...

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

'He became a land'

 The Barn Owl above was painted by Edward Lear, who was born on this day in 1812, the 20th of 21 children (and the youngest to survive). As well as being a brilliant painter of birds – especially parrots, which seemed to have a special appeal to him – Lear was also an accomplished landscapist, a musician and composer, and of course an author, most famously of the great nonsense poems.  
Nothing better captures the essence of this strange, troubled man than Auden's brilliant biographical sonnet – 

Left by his friend to breakfast alone on the white
Italian shore, his Terrible Demon arose
Over his shoulder; he wept to himself in the night,
A dirty landscape-painter who hated his nose.

The legions of cruel inquisitive They
Were so many and big like dogs: he was upset
By Germans and boats; affection was miles away:
But guided by tears he successfully reached his Regret.

How prodigious the welcome was. Flowers took his hat
And bore him off to introduce him to the tongs;
The demon's false nose made the table laugh; a cat

Soon had him waltzing madly, let him squeeze her hand;
Words pushed him to the piano to sing comic songs;
And children swarmed to him like settlers. He became a land.

Sunday, 9 May 2021

A Good Portent

 To judge by the number of online sources offering to interpret them, I am not alone in having butterfly dreams. They can mean, it seems, all manner of things, most of them, as you'd expect, good. My butterfly dreams differ from most, perhaps, in being highly specific. Last night, for example, I dreamt I was strolling on a not very promising patch of marginal downland when I looked down and saw a pair of Grizzled Skippers. Delighted, I pointed them out to a passerby, who seemed unimpressed – understandable, I suppose, as these tiny, moth-like creatures are not what you'd call spectacular. Their beauty is quiet, understated and small-scale; you need to look closely to appreciate it. 
Anyway, taking this dream as a good portent, I set out this morning for a spot where I had seen several Grizzled Skippers last year. The weather had turned suddenly warm, with intermittent sunshine, but I was not too hopeful as a strong wind was blowing, apparently from two quarters at once, and wind is bad news for small butterflies. There were Brimstones flying in abundance, with a fair number of Orange Tips, Peacocks and the odd Speckled Wood. And then, as I drew near the patch of downland that was my target, suddenly at my feet was a single Grizzled Skipper, on the path, with its little wings spread. As it was showing no inclination to brave the wind and fly away, I was able to spend several minutes admiring its subtle, spangled beauty. The promise of the dream was fulfilled, even though that single specimen was to be the only one I saw today.   

Heinrich Kühn

 More and more I find myself looking at old photographs (or rather digital images thereof) on the internet. I generally find these images more satisfying than modern photographs, I think because of their imprecision and blur, and their painterly quality – by which I mean, the sense they give that have been 'painted with light', that they are conscious creations, they are not just passively reflecting back an accurate image of external reality. And they can be painterly in a more literal sense too. Yesterday I came across this arresting autochrome photograph from 1915, by the Austrian-German photographic pioneer Heinrich Kühn...

Something about it – the coloration, the steep perspective, the bisecting shadow – reminded me of this painting by Felix Vallotton, The Ball...

Still more painterly, in the sense of looking like a painting, is this autochrome photograph of Kühn's...

And here is another wonderfully soft-toned, soft-outlined Kühn photograph –  
Kühn, I gather, used the gum bichromate process, which allowed for a lot of creative manipulation and adjustment, and he was consciously trying to make photographs that resembled other kinds of art prints. He and his artistic colleagues wanted to make stylised photographs as an element of the gesamtknustwerk, the 'ideal work of art' that the Viennese Secessionists aimed to create. Well, he certainly made some very beautiful pictures.

Friday, 7 May 2021

The Maias

Having been laid low – or semi-laid semi-low – by a painful mystery ailment affecting what can only be described as my left groin, I've been spending more time than usual on the sofa. So I thought it was a good opportunity to take on a heroic reading project, something comparable to last year's The Betrothed.  
  For some years I've been reading and enjoying the novels of the great (and still too little known) Portuguese writer Eça de Queiros, but I had never got round to the one widely regarded as his greatest achievement – The Maias, all 633 pages of it (in my Carcanet edition). It looks forbidding – a great brick of a book – but, as always with this author, it is wonderfully easy to read. Eça is a fine no-nonsense storyteller, but it is his distinctive tone that makes his work so attractive – endlessly ironic but sympathetic, ever alert to human folly and to the comedy and pathos of the human condition, always proceeding with a light tread, never getting heavily 'serious', still less telling the reader what to think. He is, if you like, at the very opposite end of the authorial spectrum from Dickens – though there is something strangely English about him, or at least something that makes his works particularly appealing to English readers.
  Eça conceived The Maias while working at the Portuguese consulate in Newcastle on Tyne, and wrote most of it while living in Bristol (and it's striking how many of his characters spend time in other countries, especially England, though Portugal, in particular Lisbon, is always the focus). The novel traces the history of an aristocratic family against the background of the 19th-century decline of the Portuguese monarchy – and of Portugal itself – but it is in no way a political novel: it is about people (and places), not Ideas. According to Wikipedia, Os Maias is a compulsory text for year 11 students in Portugal; their 15-year-olds must be a good deal more literate than ours. And it was even made into a soap-opera style drama series by a Brazilian TV network – clearly this novel is in the Portuguese cultural bloodstream.
  I'm only about a tenth of the way into The Maias so far, but already I am completely hooked. I'm going to enjoy this...