Adam Nicolson, the Shiant Isles and the crisis in seabird populations

Adam Nicolson, the Shiant Isles and the crisis in seabird populations

Recently, I watched a pair of films on BBC Four presented by Adam Nicolson. In The Last Seabird Summer? he took us to the Shiant islands in the Outer Hebrides, given to him on his 21st birthday by his father, which he said ‘have been the most important thing in my life’. Every spring sees the phenomenal spectacle of a sky thick with tens of thousands of puffins, guillemots and razorbills as they arrive on the Shiants from far out in the North Atlantic to breed.

But there’s a crisis that threatens to end this remarkable show: although the numbers on the Shiants are holding up, in the last fifteen years in Scotland alone, 40 per cent of the seabird population has been lost. In The Last Seabird Summer? Nicolson explored the reasons why this is happening, and how in places like the Shiants there has been long history of dependence on seabirds: thousands of years of collecting eggs and hunting the birds for meat, oil and feathers.

Watching the programmes, I was reminded that for some time there had been a copy of Adam Nicolson’s book Sea Room in the house, in which he told the story of how he inherited the Shiants from his father, his love for these lonely, uninhabited islands, and his exploration of their geology and history, and of the lives of the people who once lived and made their living on these remote islands. I decided to read Sea Room. Continue reading “Adam Nicolson, the Shiant Isles and the crisis in seabird populations”

The Mighty Dead: Adam Nicolson on Homer

<em>The Mighty Dead</em>: Adam Nicolson on Homer

I should make it clear at the outset that I have read neither the Iliad nor the Odyssey, so I came to Adam Nicolson’s latest book, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, perhaps like many in the same boat: keen to understand why these mighty poems still exert such a powerful hold over the modern imagination. Continue reading The Mighty Dead: Adam Nicolson on Homer”

Voyage to Ithaca

Voyage to Ithaca

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your final destination.
But do not rush the voyage in the least.
Better it last for many years;
and once you’re old, cast anchor on the isle,
rich with all you’ve gained along the way,
expecting not that Ithaca will give you wealth.
from ‘Ithaca’ by CP Cavafy

On the beach at Skala we joined the queue waiting for the cruise to Ithaca. For Rita especially, this was the culmination of a lifetime’s imagining: Homer’s Ithaca not just an island but the ultimate, universal symbol of the longed-for destination. Continue reading “Voyage to Ithaca”

The Last Days of Troy: Homer by Armitage

<em>The Last Days of Troy</em>: Homer by Armitage

Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus –
that murderous anger which condemned Achaeans
to countless agonies and threw many warrior souls
deep into Hades, leaving their dead bodies
carrion food for dogs and birds
– The Iliad,
Book One, opening lines

I’ve never been able to keep straight in my head the stories and characters of the Greek myths – who did what to whom, who was related to whom, and who was mortal, who of the gods.  So I was mightily appreciative of Simon Armitage’s Last Days of Troy which we saw performed at the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester this week: the clarity of the language and narrative drive of his adaptation of the Iliad meant that I never once lost the plot.

Somehow, Armitage has managed to compress into a three and a quarter hour performance the essence of fifteen thousand lines of the Iliad, as well as throwing in episodes from The Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. He has done this by paring the epic poem to the bone and focussing on the wrath of the maverick Greek warrior, Achilles. The production grips throughout – a combination of Armitage’s poetic prose, imaginative staging, and powerful performances by several members of the cast.

Zeus (Richard Bremmer) and his wife Hera (Gillian Bevan) in The Last Days of Troy
Zeus (Richard Bremmer) and his wife Hera (Gillian Bevan) in The Last Days of Troy

Homer’s Iliad written around 700 BC, begins at the end of the ten-year siege of Troy by a coalition of Greeks determined to revenge the abduction by the Trojan prince Paris of Helen, wife of the Spartan king Menelaus. But Armitage places another act of vengeance at centre stage in this adaptation – Achilles’s wrath when his ­commander-in-chief Agamemnon seizes Briseis, Achilles’s captive woman, as his own compensation. Achilles, his pride and honour outraged, withdraws from the fighting and persuades his mother, the goddess Thetis, to ask Zeus to turn the tide of war against the Greeks, with appalling consequences. Simone Weil once remarked that ‘the true hero, the true ­subject at the centre of The Iliad is force, that X that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing’. Later on in this production, a powerful and terrifying scene in which Achilles howls and tears at a body he has butchered revealed the truth of Weil’s words in the most vivid terms. Stubbornly resisting appeals to return to battle, Achilles has ­eventually agreed to send his beloved comrade, Patroclus, into the fray.When Patroclus is killed by Hector, Achilles embarks on a lengthy and pitiless slaughtering spree, finally killing Hector and dragging his mutilated triumphantly around the walls of Troy.

The play opens in present-day Hisarlik in north-west Turkey, the archaeological site where the remains of Troy have been excavated. The god Zeus is now reduced to being a pedlar to the tourists – selling little statues of the gods and replicating himself as a living statue performer. He relives his memories of the siege and the machinations of the gods that extended a wasteful and horrifying war.

Why do nations go to war? At whose orders? These are issues still as urgent today as they were some three millennia ago when Homer gathered echoes and whispers from events that took place in the Bronze Age, four- or five-hundred years before he was born.  You could interpret the clumsy interventions by bumbling gods as a comment on modern-day politicians who lead their nations to war, while other aspects of the narrative such as the factional struggles, the grandiose but hollow rhetoric of war, the delusion and growing despair might seem familiar. But Armitage and director Nick Bagnall resist the temptation to draw heavy-handed parallels with present-day conflicts.

Although Simon Armitage has made these connections in interview, his play seems to be primarily concerned – just as in Homer’s original telling, or in Alice Oswald’s stunning Memorial – with presenting us with a clear-eyed view of the carnage of war.  A couple of years ago, in the London Review of Books, Edward Luttwak wrote of how, in Homer’s poem:

Spears cut through temples, foreheads, navels, chests both below and above the nipple. Even despised bows kill, and heavy stones appear as weapons. Joyful victors strip their victims of their armour and gain extra delight from imagining their weeping mothers and wives. Yet the Iliad is a million miles away from the pornography of violence offered by many lesser war books, battle paintings, martial sculptures and most obviously films, in which the enemy bad guys are triumphantly trampled or gleefully mown down, because the humanity of the victims, their terror and their atrocious pain, are fully expressed. The powerful affirmation of the warrior’s creed – we are all mortal anyway so let us fight valiantly – coexists with the unfailingly negative depiction of war as horrible carnage.

Sneaking a look at Adam Nicolson’s  new book, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, which Rita has just begun reading, I see that he asserts that:

The siege of Troy, often seen as a kind of war, as if these were two states battling with each other’, is in fact more like a gang from the ghetto confronting the urban rich … the hero-complex of the Greek warriors is simply gang mentality writ large.

‘Iliadic behaviour’, he writes, ‘echoes through modern urban America.  gang members ‘talk about themselves, their lives, their ambitions, their idea of fate, the role of violence and revenge, in ways that are strangely like the Greeks in the Iliad.’  As I read that sentence, I thought of The Wire, The Sopranos, or Breaking Bad.

So, revenge is one strand here in Simon Armitage’s stage dramatization; another is his implication that Helen’s abduction was really just an excuse. The final scene seems to suggest that the real motivation of the Greeks was plunder and annihilation of a rival state, rather than justice for Helen’s seizure. In this production, we are drawn inexorably into a forcefield of consequential violence. Armitage has explained how he excised minor characters, parallel narratives and self-contained episodes, and rolled some principal characters into one in order to maintain the narrative thrust. Odysseus, for example, is an amalgamation of several high-ranking nobles in the Greek encampment, though Armitage has expressed the hope that he has preserved the personal traits associated with him.

Ashley Martin-Davis’s stage design includes some striking visual effects: the Trojan warriors emerge from a smoke-filled tunnel as if from the mists of time, while the arrival of the wooden horse, which lies beyond the scope of the Iliad, is done with great effect. There are powerful performances from Jake Fairbrother as Achilles and Simon Harrison as Hector. Richard Bremmer is a rather comedic Zeus, Colin Tierney makes an impression as wily Odysseus,  while David Birrell gives a good performance as Agamemnon.

Lily Cole as Helen of Troy Photo-Jonathan-Keenan
Lily Cole as Helen of Troy (photo by Jonathan-Keenan for the Royal Exchange)

Talking about it afterwards (appropriately enough, over meze at Dimitri’s at the bottom of Deansgate), we did feel that were weaknesses in respect of the presentation of the women and the gods – failings that were apparent in both the writing and the performances.  None of the women in the play really shone  – Lily Cole, in particular, gave a performance that was as inexpressive and wooden as the ships her face reputedly launched. She has one haunting moment, however, when she sings a lament to seduce the Greeks inside the wooden horse with dreams of home. (In the programme, the words are in English, but I could not identify in which language Cole was singing).

As far as the gods were concerned – they were presented as figures of fun, bickering among themselves, rather than cosmic forces feared by men.  I know there is an element of this in Homer, but the humour did deflate the tragic intensity. The immortals may have squabbled, and their bickering may have worsened the conflict, but in Homer’s time they were perceived as divine beings; here they appeared to be no more than a bunch of petulant, squabbling relatives.

fresco depicting lyre player with a bird, palace of Nestor, Pylos
A fresco depicting a poet with a lyre and a bird, Myccenaean palace of Nestor, Pylos

 Apart from those reservations, though, this was a gripping production.  As always, the question is why, in Edward Luttwak’s words, ‘people keep buying and presumably reading an interminably long, frequently repetitive and intermittently gruesome Iron Age rendition of Bronze Age combat’.  In his new book, Adam Nicolson reckons it’s all to do with ‘Homer’s embrace of wrongness, his depiction of a world that stands at a certain angle to virtue.’

He does not give us a set of exemplars.  These poems are not sermons. We do not want Achilles or even Odysseus to be our model as men.  Nor Penelope or Helen as women.  Nor do we want to worship at the shrine of Bronze Age thuggery.  What we want is Homeric wisdom, his fearless encounter with the dreadful, his love of love and hatred of death.

In the Royal Exchange programme, Simon Armitage puts it this way:

Ancient fables endure for all kinds of reasons, but their continued relevance to the way we live now plays a major part in their survival. At the time when this play will be premièred many countries will be marking and commemorating the centenary of the First World War, with images of atrocities and questions of military morality high in people’s minds, just as they were for Homer. Moreover, the channel or strait that runs from the Bosphorus to the Dardanelles or Hellespont continues to symbolise a political, economic, cultural, philosophical and religious fault line between east and west. In that context, the story of Troy is a blueprint for a conflict that rages to this day.

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Dark Arcadia

I was woken last night by the agonised screams of a bird being torn asunder by some night predator.  For a few seconds in the darkness the desperate sounds of the creature’s final agony echoed across the avenue’s gardens, our little patches of paradise.  Et in Arcadia ego.

Over the past two Sunday evenings on Radio 3, Adam Nicolson has been exploring the idea of Arcadia, the conceit of a paradisiacal wild, from its ancient Greek origins, by way of the poetry of Virgil and Horace and its rediscovery in the Renaissance and developing the idea that there is always a darkness in Arcadia.  I always find Nicolson a trusty guide to complex matters: witty and erudite, without pretension, I imagine he would be the perfect companion out walking or in the pub.

The term Arcadia is derived from the Greek Arcadia, a mountainous district in the Peloponnese, and came to mean an idyllic pastoral landscape in which man and nature co-existed harmoniously.  For Nicolson,  an essential part of being human is to construct arcadias, both mentally and for real (gardens, estates, parkland), that represent escape routes from the stress and ugliness of urban reality. I walk through one such arcadia every morning with our dog – Sefton Park in Liverpool, one of the great examples from the era of Victorian park building.  But, Nicolson argued, arcadias are made on earth, and so cannot be heavenly. Arcadia is always dark, because death lives at its heart.

Nicolson began in the dark – contemplating the oldest trace in the UK of a ‘thinking human’ in a cave at Creswell Crags in Derbyshire. Creswell Crags is a limestone gorge honeycombed with caves that were inhabited by humans during the last Ice Age between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago.  Here archaeologists found the first and only example of rock art from the Ice Age. The images were engraved into the rock, not painted, and in the main depict figures of animals. The man who carved a bison at Creswell, starting with a circular depression in the rock that served as an eye, was, Nicolson suggested, making culture and depicting his people’s arcadia (below, click to enlarge).

In in ancient Greece, the people of Arcadia in central Greece were herdsmen of sheep and goats who lived, legend had it, an  unsophisticated yet happy life in the natural fertility of their valleys. The Arcadian shepherds gained a reputation in the Greek world for their pastoral music. Poets celebrated them in verses in which shepherds exchanged songs in a beautiful and  pristine landscape, unsullied by the outside world.

However, as Nicolson points out, the original Arcadia  was no place for easy living but hard mountain country whose inhabitants struggled to survive. In later ages, however, ‘Arcadia’ came to mean an idyllic, pastoral landscape whose inhabitants led lives of ease. In the third century BC, the Sicilian poet, Theocritus, instigated the literary genre of ‘bucolic poetry’ (from the Greek bukolos, a herdsman).  Two centuries later, the greatest of Roman poets, Virgil (70-19 BC), drew on Theocritus’s poetry to create his Eclogues.  Virgil located his poems in an Arcadia whose landscape strikingly resembled that of northern Italy, where Virgil was born. And, as Nicolson explained, it was a terrain of sorrow and hardship, as well as contentment and beauty: the first Eclogue refers to the confiscation of Virgil’s family farm to settle veteran soldiers after the battle of Philippi.  Nicolson pursued this dark thread further: the Eclogues may sing about love and poetry, but they also speak of the turbulent  political situation in Virgil’s time.

Writing in the mid-3os BC for a rich Roman audience, Virgil fused the vision of a perfect life where no work was ever needed and time could be filled with talk of love and a sense of goodness far removed from the slick brutalities of political life in urban Rome with another element.  Arcadia was not part of heaven. It was an earthly place and subject to mortality – even in Arcadia death was there.

From here, Nicolson moved on to the rediscovery of Arcadia during the Renaissance, when pastoral poetry modelled on Virgil came to be much appreciated by intellectual and cultural elites. Parallel to the literary vogue of pastoral there existed a pictorial tradition of paintings and prints representing shepherds and shepherdesses in a bucolic  setting of forests and hills. In the seventeenth century, Nicolas Poussin drew upon this tradition in his painting ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ (1647), which deftly crystallised the problematic nature of Arcadia. One of the group of Arcadian shepherds kneels and reads the inscription on a tomb: Et In Arcadia Ego, which, as Nicolson explained, can be translated as either ‘I used to live in Arcadia’ or, more darkly, as ‘I [death] am in Arcadia, too’. Arcadia now becomes a melancholy contemplation of death itself, of the idea that happiness in this world is transitory. Even when we feel that we have created or discovered a place of peace and perfection, we must understand that, in the end, it will all vanish.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Nicolson’s survey was his exploration of how, in 16th and 17th century England, Arcadianism developed into a political ideology, standing for the country against the city and the court, for conservatism and for hierarchy.  It stood for the preservation of a traditional way of life based on feudalism and against individualism, the growth of mercantile capitalism and a market economy, and against the centralisation, under Elizabeth I, James I and above all Charles I, of power under the Crown. To delve into this idea further, Nicolson went to Wilton House,  the country seat of the Earls of Pembroke for more than 400 years:

These wonderful lands – the chalk downs and the lush watered valleys of the rivers that run between them – spread over eighty square miles, were the core of one of the great aristocratic estates of Renaissance England, the power-base, cash cow and pleasure grounds of the Earls of Pembroke, whose great palace was and is at Wilton, a few miles to the west of Salisbury. The house is the gateway to the world they owned … [a] world of enormous riches, profound culture, extensive political and military control, an ever-present threat of violence, great luxury, constant self-interest and a high idealism…

Nicolson has written a fascinating and incisive book about Wilton and the Pembrokes, and the reality of their lost Arcadia.  At the opening of Arcadia: The Dream of Perfection in Renaissance England, he writes:

Looked at in a critical light, the world of the Pembrokes was one which none of us could tolerate now: it put the claims of social order far above any individual rights; it considered privacy, except for the highly privileged, a form of subversion; it was profoundly hierarchical and did not consider either people or the sexes equal; it tolerated vast excess and devastating poverty; it distrusted the idea of the market and would have loathed any suggestion, if anyone had made it, that market forces would somehow create social goods; it thought the poor worthy of pity if they remained within bounds and of punishment should they stray outside them; it distrusted the crown, not because the crown would erode individual freedoms but because it was intent on destroying older aristocratic privileges.

Anti-change,   anti-state,   anti-market, anti-equality and anti-individual: this first English Arcadia, in other words, set its face against the forces of modernity. It was driven by a hunger for the past and a fear of the future. If the last four hundred years have been shaped by a growth in government, the elevation of individual rights, the erosion of community, the dominance of the market and the destructive exploitation of nature, Arcadianism, the Pembrokes and the world of their estates said no to all of them.

The virtues this Arcadia cherished were the mirror image of all that: an overriding belief in the power and understanding of local community; a trust in the past and its customs; a love of nature not as a commodity to exploit but as a place in which to find rest and comfort; an independence from the power of central government; and a rejection of commercial values, relying instead on the mutuality of communal relationships. It was an organic ideal, a belief not in mutual exploitation but in the balance of different parts of society. To some extent, ever since, these have been the values of the counter-culture, an underlying thread of idealism which has run throughout the history of the modern world.

The most famous text of this Arcadian ideology was written at Wilton.  Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia was inspired by the Wiltshire downs and valleys.  In his notebook Sidney wrote:

Do you not see how all things conspire together to make this country a heauenly dwelling? Do you not see the grasse[s]  how in colour they excell the Emeralds, euerie one striuing to passe  his fellow, and yet they are all kept of an equall height? And see you not the rest of these beautifull flowers, each of which would require a mans wit to know, and his life to expresse? . . . Doth not the aire breath health, which the Birds (delightfull both to eare and eye) do dayly solemnize with the sweete consent of their voyces? Is not euery Eccho thereof a perfect Musicke?

Wandering the grounds of Wilton and taking pleasure in the arcadian beauty of the landscape , Nicolson pulled no punches when contemplating the harsh and far from idyllic lives of the common people of the villages on the Pembroke estate. Arcadia was not a democracy, and yet, he suggested, in certain respects their lives in Tudor and Stuart times, governed by manorial custom and the mutual obligation, were possibly easier than those of their 18th century descendents, who had the misfortune to live in a period when mutual feudal obligations gave way to a market economy in which money was everything. The result was that the rich grew richer and the poor got poorer; the rural working class were transformed from self-sufficient peasants into landless labourers.

Nicolson quoted William Cobbett who, in his Rural Rides, was sickened and ashamed by scenes of devastating poverty amongst the men and women who lived and worked in these Arcadian valleys.  They were ‘tormented by an accursed system that takes the food from those that raise it, and gives it to those that do nothing that is useful to man’.  These valleys would be the most delicious places on earth,

if those, whose labour makes it all, trees, corn, sheep and everything, had but their fair share of the produce of that labour. What share they really have of it one cannot exactly say; but I should suppose that every labouring man in this valley raises as much food as would suffice for fifty or a hundred persons, fed like himself!  In taking my leave of this beautiful vale, I have to express my deep shame, as an Englishman, at beholding the general extreme poverty of those who cause this vale to produce such quantities of food and raiment. This is, I verily believe it, the worst used labouring people upon the face of the earth. Dogs and hogs and horses are treated with more civility; and as to food and lodging, how gladly would the labourers change with them! This state of things never can continue many years! By some means or other there must be an end to it; and my firm belief is that that end will be dreadful. In the meanwhile I see,  and I see it with pleasure, that the common people know that they are ill used; and that they cordially, most cordially, hate those who ill-treat them.

In the words of Amos the prophet, Cobbett excoriated landlords like the Pembrokes who had destroyed the communities of these valleys through enclosure:

Hear this, O ye that swallow up the needy, even to make the poor of the land to fail . . . that we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes . . . Shall not the land tremble for this; and every one mourn that dwelleth therein? . . . saith the Lord God . . . I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation.

Nicolson concludes Arcadia: The Dream of Perfection in Renaissance England with this passage:

The presence of the free market in labour and land was nothing new. … But the growing sense that the market was king – whether in land or labour – became the crucial transformation in early modern England. … By 1831 there were two hugely rich farmers in Wilton, both tenants of the earl. Neither did any farm work himself- too grand – and they relied for their riches on employed labourers. There was not a single man who worked his own land. That tradition and that connection had gone. Instead, Wilton had a population of 113 adult male agricultural labourers, the men whom  … Cobbett saw as the ‘worst used labouring people upon the face of the earth’. Almost 5oo of such men, rioting in the 183os against the tithes paid to the Church and the introduction of mechanical threshing machines, against the pauperisation of their lives, were transported to Tasmania. Fifteen others were hanged. In those figures, and in that conclusion, one
can see the death of a communal idea.

The theme of ‘Dark Arcadia’ was also taken up in a series of essays broadcast each night through the week.  Still on the theme of Wilton, Alexandra Harris, author of Romantic Moderns, told how, in the 1920s, Rex Whistler was inspired by the Georgian arcadia of Wilton when painting the murals for the Tate Gallery restaurant.  Whistler was a close friend of the photographer Cecil Beaton, and Harris told how Beaton’s set sought out the arcadias of 18th century landscape gardens with their avenues and temples, vistas, grottos and shrines.  In 1931, Beaton acquired Ashcombe in Wiltshire, a decaying manor dating from the 1740s, which he set about turning into a Georgian arcadia.

Harris described the weekend parties which Beaton organised in the years before the outbreak of war.  Guests had to come in fancy dress, so that Beaton could photograph friends in costume, posing in period tableaux.  When the war came, Whistler joined up and fought with the Welsh Guards for four years before being killed by a mortar bomb in Normandy in 1944.  In a wartime notebook, there’s a doodle of a Baroque tank, with balustrade and swags, trundling over a bridge overseen by Neptune amidst a pastoral scene with a shepherd piping as his sheep rest.

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Sissinghurst garden

Sissinghurst garden


Another stop on our short Kent tour was Sissinghurst, the garden was created by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson in the 1930s.

The site is ancient – its name is Saxon – meaning ‘clearing in the woods’. A stone manor surrounded by a moat was built in the Middle Ages. The building  we see today is a Tudor mansion with tower, dating from the 16th century. It was ain a state of dereliction when Vita and Harold took it over.

Sissinghurst garden as it is today was created in the 1930s by Vita Sackville-West, poet and gardening writer, and her husband Harold Nicolson, author and diplomat. Sackville-West was a writer on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Group[1] who found her greatest popularity in the weekly columns she contributed as gardening correspondent of The Observer. Sissinghurst’s garden is one of the most popular in the UK, and draws visitors from all over the world.

Vita and Harold purchased it in 1930 and began constructing the garden, which first opened to the public in 1938. The entrance fee was a shilling. Vita wrote in the New Statesman in 1939:

“These mild gentlemen and women who invade one’s garden after putting their silver token into the bowl … are some of the people I most gladly welcome and salute. Between them and myself a particular form of courtesy survives, a gardener’s courtesy, in a world where courtesy is giving place to rougher things”

The garden itself is designed as a series of ‘rooms’, each with a different character of colour or theme, the walls being high clipped hedges or pink brick walls. The National Trust took over the gardens in 1967.

Perhaps most popular of the individual Sissinghurst gardens is The White Garden. It was originally planted as the Rose Garden in 1931 but converted to the ‘White Garden’ in 1950. In May it is dominated by a superb white wisteria.

Last month BBC 4 broadcast Sissinghurst, a documentary series that described the attempts by Adam Nicolson and his wife Sarah Raven, who are Resident Donors, in partnership with the National Trust, to restore a form of traditional Wealden agriculture to the Castle Farm. We watched some episodes and saw how their plan was to use the land to grow ingredients for lunches in the Sissinghurst restaurant.  The extensive vegetable plot is now in production, and we were able to walk round the rows of salad and vegetables.