A woodpecker skirmish in the park

A woodpecker skirmish in the park

This is the time of year when the morning dog walk in Sefton Park is accompanied by the loud drumming of the Great Spotted Woodpecker. It’s a handsome bird when you catch a glimpse of it, either clinging to a tree trunk or flying from tree to tree in a flash of black, white and red. This morning I heard a commotion in the branches above me and saw something quite remarkable.

Greater Spotted Woodpecker
A juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker (identified by the large red patch on its head)

Since the 1950’s these birds have become increasingly common in parks and gardens throughout Britain. Once you have spotted one, they are easy to identify, being predominantly black and white, with a patch of red at the base of the body. You can distinguish males from females because the adult male has a small red patch on its head (juvenile birds exhibit a larger red patch that later disappears). But in spring their presence is usually betrayed by the sound of their drumming.

Although many people assume that they’re hearing the sound of a nest being drilled, that may not be the case, at least early in the season. In February, before the onset of the breeding season, the male woodpecker drums to signal for a mate. Selecting a hollow tree or dead branch with promising resonant qualities, he taps rapidly on the bark with his bill, making a rattle-like drum roll that is startlingly loud and carries for a considerable distance through woodland. Males not only drum in order to attract a mate – throughout the year they will continue to drum to proclaim their territory. Each male has his own drumming sequence and stops to listen to the replies of males nearby.

The drumming’ is the sound the birds make as they hammer their hard bills against the trunk of a tree. I’ve often wondered how the bird can do this repeatedly without doing itself serious brain damage.  Here’s the answer, given on the British Trust for Ornithology website:

Hitting a solid tree with your beak so hard that splinters fly ought to cause the brain to rotate in the way that causes concussion in Man. Not a bit of it. The evolution of the bird’s drilling equipment has provided very sophisticated shock absorbing adaptations involving the way that the bird’s beak joins the skull. The stresses are transmitted directly towards the centre of the brain and do not cause the knockout swirl.

The beak is used like a combined hammer and chisel to drill into trees and branches and carve out deep nest holes. When woodpeckers hammer into wood to get at grubs they also have another anatomical adaptation designed to help them feed. The roots of their tongues are coiled round the back of their skulls and can be extended a prodigious distance to harpoon insect larvae in their tunnels.

Once a couple have paired off, the nesting hole, neat and round, is bored in soft or decaying wood horizontally for a few inches, then perpendicularly down. At the bottom of a shaft, usually from six to twelve inches in depth, a small chamber is excavated and lined with wood chips. The female lays up to seven glossy-white eggs in the dark chamber, each parent taking turns to incubate the clutch and later feed the greyish, red-capped fledglings. The young leave after three weeks. The nest hole is rarely used again, though other holes are often bored in the same tree.

Great Spotted Woodpecker
A male Great Spotted Woodpecker (identified by the small red patch on the head)

What I saw this morning, alerted by a commotion in the branches above, was the sight of two males skirmishing outside a freshly-bored hole.  I stood and watched for several minutes as they went at it with a fair amount of ferocity. I assume that what I was seeing was one male attempting to take over the freshly-chiselled hole of the other.

Woodpecker is rubber-necked
But has a nose of steel.
He bangs his head against the wall
And cannot even feel.

When Woodpecker’s jack-hammer head
Starts up its dreadful din
Knocking the dead bough double dead
How do his eyes stay in? 

Pity the poor dead oak that cries
In terrors and in pains.
But pity more Woodpecker’s eyes
And bouncing rubber brains.

– Ted Hughes, from Under the North Star, 1981

See also

The Long Shadow: time removes everything but the memory

The Long Shadow: time removes everything but the memory

David Reynolds The Long Shadow

David Reynolds, author of ‘The Long Shadow’

At one point in The Long Shadow, his impressive survey of  the impact of the First World War and how interpretations of its meaning have changed in the past century, David Reynolds quotes fellow-historian John Keegan. Concluding his The First World War (1998), Keegan mused that the First ‘World War remained ‘a mystery’, both in its origins and its course. ‘Why’, he asked, ‘did a prosperous continent, at the height of its success . . . choose to risk all it had won for itself and all it offered to the world on the lottery of a vicious and local internecine conflict?’

For me, too, that sums up why the conflict continues to gnaw away in my conciousness, and why, as the centennial of the war’s beginning approaches, I keep reading about it. But, it seems, the more I read, the less the mystery dissolves: the conflict continues to be inexplicable.  David Reynold’s thought-provoking book is by a historian who understands that history is not a matter of science: rather, it is a process by which every generation (and every nation) reinterprets the meaning of the past.  Few events in history reveal this more clearly than the conflict of 1914-18.

David Reynolds’ contention is that this was a war that changed the shape of history, that made the 20th century. At the same time, the 20th century has kept looking back on the war and seeing it in different ways at different times. The war shaped the century, and the century shaped the war.  For those of us whose view of the war was shaped in the 1960s – by that decade’s critical historical reinterpretations, by the war poets and Oh! What a Lovely War – it’s a book that challenges the accuracy of our perceptions, or at least helps place them in a broader context.

In an interview published in BBC History Magazine, David Reynolds spoke about the aim of his book (soon to be translated into a BBC TV series) being to question a caricature of the war that has come to dominate perceptions in Britain:

I’m considering whether, for example, we’ve become too focused on the trenches and too readily seen war poets as the only authentic voice of the war. I am trying to move away from that perspective without in any way denigrating it. The caricature is a sense that the only real story about the war is trenches, and that sense is associated particularly with the first day of the Somme, which is 1 July 1916. It is, in terms of the death toll, the worst day in the history of the British army. Our view of the war has become focused almost on one day. We need to get out of the trenches and take a broader view of the conflict. That’s what I mean by becoming a caricature – it’s become simplified down. A caricature is not necessarily untrue, it’s just a sharp oversimplification of what is going on. This is a war that goes on for four years and it has multiple fallouts, which rumble on through the 20th century. We need to pay some attention to those as well as key moments like 1 July 1916.

Reynold’s book is unusual in that it is concerned with the two-way historical dynamic between the Great War and the 20th century.  Whilst drawing extensively on the cultural  turn in the work of historians in the 30 years – work that has explored the public memory and memorialization of the conflict – it contends that this approach has sometimes obscured other political, economic and social impacts of the war.

The book is divided into two parts.  The first, ‘Legacies’, outlines some of the diverse and momentous ways in which the war had an impact on the 1920s and 1930s, both positive as well as negative.  Reynolds examines democracy, nationalism, capitalism, attitudes to empire, attitudes to art and culture, and the question of peace – viewing them through the prism of the ‘post-war’ years, rather than the ‘inter-war’ years, seeing developments as if through the eyes of people who didn’t know that there was going to be another world war.

After 1939, however, the events of 1914-18 looked different when refracted through the conflict of 1939-45, when the ‘Great War’ became the ‘First World War’. In the second part, ‘Refractions’, Reynolds traces what happened to the memory of the Great War after 1939-45 when it came to be reinterpreted as the prelude to the Second World War and the Holocaust.  So the second half of the book is about how the 20th century has reshaped our attitudes to the First World War. It was during this second phase, Reynolds argues, that the Great War assumed its iconic status (primarily in Britain) as a war fought in the trenches, captured in the amber of the war poets, a futile war of wasted lives.

This is a book which may disconcert some readers, in that it ranges in time across the 20th century – up to the end of the Cold War and beyond – and which concerns itself with each of the major belligerent countries of 1914-18. However, although considering responses to the conflict in France, Germany, Russia and America, Reynolds does places the United Kingdom in the foreground of his account. For, he argues, the British were distinctive in their experience both of the war and of its post-war impacts.

Britain stands out in the way that it has remembered the conflict in public culture. This contrasts with the broad patterns of experience and memorialization on the continent. Reynolds advances some thoughts on what is distinctive about the British story.

First, he argues that in 1914 the United Kingdom was not fighting directly for the homeland, either to protect it from invasion or add to its territory. By contrast the Belgians, the French and the Serbs were resisting invasion, while the French hoped to recover Alsace and Lorraine, and Germany, Russia and the Hapsburg Empire all justified their mobilization as an act of pre-emptive defence. It was Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality (which Britain had treaty obligations to protect) that pushed Britain into war, with public anger accentuated by exaggerated reports of German atrocities against Belgian civilians. Essentially, states Reynolds:

Britain’s public case for war was grounded more in morality than self-interest: this was seen as a war to defend the principles of freedom and civilisation.

Also significant, he contends, was the fact that for two years Britain fought the war with a volunteer army. Britain, alone among the belligerent nations did not impose conscription – it was only introduced in 1916. Freely fighting for the freedom of others was what made the British feel distinctive, Reynolds suggests.  Crucially, when the death toll mounted and disenchantment set in, this would lead to a more critical questioning of the war’s purpose and leadership, when set against the bravery of  those who had volunteered and the scale of the losses – 720,000 dead and more than a million who came home maimed in body and mind.

In the aftermath, in order to cope with this trauma, Britain, like most belligerent nations except the Soviet Union, memorialized war deaths as ‘sacrifice’.  And they did so in forms that were distinctive:

The Cenotaph, the Silence and the Poppies. The necklace of war cemeteries gracing the scar-torn Western Front.  The Names chiselled on the Memorials to the Missing at Ypres and Thiepval.  In time these would all become highly-charged sites of memory, expressing Britain’s peculiarly statist-democratic project of remembrance, honouring the dead as individuals but in standardized forms.

Paul Nash, Wire, 1918

Paul Nash, Wire

Also unique to Britain was the war art.  Britain commissioned over 100 artists, affording them remarkable artistic freedom, which resulted in avant-garde techniques being applied to the subject of war, ‘yet with more humanity than in the nihilistic expressionism’ of Germans like Otto Dix, Reynolds contends. Finally, there was the unusual  case of Britain’s war poetry that emerged from the Europe-wide patriotic rhetoric of 1914 to flower into something quite distinctive: in the verses of  Owen, Sassoon, Thomas and Gurney war poetry ‘became an encounter between bookish soldiers rooted in the English pastoralist tradition and the grotesque violations of nature inflicted by industrialized warfare’. Alongside the war memorials, British art and poetry created vivid, perhaps indelible, impressions of the war for posterity.

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked a while at the crossing of city ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heavens of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same—and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz—
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench—
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack—
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads—those ashen-gray
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the slain of the war that you’ll never forget!

– ‘Aftermath’ by Siegfried Sassoon, March 1919.

Uniquely in Britain in the post-war years, art and poetry reinforced the idea that the suffering of the soldiers might still be justified if the Great War did prove to be ‘the war to end wars’.  It’s interesting to learn from Reynold’s account how different were post-war responses in Britain compared to the other main belligerents – France, Germany and the United States. In the 1920s Britain had the least significant veterans’ movement of all these nations (with right-wing veterans in Germany complaining about a lost victory that could only be redeemed through another war), while by the 1930s it boasted the biggest and most committed peace movement in the world, as shown by the Peace Ballot of 1934-5. Most of those involved, Reynolds hastens to point out, were not pacifists but peace activists, hoping to mobilize the League of Nations to deter future aggression.

Peace Ballot 1935

The Peace Ballot of 1935 – signed by 11.6 million people, over a third of the British population.

Central to Reynold’s thesis about how 1914-18 has come to be seen in the UK is how the Great War ‘took on a different aspect once it became the First World War, always to be contrasted with the Second’. Reynolds contrasts the way Britain went to war in September 1939 after a ‘gathering storm’ (in Churchill’s phrase) that had been brewing for years, rather than ‘out of the blue’ as in the July crisis of 1914. The pros and cons of resisting Hitler had been the subject of long and intense public debate since 1933.

Although the immediate trigger for war was once again Britain’s guarantee of a country’s territorial integrity – this time Poland – the war became one of self-defence once the British Isles were blitzed in 1940 and threatened with invasion. ‘The theme of Britain alone in its ‘finest hour’ offered a heroic saga at odds with anything in 1914-18′.   In the narrative of  1939-45 there was nothing quite like the Somme. Then, in 1945, the war’s moral justification became evident when the Nazi death camps were opened. In short, Reynolds states, 1939-45 was ‘a good war, with Britain and its people playing a heroic role, at the end of which the enemy was totally defeated with roughly half the losses incurred by Britain in 1914-18’.

In contrast, observes Reynolds, for France the shame of defeat and collaboration in 1940-4 tended to obscure any sense of nobility in the sacrifice of 1914-18.  Like Britain, the Soviet Union turned its resistance to German Nazism into a national myth, but 1914-17 remained consigned to ideological oblivion, overshadowed by the Bolshevik Revolution.

The construction of new narratives about 1914-18 did not stop in the aftermath of the Second World War. Reynolds observes how for both the French and the Germans, 1939-45 posed huge political and moral problems.  Yet in the 1950s, he writes, they managed to shake off the historical burden of having gone to war three times in 70 years to forge the European Economic Community. ‘This was an astounding development, whose historical significance is often ignored in Britain today’, he states, quite rightly.  Alone among members of the European Union, the UK does not celebrate Europe Day each 9 May,or subscribe to the idealism of its founding years.

Reynolds is right to state that the process of European integration was predicated on a new narrative in which the French and German peoples saw themselves as moving on from a cycle of war into a cooperative relationship that could serve as the engine of Europe’s future peace and prosperity. By contrast, when Britain finally applied for membership in the 1960s in Britain, it was not for idealistic but purely pragmatic reasons: the British Empire had fallen apart, we had lost sources of cheap raw materials and ready markets for our exports, and we found ourselves outside a booming Common Market.

In this mood, a certain national despondency set in about what had the two world wars achieved, just as the 50th anniversary of the Great War arrived in the mid-1960s. Here Reynolds steps heavily in the footsteps of cultural historians such as Paul Fussell and Jay Winter, recounting how British conceptions of the Great War became set in this period – as a human tragedy, bogged down in the trenches, illuminated only by poetry.  Key cultural markers in the sixties such as the BBC TV series The Great War and Joan Littlewood’s production of Oh! What a Lovely War were followed in subsequent decades by the work of novelists such as Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks.

However, Reynolds concludes his survey of reinterpretations of the Great War with a question: What are we missing by this tight focus on the trenches, on the Somme and 1 July 1916, and on the war poets?  His response is to suggest that we need a greater appreciation of ‘the whole diverse war from 1914 to 1918’.  We should recognise that it was not all stalemate in the trenches of the Western Front, that ‘even in the ‘trench era’ of 1915-17, offensives were the exceptions rather than the rule and it was perfectly possible for an infantryman to spend two years on the Western Front without actually going over the top at all’.  We also overlook the fact that this was a war in which the home front mattered almost as much as the battle front. Mobilizing the whole economy was crucial for modern warfare, and that included woman power in factories, transport, farming and clerical work.

Further, Reynolds adds that we should think more critically about the iconic war poets. Remarkable they were, he accepts, but typical they were not.  Most of those who who wrote poems during the conflict were working class, while a quarter of the poets were women –  and most poems were patriotic. We should also broaden our horizons, he argues. The war was fought in many places besides the Somme – the Balkans, for instance, where the trouble began.

He’s right on all these points – but surely misses a central point about remembrance.  The historian can recall the past through a diligent and methodical sifting of all the available evidence.  But how a people remember a conflict like the First World War is to make sense of it through imagery, symbols and words that capture its essential truth.  It’s myth-making, for sure, and it’s not necessarily rational.  But I’m heartened to be the citizen of a country that has evolved a narrative of the Great War that recalls the sacrifice of those who fought without the bluster of patriotism or nationalism, and which mourns the futility of the endeavour.

In 1964 Gene Smith wandered the Western Front, noting how the war was remembered: the monuments, memorials and cemeteries. He found one headstone with the inscription: ‘Time removes everything but the memory’. We have now left behind the years when the meaning of the conflict could be understood through its survivors. Yet the Great War endures, as Reynolds recognises in the closing passage of The Long Shadow.  It endures because of the continued human presence of the past in the form of letters, journals and photographs: portraits of men taken to remember them before they marched off to war, and snapshots of women – girlfriends, wives or mothers -kept close to the heart in a soldier’s pocket book.  As Reynolds points out, the significance of these photos was captured in Ivor Gurney’s 1917 poem ‘Photographs’:

Lying in dug-outs, joking idly, wearily;
Watching the candle guttering in the draught;
Hearing the great shells go high over us, eerily
Singing; how often have I turned over, and laughed 

With pity and pride, photographs of all colours,
All sizes, subjects: khaki brothers in France;
Or mother’s faces worn with countless dolours;
Or girls whose eyes were challenging and must dance,

Though in a picture only, a common cheap
Ill-taken card; and children – frozen, some
(Babies) waiting on Dicky-bird to peep
Out of the handkerchief that is his home

(But he’s so shy!). And some with bright looks, calling
Delight across the miles of land and sea,
That not the dread of barrage suddenly falling
Could quite blot out – not mud nor lethargy. 

Smiles and triumphant careless laughter. O
The pain of them, wide Earth’s most sacred things!
Lying in dugouts, hearing the great shells slow
Sailing mile-high, the heart mounts higher and sings. 

But once – O why did he keep that bitter token
Of a dead Love? – that boy, who, suddenly moved,
Showed me, his eyes wet, his low talk broken,
A girl who better had not been beloved.

Alongside such tokens there are the stones – the war graves where the past is present on a gigantic scale, ‘fusing the pity of war for individual human beings with the epic of war in the arena of nations’.  Without these meticulously tended graves, observes Reynolds, the borderlands of France and Belgium would have become simply a ‘Dead Man’s Dump’ in the words of Isaac Rosenberg’s poem – a place of mass graves and random burials that would quickly have  decomposed into oblivion:

In the garden cemeteries along the Western Front and on the Memorials to the Missing at Ypres and Thiepval, the dead were religiously named for perpetuity; likewise on local war memorials in British towns and villages. Even after a century these ‘nameless names’ exert their own power over the living, stirring our imagination to call back the men from the shadows.

A poem, a photograph, a memorial stone.  How we remember.  The lessons we learn, the consolation we seek.  All come together with an early poem by Ted Hughes that was inspired by a photograph of six young men taken just before they volunteered for war. The photo belonged to Hughes’ father, and captured six of his friends on an outing to Lumb Falls near Hebden Bridge.  Six months later all six men were dead.  In November 2007 the Elmet Trust placed a plaque at Lumb Falls in remembrance of those six young men:

The celluloid of a photograph holds them well –
Six young men, familiar to their friends.
Four decades that have faded and ochre-tinged
This photograph have not wrinkled the faces or the hands.
Though their cocked hats are not now fashionable,
Their shoes shine. One imparts an intimate smile,
One chews a grass, one lowers his eyes, bashful,
One is ridiculous with cocky pride –
Six months after this picture they were all dead.

All are trimmed for a Sunday jaunt. I know
That bilberried bank, that thick tree, that black wall,
Which are there yet and not changed. From where these sit
You hear the water of seven streams fall
To the roarer in the bottom, and through all
The leafy valley a rumouring of air go.
Pictured here, their expressions listen yet,
And still that valley has not changed its sound
Though their faces are four decades under the ground.

This one was shot in an attack and lay
Calling in the wire, then this one, his best friend,
Went out to bring him in and was shot too;
And this one, the very moment he was warned
From potting at tin-cans in no-man’s land,
Fell back dead with his rifle-sights shot away.
The rest, nobody knows what they came to,
But come to the worst they must have done, and held it
Closer than their hope; all were killed.

Here see a man’s photograph,
The locket of a smile, turned overnight
Into the hospital of his mangled last
Agony and hours; see bundled in it
His mightier-than-a-man dead bulk and weight:
And on this one place which keeps him alive
(In his Sunday best) see fall war’s worst
Thinkable flash and rending, onto his smile
Forty years rotting into soil.

That man’s not more alive whom you confront
And shake by the hand, see hale, hear speak loud,
Than any of these six celluloid smiles are,
Nor prehistoric or, fabulous beast more dead;
No thought so vivid as their smoking-blood:
To regard this photograph might well dement,
Such contradictory permanent horrors here
Smile from the single exposure and shoulder out
One’s own body from its instant and heat.

Six Young Men memorial at Lumb Falls, Yorkshire

Time removes everything but the memory.

History and war in the 20th century: a storm blowing from Paradise

History and war in the 20th century: a storm blowing from Paradise

Angelus Ovus, Paul Klee and photo of Walter Benjamin

Paul Klee’s ‘Angelus Ovus’, and photograph of Walter Benjamin

With the centenary of the onset of World War One approaching (as we are reminded daily), I’m thinking a great deal and reading about the war. Michael Gove knows what he is doing when he sets his sights on ‘left-wing academics … happy to feed myths’ about the war. I’m from the generation that came to maturity half a century after the war had ended –  a generation for whom the Great War seemed as relevant as the war then raging in Vietnam. What Gove is attempting to do is refashion the collective memory of the war and its interpretation so that it can be read as being simply about (in his words) ‘patriotism, honour and courage’.

But for a great many of those who experienced the war – whether painters, poets or the common foot-soldiers who met their end, Blackadder-style, in a fusillade of machine-gun bullets going over the top – the war was endured, with a courage and bravery we can only imagine, as the bloodiest conflagration in human history up to that time: as pointless and horrible carnage.  In those four years a great many people ceased to believe in the idea of progress – or in the verities of patriotism and the glory of dying for one’s country.

Walter Benjamin, the German Jewish literary critic and philosopher writing in 1940, gave expression to this sense of historical progress being a cruel illusion in a much-quoted passage. Benjamin, then aged 48, had lived through World War I and its aftermath – economic collapse, failed revolution and the rise of fascism – and saw it as a ‘catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin’.

In 1921, Benjamin had purchased a Paul Klee drawing, The Angel of History. It was his most prized possession and continued to obsess him as the Nazi regime closed in.  In 1940, a few months before his death, Benjamin penned a very personal interpretation of the drawing, not obvious to most viewers I would guess, but a powerful statement nonetheless of how the events of the 20th century – world war and Holocaust – shattered the 19th century certainty that history represented human progress:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1940

Benjamin was destined, only months after he had written these words, to become one more lifeless body among the  millions of those lost in the catastrophe of the 20th century.  In 1940, seized by the fascist authorities in Spain as he attempted to escape across the Pyrenees from France, he committed suicide.

Spencer Gore, From a Window in Cambrian Road, Richmond, 1913

Spencer Gore, From a Window in Cambrian Road, Richmond, 1913

For this post, I thought I would offer a sequence of poems in which the authors give voice to their premonition of impending conflagration, or of the onset of war marking a turning point, a catastrophe that would transform everything.  Beginning with an extract from TS Eliot’s Preludes, written in 1910-11:


The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.


The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

Giacomo Balla, Abstract Speed + Sound, 1913–1914
Giacomo Balla, Abstract Speed + Sound, 1913–1914

‘Prophecy’ was written by the German Expressionist poet Alfred Lichtenstein in 1913:

Soon there’ll come — the signs are fair —
A death-storm from the distant north.
Stink of corpses everywhere,
Mass assassins marching forth.The lump of sky in dark eclipse,
Storm-death lifts his clawpaws first.
All the scallywags collapse.
Mimics split and virgins burst.With a crash a stable falls.
Insects vainly duck their heads.
Handsome homosexuals
Tumble rolling from their beds.Walls in houses crack and bend.
Fishes rot in every burn.
All things reach a sticky end.
Buses, screeching overturn. 

—translated from German by Christopher Middleton

Volunteers queuing in front of a recruitment office in London, 1914

Volunteers queuing in front of a recruitment office in London, 1914

No doubt ‘MCMXIV’, written in 1964 by Phillip Larkin will be anthologised endlessly during this centennial year.  It’s a great poem that, filtering impressions from old photographs and newsreels, has almost single-handedly come to define our image of those August days in 1914:

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day—

And the countryside not caring:
The place names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

Alfred Lichtenstein

Alfred Lichtenstein

The mood of enthusiastic patriotism swept across Europe, and it was during those days that Alfred Lichtenstein wrote ‘Leaving for the Front’ with its deep sense of foreboding:

Before I die I must just find this rhyme.
Be quiet, my friends, and do not waste my time.
We’re marching off in company with death.
I only wish my girl would hold her breath.
There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m glad to leave.
Now mother’s crying too. There’s no reprieve.
And now look how the sun’s begun to set.
A nice mass-grave is all that I shall get.
Once more the good old sunset’s glowing red.
In thirteen days I’ll probably be dead.

The poem was penned on 7 August 1914: seven weeks later Lichtenstein was dead.

German soldiers on the way to the front in 1914

German soldiers on the way to the front in 1914

Tom Paulin has suggested that Ted Hughes, born in 1930, belonged to ‘that slightly different species’ – a generation ‘who took in the blood of the First World War with their mother’s milk, and who up to their middle age knew Britain only as a country always at war, or inwardly expecting and preparing for war.’

Hughes’s father had come through the First World War, psychologically scarred by his ordeal and the trauma of witnessing the slaughter of nearly all his friends and fellow soldiers at Gallipoli in 1915. He was one of just two per cent of his regiment to survive. Hughes’ poem ‘Six Young Men’ articulates a sense of the futility of war, but also of mortality in general: one day all that will be left of us will be a face in a photograph.

The celluloid of a photograph holds them well –
Six young men, familiar to their friends.
Four decades that have faded and ochre-tinged
This photograph have not wrinkled the faces or the hands.
Though their cocked hats are not now fashionable,
Their shoes shine. One imparts an intimate smile,
One chews a grass, one lowers his eyes, bashful,
One is ridiculous with cocky pride –
Six months after this picture they were all dead.

All are trimmed for a Sunday jaunt. I know
That bilberried bank, that thick tree, that black wall,
Which are there yet and not changed; From where these sit
You hear the water of seven streams fall
To the roarer in the bottom and through all
The leafy valley a rumouring of air go.
Pictured here, their expressions listen yet,
And still that valley has not changed its sound
Though their faces are four decades under the ground.

This one was shot in an attack and lay
Calling in the wire, then this one, his best friend,
Went out to bring him in and was shot too;
And this one, the very moment he was warned
From potting at tin-cans in no-man’s-land,
Fell back dead with his rifle-sights shot away.
The rest, nobody knows what they came to,
But come to the worst they must have done, and held it
Closer than their hope; all were killed.

Here see a man’s photograph,
The locket of a smile, turned overnight
Into the hospital of his mangled last
Agony and hours; see bundled in it
His mightier-than-a-man dead bulk weight:
And on this one place which keeps him alive
(In his Sunday best) see fall war’s worst
Thinkable flash and rending, onto his smile
Forty years rotting into soil.

That man’s not more alive whom you confront
And shake by the hand, see hale, hear speak loud,
Than any of these six celluloid smiles are,
Nor prehistoric or, fabulous beast more dead;
No thought so vivid as their smoking-blood:
To regard this photograph might well dement,
Such contradictory permanent horrors here
Smile from the single exposure and shoulder out
One’s own body from its instant and heat.

George Grosz, Explosion, 1917

George Grosz, Explosion, 1917

Yvan Goll was a German citizen with Jewish antecedents, born in 1891 in Alsace-Lorraine – the borderland disputed between France and Germany. His wandering life as an exile was to reflect the turmoil in Europe in the first half of the century. Goll identified himself with the new wave of German expressionism that flourished in Berlin before the First World War.  Like Kathe Kollwitz, he was a socialist pacifist and in 1914, to escape conscription into the German army, he took refuge in Switzerland. There he published poems and articles critical of the war – including, in 1915, ‘Requiem for the Dead of Europe’. In 1939, to escape Nazi persecution, he emigrated to the USA, where he continued to write.  In 1947, dying from leukaemia, he returned to Paris. Despite sixteen poets from countries across the world giving him their blood, he died there in February 1950.

Let me lament the exodus of so many men from their time;
Let me lament the women whose warbling hearts now scream;
Every lament let me note and add to the list,
When young widows sit by lamplight mourning for husbands lost;
I hear the blonde-voiced children crying for God their father at bedtime;
On every mantelpiece stand photographs wreathed with ivy, smiling, true to the past;
At every window stand lonely girls whose burning eyes are bright with tears;
In every garden lilies are growing, as though there’s a grave to prepare;
In every street the cars are moving more slowly, as though to a funeral;
In every city of every land you can hear the passing-bell;
In every heart there’s a single plaint,
I hear it more clearly every day.

Paul Nash, Ruined Country, 1917

Paul Nash, Ruined Country. Old battlefield, Vimy, near La Folie wood, 1917

American poet Carl Sandburg, the son of migrants from Sweden, was born in the Mid West, drove a milk wagon and later worked as a bricklayer and a farm labourer on the wheat plains of Kansas.  He became an active socialist, involved in working class struggles and the civil rights movement.  In 1898, he had volunteered to fight in the Spanish-American War. ‘Grass’ was published in a 1918 collection of Sandburg’s poetry, and is a timeless meditation on war in the ageless voice of nature:

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work –

I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:

What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.


CWR Nevinson, The Harvest of Battle, 1921

‘The Second Coming’ by William Butler Yeats was written after the war was over, in 1919. It gives powerful expression to Benjamin’s later vision of a storm blowing from Paradise, rousing a ‘rough beast’ from slumber – an apocalyptic vision of 20th century horrors yet to come:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight; somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The goldfinch: symbol of salvation yet thrice-cursed, ‘enjailed in pitiless wire’

The goldfinch: symbol of salvation yet thrice-cursed, ‘enjailed in pitiless wire’

Yesterday I wrote about the connection between Donna Tartt’s new novel and the 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch.  That set me thinking about why Fabritius had chosen the bird as a subject for a painting, so I thought I’d consult the book I received as a birthday present recently: Birds and People by Mark Cocker.

What I found there proved to be fascinating.  In a sense, Carel Fabritius was following a well-established tradition of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance of featuring a goldfinch in paintings, especially images of the Madonna and holy child.  What mattered for these artists was not the accuracy of natural history but the bird’s symbolic or allegorical meaning.  Cocker reckons that close on 500 paintings in this period included the goldfinch motif.  In the case of the Madonna images, the bird often occupied a central place in the composition, perched on Mary’s fingers or nestled in Christ’s hands.

Taddeo di Bartolo Sienna , Virgin and Child, 13C

Detail from Taddeo di Bartolo’s ‘Virgin and Child’,14th century

Virgin and Child, Florence, 13 or 14C

‘Virgin and Child’, Florence, 14th century.

So what was it about the goldfinch that warranted its inclusion in hundreds of paintings?  The answer lies in the bird’s plumage and lifestyle, which had produced in the medieval mind powerful symbolic associations. Cocker quotes the scholar Herbert Friedmann who wrote in The Symbolic Goldfinch (1946) of the ‘ceaseless sweep of allegory through men’s minds.  They felt and thought and dreamed in allegories’.

Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, detail

Detail from ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymous Bosch, c1510: rampant allegory featuring an outsize goldfinch.

What did the individual feel, then, when they saw an image of a goldfinch? First, there was the bar of gold across the bird’s wings, a colour which, since the ancient Greeks, had been associated with the ability to cure sickness.  Then there was the splash of red on the cheeks: as with the robin’s red breast this was a sign to medieval Christians that the bird had acquired blood-coloured feathers while attempting to remove the crown of thorns from while Christ was being crucified.

Finally, not only did thistles have a symbolic association with the crucifixion: thistle seeds are the staple food of the European goldfinch, and thistles were themselves regarded as curative (long credited, for example, as a medicinal ingredient to combat the plague).

John Clare, always observant of bird behaviour, noted the goldfinch’s preference for thistles in his poem, ‘The Redcap’ (an old country name for the bird):

The redcap is a painted bird
and beautiful its feathers are;
In early spring its voice is heard
While searching thistles brown and bare;
It makes a nest of mosses grey
And lines it round with thistle-down;
Five small pale spotted eggs they lay
In places never far from town

(Indeed, goldfinches often come to our bird table here in Liverpool.)

Through its association with thistles, the goldfinch came to be seen as a good-luck charm, ‘warding off contagion and bestowing symbolic health both upon those who viewed it and upon the person who owned it’.  Thus the goldfinch came to be a symbol of endurance and, in the case of paintings of the Madonna and child this symbolism was transferred to the Christ child, an allegory of the salvation Christ would bring through his sacrifice.

Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child, 1480

Carlo Crivelli, ‘Madonna and Child’, 1480

In the Venetian artist Carlo Crivelli’s Madonna and Child, apples and a phallic and misshapen cucumber symbolise sin and a fly evil; they are opposed to the goldfinch, symbol of redemption from the belief that when Christ was crucified, a goldfinch perched on his head and began to extract thorns from the crown that soldiers had placed there.

Raphael, Madonna del Cardellino Madonna of the Goldfinch detail

Detail from Raphael’s ‘Madonna del Cardellino’ (‘Madonna of the Goldfinch’).

In Birds and People, Mark Cocker makes a broader point: that the story of the goldfinch in late medieval art is an indication of how our views of nature have changed.  Until relatively recently most people ‘genuinely thought birds existed to fulfil very specific human ends’.  He quotes one 18th century author as asserting: ‘Singing birds were undoubtedly designed by the Great Author of Nature on purpose to entertain and delight mankind’.

Which, in a way, brings us back to Fabritius’s goldfinch.  Cocker describes the goldfinch as ‘thrice-cursed as a cagebird’: once by its beauty, then by its pleasant song, described by one writer as ‘more expressive of the joy of living than of challenge to rivals’, and finally by its dextrous coordination of bill and feet.  In order to feed off thistle heads, the goldfinch has developed the ability to hold down an object with its toes while pulling parts towards them.

Fabritius, The Goldfinch,1654

Carel Fabritius’s ‘Goldfinch’,1654: ‘thrice-cursed’.

It was precisely these three ‘curses’ that resulted in the predicament of the bird in Fabritius’s painting.  Finches like the chaffinch and goldfinch were highly valued as cagebirds for their melodious song, but goldfinches brought something more: they became  popular house pets in Holland, kept in captivity attached to a chain and trained to perform the trick of drawing water from a glass placed below the perch by lowering a thimble-sized cup into the glass.

It’s not beyond the bounds of probability that Fabritius, making this painting six years after the United Provinces had gained their independence from Spain, also expected his viewers to read his work as an allegory of freedom chained.  In this sense, the painting shares an emotional character with Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Caged Goldfinch’:

Within a churchyard, on a recent grave,
I saw a little cage
That jailed a goldfinch. All was silence save
Its hops from stage to stage.

There was inquiry in its wistful eye,
And once it tried to sing;
Of him or her who placed it there, and why,
No one knew anything.

A few decades after Hardy, Osip Mandelstam, in ‘The Cage’ written after Stalin had ordered his arrest and internal exile in Voronezh from 1935 to 1937, summoned the goldfinch to symbolize his yearning for freedom and self-expression and rage at being caged within ‘a hundred bars of lies’:

When the goldfinch like rising dough
suddenly moves, as a heart throbs,
anger peppers its clever cloak
and its nightcap blackens with rage.

The cage is a hundred bars of lies
the perch and little plank are slanderous.
Everything in the world is inside out,
and there is the Salamanca forest
for disobedient, clever birds.

There’s another goldfinch poem by Thomas Hardy – ‘The Blinded Bird’ – that communicates the same sense of rage at freedom denied, ‘enjailed in pitiless wire’:

So zestfully canst thou sing?
And all this indignity,
With God’s consent, on thee!
Blinded ere yet a-wing
By the red-hot needle thou,
I stand and wonder how
So zestfully thou canst sing!

Resenting not such wrong,
Thy grievous pain forgot,
Eternal dark thy lot,
Groping thy whole life long;
After that stab of fire;
Enjailed in pitiless wire;
Resenting not such wrong!

Who hath charity? This bird.
Who suffereth long and is kind,
Is not provoked, though blind
And alive ensepulchred?
Who hopeth, endureth all things?
Who thinketh no evil, but sings?
Who is divine? This bird.

Hardy – who was an antivivisectionist and founder-member of the RSPCA – wrote the poem as a protest against the Flemish practice of Vinkensport in which finches are made to compete for the highest number of bird calls in an hour. In preparation for the contests, birds would be blinded with hot needles in order to reduce visual distractions and encourage them to sing more. In 1920, after a campaign by blind World War I veterans supported by Hardy the practice was banned.  Vinkensport – considered part of traditional Flemish culture – continues today, though the birds are now kept in small wooden boxes that let air in but keep distractions out.

Writing this now brings back the memory of standing in a narrow street in Naples this spring, echoing with the roar of motorcycles and the shouts of people passing.  Above the din, I heard a bird sing. Opposite, a tenement rose up, balconies draped with the morning’s washing, and on a fourth floor balcony, my eyes found the bird that sang.  Some kind of finch, it was trapped in a cage no more than twice its size.  I wrote about that experience back in April, and of the poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar that gave Maya Angelou the title of the first volume of her autobiography:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!

Leonardo, Madonna Litta detail

Leonardo da Vinci, ‘Madonna Litta’, detail

Maybe Hardy had read Leonardo da Vinci’s words on the goldfinch:

The gold-finch is a bird of which it is related that, when it is carried into the presence of a sick person, if the sick man is going to die, the bird turns away its head and never looks at him; but if the sick man is to be saved the bird never loses sight of him but is the cause of curing him of all his sickness.

Like unto this is the love of virtue. It never looks at any vile or base thing, but rather clings always to pure and virtuous things and takes up its abode in a noble heart; as the birds do in green woods on flowery branches. And this Love shows itself more in adversity than in prosperity; as light does, which shines most where the place is darkest.

Ted Hughes celebrated the twitching, thrilling vitality of goldfinches in their free element in ‘The Laburnum Top’:

The Laburnum Top is silent, quite still
in the afternoon yellow September sunlight,
A few leaves yellowing, all its seeds fallen

Till the goldfinch comes, with a twitching chirrup
A suddeness, a startlement,at a branch end
Then sleek as a lizard, and alert and abrupt,
She enters the thickness,and a machine starts up
Of chitterings, and of tremor of wings, and trillings –
The whole tree trembles and thrills
It is the engine of her family.
She stokes it full, then flirts out to a branch-end
Showing her barred face identity mask

Then with eerie delicate whistle-chirrup whisperings
She launches away, towards the infinite

And the laburnum subsides to empty

Simon Armitage, in The Poetry of Birds, wonders why poets have written so many poems about birds. ‘Perhaps at some subconscious, secular level,’ he writes, ‘birds are also our souls’. He continues:

Or more likely, they are our poems. What we find in them we would hope for our work – that sense of soaring otherness. Maybe that’s how poets think of birds: as poems.

Reviewing Donna Tartt’s novel in today’s Guardian, Kamila Shamsie writes that at the conclusion of the book she leads her readers to a place of meaning: in her words, ‘a rainbow edge … where all art exists, and all magic. And … all love.’

Henriette Browne, A Girl Writing The Pet Goldfinch, 1870

Henriette Browne, ‘A Girl Writing The Pet Goldfinch’, 1870: freedom to fly

See also

The badger is the true king of this land

The badger is the true king of this land

Badger by Eileen Soper

Badger by Eileen Soper

Reposted from 21 July 2011

One of the most magical experiences of my life was an encounter with a badger.  So it pains me that the government has finally made the decision to go ahead with a badger cull.  The Guardian has a concise, reasoned editorial on the plan here: ‘At the end of the exercise, England’s dairy farmers will still be no better off, and the wild landscape will be a great deal poorer. Crazy seems too mild an epithet’.

Brian May’s e-petition can be signed here.  The 38 Degrees petition against the cull can be signed here.  There’s been a big debate among 38 Degrees members about these culls. Some believe killing badgers would be wrong under any circumstances. Some believe that if the science really proved that shooting badgers could make a real dent in the cow TB problem, it would be a tragic necessity. But 87% agree on this: the government’s current plans to shoot England’s badgers simply don’t stack up. The government’s own scientific advisers warn that it won’t solve the problem of TB in cattle, and could even make it worse.

Government scientists say that if a cull isn’t carried out ‘in a co-ordinated, sustained and simultaneous manner according to the minimum criteria, then this could result in a smaller benefit or even a detrimental effect’.

The arguments surrounding the cull are weighed in this piece by Damien Carrington in The Guardian.  It doesn’t look good for the badger,  the ‘most ancient Briton of English beasts’ as Edward Thomas observed in ‘The Combe‘.  Carrington writes that,

The proposals consulted upon by the government, amount to a DIY cull by landowners: they will self-organise into groups and then shoot free-running badgers. At the time, the proposals were described as “scientifically among the worst options they could have chosen” by the leading UK’s leading badger ecologist, who worked on the biggest trial ever undertaken.

He concludes that,

The most obvious alternative is already being implemented by the National Trust: trapping and vaccinating the badgers against TB. But, it’s expensive and the government has cancelled five projects to test vaccination, leaving just one. In the medium-term, an oral vaccine, which can be given far more easily and cheaply in food, seems ideal. But will not be ready for use until 2015.

Green MP Caroline Lucas, responded to the government announcement with this statement:

The decision by Defra to give the go-ahead for a barbaric slaughter of badgers in our countryside shows a shocking disregard for animal welfare – and flies in the face of scientific evidence on the spread of bovine TB.  The belief that badger culling represents an effective solution has already been disproven.  After a nine year randomised cull trial which cost the UK taxpayer £50m and destroyed 10,000 badgers, the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB concluded that ‘badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain’.  Even the Government adviser responsible for a 10-year experimental cull in the 1990s, Lord Krebs, has now rejected the method.  Perhaps it is this lack of evidence to support the policy that has made Defra so reluctant to publish the results of its consultation.

Eighty per cent of bovine TB transmission is thought to be caused by cattle-to-cattle infection.  Given that it is a respiratory disease, this high rate can be attributed to the trend towards intensive dairy farming, in which cattle are kept in crowded conditions. Rather than cruel and ineffective mass culling, restrictions on cattle movement and contact between badgers and cattle should be given high priority, in addition to greater efforts to introduce a vaccination programme.

Queen guitarist Brian May has campaigned against the cull for many years.  In a  recent Guardian feature he stated:

I don’t really love badgers because they are furry and good-looking. It’s not about that. They are appealing, there’s no doubt, they are like little bears, especially when they are young. To me they are fascinating and rather mysterious because they have been in the British Isles longer than humans and they have their own social ways, not all of which is understood by us.

I can’t help but have a sort of awe for all wild creatures who have survived even the awfulness of what we have done to the world. We are the vandals in this world, there’s no doubt about it.”

Despite being the first wild animal to be given legal protection in Britain, in 1973, the illegal “sport” of badger baiting and digging still goes on, and this year killing badgers is set to be sanctioned by the government – which wants to authorise farmers to trap and shoot them to reduce bovine TB. May is convinced this is the Conservatives’ political sop to the countryside lobby because, locked in coalition, they lack the numbers to repeal Labour’s hunting ban. “It’s a panacea that is being offered to farmers, look we are doing something, we are on your side, we’re going out and killing things,” he says.

Bovine TB led to the slaughter of 24,899 cattle in England last year, costing £63m. Farmers insist the disease is a genuine crisis, and argue it has increased with a burgeoning badger population and that disease hotspots correspond to high badger populations, particularly in the West Country. May insists that it is still unproven that badgers pass TB to cattle (it is proven that cattle transmit it to badgers) and unproven that a cull would help.  He quotes the conclusion of a 10-year culling trial in which 11,000 badgers were killed: culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the control of TB.

Badger and Owl by Carrie Akroyd

In ‘Coming Down Through Somerset’, the unsentimental Ted Hughes wrote movingly of an encounter with a dead badger:

I flash-glimpsed in the headlights — the high moment
Of driving through England — a killed badger
Sprawled with helpless legs. Yet again
Manoeuvred lane-ends, retracked, waited
Out of decency for headlights to die,
Lifted by one warm hindleg in the world-night
A slain badger. August dust-heat. Beautiful,
Beautiful, warm, secret beast. Bedded him
Passenger, bleeding from the nose. Brought him close
Into my life. Now he lies on the beam
Torn from a great building. Beam waiting two years
To be built into new building. Summer coat
Not worth skinning off him. His skeleton — for the future.
Fangs, handsome concealed. Flies, drumming,
Bejewel his transit. Heatwave ushers him hourly
Towards his underworlds. A grim day of flies
And sunbathing. Get rid of that badger.
A night of shrunk rivers, glowing pastures,
Sea-trout shouldering up through trickles. Then the sun again
Waking like a torn-out eye. How strangely
He stays on into the dawn — how quiet
The dark bear-claws, the long frost-tipped guard hairs!
Get rid of that badger today.
And already the flies.
More passionate, bringing their friends. I don’t want
To bury and waste him. Or skin him (it is too late).
Or hack off his head and boil it
To liberate his masterpiece skull. I want him
To stay as he is. Sooty gloss-throated,
With his perfect face. Paws so tired,
Power-body regulated. I want him
To stop time. His strength staying, bulky,
Blocking time. His rankness, his bristling wildness,
His thrillingly painted face.
A badger on my moment of life.
Not years ago, like the others, but now.
I stand
Watching his stillness, like an iron nail
Driven, flush to the head,
Into a yew post. Something has to stay.

Badger - RJ Lloyd

Badger by RJ Lloyd

In 1984, in his ‘fable for the young’,What is the Truth, Ted Hughes has the poacher speak these lines:

Main thing about badgers is hating daylight.
Funny kind of chap snores all day
In his black hole-sort of root
A ball of roots a potato or a bulb maybe
A whiskery bulb he loves bulbs he’ll do a lot to get a good bulb

Worms beetles things full of night
Keeping himself filled up with night
A big beetle wobbling along nose down in the mould
Heavy weight of night in him
Heavy pudding of night solid in him and incredibly heavy
Soaking out through his beetle-black legs
Leaving the hair-tips on his bristly back drained empty
And white and his face drained stark-white
A ghost mask really a fright mask
I know night-shift miners
Are very pale but he’s whitewashed

Like a sprout’s white I suppose underground
He sprouts his nose slowly
Surprising to see it sticking out of the ground
To sniff if the sun’s gone-soon he comes rolling out
A fat bulb with a sniffing sprout, a grey mushroom
Just bulging out of the ground and sitting there on top of it
Scratching his fleas sniffing for stars

His sniffing around is a bit like a maggot
Then he’s of following his sniff
With his burglar’s mask on and his crowbar
Under his moonlight cloak
And all night he’s breaking and entering
Deadlogs wasps’ nests hedgehogs, old wild man of the woods in his woad
Crashing about, humming to himself

Amazing physique he has Eskimo wrestler
Really like a Troll bristly gristly
Armpits like an orangoutang when you examine him
And a ridge on his skull like a gorilla
Packed in muscle a crash-helmet of muscle
His head is actually one terrific muscle
With a shocking chomp and sleepy little eyes
To make it seem harmless. But he’s harmless enough
Even if he acts guilty. And he makes you smile
When you see his back-end bobbing along in the dawn-dew
With the sack of himself bouncing on his gallop
Just like a sack of loot. My Dad said
Kill a badger kill your granny. Kill a badger never see
The moon in your sleep. And so it is.
They disappear under their hill but they work a lot inside people.

Bovine TB causes tens of millions of pounds of damage annually, with affected farmers forced to discard milk, meat and other products from infected beasts, and sometimes to abandon livestock farming altogether (though many critics of the cull argue that bovine TB has spread as a consequence of intensive farming methods). In What is the Truth, Ted Hughes put these words into the mouth of the farmer:

The Badger in the spinney is the true king of this land.
All creatures are his tenants, though not all understand.

Didicoi red and roe-deer, gypsy foxes, romany otters-
They squabble about their boundaries, but all of them are squatters.

Even the grandest farm-house, what is it but a camp
In the land where the singing Badger walks the woods with his hooded lamp?

A farmer’s but a blowing seed with a flower of crops and herds.
His tractors and his combines are as airy as his words.

But the Badger’s fort was dug when the whole land was one oak.
His face is his ancient coat of arms, and he wears the same grey cloak

As if time had not passed at all, as if there were no such thing,
As if there were only the one night-kingdom and its Badger King.

Badger Studies by Will Taylor

See also

Ted Hughes: alive in the river of light

So we found the end of our journey,
So we stood alive in the river of light,
Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.

That is the inscription on the memorial stone to Ted Hughes, unveiled in a ceremony at Westminster Abbey last night. It’s an extract from ‘That Morning’, a poem from his 1983 collection, River.

We came where the salmon were so many
So steady, so spaced, so far-aimed
On their inner map, England could add

Only the sooty twilight of South Yorkshire
Hung with the drumming drift of Lancasters
Till the world had seemed capsizing slowly.

Solemn to stand there in the pollen light
Waist-deep in wild salmon swaying massed
As from the hand of God. There the body

Separated, golden and imperishable,
From its doubting thought – a spirit-beacon
Lit by the power of the salmon

That came on, came on, and kept on coming
As if we flew slowly, their formations
Lifting us toward some dazzle of blessing

One wrong thought might darken. As if the fallen
World and salmon were over. As if these
Were the imperishable fish

That had let the world pass away –

There, in a mauve light of drifted lupins,
They hung in the cupped hands of mountains

Made of tingling atoms. It had happened.
Then for a sign that we were where we were
Two gold bears came down and swam like men

Beside us. And dived like children.
And stood in deep water as on a throne
Eating pierced salmon off their talons.

So we found the end of our journey.

So we stood, alive in the river of light,
Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.

Laying the memorial stone
Following a lengthy campaign, the memorial to Hughes, former poet laureate who died in 1998, was given its place in the Abbey’s Poets’ Corner. Members of his family including his widow, Carol, and Frieda, his daughter with Sylvia Plath, joined friends and fellow poets including Seamus Heaney, Andrew Motion, Simon Armitage and Blake Morrison.

All the members of a family scarred by tragedy were recalled in the ceremony. Heaney – who said at Hughes’s funeral, “No death outside my immediate family has left me feeling more bereft; no death in my lifetime has hurt poets more” – gave the oration and read several Hughes poems, including ‘Some Pike for Nicholas’, recalling some of his happiest hours with his son, Nicholas, who killed himself in 2009 after battling depression for years. Juliet Stevenson read Hughes’s tender verse about his daughter ‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’.

A cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the clank of a bucket –
And you listening.
A spider’s web, tense for the dew’s touch.
A pail lifted, still and brimming – mirror
To tempt a first star to a tremor.

Cows are going home in the lane there, looping the hedges with their warm
wreaths of breath –
A dark river of blood, many boulders,
Balancing unspilled milk.
‘Moon!’ you cry suddenly, ‘Moon! Moon!’

The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work
That points at him amazed.

Ted Hughes by Fay Godwin

Yesterday on Radio 4, Simon Armitage pointed out that, though Ted Hughes is indelibly associated with the Calder valley, he only lived in that part of the world until he was about seven:  ‘I think it became a kind of template, not just for his early work but for all mature work as well – a kind of lens through which he could see all of the world.

Speaking about ‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’, Simon Armitage described it as ‘a really tender poem, I think we might be invited to imagine that ‘moon’ is the first word his daughter speaks.  She comes out into the doorway and sees the moon and responds to it.  It’s such a wonderful poem: it’s like a kind of equation in language where he’s managed to balance this little girl against a whole planet’. Armitage said that poetry was in Hughes’ breath and in his blood, and speaking of the words from ‘That Morning’ carved on the memorial stone he said:

Those three lines say as much about his work as anything: the immediacy of it, but also the absolute depth.  It’s mesmerising and crystal-clear at the same time.

Armitage also spoke about Ted Hughes’ poem ‘The Thought Fox’ which he read at the ceremony last night:

It’s a poem about the act of writing – the visitation of the fox is compared with the visit of the poem, this kind of mysterious thing that comes to him, and it’s one of those that’s suddenly there in front of your eyes, printed, as he says, before you know it.  It’s sort of  a magic trick really – and the fox then disappears back into the wood.

Fence by Fay Godwin

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

Heptonstall, 1978, by Fay Godwin

See also

Betwixt the sand and the foam

I am forever walking upon these shores,
Betwixt the sand and the foam,
The high tide will erase my foot-prints,
And the wind will blow away the foam.
But the sea and the shore will remain
– from ‘Sand and Foam’ by Kahlil Gibran

It was blustery when we left the city, but it was wild on the shore at Formby Point.  The sky was steel-grey, and occasional squalls blew in off the estuary, but the fierce wind was warm, even on this exposed stretch of coastline. It felt as if my being was reduced to a kernel isolated from everything in the world.  Beyond the pummelling roar of the wind I could hear nothing and see little through steamed-up and sand-blasted glasses.

The shore was deserted but for two couples out dog-walking, like us.  One of these, however, was accompanied by a pack of half a dozen Irish wolfhounds.

Here’s a gallery of black and white images that I took (click first image to view slideshow).

Snowstorm hits Liverpool

Snowstorm hits Liverpool

Snowstorm Sefton Park

Out here on the western margins we don’t get much snow, but today the snow that’s blanketed much of the rest of the country for the last fortnight – even as close as Manchester – finally reached us,  The snowfall lasted from mid-morning to late afternoon – pretty impressive by Liverpool standards.

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

– Wallace Stevens

To complement these pictures, here is Ted Hughes’ poem about the act of writing that conjures up the image of a dark night of deep snowfall:

The Thought Fox

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

Signs of spring

Signs of spring
Our magnolia is out now in all its glory

A warm spring has settled in this last two weeks: blossom is out and the migrating birds are heading home.

This Country Diary from Wenlock Edge captures the spring feeling:

Last week was not only the first of April, it was also the first of swallows, the first of green-veined white and comma butterflies, the first of bloody-nose beetles. The experience of spring is sketched out by the appearance or reappearance of things which had slipped from consciousness. How often will I think about the banks of white wood anemones flowering now after they’ve disappeared, even though I walk past the same place every day? Because these plants live up to their name of spring ephemerals and I forget them once they’re gone, their return is like a piece of music which brings back a flood of memories – not just memories of previous springs but of what spring is, what it looks, smells and feels like. Swallows do that too. Although they’re around much longer than flowers such as wood anemone and violet, it’s the first swallow that ignites the thrill and the last slips away unnoticed.

The first things make the most vivid marks, and after they’ve appeared the other birds, butterflies and beetles of their kind fill in the colour and texture of the season. There are other migrant birds arriving now. Chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff … the rhythmic flint-knapping calls of the chiffchaff strike through clear morning air. There’s a half moon like a faint toeprint in the sky, but it’s clouding over, looks like rain for the first time in weeks. The chiffchaff flits through tree branches, small and anonymous but with a sharp, penetrating voice which seems to announce something far greater than itself. Perhaps this bird has just arrived from west Africa or the Mediterranean, perhaps it’s only spent the winter in a Cornish sewage farm, it doesn’t really matter. The romance of the chiffchaff is the story of its arrival, its fearless two-note broadcast which transforms this place, bringing the far away and the forgotten to our doorsteps, becoming the tangible detail of spring.

Field of Hope, Sefton Park

“Daffodils that come before the swallow dares, and takes the winds of March with beauty.” Shakespeare

Cherry blossoms at Ueno Park in Tokyo
Palestinian girl and cherry blossom, Hebron, West Bank

Migrants return

‘Bringing the far away and the forgotten to our doorsteps’: Nimrod, the osprey whose migrations are being tracked, set off for Scotland from his winter quarters in Guinea-Bissau on March 28. He has now crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and at 4.12am GMT was in the hills 3 kilometres east of Facinas, north of Tarifa. He’s probably at a small reservoir nestling in the hills, which are covered in wind turbines, so he needs to be careful. He’s now reached Europe but still has a good run to get back home and start breeding.

Footnote: On April 13, Nimrod was flying north over the sea 5 miles NW of Hoylake, so he could make Morecambe Bay by dusk – and knowing him – will he fly by the moon and be home by morning! He was back on the nest in Findhorn Bay on April 15.

Here in the Avenue, we await the return of the swifts and martins, squealing and swooping in the sky at dusk.

…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
– Ted Hughes, The Swifts