Friday 30 April 2010

First Swift

'Spring is incomplete for me – no, it does not even begin – until the swifts are back. I spend the last days of April and first few of May in a fever of anxiety, wondering if the most thrilling birds in Britain – whose return from Africa Ted Hughes said "means the globe’s still working , the Creation’s / Still waking refreshed" – will make it again this year. Evening means binocular peerings over the spires of the town, or dashes down to Sunnyside where our local birds have their biggest colonies, for a glimpse of those careering scimitar wings. If they’re late, which they increasingly are, it’s on to the websites for those with Swift Obsessive Disorder, and hopes for messages like that posted from Spain last May: "For those lacking common swifts in northern Europe, this afternoon was evidence of a huge arrival over Torremolinos." Sure enough, two days later they brought the Costa del Sol to our shores. Enough for emails to begin flashing between swift addicts: "They’re back."'

That's not me, of course; it's Richard Mabey. Anyone who has read his wonderful Nature Cure will know all about his very personal relationship with swifts, those deeply mysterious birds, and their epic journeys. Happily, I saw my first swift yesterday (they probably arrived over the south coast the day before - I haven't been able to find the swift addicts' website Mabey mentions. Anyone?). It was a single bird, gliding high up, with those occasional shivering motions of the wings as it swooped and turned. I haven't seen another since, but I'm sure they will soon be congregating in the skies.
Swifts for me are the soundtrack of many of my childhood memories, especially of those long summer evenings when, like all children in those days, I would have to go to bed while it was still broad daylight. As the bright evening light shone through the curtains, the swifts would be careering, screaming, past the window. They'd still be going when eventually I fell asleep - and they'd be the first thing I heard when I woke in the morning. Many years later, I lived on a similarly swift-haunted street, and one morning woke to find a swift trapped immobile, wings spread, between the two panes of the bedroom sash window, as if on an oversized microscope slide. It was an astonishing, faintly sinister sight - so strange to be seeing this always distant, always flying bird close up and stationary. After a while I managed to manoeuvre the two window panes into a position that offered the swift a way out - and off it flew like a shot from a gun, apparently unscathed by its strange experience. Heaven knows how it had managed to end up in such a strange position - presumably sheer reckless speed... It was not the only swift casualty of that house. When we came to move, I pulled out the wardrobe in the bedroom, and there behind it on the floor was a dead swift. It must have flown in through the window at speed and hurtled fatally into the bedroom wall. A swift death.

Wednesday 28 April 2010

Sparrowhawks: The Truth

I'm indebted to Beleaguered Bryan for passing on this titbit:

Sparrowhawk Blitz Caused Sparrow Plunge

Newly published research provides compelling evidence that the decline of House Sparrows in Britain has been caused by intense predation pressure from resurgent Sparrowhawk populations.

Sparrowhawks were wiped out over much of Britain in the 1950s because of the effects of organochlorine pesticides, but since these were banned in the 1970s the number of Sparrowhawks has quadrupled, and they started to colonise cities for the first time in the 1980s. Urban sparrows were easily picked off because of their bold behaviour, which had developed in the absence of a significant threat from an aerial predator.

Dr Christopher Bell, who led the research, said “The study shows that variation in the timing of the disappearance of Sparrows from gardens across Britain can be explained by variation in the year that Sparrowhawks began to be seen hunting birds in the same gardens. This overturns previous assumptions about the effects of predation on bird populations, and exposes flaws in studies apparently showing that Sparrowhawk predation has no effect.“

Several puzzling aspects of Sparrow decline are explained by these results. Urban Sparrows have tended to disappear from the more affluent districts of cities such as London, Bristol and Norwich, while continuing to thrive in less well-off areas, such as large council estates. This is because the affluent parts of cities provide safe nesting places for Sparrowhawks in the large gardens of grand houses, and in private grounds and restricted areas of parkland, whereas no such nesting opportunities occur in poorer districts.

The results also explain why Sparrow decline happened later in the cities than in the countryside. Sparrowhawks re-occupied most of the British countryside during the 1970s, coinciding with the decline of rural Sparrow populations, but only started to move into urban areas in the late 1980s and 1990s, which coincides with urban Sparrow declines.

The study also explains regional variation in the extent of Sparrow decline across Britain. Scottish and Welsh Sparrows experienced a relatively small decrease in numbers, and have since recovered strongly, whereas Sparrow numbers in southern and eastern England have continued to plummet. Meanwhile, Sparrowhawk numbers in Scotland and Wales have been stable for many years, after undergoing a relatively small increase in the 1960s and 70s, but in south and east England Sparrowhawks have undergone a massive increase in numbers, which has continued until quite recently.

The results emerging from this study are potentially embarrassing for organisations involved in Sparrow research and conservation such as the RSPB, which have consistently denied that increasing numbers of Sparrowhawks and other predators can affect populations of wild birds. Instead they have promoted the idea that food shortage caused by changes in agriculture and urban development is behind Sparrow decline, but have found little evidence for this theory despite investment of at least £500,000 in Sparrow research. Conservation organisations have also promoted measures known as ‘agri-environment schemes’ to reverse the supposed effects of agricultural changes on wild birds. Farmers are now required to implement these measures to receive their subsidies under EU legislation, with £½ billion spent on such schemes each year in the UK alone. However, despite the fact that over two-thirds of farmland in England is now managed under agri-environment schemes, bird populations show no signs of recovery, suggesting that predators may be the real reason behind bird declines in the countryside.

Quite so. This is typical of that sinister organisation the RSPB, which won't hear a word against any of our feathered friends. Anyone with a garden could tell them that there have been dramatically fewer songbirds since predators started moving in from the countryside - magpies, jays, crows and raptors. Most of us have seen them at work, taking eggs and killing both adult and juvenile birds - but the RSPB (and others) insist on blaming it all on cats. Sparrowhawks are particularly effective killers, seldom seen until they've struck. The RSPB line has always been that they are misnamed as they rarely if ever attack sparrows. The old Duke of Wellington knew better. When Queen Victoria, concerned at the numbers of sparrows nesting on the partly finished Crystal Palace, asked his advice on how to get rid of them, he replied, 'Sparrowhawks, ma'am'. He was right; when the Palace opened, there was not a sparrow to be seen.


Watching Gordon Broon, scary rictus in place, out and about gladhanding 'ordinary British people' was always like watching one of those many episodes of The Simpsons in which a robot is featured - you just know that sooner or later it's going to malfunction and mayhem will ensue. And now it's happened. No doubt by the time tomorrow's papers come out, Broon's dirt diggers will have established that the unfortunate woman is a Nazi gauleiter and stalwart of the Ku Klux Klan, with a sideline in ripping the heads off puppies. So that's all right then.

Tuesday 27 April 2010


It has been a quite astonishing spring for blossom - I can't remember one like it (perhaps the last was after one of the cold winters of the 80s?). On my Mole Valley walk last Saturday, there were stands of blossoming shrubs and trees - thorns, wild cherries, plums and pears - so dense and bright in the sun that they literally dazzled the eye. There's a piece about this year's prodigious cherry blossom in the Times today, with the obligatory meteorological explanation. But in reality this extravagance of blossom hits the eye and the receptive mind as a miracle, a wonder. Of course it is the product of natural forces, but that fact seems a pretty paltry thing against the fact of beauty so startling it stops you in your tracks. I don't think I've ever been stopped in my tracks so often as I have this glorious, blue-skied, blossom-bright spring.

Serious Money - for Poetry!

Talking of literary prizes, I heard this poetess interviewed on the World Service in the small hours. She has, I'm afraid, a rather harsh and unattractive voice but a powerful delivery, and she certainly deserves serious respect and admiration for ignoring death threats and carrying on regardless. She actually won the judges' vote, but the Great Saudi Public had other ideas. Look at that prize money, though, and weep, all aspiring poets. Why such huge prizes? It seems the Arabs value their poetry very highly indeed, and the ruler of Dubai is himself a keen and prolific exponent of Nabati poetry - here's an example of his work. I hope it has lost something in translation.


I pass this titbit on for its comedy value - Ian McEwan has been nominated for the P.G. Wodehouse prize for comic fiction. I heard the clodhoppingly unfunny Solar when it was read as Radio 4's Book At Bedtime (in heavily abridged form - I dread to imagine what reading the whole thing must be like). I laughed aloud all right - but not in a good way... Never mind, Wodehouse will be chuckling at all this, somewhere.

Monday 26 April 2010


And I even missed the death of Peter Porter, surely one of 'our' best poets. Even at the last, in his 80s, it seems he was writing more than well... RIP.


What with work and making the most of the time that is not work (a fine walk along the Mole valley on Saturday - peacocks galore, orange tips, commas, red admirals and a holly blue, since you ask), I haven't had much blog time. But I have been reading steadily and the other day finished Angel by Elizabeth Taylor, a novel which quite bowled me over with its effortless skill and scope. I only knew Taylor from short stories, and from her late novel Blaming, which I read recently and didn't much care for (it seemed rather arid and lacking even one sympathetic character). To me, then, Angel was a revelation of how good Elizabeth Taylor could be. Beginning around 1900, it tells the story of Angelica 'Angel' Deverell, the strange spoilt child of a widowed shopkeeper, who, at the age of 15 and on no other basis than her own impregnable delusions of grandeur, decides that she is to be a great and famous novelist, writes what is clearly an appalling novel in the sensational manner of Marie Corelli - and, by sheer luck finding a publisher who is intrigued rather than merely appalled, gets it published. It is, as Angel had confidently assumed it would be, a huge hit (though mocked by the critics - but what do they know?), and Angel is, to everyone's amazement but her own, launched on a successful career. Taylor's novel follows Angel through her life, creating a wonderfully memorable monster of vanity, absurdity, wilful eccentricity and self-delusion, but one with fears and doubts that from time to time surface and must be ruthlessly repressed - and with a quality about her that, despite everything, inspires something like love in most of the (rather few) people who ever get at all close to her. It is a wonderfully subtle character study that deepens as Taylor follows Angel through the decades, as she reaches the height of her fame and, inevitably, falls out of fashion. Hilary Mantel describes Taylor as 'quietly and devastatingly amusing', and so she is, a mistress of the deft aside - 'She was always too busy writing about what she thought of as 'Nature' to go out of doors to look at things' or 'She was often violent about people, as are so many animal lovers'. She reveals character in small eloquent details of behaviour and appearance, bringing all her characters into focus, even in the fierce glare of Angel's crazed glory - and she puts every line of dialogue to good use. In fact, at her best, Taylor is almost as beady-eyed as Jane Austen herself. Angel has some very funny scenes - laugh out loud funny - but its greatest achievement perhaps is to make you care so much for the incorrigible Angel that the ending is genuinely moving. What a creation she is! Is she an awful warning? Could it be that every successful writer has something of Angel in him or her?

Thursday 22 April 2010

By the Way...

The General Manager of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association was on the radio this morning. His name is David Bills. I do hope he's on a jobshare with a chap called Cooze.

The Leaders, As You've Never Seen Them

Here's a diversion to beguile the long hours of tonight's Great Debate and Great Post-Debate Analysis - try picturing the leaders in 18th-century dress (if I had the Photoshop skills, I'd mock something up...). Cameron, with his sleek, plump Georgian face, is a natural. Put him in periwig and stock, brocade coat and waistcoat, and there he is - the 18th-century country squire, happy in his skin and his clothes, his easy life and his land, a figure straight out of a Gainsborough or Zoffany portrait. A little more of the outdoor life and Cameron's face would soon have that authentic side-of-beef look of the Georgian landed gentry. He's the easy one - but what of Clegg? I see him as the keen young architect or new-fangled landskip gardener, full of ideas for modernising the squire's house and improving his grounds in the fashionable style. Put him in a plain greatcoat with deep pockets, tricorn hat and sensible boots, and he'd look quite convincing - it would certainly be an improvement on his present Mister Byrite look. But what on earth can we do with Broon? As the man is incapable of wearing any other colour than black - if he ever did, it would instantly turn black ('And after it rains there's a rainbow, but all of the colours are black...') - he will have to be a cleric of a particularly severe disposition, full of gout and brimstone. Or better still, dress him in courtroon garb, put a black cap on him, and there you are - a hanging judge straight out of Hogarth.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Linden, Line, Lime

It's the time of year when the lime trees - like Browning's elms a couple of weeks ago - are 'in tiny leaf'. The tender young leaves - a delicate bright green, translucent in sunlight - look good enough to eat (and are, in a bittersweeet salady way). Nabokov always refers to the tree (in English) as the linden, which is correct and a more beautiful word, but seems somehow affected in a native Anglophone. In English, linden became line, then the misleading lime. The Dorset poet William Barnes - of whom I mean to write one day - favoured linden, and his Linden Lea was beautifully set to music by Vaughan Williams. Lime was good enough for Coleridge in one of his finest poems, written when the poet was obliged to stay behind while Lamb, the Wordsworths and Mrs C went off to explore the Quantocks. Mrs C had, as Colerdige explained to Southey, 'accidentally emptied a skillet of boiling milk on my foot, which confined me the whole time of C. Lamb's stay'. Was it an accident? Let's hope so. Anyway, his pain was our gain:

This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison

Addressed to Charles Lamb, of the India House, London

Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost
Beauties and feelings, such as would have been
Most sweet to my remembrance even when age
Had dimm’d mine eyes to blindness! They, meanwhile,
Friends, whom I never more may meet again,
On springy heath, along the hill-top edge,
Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance,
To that still roaring dell, of which I told;
The roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow, deep,
And only speckled by the mid-day sun;
Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock
Flings arching like a bridge;—that branchless ash,
Unsunn’d and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves
Ne’er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still,
Fann’d by the water-fall! and there my friends
Behold the dark green file of long lank weeds,
That all at once (a most fantastic sight!)
Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge
Of the blue clay-stone.
Now, my friends emerge
Beneath the wide wide Heaven—and view again
The many-steepled tract magnificent
Of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea,
With some fair bark, perhaps, whose sails light up
The slip of smooth clear blue betwixt two Isles
Of purple shadow! Yes! they wander on
In gladness all; but thou, methinks, most glad,
My gentle-hearted Charles! for thou hast pined
And hunger’d after Nature, many a year,
In the great City pent, winning thy way
With sad yet patient soul, through evil and pain
And strange calamity! Ah! slowly sink
Behind the western ridge, thou glorious Sun!
Shine in the slant beams of the sinking orb,
Ye purple heath-flowers! richlier burn, ye clouds!
Live in the yellow light, ye distant groves!
And kindle, thou blue Ocean! So my friend
Struck with deep joy may stand, as I have stood,
Silent with swimming sense; yea, gazing round
On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem
Less gross than bodily; and of such hues
As veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes
Spirits perceive his presence.
A delight
Comes sudden on my heart, and I am glad
As I myself were there! Nor in this bower,
This little lime-tree bower, have I not mark’d
Much that has sooth’d me. Pale beneath the blaze
Hung the transparent foliage; and I watch’d
Some broad and sunny leaf, and lov’d to see
The shadow of the leaf and stem above
Dappling its sunshine! And that walnut-tree
Was richly ting’d, and a deep radiance lay
Full on the ancient ivy, which usurps
Those fronting elms, and now, with blackest mass
Makes their dark branches gleam a lighter hue
Through the late twilight: and though now the bat
Wheels silent by, and not a swallow twitters,
Yet still the solitary humble-bee
Sings in the bean-flower! Henceforth I shall know
That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure;
No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,
No waste so vacant, but may well employ
Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart
Awake to Love and Beauty! and sometimes
’Tis well to be bereft of promis’d good,
That we may lift the soul, and contemplate
With lively joy the joys we cannot share.
My gentle-hearted Charles! when the last rook
Beat its straight path along the dusky air
Homewards, I blest it! deeming its black wing
(Now a dim speck, now vanishing in light)
Had cross’d the mighty Orb’s dilated glory,
While thou stood’st gazing; or, when all was still,
Flew creeking o’er thy head, and had a charm
For thee, my gentle-hearted Charles, to whom
No sound is dissonant which tells of Life.

Phew! Coleridge was seldom better, and never more genially humane - it must have been the influence of Lamb.
As it happens, in the churchyard mentioned in my last post, there is a row of three huge and magnificent limes to the north of the church. A line, you might say, of lines.

Monday 19 April 2010

An Epitaph

I was walking through my parish churchyard earlier today, enjoying the greening trees and the drifts of violets (and the cuckoo flowers are out now). It's pleasingly semi-wild - controlled with a light touch - and at its best in spring before the taller plants get going. In my boyhood it was a whole lot wilder, in parts almost as overgrown as the old Highgate cemetery used to be - which was fine by us boys, of course, as it was a splendid place for exploring, climbing trees, bird's nesting and generally larking about. The churchyard was then dominated by huge elms, long gone now, but there are still impressive oaks and beeches, and chestnut trees both horse and sweet. The graves are mostly marked by plain headstones, and there are some that go back to the 17th and 18th centuries. The best of them - for its words - carries a sweet and eloquent epitaph which amounts to a touching character study in a few lines. This one has been saved and mounted on the south wall of the church, where the lettering is becoming less and less legible but can still be made out. Today I thought I would transcribe it and pass it on. Under a skull carved in village baroque style, the stone carries these words:

TOM HUMPHRYS lies here, by grim Death beguil'd,
Who never did harm to Man, Woman or Child.
And since without foe none yet e'er was known,
Poor TOM was nobody's foe - but his own.
Lay light on him Earth, for none wou'd than he
(Tho' heavy his Bulk) trip it lighter on thee.

Died September 4th 1742.

Rather wonderful, isn't it? You can almost see him...

Sunday 18 April 2010

Ups and Downs

The most glorious spring day yesterday - warm sunshine, not a cloud in the sky, the blossom of cherries, plums and thorns at its blazing best, violets, primroses, windflowers... The kind of day that makes you feel glad to be alive (interjection from Beckett: 'Aw now, I wouldn't go that far.') The kind of day to make a Fotherington Thomas ('Hullo clouds, hullo sky' he sa) out of anyone - perhaps as well my spirits were a little dampened by fatigue and the onset of a 'cold'. However, this time (unlike last) I made it to the downs, and was rewarded with - well, with all of the above, and the call of the chiffchaff, and some early flying butterflies: a red admiral, several commas, a few orange tips, whites large and small - and, most numerous of all, peacocks, which were also flying in the suburban gardens. However numerous they get, peacocks can never seem ordinary. Their markings - those brilliant peacock's-tail eyes against brick red, contrasting with the subfusc subtleties of the underwings - are about as spectacular as it gets with British butterflies. It's idle to speculate on how the peacock ended up so extravagantly decorated, with a piece of bravura illusionism that seems above and beyond any conceivable function. The orthodox evolutionist's answer is always the same: it is so because it is adaptive. 'Eye' markings on butterflies are said to direct the attention of birds and other predators away from the vulnerable body, towards the more expendable margins - which seems plausible, though I wonder if there is much observational evidence for it. No doubt the apparent excesses of the peacock butterfly's wing markings are, like the peacock's tail, the result of the most boldly patterned having the most breeding success. Yet many butterflies seem to get by perfectly well with nothing much in the way of 'eye' markings, and as many seem to thrive on drabness as on showy displays of colour. Never mind - the instinctive and appropriate response to the sight of a peacock butterfly is surely wonder. That will do.

Saturday 17 April 2010

Born on This Day...

in 1882, the great pianist Artur Schnabel. Here he is demonstrating how to play Schubert.

Friday 16 April 2010

That Debate: Nige's Verdict

Nick Clegg can't wear a suit. What is it with him and suits? He always looks like a schoolboy in his first grown-up suit - one his mother bought him, allowing room for growth. His collars and ties look wrong too. He needs to change his tailor (from Mister Byrite?) if he expects to be taken seriously.
End of post-debate analysis.

Sunsets and Silent Skies

With volcanic ash bringing the skies of Britain to an eerily silent, vapour-trailless halt - if you're thinking of visiting Kew Gardens, go now - the minds of us old-timers naturally turn back to 1816, 'the year without a summer'. Following the tremendous eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815, most of the world suffered a bitterly cold, cloudy, wet summer, with crop failures and widespread famine. The up side was that the sunsets were unusually spectacular - there's a theory that this explains the look of some of Turner's paintings of the time, but his sunsets from any period are amazing enough without meteorological explanations. We also owe Frankenstein and the Mormons to that cold wet summer - Frankenstein because Mary Shelley and friends were forced indoors by the rain and passed the time writing their horror stories, and the Mormons because crop failure forced Joseph Smith's family to move to Palmyra, New York, triggering a chain of events that would result in the Book of Mormon. So far, the London sunset has been unremarkable, and of course a cold summer is out of the question, what with all this global warming (hem hem). Anyway the Icelandic eruption - which might very probably herald far more devastating eruptions on that long-suffering island - is very small beer when there's a Prime Ministerial Debate to be covered. Last night's BBC Ten o' Clock News actually devoted a full 20 minutes to that non-event - which anyone that interested would have watched anyway - before getting round to the small matter of the Icelandic volcano and the first-ever peacetime closure of all UK airspace.

Thursday 15 April 2010

'Who knows the fate of his bones?...'

I'm happy to report that the Largely Absent Yard is alive and as well as can be expected of a writer working too hard. Today he sent me a photograph of Sir Thomas Browne's tomb in St Peter Mancroft, Norwich. What sits atop this post is not his photograph, which was in black and white (he has gone back to film) and of course of superior artistic merit. Sir Thomas's coffin is in the chancel of the church. It was accidentally opened in 1840, and some bright spark took the skull - theft of skulls was a common weakness of craniologically obsessed Victorians - and presented it to the museum of the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, where it was on display for 80-odd years before being restored to its proper place (after casts had been taken). Readers of W.G. Sebald's The Rings Of Saturn will recall his meditations on the fate of Browne's skull, and readers of Sir Thomas himself will recall that he wrote in his Hydriotaphia, or Urne Buriall: 'Who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried? Who hath the oracle of his ashes, or whither they are to be scattered?... To be gnawed out of our graves, to have our skulls made drinking bowls and our bones turned into pipes, to delight and sport our enemies, are tragical abominations.' Still, the mortal remains of another great English writer - Laurence Sterne - suffered a worse fate than Browne's. His body was exhumed from its resting place in the graveyard of St George's, Hanover Square, sold to anatomists, and only rescued (to be reburied against the south wall of his own church, Coxwold in Yorkshire) when someone recognised his face. Saved by fame.

Tuesday 13 April 2010

Ghost Signs

I'm always noticing them - I'm sure you are too - those fading remnants of painted advertising slogans on the ends (or sometimes the fronts) of buildings. Touching, faintly melancholy vestiges of a painted past when every available wall was put to commercial use, they are often - especially in France - pleasingly designed and rather charming. A shame, I've vaguely thought, that these things are passing from the world unnoticed and unrecorded, without so much as a name to identify them... I should have known better. Not only do they have a name - they are known, aptly enough, as 'ghost signs' or 'ghostsigns' - they also have a Wikipedia entry, a blog devoted to them, and an active archive. Another heartening example of the wired world of the internet being put to good use, celebrating and recording unconsidered trifles that are part of the warp and weft of life, but might otherwise pass unnoticed and fade from memory.

Monday 12 April 2010

An Afternoon

Yesterday afternoon I had a simple plan - to go for a walk on the downs. Striding merrily along on the dry turf, I might spot the odd early flying butterfly (there have already been reports, from elsewhere, of the Green Hairstreak). However, like many a simple plan before it, mine was soon ganging thoroughly agley, as I discovered that trains don't run on Sundays on the line I needed. A swift rethink took me, rather laboriously, to my old favourite, Ashtead common, instead. Here, of course, it was muddy underfoot and I was inadequately shod - and nothing in the way of butterflies was to be seen. However, there were several bee flies - the improbable Bombylius - hovering and darting about like something out of Hieronymus Bosch's imagination. And, best of all, beside a woodland path I came across a fine Snakeshead Fritillary, with two flowers - one open, one still hooded - right next to a patch of beautiful white Wood Anenomes. Needless to say, I did not have my camera with me to catch this perfect arrangement - it was that kind of day... There's a foreword to all this: on my way to the station - before any of this had happened and while I had yet to learn that my original mission was doomed - I heard an unusually melodious song coming from an elder tree as I was passing, paused to have a look, and got a fine close-up view of a Willow Warbler. Beak open, it was giving a textbook example of its distinctive, rather sad song, which builds to a rising, questioning climax, then dies away. I have never seen a Willow Warbler so close to home before. If I was a vicar, I could make a sermon from that afternoon's events, so pregnant with moral lessons are they - however, happily, I am not.

Friday 9 April 2010


'O, to be in England, Now that April's there,' sighs Browning in a much anthologised poem, 'And whoever wakes in England, Sees, some morning, unaware, That the lowest boughs and the brush-wood sheaf Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf...' Well, for most of us in England now, the elm-tree bole - the mighty, wrinkled bole of one of those majestic, quietly dignified giants that used to dominate our countryside - is a distant memory; the Dutch Elm beetle saw to that, and transformed the English landscape (we forget by how much - looking at old photos, or the elm-loving Constable's paintings, reminds us). I remember the giant elms that used to stand in the churchyard here, and there was one tree nearby of immense age, reduced to a knobbly bole of vast circumference but barely 10ft of height, still throwing out a few last feeble shoots, and protected, by a wonderful act of municipal respect, by a circle of low railings. We children would climb up and perch inside it sometimes, but it was regarded as too feeble a challenge for the serious tree climbers among us. Now only the circle of railings remains. But the English elm, of course, is not done for. Small hedgerow trees live on, spreading laterally and throwing up more growth each year, to the point where they now reach 12ft and more in height before dying back. It takes more than disease, more than felling, more than hurricanes, to destroy our trees; the elms will, eventually, be back. Meanwhile we have at least the pleasures of the brushwood and, downy and delicate, the 'tiny leaf'. And there are still orchard boughs, thank God, and chaffinches to sing upon them.


Today is a melancholy double anniversary. On this date in 1917 - it was Easter Monday - Edward Thomas was killed at Arras, the life knocked out of him by the blast wave from a shell, his body falling to the ground unmarked. The previous Easter he had written these lines:

In Memoriam

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

On this date in 1945, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was killed by the Nazis for his part in the July 20 Plot against Hitler. At dawn he was led naked into the execution yard of Flossenburg concentration camp and, praying and perfectly composed to the end, hanged with thin wire to ensure strangulation - a typical Nazi refinement. This hideous event is commemorated by Auden in a beautiful poem of simple quatrains packed with meaning, Friday's Child:

He told us we were free to choose
But, children as we were, we thought—
“Paternal Love will only use
Force in the last resort

On those too bumptious to repent.”
Accustomed to religious dread,
It never crossed our minds He meant
Exactly what He said.

Perhaps He frowns, perhaps He grieves,
But it seems idle to discuss
If anger or compassion leaves
The bigger bangs to us.

What reverence is rightly paid
To a Divinity so odd
He lets the Adam whom He made
Perform the Acts of God?

It might be jolly if we felt
Awe at this Universal Man
(When kings were local, people knelt);
Some try to, but who can?

The self-observed observing Mind
We meet when we observe at all
Is not alarming or unkind
But utterly banal.

Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.

Since the analogies are rot
Our senses based belief upon,
We have no means of learning what
Is really going on,

And must put up with having learned
All proofs or disproofs that we tender
Of His existence are returned
Unopened to the sender.

Now, did He really break the seal
And rise again? We dare not say;
But conscious unbelievers feel
Quite sure of Judgement Day.

Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
As dead as we shall ever be,
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
And you and I are free

To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
A death reserved for slaves.

Thursday 8 April 2010


The media have been doing their best to hush it up, but apparently there's a general election campaign on - remember, you read it here first. Naturally, I shall be keeping my head down for the duration, but you are probably wondering, given Old Nige's uncanny knack for predicting such things, what the outcome will be. Actually, so am I. Mrs Nige, unnervingly, is convinced there will be a Brown victory. As she also has an uncanny knack for predicting such things, this is worrying, but I console myself that she is also a natural born pessimist. So far, Dave has already found himself aligned, by happy chance, with Gene Hunt and Michael Caine - this I take as a sign that fortune favours him and the wind is in his sails. I predict a narrow victory for his lot. Controversial eh? And now I shall return to more congenial subjects...

Wednesday 7 April 2010

Beware of Pity

I've just finished reading Beware Of Pity, published in 1939 and the only full-scale novel of Stefan Zweig, who I gather is best known for his biographies, histories and shorter fictions - inasmuch as he's known at all in this country. I hadn't read him before, despite being very partial to the work of Joseph Roth - another Jewish writer (though a much less couth one) from the golden dying days of the Austro-Hungarian empire whose later life was dominated and finally undone by the rise of Nazism. Beware Of Pity is an extraordinary feat of storytelling - Zweig certainly has the gift of buttonholing the reader and keeping him turning the pages - which begins conventionally enough (in a manner reminiscent of Somerset Maugham), and indeed looks for a while as if it might be no more than an overgrown short story. Zweig's style is spacious and inclusive, but it gradually becomes apparent (or so it seemed to me) that this amplitude is essential, that Zweig is proceeding cumulatively, building up the milieu - life in the Imperial Army immediately before the Great War - in detail, with its codes, conventions and rituals, embedding his protagonist firmly in it, then inexorably building up the increasingly impossible, inescapable situation he finds himself in. He is a young second lieutenant who, at a dance at a nearby landowner's house, asks his host's young daughter for a dance, not realising that she is crippled and unable to walk. A minor incident, but her reaction is so extreme that the young man feels obliged to make good his error and assuage his guilt. Soon he is a regular visitor at the house, welcomed and made much of. He has succumbed to pity, and everything that follows springs from this fatal indulgence - defined by a character in the book as 'really no more than the heart's impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another's unhappiness' - in contrast to true compassion, 'which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond'. Our hero's pity certainly doesn't know what it is about, as he sleepwalks into a situation from which, finally, suicide seems the only honourable escape. There's something dreamlike (as well as somnambulistic) about the inevitability of what happens - and all the crucial scenes seem to take place at night, often very late (the characters scarcely seem to sleep - and their capacity for drink, by the way, is phenomenal). All the time, Zweig is expertly guiding his protagonist into a moral catastrophe that will trap him like a fly in a fly bottle. Each eye-opening realisation of what is happening to him comes too late for him to escape it. The action speeds up, the tension rises, the crisis looms... This is a gripping, indeed a shaking novel, one that grabs you and won't let go. I must read more of him. Meanwhile, here's Clive James on Zweig the humanist and man of letters.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

A Good Omen?

Sunny and warming up fast in London today - at last! - and bang on cue comes my first Small Tortoiseshell of the year. It was flying, weakly and distractedly, at cornice level by a grand house on the corner of Kensington Square. I hope this will be a better year for the tortoiseshells - they've been suffering big falls in population in the Southeast lately, and no one knows quite why (various parasites are in the frame). I saw very few tortoiseshells last year, so I'll take this as a good omen...

Monday 5 April 2010

The Suburban Sublime

This is not a newly landed art deco UFO - it is Southgate Underground station, towards the end of the Cockfosters branch of the Piccadilly Line. On Saturday, I was in this to me new part of north London/ Hertfordshire, enjoying a walk with my cousin in the extensive grounds of Trent Park, a handsome Georgian mansion - once the home of Philip Sassoon, cousin of Siegfried - with gardens (including a beautiful Japanese garden), parkland, avenues and woods around it, not to mention a grand obelisk for an eyecatcher. Trent Park alone would have been worth the trip and made a thoroughly enjoyable day out - but this part of the country also has some of the most extraordinary Underground stations ever built. They are the creations of the modernist Charles Holden, working for the great Frank Pick, who, as head of London Transport, was perhaps the most effective, discerning and influential patron of art and design this country had in the 20th century. The Holden stations are small masterpieces, ingeniously and elegantly designed for their purpose, using simple shapes and plain surfaces and integrating every element of the design - lighting, seating, tiling, even litterbins - into one harmonious, enjoyable whole. They are modernism at its least forbidding and most friendly. Southgate is almost playful - especially when lit up at night, as in the picture, with its art deco patterns and strange topknot like a Tesla coil - but it is also a wonderfully clever construction, with the whole roof supported, umbrella-like, from a single central column. Happily, almost nothing of its original charm has been lost over the years, and it was sensitively restored a couple of years ago. If only all London Underground stations were designed to this standard, with this flair, it would be a pleasure to use the Tube - apart from riding on the actual trains, that is; for all their pleasing remnants of golden age styling, those Piccadilly Line trains can never be fun (especially for someone my height).

Sunday 4 April 2010

'A wisp of bast'

Here's the devout blasphemer Ronald Firbank's take on Christ the gardener (in perhaps his best novel, Valmouth):

With angelic humour Mrs Hurstpierpoint swept skyward her heavy-lidded eyes.
'I thought last night, in my sleep,' she murmured, 'that Christ was my new gardener. I thought I saw Him in the Long Walk there, by the bed of Nelly Roche, tending a fallen flower with a wisp of bast.... "Oh, Seth," I said to Him... "remember the fresh lilies for the altar-vases... Cut all the myosotis there is," I said, "and grub plenty of fine, feathery moss..." And then, as He turned, I saw of course it was not Seth at all.'

Easter Day

With this homely image of Jesus as a gardener surprising Mary Magdalen (one of the Rembrandts in the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace), I wish a very happy Easter to all who browse here.

Friday 2 April 2010

Good Friday

I remember the first time I saw Tintoretto's Crucifixion, more than 40 years ago now - well, it's not the kind of picture you're likely to forget. There it is - a vast, endlessly complex, emotionally devastating composition, covering the entire back wall of the boardroom (albergo) of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice. When Ruskin saw it, on his first visit to Venice, he wrote to his father: 'I have been quite overwhelmed today by a man I have never dreamed of - Tintoret. I always thought of him a good and clever and forcible painter, but I had not the smallest notion of his enormous powers... And then to see his touch of quiet thought in his awful crucifixion - there is an ass in the distance, feeding on the remains of strewed palm leaves. If that isn't a master's stroke, I don't know what is.' The painting is full of such masterstrokes. It brings the awful mystery of the crucifixion crash into the middle of busy, casually brutal everyday life. Clusters of figures stand around and stare blankly or get on with their business, entirely ignoring the central fact. The emotional centre is the group of figures clustered around the mourners at the foot of Jesus's cross, but Jesus looks down not only on them, but on the thief to his right, as he is raised obliquely into the picture. The painting is alive with kinetic energy, radiating around, away from and towards the still centre, the figure of Jesus raised on the cross, looking down. Technically, this downward look solves a problem - that the painting can only be seen from relatively close up and from below - but it is also the emotional heart of the work. There is nothing of the neo-Platonic calm of Florentine Renaissance painting here - Tintoretto has something of Michelangelo's draughtsmanship, but The Crucifixion is entirely a Venetian painting, steeped in dense colour, painted with urgent vigour, and suffused with intense religious emotion. El Greco thought it the finest painting in the world. Well, if something has to be, it might as well be Tintoretto's Crucifixion. The only drawback is that it can only be seen in situ - but the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, with its tremendous suite of Tintorettos, is in itself sufficient reason to visit Venice.