Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Ghosts of gone birds

I was fortunate while in London to catch the very end of the Ghosts of Gone Birds exhibition at Rochelle School, Shoreditch. The visual exhibition is the focal point of a programme of multimedia events which aims, in the words of the project's creator Ceri Levy, to 'raise a creative army for conservation.' Ghosts has attracted an impressive array of artists, famous and less so, and asked each of them to 'breathe life' into an extinct bird or birds of their choice. The results are exciting in their variety and ingenuity, testament to the limitless power of birds to fan our creative flames.

Time was when taking photographs in galleries and exhibitions was a capital offence. Not so these days and Ghosts positively encourages the publicity of amateur photographers uploading their own images to social networking sites. So I have no qualms about reproducing my photographs of prints by Ralph Steadman, one of the exhibition's most prolific contributors. Steadman's birds have all the caricaturist's hallmarks; scratchy lines and ink blots, grotesque humour and precarious vulnerability. Other than Leonard Baskin, I cannot think of an artist who captures the 'essence' of a bird more intuitively in his work. It is not surprising that both Steadman and Baskin collaborated with Ted Hughes, for whose 'red in tooth and claw' nature poems their art is the perfect complement.

Steadman draws birds that are both real and imagined. Alongside the egrets and grebes and parrots are made-up birds with wicked names like the Nasty Tern and the Needless Smut. There is perhaps a nod in the direction of medieval bestiaries here, those lavishly illustrated menageries of fantastical creatures compiled in the silence of monastery scriptoria; a touch too of Jorge Luis Borges' erudite but playful Book of Imaginary Beings. It may just be me, but I even sense hints of Dr Seuss, whose One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish was a staple reading aid of my childhood, populated with lovable and laughable pets with conveniently rhyming names.

Behind his sly humour Steadman has another purpose, however. For every extinct bird that history has recorded there are dozens of others that will have passed into oblivion without our knowledge, unnamed, undocumented and therefore unlamented. As another contributing artist, David Taborn, explains: 'I started to ponder over the 'unsung' birds whose state of extinction left no evidence, and for whom a memorial to the 'unknown bird' would be appropriate.'  Steadman has taken the unknown bird and given it form and name. Who's to say that his Gob Swallows and Once Bittern are any less plausible than the giant moas of New Zealand? Even Dr Seuss' creations are hardly more comical looking than the dodo.

Whatever his motives, Ralph Steadman has been truly kindled by the Ghosts project. Initially commissioned to contribute a single work, his prints keep coming and he has quipped that extinct birds 'have more character than today's politicians.'

The show at Rochelle School has finished now but Ghosts goes on building its creative army. You can buy prints and follow developments on the project's website

Sunday, 27 November 2011

The end of a day

Across the dunes and salt margins of Aberlady Bay darkness advances swiftly. There are no roses or carnations in the sunset, only chrysanthemums, russet and old gold like the drapes of a stately bedroom. A constant wind has blown all day. It comes from the west but carries the crystalline bite of winter. It whips the expanse of grey grasses into waves that mimic the sea. The tide is on the full and the sea is foaming, booming. Gulls lift from the rocks and are hurled away instantly. 

Inland the dry wood of buckthorn bushes rattles and creaks. It looks dead but the stems are heavy with orange berries that glow unnaturally bright in the failing light. As I pass I send up flocks of feeding winter thrushes, clacking fieldfares that the wind quickly scatters. Higher still and there are geese; hundreds of birds in undisciplined squadrons that have risen as one from nearby fields. There are no syllables in human speech that accurately express their calling. Perhaps they sing of the Sagas of the far north.

The moon is barely two days old. It is the closing bracket of a parenthesis written in stars as yet unseen across the heavens. Occasionally the wind brings a shrill, panicky piping of oystercatchers and the liquid notes of a solitary curlew. Around here they are still called by their old name by some folk; whaups. It captures their plaintive fluting exactly. Our predecessors knew a thing or two about birds. Back at the car my face glows from the flaying wind and there is salt on my lips.

I offer these pictures with love to my dearest friend J. Yesterday her mother died after a long and, at times, bloody-minded battle with illness. J has flown over the sea to be with her. The end of a day is not the end of all days.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The 'wanton Lee'

'Wiv a ladder an' some glasses
You could see to 'Ackney Marshes

If it wasn't for the 'ouses in between.'

chorus from The Cockney's Garden words by Edgar Bateman

On a day like this it is easy to understand why the watercourses of our cities hold such timeless appeal. It is a Sunday. London has woken to fog but a weak November sun keeps promising to find an opening. I am on the Hackney Cut of the river Lea in the east of the city. The narrow boats are mostly shuttered tight but steam from their flues betrays the occupants, no doubt cooking up a hearty weekend breakfast. There are plenty of cheery 'good mornings' from runners and cyclists, dog walkers and even the occasional canoeist. The water itself is glass smooth, ruffled only by paddling coots and swans. This is the other side of London, London slow, a respite from the relentless onslaught that is England's capital.

The Lea (or Lee) is one of the few London tributaries of the Thames not to have been buried underground and built over. For once city submits to river and not vice versa. Historically for much of its 40 miles it formed the boundary between the counties of Middlesex, Essex and Hertfordshire and even today its marshy hinterland, with surprisingly few bridges, interrupts the London sprawl creating a distinct rift between Tottenham and Walthamstow, Hackney and Leyton. But its wandering course, from a vague source somewhere near Luton to its union with the Thames at Canning Town, has been a focus for human meddling almost from the time of the first settlers. Ambiguity over the spelling of the river's name, compounded by successive Acts of Parliament, is only one of many knotty controversies to entangle this short stretch of water. But however spelled (and Anglo Saxons would have shrugged at our fussing over it) we can note that both Luton and Leyton derive their names from it.

The Hackney Cut, begun in 1770, straightens a two-mile kink in the natural curve of the river, taking excess water and completing the medieval drainage of Hackney Marsh. It is only one of many projects down the centuries which have sought to impose human 'improvement' on the river, to tame what Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene described as 'the wanton Lee, that oft does loose his way.'  Stories go that King Alfred drained the river's lower reaches in 895AD to cut off supplies to Danish invaders encamped upstream. Whatever he did, the Lea remained unnavigable for centuries afterwards. Since then it has been diverted and re-diverted many times to accommodate mills, filter beds, reservoirs and all manner of industry. And the work goes on, as recently a section of the river has been canalised to promote a greener means of transporting heavy construction materials to and from Olympic Park in readiness for London 2012.

If I lived in London I would, by now, have walked the Lea from end to end as Diamond Geezer has done and documented on his fascinating blog. I am grateful to my friends, justifiably proud Eastenders, for taking the time to show me the exciting places on their doorstep. Among the scrub land there is natural and industrial heritage aplenty. Signposts beckon to nature reserves and historic landmarks in all directions but on this occasion there is time only for a short walk south to Hackney Wick where the 'natural' river returns from its meanderings to rejoin the artificial channel. Through the fog the new Olympic Stadium unveils slowly, pristine and ghostly pale behind its high security perimeter fence. There is no seeing to 'Ackney Marshes wiv or wivout glasses but the skeins of mist drifting vapourous over the Cut make me regret not carrying a better camera than that on my mobile phone. With perfect timing the sunlight fingers open a chink, the water is pinpointed with diamonds and the scene takes on an eerie monochrome effect.

On such a day it is easy to forget the Lea's notoriety for pollution (hydrogen peroxide is frequently added to re-oxygenate the water after sewage outspills); it is easy to set aside the blight of social alienation on surrounding housing estates (debate and finger-pointing goes on in the wake of this summer's riots in Hackney); it is easy, too, to ignore deeply divided public opinion about the whole Olympic project. On such a day as this the Lea is restored to simply being a river, a ribbon of water made beautiful not by human effort but by the alchemy of the elements.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Perthshire's autumn blaze

It would be remiss of me to allow autumn to pass without getting all lyrical about the colours. But after the wordiness and (some have commented) gloominess of my previous post it may be better to let my photographs do the talking this time around. At this season I can think of nowhere better in Scotland to enjoy the spectacle of natural fireworks than Perthshire. The highlands arrive abruptly on crossing the boundary fault a few miles north of Perth and all of a sudden fertile rolling dairy pastures are left behind and ahead lie the thickly wooded glens and inclines for which the county is justly renowned.

Perthshire boasts some superlative specimen and heritage trees including strong contenders for the tallest, oldest and stoutest in the land. Most famous among them is the wizened and hollowed old sessile oak that grows at Birnam. A pity it is not nearly ancient enough to have been witness to Macbeth's nemesis but it is a relic of the oak forest that Shakespeare set marching upon Dunsinane, thus fulfilling his witches' divination. In more recent times the Birnam Oak has been dwarfed by a monstrous neighbouring sycamore, a mere stripling at 300 years old.

On the opposite bank of the river Tay from Birnam, Dunkeld is one of those places where all the ingredients for Pre-Raphaelite picture postcard perfection have conspired to come together. No wonder that John Everett Millais was drawn time and again to visit, painting landscapes like Chilly October that are typically autumnal in tone. The town is laid siege by trees on all sides; trees that serve as lofty roosts for ospreys in the summer and that smoulder with golds and ochres and snag the lingering mists in autumn. A meeting place of rivers and pocked with small lochans, Dunkeld is a natural amphitheatre in which the trees somehow muffle the droning traffic of the A9 while accentuating the mewing buzzards that wheel high overhead.

There, I am already breaking my pledge not to be wordy! I'll shut up now and let the pictures speak for themselves.

Picture perfect Dunkeld

Monday, 7 November 2011

Safety in numbers

'This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.'

from The Hollow Men  TS Eliot

By one of those curious juxtapositions that help to make life interesting I found myself on the train the other day reading two stories each of which provided an unwitting commentary, of a sort, on the other.

The first was topical: the free newspaper carried a photograph of a newborn child under the headline 'seven billionth baby' and an article about the onward march of the human population. Interestingly the paper chose to picture an infant who looked suspiciously pink and European and probably, therefore, not a good candidate for the actual seven billionth entrant to the human race. Nevertheless the article made alarming and apocalyptic reading; the jaw-dropping rate at which our species is proliferating and the resultant strain upon the planet's natural resources and our tolerance of each other.

The second story was historical: I read about the life and, more poignantly, death of Martha. By the time she died in Cincinnati on 1 September 1914 Martha had become something of a tragic international celebrity. She was certainly one of a kind. You see Martha was a pigeon, a passenger pigeon. Her death in a zoo cage brought to a close the drawn-out inevitability of the extinction of her species. The world had watched powerless to prevent it, realising too late that captive breeding programmes were doomed to failure.

Species become extinct all the time but the loss of the passenger pigeon, like that of the dodo and the great auk, has become emblematic. They are icons of failure; the collateral damage of human excess. The passenger pigeon perches on our shoulder like a conscience, its decline inextricably bound up with the ascendancy of the modern United States. There are enough eye witness accounts to be able to say with reliability that it was once one of the most numerous birds on the planet. Flocks estimated at several billion birds blacked out the skies over mid-western states, taking many hours to pass overhead. But during not much longer than the span of a generation of Americans the passenger pigeon vanished utterly from the Earth.

Like the pigeon we humans are a highly social lot, 'birds of a feather' one might say. Nearly half of our seven billion companions already live in urban areas and the proportion is growing by several percent every decade. To be sure, there are many practical and economic advantages to living in close quarters but there is also a strange psychological illusion going on. We are a profoundly monophobic species, believing against all evidence that we are safer in a crowd. Surely nothing bad can happen when there are so many of us? Or if something bad does happen, surely it won't be me who is picked off?

There is an interesting double survival motive being played out here, the communal and the selfish: the first says 'we are safer if we stick together'; the second says 'I am safer if I stick with you.' Somebody once quipped to me that if you are crossing a field with a friend and encounter a bull, you don't need to be able to run faster than the bull, only faster than your friend! I replied that if my friend and I ran in opposite directions perhaps the bull would be confused enough to allow us both to leave the field unscathed.

Martha in 1914. Silent messenger
that all things must pass
It is sobering to think that when I was born the world's human population was less than half what it is today. Forward projections are controversial and there are many variables, but the trend is still upwards. 'Where will it all end?' has been our biggest preoccupation ever since Homo sapiens learned to think for itself. And again the question has both personal and collective dimensions. In his post-apocalyptic novel On the Beach, Australian novelist Nevil Shute portrays the final days of the last handful of people on Earth. Far from hysterical, they occupy their last moments with mundane, matter-of-fact sorts of things like fixing cars. The book takes its title from a line in TS Eliot's poem The Hollow Men which itself ends with one of the bleakest, most devastating lines in literature.

There are photographs of Martha in her final days in Cincinnati zoo. She perches quietly alone, mateless. It is almost impossible to look at them without imbuing her with human foreknowledge. After she died her body was preserved and stuffed. Nowadays she is somewhere in the vaults of the Smithsonian Institute, no longer deemed worthy of display. Europe was at war when she died. At the very end the world's attention was turned elsewhere, intent on another carnage. And so with Martha the teeming billions of the passenger pigeon passed out of history, not with a bang but a whimper. We should be careful.