Saturday, 27 August 2011

The more things don't change, the more they don't stay the same...

This is an old picture of me playing with the model zoo that my father made me. 

   It is clear to me that I have hardly changed in the intervening decades. There's been a slight redistribution of hair follicles, the addition of glasses, a doubling of height, but that's about it. My interest in the unnatural aspects of natural history has also remained constant, weathering even the priapism of adolescence; I still go to zoos and stare at the inmates.
   And I still have most of those toy animals. Despite her cramped living conditions a friend kept them in a shoe-box for fourteen years during one of my footloose periods. Unfortunately there are a couple of pieces missing; a gibbon and an anteater (G, if you're reading this – I realise Ireland has suffered economic collapse, but before you emigrate could you check down the back of the sofa? Best of luck on both counts. S).

   To prove I haven't changed - apart from the redistribution, addition and doubling - here's a recent portrait; 

   I look very writerly - the result of a trompe-l'oeil conjured up by talented stylist/photographer Annelie Bruijn.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

"A sort of living doubt"

   I often listen out for Corn crakes and I think I heard one once, but it could have been someone using a ratchet.

   The Corn crake's habit of nesting in wheat fields had disastrous consequences following the advent of mechanised harvesting. It is normally loath to break cover, though in the breeding season the males sometimes dash around like well-groomed chickens. Its Linnaean name is Crex crex and when it calls, as in this video clip by Mikhail Rodionov, we can hear why;

   John Clare (1793-1864) referred to the Corn crake by another of its common names, the Landrail.

The Landrail

How sweet and pleasant grows the way
Through summer time again
While Landrails call from day to day
Amid the grass and grain

We hear it in the weeding time
When knee deep waves the corn
We hear it in the summers prime
Through meadows night and morn

And now I hear it in the grass
That grows as sweet again
And let a minutes notice pass
And now tis in the grain

Tis like a fancy everywhere
A sort of living doubt
We know tis something but we neer
Will blab the secret out

If heard in close or meadow plots
It flies if we pursue
But follows if we notice not
The close and meadow through

Boys know the note of many a bird
In their birdnesting bounds
But when the Landrails noise is heard
They wonder at the sounds

They look in every tuft of grass
Thats in their rambles met
They peep in every bush they pass
And none the wiser get

And still they hear the craiking sound
And still they wonder why
It surely cant be under ground
Nor is it in the sky

And yet tis heard in every vale
An undiscovered song
And makes a pleasant wonder tale
For all the summer long

The shepherd whistles through his hands
And starts with many a whoop
His busy dog across the lands
In hopes to fright it up

Tis still a minutes length or more
Til dogs are off and gone
Then sings and louder than before
But keeps the secret on

Yet accident will often meet
The nest within its way
And weeders when they weed the wheat
Discover where they lay

And mowers on the meadow lea
Chance on their noisy quest
And wonder what the bird can be
That lays without a nest

In simple holes the birds will rake
When dusting on the ground
They drop their eggs of curious make
Deep blotched and nearly round

A mystery still to men and boys
Who know not where they lay
And guess it but a summer noise
Among the meadow hay

   An exhaustive description that certainly gets across the point that the bird is easier to hear then see. I like the phrase “they peep in every bush they pass and none the wiser get” - it could apply to a lot of our pursuits.

   In the following film the innovative composer Olivier Messiaen makes an excellent fist of the corncrake's cry, his wife, the gifted pianist Yvonne Loriod, punching it out on the piano;

   Messiaen then appears to go on to talk about the Corn crake's “torculus victorieux”, but surely this refers to another bird and is a result of the editing, the film editor understandably thrown by Loriod's radiant smile.
   “Torculus victorieux”, now there's a phrase to conjure with, contrive to use that in a sentence and you'll surely win the hand of the fair maid who, up until its unlikely appearance, has fast been losing interest.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The Detritus of War

   I'm not sure there is any such thing as an English Haiku, the phrase itself is probably oxymoronic, but "Beachhead" by Samuel Menashe must come close. Born in 1925 Menashe fought in the Battle of the Bulge, his lines call to mind the Normandy landings;

The tide ebbs
From a helmet
Wet sand embeds.