‘The Day is Full of Birds’

From Wordsworth’s Prelude to Kate Bush’s Prelude (Sky of Honey, CD2 of her beautiful Aerial album)…

Take a moment to lose yourself in the hypnotic birdsong of an early summer’s day, whilst Kate’s music plays duet with that drowsy, sunshine purr of the woodpigeon, so evocative of lazy days spent in the garden.

The day is full of birds
Sounds like they’re saying words’

Those words spoken by Kate’s son Bertie, along with the whole dreamy calm of Prelude seem to hold, in a capsule of sound, the beautiful day in our garden last Saturday, when blue sky flung itself wide over the whole world, an ice cream van jangled out of hibernation into our street, laughter chased paddling pool splashes across freshly mown lawns…

And I sat reading, surrounded by an amazing ‘birdscape‘…

…The scream of swifts as they swooped and circled, slicing dazzles of sunlight on the underside of their wings. The “Tchi, Tchi, Tchi,” of house sparrows nesting under our roof. The bubbles of notes, bounced and busy-bodied across the sky by charms of goldfinches. The gorgeous, lilting flute of the blackbird – and the ruffle-silent wings of jackdaws as they passed to and fro between the chimney pots, speaking the occasional word to each other like a family in quiet companionship, made drowsy by the sun.

We spent the whole afternoon in the garden – and in between all the conversation, the dash to the ice cream van and the usual to and fro in response to kids, washing machine, things-that-must-be-done (I felt a bit like those restless jackdaws) – I managed, in snatches, to read a couple of short stories from The Book of Other People, edited by Zadie Smith – one of the books I borrowed from the library last week:

Picture of The Book of Other People, edited by Zadie Smith

Written and compiled to raise money for charity, the book’s editorial brief was ‘make somebody up’ – with each story’s title taking the name of its character. The first story I read was Judith Castle by David Mitchell (my introduction to his writing). Judith Castle is a maddening fantasist and control freak – with an over-compensating, desperation-driven ego; larger than life (hopefully!) in the full extent of her tragic-comic awfulness.

In terms of character, all was more or less set out on the story’s plate – and I could pretty much see where it was heading from the beginning – but that was all part of the entertaining cut and thrust of it – and it was a very enjoyable read, which I was eager to return to. In a way, reading it kangaroo fashion in jumpy snatches, kind of suited the story and the prickly, pursuing, impatient, perception-challenged voice of Judith. It was nice too, to have another story partly set on the Lyme Regis Cobb – to join John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (mentioned in Mitchell’s story), Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures (all bring back memories of the day we spent in Lyme, noses pressed  to fossil shop windows – and the afternoon in neighbouring Charmouth, watching sparrows relay chips from the hand of a delighted elderly gentleman to their (probably rapidly expanding!) chicks under the eaves of the sea front museum).

The second story I read in The Book of Other People, I completely loved. It was J. Johnson, A Writing Life by Nick Hornby, with lovely, warm illustrations by Posy Simmonds – and was told in a series of dust-flap writer’s biogs (you know the sort of thing:- Fred Flump spent his youth as a dust cart operator, deep sea diver and sea lion tamer before taking up his pen to write grisly tales and supernatural thrillers for readers who are far less easy to tame. He lives with his partner, pet sea lion, three ghosts and four goldfish on an island with a dodgy lighthouse and no ferry…)

It’s an ingenious form in which to tell a story – and I loved following Jamie Johnson from his early days as a hip, fresh faced English graduate with high literary leanings to… well… that would be spoiling it…

Meanwhile, back in our garden – time was wearing on, and the afternoon was still full of birds. The swifts had stayed with us all day; a heron had pondered its way across the sky; a bedraggled blue tit (no doubt fresh from a dip in next door’s pond) visited the fat cakes:

Picture of blue tit on bird feeder

Woodpigeons, crowding tetchily on the bird feeder, rattled it with bumbling alarm as they almost fell from perches far too small for them – and a goldfinch parent, harassed by the perpetual call and wing quiver of its insistent fledgling, dodged back and forth with offerings of sunflower seeds. Creeping nearer, I managed to get this very poor photo of them (a bit of a  ‘spot the goldfinch and chick’ exercise, I’m afraid!) 

Picture of a goldfinch and fledgling

The house sparrows had kept us company all day, and it’s so wonderful to have them back.

For too many years, their decline left a sorely felt gap in our street’s birdscape. They disappeared from our garden completely – and so, for me, it’s always cause for daily celebration to know that they are back in our lives.

Later that evening – back in the garden to take in the washing and water the plants – I watch the male of the roof-nesting pair, as he positions himself outside the entrance to his nest, puffs himself up, and declares whatever it is he’s declaring to the world/ other sparrows/ the moon:

Picture of an house sparrow on roof 

The sky is now a hazier wash of blue, and the lowering sun seems to have drawn him out – along with another male sparrow now perched at the very top of our hedge – to perform some ritual to the dusk. I’ve suspected for a while now that there’s another sparrow nest (or two) in the hedge, and the male there now declares his message with earnest bravado.

Picture of a house sparrow

Picture of a house sparrow

Above him, set in that still deep, liquid blue is a pale pearl of a moon…

Picture of the moon in blue sky

…to which the buttercups turn, slowly closing their petals

picture of buttercups

And the sky, though not of honey – casts a honeyed light that glows from the leaves:

picture of summer evening light on leaves

…and sets the ‘candles’ of a neighbouring horse chestnut tree alight with evening fire…

Picture of horse chestnut tree

‘When day declining sheds a milder gleam…
These NATURE’S works, the curious mind employ,
Inspire a soothing melancholy joy’

( – From The Naturalist’s Summer-evening Walk by Gilbert White)


Sense & Slightly Foxed Sensibility

A trip to our dentist often involves long waiting times, so taking along something sustaining to read is essential. As I left the house on my way to my check-up this week, I grabbed an issue of the wonderful Slightly Foxed magazine – and in the waiting room, settled my jittery attention on an enjoyable, stirring article about Jane Austen (Plain Jane? Plain Wrong by Daisy Hay – Winter 2009 Issue, No. 24). Just a few minutes later, I was stifling an urge to laugh out loud (seemed too incongruous in the silence of collective dread all around me…) when I read:

[Jane Austen’s] notebooks demonstrate that she enjoyed collecting the views of her more censorious friends and neighbours, including one Mrs Augusta Bramstone who ‘owned that she thought S[ense] and S[ensibility] and P. & P. downright nonsense, but expected to like M[ansfield] P[ark] better, & having finished the 1st vol – flattered herself she had got through the worst.’

That’s just so Jane! Sending brimstones…erm…sorry Bramstones of criticism sparking back at herself, with such a lightness of heart, even glee. And doesn’t the brimful Mrs Augusta B just come alive in those few short lines?

I’ve read this before, but finding it again in the Slightly Foxed article, came just at the right moment… The power of Jane; inspiring perspective and laughter – even in a dentist’s waiting room! Brilliant!

…As is Slightly Foxed; a place to find many a reading gem…

Picture of three issues of Slightly Foxed Magazine

Bluebells, Breathing Space and Botanical Cuckoos…

A malaise seemed to have settled over us all on May bank holiday Monday (3rd May). It was one of those potter-about-the-house, can’t-be-bothered-to-get-our-backsides-in-gear days.

“Shall we go for a walk?” my husband asked.

“If you like, I don’t mind.”

“But do you want to go for a walk?”

“I don’t mind.”

Daughter – “Well…I was going to read my book…”

Son, as always, is happy to go along with whatever’s decided…

Cue exasperated husband, gripped by sudden decisiveness. “Come on,” he says, grabbing his shoes. “Let’s go!”

I knew he was right. The house had that stale feel to it. We’d been crowding it out for too long. It – and we – needed to breathe.

The weather was a bit doubtful – a cake slice of changing flavours: cloud topping, warm sun in the corners, cool breeze in the centre. But, when we caught a full hit of sun, the warmth was like a melt-in-the-mouth moment – and the sense of release into somewhere spacious and full of colour, was like an intense burst of flavour, after the porridge blandness of the day indoors.

Our local woods that day were like a gift. We breathed them in – each of us glad we’d made the effort to head their way. Treading the familiar paths, every inch brought new discoveries – colours, light, texture, sound.

Since our last visit, the bluebell transformation of the woodland floor had swept in like a magic spell, and they were in flower everywhere:

Picture of bluebell wood

Picture of bluebells

Close-up picture of bluebell flower

Clumps of greater stitchwort dazzled the sunlight from their pure white petals:

Picture of Greater Stitchwort - petals reflecting sunlight

Picture of Greater Stitchwort flowers

..and yellow archangel spread in profuse, golden trails along the woodland floor:

Picture of clumps of yellow archangel flowers

Close up picture of yellow archangel flowers

The occasional red campion was in flower beside the paths:

Close up picture of red campion flower

…and we also discovered green alkanet and violets in flower along our route:

Picture of Green Alkanet

Picture of a violet

That morning, the dawn chorus had floated in through the window with added volume – insistently prising under the edges of sleep, to wake me with a startled awareness of its change in tone. (I heard on the radio recently that Thomas Hardy described the birds singing at dawn as ‘persistent intimates.’ I love that phrase – it captures perfectly that pleasantly inescapable mingling with the consciousness of spring birdsong.)  More spring migrants must have arrived, adding to the hugeness of sound that filled the growing light. And now, in the woods, the trees were bursting with birdsong, each bird flinging its voice into the air, so that the notes seemed to shiver and scatter through the fresh, bright leaves.

I’ve never heard a cuckoo around here. This is a semi rural area – a mix of suburb and patches of wild space so, no doubt, not prime cuckoo habitat – but perhaps they were here in the past, I don’t know. Due to the cuckoo’s decline, the present time is increasingly a place where hearing a cuckoo call seems a lucky chance, rather than an expected herald of spring. I’ve not heard a cuckoo for far too long…

However, there were plenty of botanical cuckoos in flower on May bank holiday. Cuckoo Pint, or Lords and Ladies, flaunted primeval flowers everywhere:

Picture of Cuckoo Pint or Lords and Ladies

 Picture of a Lords and Ladies (or Cuckoo Pint) flower

And we found two cuckoo flower, or lady’s smock plants along the damper areas of the main bridleway:

Picture of cuckoo flower (or lady's smock)

As we admired the delicately pink flowers of this food plant for the larvae of the orange tip butterfly – almost on cue, a male orange tip passed us by, brushing the air with the bright tangerine edges of its wings. But, generally, It wasn’t a butterfly day – there was too much of a chill in the air. The orange tip was confining itself to a sheltered, bluebell-intense dip, where patches of sunshine locked themselves to the ground, holding off the shadows.

But, as we began to wander home, those shadows suddenly crept across the paths – and the scent of bluebells intensified on the air – as a great, damp pall of cloud came out of nowhere and drew itself across the blue sky. Hurrying through the rain, we returned to the house, refreshed by this deep breath of the spring…


A Shakespearean take on cuckoos and cuckoo flowers:

When daisies pied and violets blue
    And  lady-smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
    Do paint the meadows with delight.
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he,
Cuckoo, cuckoo: O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

– From Spring song – Love’s Labour’s Lost – Act V, Scene II.

…And a beautiful description of a violet, with another link back to Shakespeare, from Ted Hughes; a perfect nugget of words to savour:

Only a purple flower – this amulet
(Once Prospero’s) – holds it all, a moment,
In a rinsed globe of light.

– From A Violet at Lough Aughrisburg by Ted Hughes (Flowers and Insects collection, Faber and Faber)

The Swifts have ‘made it again’

They’re back! Tumbling through the blue sky above our garden…

My first sighting of swifts this year!

At about mid-day today, I was hanging out the washing in a dreamy, basking-in-the-sunshine sort of way – a speckled wood butterfly fluttering close to my feet – when I heard the swifts call. Not that full scream, spread out across the sky like a banner – but a faint, familiar, busy, bubble of sound tossed between them in the air far above.

Instantly, I snapped awake – and jerked my head back to see three, then five altogether, tumbling, turning, glimmering way up in that liquid, clear blue.

I thought I heard swifts overhead last Friday; just the briefest of calls. But it was raining and very overcast, and when I scanned the sky I could see no sign… so, either I’d made a mistake – or they were there, hidden above the low, white curtain of cloud…

But now, I’ve seen them for sure! They’ve definitely returned! And the uplift of that moment is incredible – as it is every year.  All the nature lovers I know start buzzing with it – passing on the mantra: “They’re back!” – a shorthand everyone instantly understands.

Ted Hughes captures that moment, that feeling – and the pure essence of swifts (in description, and in the very movement and rhythm of the words) – to utter perfection:

Fifteenth of May. Cherry blossom. The swifts
Materialise at the tip of a long scream
Of needle. ‘Look! They’re back! Look!’ And they’re gone
On a steep

Controlled scream of skid
Round the house-end and away under the cherries.
Suddenly flickering in sky summit, three or four together,
Gnat-whisp frail, and hover-searching, and listening

For air-chills – are they too early? With a bowing
Power-thrust to left, then to right, then a flicker they
Tilt into a slide, a tremble for balance,
Then a lashing down disappearance

Behind elms.
                                  They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
Still all to come –

 – From Swifts by Ted Hughes.

… My much-read copy of the poem lives in this volume, published by Faber and Faber, and wonderfully illustrated by Raymond Briggs; a volume my daughter bought for me one birthday. A perfect book for the generations to share:

Picture of book: Collected Poems for Children by Ted Hughes

Picture of text of Swifts by Ted Hughes