Nightingales in Berkeley Square

September 6, 2010

Bees in the lavender – photograph by Liz Mathews

With the odd synchronicity that so often happens after encountering something new, when that same scrap of life reappears everywhere, this week has been plagued by the nightingale.  I was reading Scrapbook for the 1920’s by Leslie Baily (background research, and an entertaining picture of the period).  There I came across the story of Beatrice Harrison, the cellist who played duets with the nightingale in her garden, broadcast for the first time in 1924 in one of the great success stories of early radio.  She recalled that although the bird didn’t join in until nearly midnight, ‘I don’t think he ever sang more gloriously’.  Over fifty thousand of those who listened in wrote to thank her.

(In these early days of ‘outside broadcasting’, it was a bold move to try and catch something as unpredictable as birdsong live, but it was possible to break in to the late night dance music programme – also live, The Savoy Orpheans – whenever the bird began to sing.  This encapsulates the odd mixture of stiff formality and lax lawlessness which seems to characterise the Twenties.)

The experiment was repeated for the next twelve years, and there’s a marvellous picture of her and an excerpt of the musical nightingale on the BBC website.

The day after reading this, I happened to hear a programme in the Proms interval all about nightingales, where Beatrice Harrison made her appearance, and we heard her nightingale again.  Then, there was an even more extraordinary recording.  In 1942, the nightingale was due to be broadcast, and sang as ever, but the programme didn’t go out live because there was an unexpected element in the mix – the steady rumble of bomber planes going overhead in wave after wave.  Instead, the sound engineer recorded it, as a potent evocation of that surreal moment.  Listening to it, as Richard Mabey said, it was impossible not to hear the bird’s voice singing ‘Choose life!’.  (Just as Virginia Woolf’s birds sing ‘Vita!’)

This was a reading from Richard Mabey’s new book The Barley Bird, which I haven’t yet read but certainly will, on the basis of this extract – although on the page it will be a shame to miss his brilliant reading of John Clare’s phonetic notation of the nightingale’s song, a weird poem in itself.  The observation that John Clare saw the nightingale as a fellow-poet is true, too.  Much bleaker is Mabey’s analysis that the bird is rapidly losing numbers in England (it only visits the south), probably because of fewer insects – a result of climate change.  Here was a resonance with the new commission in the Prom, Dark Pastoral by David Matthews, based on a theme by Vaughan Williams, beautiful but elegaic.

The loss of the nightingale is like the vanishing bees; something many people care about not only for practical reasons but because of its poetic, mythic status, the essence of everyday magic.  It’s rather moving what a cross-section of different kinds of people are trying to help the bees – links to some of them here.  One of the happy results of urban beekeeping is that we can now get such local honey in London – ours is made by a beekeeper a few streets away, proudly labelled ‘Tufnell Park honey’.

Earlier this year, among the bumble bees that still visit our lavender, I saw an unfamiliar sort, with black and white stripes on its body.  I was puzzled, until I discovered from the poet Alison Brackenbury’s blog (on a recent post called Bumbling along), that it’s a new bee here, Bombus hyphorum, its range recently expanded by global warming. She has a poem about the bees, too.

We may have no choice but to adapt to this shift in what we’ve known, but before we mourn the absolute loss of our particular bees or birds, we can try to support them, both by practical measures and by invoking their particular magic. In literature, the nightingales will sing forever in Berkeley Square, or Hampstead Heath, or John Clare’s Helpston; on the radio we can hear Beatrice Harrison’s cello partner, Vita Sackville-West’s chorus serenading Ethel Smythe, the bird outsinging the bombers. But we also need to hear them now, in our own time and place, birds alive as well as immortal.

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