April 2009


How pleasant to know Mister Lear, 

who has written such volumes of stuff!

Some think him ill-tempered and so queer,

but a few think him pleasant enough.

 

Edward Lear is a distinctly odd man.  He is in his forties, bearded as a prophet, bespectacled, and homosexual, which is difficult for Victorian society.  He is also prone to epileptic fits and has a intense and close relationship with his sister Ann, who was twenty years older and has brought him up as a mother, though their relationship still resembles that between an  indulgent if somewhat infantilizing mother and her intelligent, active and resistant seven or eight year old. 

 

His mind is concrete and fastidious.

His nose is remarkably big.

His beard is more or less hideous.

His beard, it resembles a wig.

 

Lear writes nonsense poetry, whimsical combinations of words and images, which he uses defensively to bat people off. He dismisses his writing as marginalia.  He would rather be known as a landscape artist but wishes he had done life classes.    

 

He has ears, and two eyes, and ten fingers

(leastways if you reckon two thumbs).

He used to be one of the singers,

but now he is one of the dumbs.

 

At the beginning of the Chris Goode’s new play, King Pelican, Ann is lying in bed on the mezzanine.  She is dying.  Edward cannot cope with his impending loss and refuses to talk seriously, telling her of the antics of the strange creatures that inhabit the square below.  Ann indulges him wearily, but dies in the middle of one of Edwards diversions.  To cope with the enormity of his loss, he  pretends that she has gone away on a long journey.  She writes letters to him from heaven. 

 

He weeps by the side of the ocean,

he weeps on the top of the hill;

he purchases pancakes and lotion

and chocolate shrimps from the mill.

 

Then Johnny enters Edward’s life on cue as if to rescue him from desolation and delusion.  Johnny is a delivery boy, tall handsome and just nineteen years old.  He comes every day with a package, another component for a phonograph.  Johnny falls in love with the endearingly odd older man. 

 

He sits in a beautiful parlour

with hundreds of books on the wall.

He drinks a great deal of marsala

but never gets tipsy at all.

 

Becoming aware of ‘uncle’s’  fears of love and life, the youth removes his clothes and encourages Lear to gaze upon and even touch his body. Terrified, Lear sends Johnny away. The younger man feels rejected and hurt, ‘The trouble with you is, you can’t tell exile from love’.  Lear’s mind fractures and he has a seizure.   

 

Johnny returns and shatters Lear’s ordered life, careering round on a skate board while the set explodes, lights flash, television monitors buzz and there is weather, water and snow.  Johnny plugs his MP3 player in to the rear of the phonograph and dances manically to heavy metal rock.  Edward’s world fragments; he becomes the demented King Lear; Johnny – poor mad Tom.  

 

‘Blow winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!

You cataracts and hurricanoes spout

til you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!’   

 

But the crisis passes.  Edward regains his sanity, assisted by reassuring letters from Ann who is on her own plane.  And he and Johnny throw caution to the wind and build their beautiful pea-green boat. 

 

….. and they sail away for a year and a day to the land where the bong tree grows, presumably to have a civil marriage conducted by an upland turkey using the ring they have filched from the piggy-wig. 

 

King Pelican is a tender tale of make believe, the fantasy of a strange, whimsical man, who has never managed to separate from his filial devotion to Ann, his beloved sister; a lonely individual who fends off intimacy with nonsense and dissociates from crisis in seizures.  Ann’s death forces him to face his terror of sexuality and life.  He succeeds.  Edward and Johnny sail away into the sunset in their improbable boat, Edward strumming his small guitar.  Their union is unconventional.  How could it not be, but we wish them a fair wind, not to say a good passage! 

 

Is this still nonsense or will Lear find a new creativity, drawing from life?  Who knows?   

 

He reads, but he does not speak Spanish,

he cannot abide ginger beer;

ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish,

how pleasant to know Mister Lear!

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In some parts of western Scotland, local fishermen grow mussels on long ropes which they suspend from rafts.  When the mussels are mature, the ropes are simple hauled up and the molluscs harvested.  Unfortunately, Eiders relish rope grown mussels as much as the guests in London restaurants and find them just as easy to harvest.  They dive down and strip the ropes in a few hours. They are so destructive to the industry that the fishermen have obtained licences to shoot them. 

 

But for those of us who have no commercial interests in them, Eiders are a delight.    Stand on the shore on a calm morning, gaze out at the raft of Eiders, bobbing gently in the bay, a hundred or so birds, half of them white, the rest dark and listen, just listen!  Their voice is so comical – a soft guttering cooing, like a dove but with an accentuation at the end of each utterance that conveys a hint of surprise, amazement even, like middle aged ladies enjoying a gossip. 

 

‘Cooo-oorrrr! Well what did I tell you. She was out doing it again last Saturday. 

 

‘Cooo-oorrrr! She wasn’t.  She’ll catch er death o’cold.’ 

 

‘Cooo-oorrr!

If you watch carefully, you can see that each scandalized cooo-ooorrr is emphasized by the a throwing back of the head.  I cannot listen to a gossip of Eiders without a smile.  It’s the sound of sea lochs. It makes me happy.        

 

But train your glasses on a garrulous gossip of Eiders. Get in closer. You will notice that it is the males, not the females, who are scandalized. And the male Eiders are among the most beautiful of ducks. Gavin Maxwell, the Scottish naturalist, has compared them to naval officers in their tropical whites, The male is white, trimmed in black – cap, wingtips, tail and abdomen,  but it has the most exquisite shade of olive green patches in the side of the head and nape of the neck and the faintest of blushes on its breast, peachy when dry but more like faint streaks of blood when wet. The brown and black vermiculations of the female appears dowdy by comparison, but the patterning has its own more subtle beauty.  Both ducks have a characteristic profile, the slope of their head extends into the bill in a single straight line.  The black eye disappears into the cap of the male giving it an alien and somewhat sinister appearance like somebody in reflecting glasses.   

 

Eiders are heavy, flat bottomed, ocean going birds, awkward on land with their legs set too far back for dignified gait, but agile and quick underwater and magnificent in flight.  They have the reputation of being the world’s fastest duck in level flight, where speeds of up to 50mph have been recorded. 

 

Although Eiders can be the bane of the mussel farmer, it is a boon for others.  In Iceland and Norway, people farm Eiders for their down.  They encourage dense colonies of thousands of birds by creating protected nesting sites.  The down industry is currently in decline, but at its peak, Icelandic farmers used to gather more than 4 tons of eider down for export in a single season.  This equates to down feathers from quarter of million birds, but this did not threaten the populations of Eider.  Enormous numbers returned to the same fields the following seasons.  It seems there might be scope for commercial collaboration with the mussel fishermen. 

 

Eider down is easy to harvest.  Sitting eiders are extraordinarily tame and will allow farmers to walk among them and even move them over a bit to remove some of the down.  They just continue to ‘sit tight’.  A single nest yields two harvests of down a season and it takes about 30 nests to produce a pound of down. 

 

It is the female that plucks the soft grey breast plumage from her breast to line her nest – creating the perfect incubator for her eggs and such a cosy nursery for her chicks.  Eider down is the softest and most insulating of all natural materials.  The outer edges of the plumules interlock to provide a dense mass that can be compressed and spring out again intact to provide sufficient insulation to remain snug in a sleeping bag at polar temperatures as low as -35C.  In the days before central heating, Thyrotoxicosis was called eiderdown disease, because the raised metabolism would cause patients to throw their eiderdown off the bed in the middle of the night, while their partner would try to keep it on, a serious metabolic cause of marital disharmony.     

 

So as you snuggle below your feather duvet tonight, just spare a thought for the Eider, those strangely heavy, storm ducks bobbing in the surf and swell of  Northern Seas while they chew on pilfered mussels and the latest morsel of scandal they have cleaned from the ropevine.   

 

Cooo-oorrrr!!!

 When the mist rolls in from the sea,

and the thick necked bull bellows his frustration

at the lowly cows in the pent up barn. 

When barren ewes, busy as caterpillars, crop the field,

and the chestnut mare with its frayed red bridle

comes to the wall to be scratched or not.

As the busy green tractor scampers about its dusty patch,

the early swallow twitters from the wire and

high stepping wagtails, in Newcastle strip, patrol the wall,

l sit propped by cushions in the redstone room, 

listen to the hissing of the logs in the grate, 

smell the roast of coffee on the stove, 

hear the distant thrill of the peewit,

the trill of the lark, the yellow chink of buntings 

and write melancholy metaphors

on the hopeful poignancy of spring. 

 

 

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There ain’t nuffin like a puffin!  Puffins are one of our strangest looking birds. If they are  a creation of intelligent design, then we must allow God a sense of humour.  And if not, then perhaps humour is an evolutionary prerogative. 

 

Black and white like miniature penguins with the mournful white face of a clown, their  ridiculously large arrowhead of a bill is painted in rainbow stripes while their eyes are outlined in black and yellow to match the triangular configuration of the bill.  Puffins have a curiously human upright posture, like a red-nosed butler in a frock coat.  Their gait is a Chaplinesque waddle minus the stick; their voice a scolding agricultural ‘arrrh’. 

 

Puffins nest in the grass at the top of a cliff and lay their single, white, round egg at the end of a long burrow which they excavate by hacking at the ground with their bill and scraping away the earth with razor sharp claws.  Incubation lasts about six weeks and the chick is tended in the burrow for another six weeks.  The female usually stays in the burrow while the male flies off to return with its bill full of sand eels arranged crosswise and parallel with heads protruding from one side tails from the other. The bill may appear ridiculous but it is superbly adapted to collect and carry fish.  It contains hooks on the inside which retains the fish it has already caught while catching another and the fleshy yellow elastic hinge at the corners of the mouth allows even closure and a tight grip on its slippery catch from base to apex.    

 

The chicks are safe underground in the burrows as long as there are no rats at the nest site, but after six weeks, the parents leave, and the chicks have to make the perilous nocturnal journey to the edge of the cliff where they launch themselves improbably out and down on to the sea.  It is during this journey that they are at most risk from early rising skuas and black backed gulls.   

 

A Puffin’s stubby wings which whirr inefficiently like a bumble bee’s in flight, are  magnificent oars underwater, where their dual propulsion and streamlined shape make them efficient hunters of sand eels, sprats and whiting.  This is their element. 

 

But Puffins are under threat.  There are no Puffins left on Lundy or Puffin Island in the Bristol Channel and few on Skomer in Pembrokeshire, where their decline is blamed on a scarcity of sand eels. But they are still present in large numbers on St Kilda, that remote outpost of the British Isles 40 miles out in the Atlantic, where they once formed the mainstay of the diet for the people who lived there.  And tens of thousands of them nest each year on the Farne Islands. 

 

Although I might grumble at how each year, visitors to the Inner Farne are crowded into an ever more restricted viewing area,  this is helping to conserve the numbers and well, if it allows more people to marvel at this strangest of birds, then it’s worth it.  There is nuffin, absolutely nuffin like a puffin. 

img_2704-large-trimmed‘The common Cormorant or Shag

Lays its eggs in a paper bag.’

 

So wrote Edward Lear, but he was wrong on both counts. 

 

The common Cormorant is not the same bird as the Shag. It is much bigger and has a white patch below its beak and under its belly. The Shag is the more attractive of the two.   It’s plumage has the most wonderful iridescent sheen of racing green, it’s eye a glistening  jewel of dusky green glass, the tuft on its head an inverted comma, it’s bill a slender split rod, hooked at the end with two bright yellow patches at its base. 

 

But the yellow doesn’t stop there;  when it opens its bill, it’s gape, it’s slender tongue and even the very back of its throat, is of the same bilious yellow.  And there is an interesting fact that few but the most dedicated and intimate of observers know, it’s anus is the same colour, which begs  the question, is it bright yellow all through?

 

When I was young, much younger than I am now,  I couldn’t believe that the Queen had a gastrointestinal tract and the thought that she might go to the loo and produce a poo appalled me. No!  I imagined her blue, royal blue (of course) inside; no organs – she was the Queen – just royal blue.  I have no such delusions about the Shag.  I have seen it shuffling its feet back to the edge of its ledge, lifting its tail, distending that amazing anus and shooting a jet of white guano onto the crowded ledges below.  It pays the Shag to arrive early and grab the top storeys.    

 

Not nearly as vocal as the garrulous Kittiwakes, with whom, they often share the same apartment block, Shags proclaim their desire and displeasure with the same bilious belch, a resonant grunt, that emanates from deep inside their yellow belly.     

 

On the Farne Islands, you can get so close to Shags that you get to know more than you need to know.  I have even photographed Shags shagging.  And in the heat of the day, you can see them atop their piles puffing air in and out of a distended throat pouch to cool down.  Shags, like all other birds, are poikilothermic, the have no sweat glands and they do not shiver.  They pant to cool down and when they have been fishing in cold water, they stand in the sun with their wings extended like iconic eagles, to warm up.   

 

But do they lay their eggs in paper bags?  No; they deposit them, slender and pointed, on a pile of sticks or rotting seaweed, which they filch from others nests if they can’t find enough for themselves.  But Lear’s fantasy engages the imagination, creating worries of ledges lined with paper bags and eggs dropping through as soon as they got wet. 

 

The idea is ridiculous! Where would Shags get their paper bags anyway?  Would the trustees of the National Trust be persuaded to supply shag bags, which their members could purchase in aid of conservation?  Wouldn’t Edward Lear have loved to attend the meeting where that proposal were considered? 

 

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For birds, real estate is everything,

that and grooming, of course. 

But then, the two frequently go together;   

good feathers so often  make for the best houses

 

He’d found the perfect situation;

wonderful views, just off the flyway,

a ledge that extended improbably outwards

like a beak from the face of the cliff.

 

Concave in profile, a shallow groove,

that held his body like a spoon,

lead-lined, with space enough for two   

and the eggs wouldn’t roll off. 

 

Head to head and groovy, they preened,   .

locked beaks, they churred, they chuckled,

but passion always ignores the detail,

and the devil lurks in the detail

 

Water problems; it wasn’t so much rising damp

as a tumbling torrent.  One summer storm

and nest, eggs, chicks the lot would be in the sea,   

but they were in love, and love is always in denial           

 

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Hope comes with the dawn,

the fist liquid trills of the Robin,

the Blackbird in his echo chamber in the wood,

the thrush from his pulpit,

the tumble and spill of the chaffinch,

the anxious catechism of a furtive dunnock.

the fierce wren by the wall.

the confident notes of the chiffchaff. 

 

The birds enhance the mood, the greening mist,

lends frisson to anticipation 

in the enquiring whistle of the Nuthatch,

the tinkling chatter of goldfinches,

the yaffles that laugh under the oaks,      

the distant growls of treetop rooks,

the musical honks of passing geese,

the last croak of the heron.

 

While jackdaws chuckled wickedly around the spire,

I left the night of my sad cottage,

and, glasses tucked into my belt,

ran over Thomas Paine’s mellow bridge

to the park where last year’s foals twitched their pretty tails

and a summer dabchick, brown head, high tail, short wings,

smart and compact as a new car,

disappeared above the weir. 

 

No more time for singing, wherever I looked, they were at it.  

No longing, lingering, sensuous love this , 

but a frantic, precarious flap and flutter,

to get the job done and

remain in balance at at all times. 

You’d think it might be easier to clinch the deal 

face to face, but such intimacy

is strictly not for the birds.  . 

 

So blue tits flutter on the wire. Goosanders splash by the bridge,

the tufted dam half drowned under the ardour of her mate.

Woodpeckers play chirruping tag in the old oaks.

A pair of rooks flap briefly in the grass, then fly off

to their attic in the trees.  An oystercatcher springs

onto the back of his mate – wings flap, tails twist,

then his package delivered, alights to probe some mud

while she just stands, a-quiver. 

 

A week later, a woodpecker drums a tamponade

on the top of a broken tree, he backs down and continues 

to excavate his hole then calls to his mate.

Come and look how far I’ve got.

The rooks are building high, the summer will be good.

Jackdaws carry moss and sticks to the saints in the tower.

The beaks of titmice are stuffed full of wool and

Coots construct Kontikis in the mud.    

 

And all the while a solitary buzzard 

sneezes by the hole in the rotten oak.  

Soon swallows, blue as summer night, will return

to their ledge above the bins.

  

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