Thursday, 22 June 2017

Donald's Dream

Here's Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, quoting John Lennon's Imagine today, a propos his dream of a repentant UK seeing the error of its ways and rejoining the EU: 'You may say I'm a dreamer [twinkly pause] but I'm not the only one.' And here's me quoting the late Fleet Street legend Sir John Junor: 'Pass the sick bag, Alice.'
  Donald Tusk is a distressing enough phenomenon in himself, but Donald Tusk quoting Imagine is beyond endurance. Maybe it's time for the EU to drop the Ode to Joy as its anthem (I'm sure Beethoven would be relieved) and replace it with Imagine. 'Imagine there's no countries, It isn't hard to do...' (Isn't it? I can't even imagine no counties - talking of which, I'm off to Derbyshire for the weekend.)

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Monuments and Fritillaries

Having made a fine job of cataloguing some 210,000 paintings in public collections in the UK - many of them in store or otherwise unavailable to the public - Art UK now plans to do the same for the nation's sculpture. This is excellent news - but, if I read the description of the project's remit rightly, it seems to omit a hugely significant part of the national sculpture collection: the monuments that stand in our churches. Those in Westminster Abbey alone constitute one of our greatest national collections, but more to the point, so many of the very best sculptures of every period (but particularly the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries) are scattered around the country, often in very out-of-the-way churches, many of which are more or less permanently locked. To be able to access images and descriptions of these works online would surely enhance appreciation of an undervalued treasury of sculpture (as well as, ahem, being an invaluable resource for those of us engaged in writing about English church monuments)...


Meanwhile, the heat wave continues - rather wearing for us humans, but great news for the butterflies. On Monday I was out among them on a favourite hillside haunt, where Marbled Whites were flying in great abundance - even more perhaps than last year - and I saw not one, not two (the suspense!) but six Dark Green Fritillaries [below], each seen individually and all in flight, but unmistakable, and very beautiful. Then this morning, on Ashtead common, I found large numbers of my favourite White Admirals flying, along with slightly smaller numbers of spectacular Silver-Washed Fritillaries. After a run of dismal Junes, these past couple of weeks have been a joyful reminder of what this glorious month can be.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Still a Serious House on Serious Earth

I was delighted to come across this story - not only because it contradicts the received (wishful?) thinking that church congregations are old and dying out, but because of what it says about the church's attempts to woo young people. It is not, it seems, 'youth groups' or the infantile Youth Alpha course that are attracting them, but the 'old hat' stuff: prayer, bible reading, spiritual experiences - and visiting churches and cathedrals. The numinous force field of these buildings - regarded by some of the more go-ahead clergy as nothing more than 'plant' - is drawing young people into the world of faith.
 And yet - as I, an inveterate church-crawler, know only too well - many of these churches stand more or less permanently locked against the world. Let's hope these new findings will boost the Bishop of Worcester's admirable campaign to persuade more parishes to keep their churches open. If you want to 'bring people in' to the church, it would surely make sense to let them in to our churches.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

A Good Haul

A couple of lucky finds at a garden fair yesterday. One was Butterflies by the egregious E.B. Ford - 'the Kenneth Williams of zoology' - the first title in Collins' excellent New Naturalist series. I already have my late father's battered copy of it, but I snapped up this one (a 1946 reprint, still wearing the remains of its dust jacket) as I know someone who'll welcome it as a gift. The other book I bought was a Folio Society volume, The Plums of P.G. Wodehouse (no sniggering please), a selection of Wodehouse gems chosen by Joe Whitlock Blundell and illustrated - half the reason I bought it - by Paul Cox (that's one of his above). Also snapped up - a John Prine CD, Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings. A good haul, and in a good cause - supporting the local ecology centre and nature reserve, where the Ringlets are happily flying again.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Uncle Bill's Dead Bird - and Georgie's

This fine watercolour of a dead Tree Creeper is by Edward 'Uncle Bill' Wilson, who died on Scott's ill-fated second Antarctic expedition. It was found recently in the expedition's hut at Cape Adare, buried under a deal of penguin guano and dust and quantities of papers - but in astonishingly good condition, having been thereby protected from air and light (and, of course, heat.)
 Wilson was the leader of the extraordinary 'Winter Journey', an expedition whose sole aim was to acquire some Emperor Penguin eggs, which scientists were convinced would afford evidence of the evolutionary link between reptiles and birds. This 60-mile journey was undertaken by Wilson, 'Birdie' Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard in total darkness in the depths of the Arctic winter, with temperatures falling to minus 70  Centigrade. And then a blizzard blew up and carried their tent away, leaving them stranded in their sleeping bags for a day and a half under thick snow (by sheer luck, they then found the tent, lodged in rocks half a mile away)... Cherry-Garrard later wrote a book about it all, accurately titled The Worst Journey in the World. The expedition succeeded in collecting three Emperor Penguin eggs, which survived the terrible journey back to base - only to prove that the scientists were wrong all along.
 Wilson's Tree Creeper painting reminded me of a picture in the Tate - this one, by Georgiana MacDonald...

Friday, 16 June 2017

Browning's Bishop

It's high time we had a poem - and yesterday, as it happens, I found myself reading this, one of the best of Browning's dramatic monologues, in which a dying bishop in 16th-century Rome seeks to assure his undying fame (and his ascendancy over a rival) by securing himself a suitably pompous and assertive tomb...

The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church

Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity! 
Draw round my bed: is Anselm keeping back? 
Nephews—sons mine . . . ah God, I know not! Well— 
She, men would have to be your mother once, 
Old Gandolf envied me, so fair she was! 
What's done is done, and she is dead beside, 
Dead long ago, and I am Bishop since, 
And as she died so must we die ourselves, 
And thence ye may perceive the world's a dream. 
Life, how and what is it? As here I lie 
In this state-chamber, dying by degrees, 
Hours and long hours in the dead night, I ask 
"Do I live, am I dead?" Peace, peace seems all. 
Saint Praxed's ever was the church for peace; 
And so, about this tomb of mine. I fought 
With tooth and nail to save my niche, ye know: 
—Old Gandolf cozened me, despite my care; 
Shrewd was that snatch from out the corner South 
He graced his carrion with, God curse the same! 
Yet still my niche is not so cramped but thence 
One sees the pulpit o' the epistle-side, 
And somewhat of the choir, those silent seats, 
And up into the aery dome where live 
The angels, and a sunbeam's sure to lurk: 
And I shall fill my slab of basalt there, 
And 'neath my tabernacle take my rest, 
With those nine columns round me, two and two, 
The odd one at my feet where Anselm stands: 
Peach-blossom marble all, the rare, the ripe 
As fresh-poured red wine of a mighty pulse. 
—Old Gandolf with his paltry onion-stone, 
Put me where I may look at him! True peach, 
Rosy and flawless: how I earned the prize! 
Draw close: that conflagration of my church 
—What then? So much was saved if aught were missed! 
My sons, ye would not be my death? Go dig 
The white-grape vineyard where the oil-press stood, 
Drop water gently till the surface sink, 
And if ye find . . . Ah God, I know not, I! ... 
Bedded in store of rotten fig-leaves soft, 
And corded up in a tight olive-frail, 
Some lump, ah God, of lapis lazuli, 
Big as a Jew's head cut off at the nape, 
Blue as a vein o'er the Madonna's breast ... 
Sons, all have I bequeathed you, villas, all, 
That brave Frascati villa with its bath, 
So, let the blue lump poise between my knees, 
Like God the Father's globe on both His hands 
Ye worship in the Jesu Church so gay, 
For Gandolf shall not choose but see and burst! 
Swift as a weaver's shuttle fleet our years: 
Man goeth to the grave, and where is he? 
Did I say basalt for my slab, sons? Black— 
'Twas ever antique-black I meant! How else 
Shall ye contrast my frieze to come beneath? 
The bas-relief in bronze ye promised me, 
Those Pans and Nymphs ye wot of, and perchance 
Some tripod, thyrsus, with a vase or so, 
The Saviour at his sermon on the mount, 
Saint Praxed in a glory, and one Pan 
Ready to twitch the Nymph's last garment off, 
And Moses with the tables . . . but I know 
Ye mark me not! What do they whisper thee, 
Child of my bowels, Anselm? Ah, ye hope 
To revel down my villas while I gasp 
Bricked o'er with beggar's mouldy travertine 
Which Gandolf from his tomb-top chuckles at! 
Nay, boys, ye love me—all of jasper, then! 
'Tis jasper ye stand pledged to, lest I grieve. 
My bath must needs be left behind, alas! 
One block, pure green as a pistachio-nut, 
There's plenty jasper somewhere in the world— 
And have I not Saint Praxed's ear to pray 
Horses for ye, and brown Greek manuscripts, 
And mistresses with great smooth marbly limbs? 
—That's if ye carve my epitaph aright, 
Choice Latin, picked phrase, Tully's every word, 
No gaudy ware like Gandolf's second line— 
Tully, my masters? Ulpian serves his need! 
And then how I shall lie through centuries, 
And hear the blessed mutter of the mass, 
And see God made and eaten all day long, 
And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste 
Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke! 
For as I lie here, hours of the dead night, 
Dying in state and by such slow degrees, 
I fold my arms as if they clasped a crook, 
And stretch my feet forth straight as stone can point, 
And let the bedclothes, for a mortcloth, drop 
Into great laps and folds of sculptor's-work: 
And as yon tapers dwindle, and strange thoughts 
Grow, with a certain humming in my ears, 
About the life before I lived this life, 
And this life too, popes, cardinals and priests, 
Saint Praxed at his sermon on the mount, 
Your tall pale mother with her talking eyes, 
And new-found agate urns as fresh as day, 
And marble's language, Latin pure, discreet, 
—Aha, ELUCESCEBAT quoth our friend? 
No Tully, said I, Ulpian at the best! 
Evil and brief hath been my pilgrimage. 
All lapis, all, sons! Else I give the Pope 
My villas! Will ye ever eat my heart? 
Ever your eyes were as a lizard's quick, 
They glitter like your mother's for my soul, 
Or ye would heighten my impoverished frieze, 
Piece out its starved design, and fill my vase 
With grapes, and add a vizor and a Term, 
And to the tripod ye would tie a lynx 
That in his struggle throws the thyrsus down, 
To comfort me on my entablature 
Whereon I am to lie till I must ask 
"Do I live, am I dead?" There, leave me, there! 
For ye have stabbed me with ingratitude 
To death—ye wish it—God, ye wish it! Stone— 
Gritstone, a-crumble! Clammy squares which sweat 
As if the corpse they keep were oozing through— 
And no more lapis to delight the world! 
Well, go! I bless ye. Fewer tapers there, 
But in a row: and, going, turn your backs 
—Ay, like departing altar-ministrants, 
And leave me in my church, the church for peace, 
That I may watch at leisure if he leers— 
Old Gandolf, at me, from his onion-stone, 
As still he envied me, so fair she was! 


Saint Praxed is Santa Prassede, a virgin saint of the 2nd century who gave all her wealth to the poor and the Church - one of the little ironies of this poem. Like many of Browning's monologues, it creates a tension between self-deception and self-revelation, insight and delusion, the glimmer of how things might yet be and the gravitational pull of how they inevitably will be.
  It was first published, rather surprisingly, in Hood's Magazine and Comic Miscellany, a publication edited and largely written by Thomas Hood. Some years later, in his Modern Painters, John Ruskin acknowledged that 'It is nearly all I said of the central Renaissance in thirty pages of The Stones of Venice put into as many lines, Browning's being the antecedent work.'



Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Into Surrey's Last Wilderness


It's very cheering that, even after six decades (off and on) of butterfly hunting, I'm still enjoying lifetime firsts. It happened last year with that unexpected and unheard-of Brown Hairstreak, and it happened again today with a beautiful little butterfly that I'd never encountered before - the Silver-Studded Blue. The difference was that, with this one, I'd actually set out to find it - not that that is any guarantee of success. I knew there were colonies of Silver-Studded Blues on heathland around Brookwood Cemetery (a place I'd been meaning to visit for some while, and about which I will no doubt write in due course).
 By a happy combination of luck and judgment, I soon found myself on a patch of heathland - gorse young and old, coarse grass, brambles, bare earth, a few ponies grazing - and within minutes I'd seen the first silver-Studded Blue of my life. Then another and another, and more and more as I wandered around the heath in a state of butterfly bliss - I must have seen five or six dozen in less than an hour.
 These really are extraordinarily pretty little butterflies (just a tad larger than the Small Blue), the males an intense azure blue, especially in flight, and both sexes exquisitely marked on the underwings with a distinctive pattern of studs and spots. Like the Small Blue, they are happy to settle and show off both upper and underwings - a butterfly lover's dream - and like many other blues, they have a symbiotic relationship with ants, in this case black ants. The larvae provide the ants with a sweet exudate and the ants repay the favour by looking after the butterfly's pupae in their nests.
 The Silver-Studded Blue is a beneficiary of a big heathland restoration project, the professed aim of which is to save 'Surrey's last wilderness'. That is something that's well worth doing - indeed, without it, Surrey's Silver-Studded Blues would be gone in a few years, and that would be a sad lepidopteral loss.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Lartigue

Looking almost like a Boudin paintings, this is an early photograph by Jacques Henri Lartigue (born on this day in 1894). Captioned 'Cousin Caro and M. Planetvigne', it was taken at Villerville in 1906, the year in which young Jacques Henri turned 12. Was there ever a more naturally gifted photographer than Lartigue? His early pictures - of friends and family enjoying themselves, and of motor races, tennis and aviation - are bursting with life and energy, spontaneous yet somehow perfectly composed. And they're astonishing technical feats, considering the relatively primitive equipment at his disposal. When these photographs were rediscovered in the 1960s, they made Lartigue famous - and deservedly so.
 Lartigue was a painter too, and I was pleased to learn that his son Dany, who is also a painter, is a noted entomologist, specialising in butterflies. (Talking of which, I saw my first Ringlets of the year today - an unexpected joy.)




Frozen: Search Me

Yesterday, owing to circumstances beyond my control, I ended up watching the feature-length (it felt more like week-length) Disney animation Frozen. More phenomenon than film - its branding and merchandise are everywhere - this fantasy drama is the highest-grossing animated movie ever and the third highest-grossing 'original' film of all time - yes, of all time - and it has won Oscars, Golden Globes, Baftas, Grammies, the lot. Why? Having sat through the entire thing, I can only shrug and reply 'Search me'. It certainly can't have been the lame script or the all-over-the-place storyline, or even the songs, which are pretty ordinary. The 3-D computer-generated animation I found almost physically nauseating, but I speak as one with a visceral loathing of computer animation as well as a deep distaste for Walt Disney and all his works. Chuck Jones is my idea of an animator.
  Leaving all that aside, though, the real strength of Frozen is that it has instant and powerful appeal to young girls - every age group, I'd guess, from toddler to teen. I think it's all about the relationship between Elsa, the troubled princess with magical powers she can't control, and her redoubtable sister Anna, who is determined to save Elsa from herself and, into the bargain, thaw out the kingdom Elsa has inadvertently plunged into the deep freeze. There are scenes that play out like those agonised teen dramas full of psychobabble about relationships and emotions, but set in a fairytale context that makes them safe and accessible - though no less alluring - to the aspiring pre-teen. And then there's that song. You know the one - that can belto horror Let It Go, the one that every mini-Elsa in the land (and many another land) is only too happy to belt out on any occasion.
 My adorable granddaughter - she with whom I watched Frozen - can belt out Let It Go with the best of them, and will casually drop the phrase 'Cold never bothered me anyway' into the conversation. However, I'm happy to report that her first love among animations is currently Ivor the Engine, Raymond Postgate and Peter Firmin's delightful series about a good-natured Welsh locomotive and his human and animal friends. Forget computer-generated 3-D - stop motion and cardboard cut-outs rule.

Monday, 12 June 2017

A Monument Man Writes

I see that a year ago today, I put up a post about Monken Hadley in Hertfordshire, where I had come across, among other things, a fine wall monument by Nicholas Stone. This was not my first surprise encounter with Stone - the most surprising perhaps was at St Mary, Watford, a couple of years earlier (the Morison monument) - but it was part of a gradual process in which it dawned on me that Stone was a sculptor of real genius, as was his near contemporary Epiphanius Evesham, whose extraordinary work I had come across at Lynsted, Kent, and elsewhere. These two, I came to realise, represented the pinnacle of achievement of what was a golden age of English  monumental sculpture - a golden age that has barely registered on the national consciousness, largely because its best products are not collected together in museums but dispersed across the country's churches, often in obscure and remote parishes. This makes monument hunting fun (if you're that way inclined) and something of an adventure, but it does also mean that this flowering of English art is generally overlooked and under-appreciated.
  As regular readers might have noticed, I've become increasingly obsessed with seeking out church monuments, and I've quite often written about them on this blog. In recent months I've been developing a parallel project - to put together a book of loosely thematic essays built around my encounters with English church monuments - not a guide book, history or scholarly study, but something more subjective, wider-ranging, indeed more blog-like. It's in its early stages - and, happily, I have many more monuments to visit - but I'm vaguely hopeful of having it in some kind of finished form in a couple of years. If it ever appears (and Im pretty sure it will), it will be in online form, or print on demand.  I'll let you know.
 Meanwhile I'll keep plugging away...

Friday, 9 June 2017

Meanwhile...

If you fancy a virtual visit to the V&A's rather magnificent refreshment rooms, here's something I wrote for the Pooky website...

https://www.pooky.com/inspiration/interiors/amazing-interiors-the-va-cafe

Election Latest

The prognostickation engine will be closed down for some time, while essential maintenance is carried out, including a major recalibration of the imbecility filters.
Old Nige was unavailable for comment at time of going to press.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

'Great are the perils of symbolism': Scenes from the Revolution

Things could be worse...
On this day in 1794 (20 Prairial Year II, as it was known at the time), the French revolutionary leader Robespierre inaugurated the first - and, as it turned out, last - Fesitval of the Supreme Being. Appalled by the naked atheism of the Cult of Reason, the 'sea-green incorruptible' had extinguished the cult, executed its leaders, and devised his own national religion, based on the salutary worship of a 'Supreme Being'.
  For the Festival of the Supreme Being in Paris, Robespierre had devised a spectacular ceremony, organised by the artist Jacques-Louis David and staged around a man-made mountain on the Champs de Mars. Huge crowds were assembled for the occasion, and Robespierre dressed with especial care, donning a splendid sky-blue coat.
 'As he looked out from the windows of the Tuileries upon the jubilant crowd in the gardens,' writes the historian John Morley, 'he was intoxicated with enthusiasm. "O Nature," he cried "how sublime thy power, how full of delight! How tyrants must grow pale at the idea of such a festival as this!" In pontifical pride, he walked at the head of the procession, with flowers and wheat-ears in his hand, to the sound of chants and symphonies and choruses of maidens. On the first of the great basins in the gardens, David, the artist, had devised an allegorical structure for which an inauspicious doom was prepared. Atheism, a statue of life size, was throned in the midst of an amiable group of human Vices, with Madness by her side, and Wisdom menacing them with lofty wrath. Great are the perils of symbolism. Robespierre applied a torch to Atheism, but alas, the wind was hostile, or else Atheism and Madness were damp. They obstinately resisted the torch, and it was hapless Wisdom who took fire. Her face, all blackened by smoke, grinned a hideous ghastly grin at her sturdy rivals. The miscarriage of the allegory was an evil omen, and men probably thought how much better the churchmen always managed their conjurings and the art of spectacle...'
 Weeks later, Robespierre's many enemies finally turned on him and his reign of terror ended. Besieged and at bay, Robespierre tried to shoot himself, but the bullet went through his jaw, leaving him alive, in great pain and, for once, speechless. Carlyle describes the scene:
'Robespierre lay in an anteroom of the Convention Hall, while his prison-escort was getting ready; the mangled jaw bound up rudely with bloody linen: a spectacle to men. He lies stretched on a table, a deal box his pillow; the sheath of the pistol is still clutched convulsively in his hand. Men bully him, insult him: his eyes still indicate intelligence; he speaks no word. He had on the sky-blue coat he had got made for the Feast of the Etre Supreme - O Reader, can thy hard heart hold out against that? His trousers were nankeen; the stockings had fallen down over the ankles. He spake no word more in this world.'
 That same day, Robsepierre suffered the fate he had himself decreed for so many thousands in the cause of 'Liberty': he was guillotined.


Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Election Fever

Here we are then - the day before the Election. As ever, it is Old Nige's melancholy duty to fire up the prognostickation engine and see what emerges...
 Well, it was a stupefyingly dreary and shamefully fatuous campaign - if campaign isn't too strong a word for the shambles the Tories managed to create in their efforts to snatch defeat from the jaws of certain victory. They were so bad they managed to make even the imbecile Corbyn look like a real contender. Having clearly decided to go presidential and make it all about Theresa, they hadn't reckoned with her weaknesses or the fact that the more people saw of her the less they'd like her. Since she opted to sleepwalk through the campaign and her people weren't allowed to get medieval with the Corbynistas, there was no real engagement, and the media events were dismal charades, made even worse by grandstanding journalists. The one time the Tories came up with anything of any substance - their perfectly sensible social care proposals - they failed to defend them and instead went straight into a screeching, gravel-spraying U-turn. This did not inspire a lot of confidence.
 But what will happen when the voters (those of them that can bring themselves to vote) enter the ballot box? I think it will be case of history repeating itself: just as the prospect of a Miliband premiership finally proved too ludicrous to be entertained, so will the thought of JC in Number Ten, only more so. The Tories don't deserve to win this, but the alternative is too terrible to contemplate, so it will be a Conservative 'victory', with an increased majority, but way short of anything that could be called a landslide.
 Lord, I'll be glad when it's all over.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Boyhood Birds


The same charity shop that recently sent me back to my young naturalists's boyhood with a Ladybird book and a cigarette card album, has done it again with this one: The Birds of the British Isles and Their Eggs by T.A. Coward, one of the handsome Wayside and Woodland series. This was the serious bird book of my boyhood, retained by my father from his youth. I used to browse in it at length, enjoying in particular the illustrations - superb colour plates by Archibald Thorburn (reproduced from Lord Lilford's Coloured Figures of the Birds of the British Islands), black-and-white photographs of nests looking worrryingly exposed, and colour plates of eggs in rows against a blank background.
 This book is the first of three volumes, and the fact that I didn't have the other two probably goes some way to explain my extremely patchy knowledge of waders, wildfowl and seabirds - for these I had to rely on my Observer's book and, a good deal later (too late?), the excellent Collins' Pocket Guide to British Birds (R.S.R. Fitter).
 Now I'm living in hope that the charity shop will come up with the other Wayside and Woodland volume of my boyhood - The Butterflies of the British Isles by Richard South.
 [Below: Thorburn's Osprey, reproduced as frontispiece to Coward's Birds]

Monday, 5 June 2017

Enough

'Enough Is Enough'

Now listen here, chaps. We all enjoy a little murder spree from time to time - I know I do! But really, this time you've gone too far. Three in two months! That is altogether too much.
  Of course, it's good to see young people taking their faith seriously. But it's so easy to get carried away and overstep the mark. There are limits, you know.
 I think it's time you paused for reflection (those of you who are still alive!) and took a good look at yourselves. You've let everyone down, you know you have. But above all, you've let yourselves down.
 This must not happen again. And I want to make it very clear that, if it does, there will be consequences. Serious consequences. I can't say what they will be just yet, but they will be... serious. Oh yes. I might even have to cancel our cultural exchange visits to Syria, and I know how much some of you enjoy those.
 So, I urge you to think long and hard about what I have said...
 And now, we'll sing a chorus of 'Don't Look Back in Anger'. All together now!

Saturday, 3 June 2017

The Seabird's Cry

Here's my review of Adam Nicolson's new book, from this month's edition of Literary Review, Britain's finest etc, etc...


The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers
By Adam Nicolson (Collins 400pp £16.99)

Adam Nicolson’s new book is, in his own words, ‘an exploration of the ways in which seabirds exert their hold on the human imagination’. It ranges far and wide – across the world’s oceans, through literature, anthropology, social history and folklore, through the author’s own experiences, and deep into recent scientific discoveries that have transformed our knowledge  of how these still mysterious birds live when they are not, briefly, visiting our world.
  At the centre of it all is Nicolson’s own intense engagement with seabirds, the roots of which lie deep in his childhood experiences of watching the birds on the Shiant Isles, three tiny Hebridean islands that his father, Nigel Nicolson, bought in the 1930s. Adam felt and still feels the awe that seabirds have always inspired in those who have shared some part of their world with them – the awe appropriate to the only creatures that are at home in the air, in and on the sea, and on land (though the least of these, in most seabirds’ lives, is land). The astonishing extent of these birds’ mastery of the skies and oceans is only now becoming apparent, thanks to ever lighter and more efficient tracking devices. An albatross, for example, ranges across six million square miles of ocean and can fly 7,000 or 8,000 miles in a few days, while expending almost no energy, such is its mastery of the ‘windscape’ in which it lives.
  The Seabird’s Cry explores ‘the lives and loves’ of ten birds, or groups of birds, each of which ‘displays a different facet of the central question: how to exist in all three elements’. They range from the deep-diving guillemots and razorbills and the ferocious gannet to the shearwaters that live their lives in a ‘huge and narrow slice of air, a yard or two high, 20,000 miles wide’, from the coast-hugging cormorants and shags to the kittiwakes and albatrosses that have all but abandoned dry land.
  That phrase from the subtitle, ‘the lives and loves’, is significant, for the ruling idea of this book is that of the Umwelt (a notion I first came across in John Bleibtreu’s extraordinary The Parable of the Beast, a title long overdue a reprint). The Umwelt is the animal’s individual subjective world, its sensory universe, its unique ‘meaning world’. The term was first used by a remarkable Estonian biologist, Jacob von
Uexküll, whose work inspired Konrad Lorenz and that great observer of seabird life Niko Tinbergen.
  Von
Uexküll is one of a small company of scientists, including the flamboyant Ronald Lockley and the auk’s-egg obsessive Alfred Newton, who people these pages. As you might expect of a book that takes its title from a Seamus Heaney poem, there are literary presiding spirits, too: the chapter on albatrosses, for example, looks beyond the obvious Coleridge to Herman Melville’s vivid account of his first meeting with an albatross and Baudelaire’s ‘vastes oiseaux des mers’. Homer (the subject of Nicolson’s masterpiece, The Mighty Dead) is everywhere, perhaps most eloquently in Nicolson’s account of how once, when he was limping back to land in his storm-battered sailing boat, a kittiwake suddenly appeared, ‘elastic, vibrant, investigative, delicate’, as if sent to guide him home. Just such a seabird appears to the half-dead Odysseus as he battles through stormy seas in flight from Calypso. In Homer the bird is Leucothea, the white goddess, and she saves Odysseus’s life with the gift of a holy veil – but she is still, also, a seabird of the material world, drawn from nature.
  Nicolson, a fine descriptive writer, is drawn to the otherworldly beauty of seabirds, but he is also fascinated by the science, expounding lucidly the dramatic advances of recent years in seabird research. And, unlike some of our more rhapsodic nature writers, he is clear-sighted about the horrors of life in a seabird colony, where, as well as predation from outside, cannibalism is often rife and the struggle for survival ferocious and unrelenting. He tells the grim tale of a species called the Nazca booby, which lives a life of ‘comprehensive dysfunction’, beginning with sibling murder and often graduating to apparently psychotic persecution and lingering murder of vulnerable young birds in the colony. However, there is, happily, another side to seabird life, as best exemplified in the long, blameless lives of albatrosses, perhaps the only truly monogamous birds in nature. (They, however, don’t have to contend with life in an overcrowded colony.) Nicolson traces plenty of examples of what is clearly altruistic behaviour among seabirds, to counteract what often appears to be sheer malice.
  Sadly, Nicolson has to end this celebratory book with a look at the headlong decline in seabird populations overall – down 70 per cent in the past 50 years. Mostly, of course, this is the price of sharing the planet with us humans, but it is also we humans who have the power to save the situation, or at least ameliorate it, and we are finally beginning to do so. There are grounds for hope, at least enough for Nicolson to end this wonderful book on a hopeful note. The Seabird’s Cry (beautifully illustrated by Kate Boxer) will, I think, become a classic of bird literature.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Fifty Years On...

So, here we are, a full half century on from the making of the Beatles' album Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The BBC is celebrating the anniversary on a grand scale, as you'd expect - it's 'iconic' and obvious, there's lots to be said about it, many people love and revere it and, yes, it's a very fine album. But is it the best ever, as many still claim? Was it the best Beatles album? (I certainly found Rubber Soul more exciting at the time.) Was it even the best album of 1967?
 Bryan, for one, thinks not, nominating John Wesley Harding and The Velvet Underground & Nico as better choices. Quite right too, I'd say - and 1967 was also the year of Songs of Leonard Cohen, Nico's Chelsea Girl, Tim Buckley's Goodbye and Hello, the Byrds' Younger than Yesterday (not to mention their first Greatest Hits album - one of the greatest Greatests), Captain Beefheart's Safe as Milk, Scott Walker's first solo album and the Grateful Dead's eponymous debut. Does that amount to a great year? Not as great as 1966, I'd say (see Best Year Ever?). And we had to wait until 1968 for one of the three greatest albums ever made - Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. The other two? Well, I'd say Pet Sounds and Blonde on Blonde, both from 1966. Whatever, those were surely golden years, all three of them - and probably 1969 too...

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Machair and Covfefe


June is here, in a blaze of sunshine in these parts - a promising first day of the 'meteorological summer'. Turning over my calendar, I find a picture of a handsome bee called Bombus distinguendus, the Great Yellow Bumblebee. This once widespread species, I learn, is now found only on the far North coast of Scotland and on a few of the isles, where it lives on the machair.
 Machair? This was a new one on me. It means a particular form of extremely flower-rich coastal grassland, in which the Great Yellow's favourite flower, the Red Clover, grows in prodigious abundance. The word 'machair' in Gaelic simply means 'fertile plain', and it was not used by scientists until the 1940s. Being scientists, they are still wrangling over its precise definition and over different classifications of machair.
 Ah well, it's good to start the new month - the new season - with a new word (and a bumblebee).

Indeed, not one new word but two, for last night Donald Trump somehow coined the neologism 'covfefe'. I like it - it has a similar sound to that fine English word 'kerfuffle'. Perhaps El Trumpo was groping for a word to describe the lamentable state of the UK election campaign...