Tuesday, 19 June 2012

summer is in

summer is in
everyone sing
aah! let us begin . . .*

It seems that for a day or two we are able to enjoy some warm seasonal weather down here on the east coast.  It's about time.  The weather has been awful. During half term week I was marking - the annual festival of AS Film Studies exam marking that takes up several weeks of my time.  As the weather was so bad this year I just got on with it and didn't feel that I should be out and about in it.  Or worse still, off on holiday somewhere.  It has been ridiculously cold so far in this neck of the woods.  The poppies pictured are in a field on the road that became infamous a few years ago where several prostitutes were found murdered by the "Suffolk Ripper" or whatever naff name they gave him.  Beauty and calm have returned to a lovely stretch of countryside by the A14.

Still, back to the matter at hand, I did manage to visit friends in my old home town.  We walked in what is now called "Forster Country".  Forster wrote Howards End about a house that is nearby to my old parish church, St Nicholas in Stevenage. The house is actually called Rooks Nest and a friend of mine from schooldays used to be the gardener there. He's a taxi driver now.

We walked up through the churchyard where many of us have seen ghosts - for another time perhaps.  It's quite overgrown in places.  An area of importance for some rare species of plant my friend informed me. The solitude of church graveyards is a wonderful thing in daylight.  The amount of wildlife that lives in them is phenomenal - I hoped to see a jay as there are so many oak trees there. No jays, but we stumbled onto this small mark of Forster's importance to the area.  As you walk past this into the field behind I had a rush of what? Nostalgia? No, but a memory of those long cross country runs we had to undertake from school.  Our school was just down the avenue from the church.

In those days we had to do a real cross country run.  In these days of risk assessments and a paedophile in every hedgerow (nature deficit disorder!!) kids just have to run around the school field a few times.  That's in those schools that haven't sold off their school fields.  Still, hardly a "cross country" run, is it? Running around the school field was a punishment that the science teacher used to excel in when I were a lad. In those days come rain, mud, snow, hail, whatever - rarely sunshine, though - we had to run through the avenue, churchyard, fields. Sunshine was only for those long hot summers we had in those days. After the run, covered in caked mud and feet clogged with chalk, we were forced to go into the communal shower. It was always a bit disconcerting that the P.E. teacher was in there with you, but hey! it was a boy's school.:
"Pass the soap, lad."
"Yes sir." Thing is, he never went on the run with us.

With several skylarks twittering away high over the fields and my friend's dog startling the partridges, it was a great feeling to walk through the years and dredge up some memories.  On the way home a jay flew out of a tree and plonked itself onto the side of the A14.  I knew I was going to see one that day.

Thinking back to the walk through the churchyard and how it is becoming as immaculately unkempt as Francis Rossi's hairdo, there seems to be a synchronicity at large here.  I have become fascinated by the way the the real world - that's nature you know, weeds and foxes and stuff - has begun to encroach into our world more and more.  The urban world if left alone will always be colonised: weeds, after all, were the first things to grow on the bombsites after WW2. So, "only connect" indeed. I get interested in this stuff just as the BBC decides to show a programme about the unnatural wildlife of London. I missed it, of course, but thanks to iPlayer I can sit and watch it in bed with a cup of tea later tonight.  I missed it because I went to see Prometheus last night: a film that concerns itself very much about the nature of life itself. I'll leave it to others to judge its shortcomings but it's an interesting film.  Eric Von Daniken where are you now?

So reading about small wildernesses and the way the natural world finds a way of constantly surviving seems to be cropping up (no pun intended) all over the place.  Here we have a little jungle - a whole ecosystem - sitting happily outside a house with a usually immaculate garden at the end of my road. I find this sort of patch far more interesting - actually, far more beautiful - than an unnatural garden.  I like the poppies and nettles colonising anywhere and everywhere. More on this another time.

When the sun comes out and we start to feel a bit better about ourselves, I enjoy cooking more and more.  Winter's fine with its stews and heavy meals but the summer starts me thinking about more interesting things to do.  Last Sunday I smoked some mackerel. I had hell of a job getting the Rizlas around it but to be absolutely honest, I am very impressed with the results.  We ate it last night and there were no side effects, just the genuine taste of lightly smoked mackerel.  Mind you, the house stinks but what the hey? Next time I'm going up to the local fishmongers and get some really fresh fish off the boat, maybe some prawns too. Home smoked fish, eh? Whatever next?

* Summer Is In by Anne Briggs - recorded in the early 1970s just down the road from here in Little Bealings with Steve Ashley and his short-lived band Ragged Robin.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

nuthatch city limits

Right outside the this lazy summer home
you don't have time to call
your soul a critic, no
Right outside the lazy gate
of winter's summer home
wondering where the nuthatch winters
Wings a mile long
just carried
the bird
Robert Hunter

Somewhere back in the late 1960s - it was about '68, I guess - I was idly sitting in the saloon bar of The White Hart in Stevenage Old Town.  No, as a twelve year old I wasn't already an ardent drinker. My mother worked there as a barmaid for some 17 years or so. Whenever the landlord, one Bill Smith of that parish went on holiday, it was my mother and father who he chose to "look after the place for a few days". 

This was great because we moved in for that period, so I actually can say that I lived in a pub.  Lunchtimes were great because I could walk down the High Street from my school down to The Hart and have a fantastic lunch - a huge slab of ham, egg and chips was a favourite. It was one of our sojourns there when I heard on the lunchtime radio that Jimi Hendrix had shuffled off his mortal coil.

Anyway, that's a sort of context, so back to what I started on about. I was sitting there as a youngster, I fancifully believe that it was a sunny day (as they all were then - it never rained in my childhood.  Ever) so could have been during the summer holidays; I was actually indulging in my three favourite pursuits.  Obviously one of those was yet to become a pursuit, as such. It was another few years before sitting in bars and drinking became a life-long pursuit (pleasure). I was drawing and lost in my own little fantasy world when I spied a movement outside the through the window.

Imagine my excitement when I saw the little fella pictured walking down the trunk of the tree (probably just a very ancient ivy rotting away on a trellis in reality).  Down the tree trunk, which was a bizarre sight. I had never seen a nuthatch before so was a bit taken aback that it was so small - about the size of a sparrow.  From the illustration in my Birds of Field and Forest I was expecting a huge creature much as I had with the hoopoe mentioned in my last post. Ignoring the text, of course, which claimed that it is a "small, plump bird" I still expected it to be huge. I think I genuinely based my expectations on exotic looking birds on some misplaced estimation of size purely from the pictures in this book.  After all, the smaller birds were illustrated as less than half the size and often two to a page. And, as it was quite rare to see many of these birds in my hometown, I continued to have these delusions of their size.

In those days I had no binoculars or maybe only a cheap plastic toy pair that were about as useful as a kaleidoscope for bird watching. Mostly I observed birds in the garden, on the bird table dad had put up which I regularly put food out onto. Blue Peter reminded us weekly to do that. Along with an I-Spy book or the Observer's Book of Birds for identification, I continued to look out for these avian wonders.  I remember seeing my first yellowhammer in the woods near where I lived.  It even sang its a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeese song just like the book said it would.  Even that doesn't look so big as the nuthatch or hoopoe - I was obviously guided by this book and somehow believed that it was all illustrated in proportion.

Anyway, according to Simon Barnes nuthatches have to have "the right kind of trees nearby - big oaks, hornbeam, and especially beeches".  I know there was an established tree in the absolutely tiny garden of the pub but as to what it was, I have no idea nowadays, some forty four years away.  So it was pure chance that I should see this little fella a few inches away from my face, albeit on the other side of a window.  These are the little incidents that make up childhood memories.  No flashy holidays in far off exotic locations. No safaris with man-eating creatures on the vast arid plains of Africa.  Just down-home small incidents that stay in the memory and occasionally bring a little smile when I wistfully recall them.

I've also grown up to realise that size really doesn't matter.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

jay walking

This rather magnificent avian specimen haunted my youth. I always wanted to see a hoopoe - even the name was exotic. Odd. I desperately wanted to see one and there used to be a standing joke about vicars seeing them on their lawns - writing to The Times to report sightings. I may have made that up but it rings a little bell somewhere in the back of my memory. As a child I never saw one. Although reported as "rarely seen in Britain", I held on to the fact that that meant it must occasionally be seen in Britain, so there was always hope.

I thought I saw a pair many years ago in France but they were, in hindsight, just magpies. This beautiful illustration is by a certain E. Demartini - another exotic name. It is from a book that I was given as a Christmas present in 1964. The book in question is Birds of Field and Forest by no discernable author. It's an A4 size book that I have kept since those halcyon days. First published in 1959, mine is a fourth edition.

In fact, I first saw a hoopoe about eleven years ago in Mallorca. I must say I was a little disappointed at first. The magnificent creature I imagined to be regal and huge - at least as big as a cormorant - turned out to be about the size of a jackdaw. And a dull brown. And where was that magnificent crown? We saw loads in Egypt a couple of years ago too. They didn't seem to be quite bright orange unless all the hoopoes I've seen have been females? That seems unlikely. However, hoopoes they all were. I'm not disappointed any more, just glad to have seen such an elusive bird - elusive throughout my childhood, that is.

The reason I came across this picture again is because I was looking for an illustration of that most elusive and beautiful of British birds, the jay. I can't ever remember seeing one of them in my childhhod either. In fact this book doesn't actually feature the jay at all. The aforementioned hoopoe, golden oriole and the wryneck all appear. Each as elusive in my childhood as rain in the summer holidays (!). It has nightjars too, I only saw them for the first time a few years ago. A few of them rose up out of a field I was walking in whilst doing the Sandlings Walk. However, last week as I drove through the Suffolk countryside to get to my last physiotherapy appointment there was a flash of pink, white and blue across the small country lane right in front of the car. The unmistakeable sight of a jay. I would have loved to see such a sight as a child. I don't even know if I was aware that they existed then - as I hadn't seen one, nor did my book tell me there was such a creature. But there it was.

They are one of our most gaudy creatures but also one of our most shy as well. Simon Barnes says that they don't often show themselves but do occasionally "just to startle non-birdwatchers*". Another source says that they fly across roads singly possibly because of their aching shyness. Or possibly just for protection. Jays are really important in Britain and on this day of such Britishness, it's worth mentioning them. They are essential to oak trees as they feed on acorns. Like squirrels they bury them for later in the autumn when food is becoming less easy to source. Unlike squirrels, they tend to remember where they buried them. As they can't get all of their acorns back, therefore the oaks are able to slowly gain more ground and spread. A long-term ambition as Barnes points out.

The only time I have ever been to Holland was also the only time I have ever been to a Centreparc. As we cycled - what else would you do? It was Holland - through the woods we were suddenly surprised by at least three of these wonderful creatures. There were many more around the woods. It was a lovely moment and probably my most pleasant memory of the whole week. As my mother died back home in England whilst we were there, pleasant memories are needed. I'd like to think that she may have had something to do with that magical moment. A little too fanciful, I suppose. The family were blown away by their beauty and seeming friendliness. They were happy to hop and flit about whilst we stood there in awe and amazement. Perhaps Dutch jays are less shy. I guess I'll never know.

Serendipity in action, I suppose. After wanting so much to see some of these wonderful exotic creatures that share our environment with us (hoopoes, jays etc) all those years ago, now I am often allowed a glimpse of heaven. The jay has been described as "the British bird of Paradise" by W. H. Hudson. Last week I only took the country road because of a hold up on the A14, so nipped off piste to try to get to my appointment in time. I'm so glad I did.

In thrall to this splendid creature I did what amounts to research to most British students, I typed "poems about jays" into Google. I gave up quickly, much like the students tend to. I haven't been able to find any so far (other than American ones about Blue Jays). I would have thought either John Clare or Ted Hughes might have done one. Despite being an English teacher, I don't have an extensive knowledge of poetry, so if anyone out there knows of any let me know.

Also, they seem to be one of the few birds in British folklore that doesn't have any myths or stories about it. I guess all that secrecy and shyness has paid off. Everyone seems as ignorant of them as I was as a child.

* In A Bad Birdwatcher's Companion, a book for the bookshelf not the rucksack.