the cormorant (we think)
The parade of unusual bird visitors continues. The other day, in our local park, we saw half a dozen large cormorants, or perhaps shags, sitting on a wooden platform in the middle of the lake. Surely cormorants are seabirds, found on rocky cliffs? But there they were slumming it among the ducks and coots. When we went back a few days later, I managed to get a distant photo of the only one who was still there.
By chance I had just read a very striking passage about cormorants in a marvellous book, Sea Room, by Adam Nicholson. Writing about the Shiant Islands off the Hebrides, he describes a close encounter with shags on a cliff face: ‘Nothing prepares you for the reality of the shag experience. It is an all-power meeting with an extraordinary, ancient, corrupt, imperial, angry, dirty, green-eyed, yellow-gaped, oil-skinned, iridescent, rancid, rock-hole glory that is Phalacrocorax aristotelis. They are scandal and poetry, chaos and individual rage, archaic, ancient beyond any sense of ancientness that other birds might convey.’ Gulp! I looked at our avian visitors with fear and respect, but they were gazing innocently at the trees, pretending to be suburban.
for those sorrowful melodies
In the bread section of the supermarket I was startled to see a tall baguette labelled ‘Pain Flute’. I was reading in English and thought the store’s labelling team had gone all poetical on a dark winter’s afternoon. Isn’t there a poem by Tagore which talks about the flute sounding the notes of the writer’s pain? When I’m trailing round supermarkets I often have low moments, and could easily imagine myself playing a pain flute at such times.
It sounded like a theatrical prop that might be used by a Japanese actor in Kabuki, perhaps a samurai sword transformed symbolically in the course of the action into a musical instrument, cutting through the formalities with its high, plaintive wail.
A moment later, of course, I came out of my reverie and remembered that ‘pain flute’ is a French term for a variety of baguette. But I had been briefly transported from the world of aspirational boulangerie to one where everyday objects carried mysterious, illuminating overtones.
There’s a little interview with me in the ‘Meet the Artist’ series on BBC Music Magazine’s website. It focuses on the masterclass weekend I’m teaching in February. As is usually the way, the interviewer hasn’t chosen the bits of the interview I would have chosen myself, but perhaps it’s interesting anyhow.
Out of the Saturday Guardian fell a slim booklet about Keats, the first in a series about Romantic Poets. It fell open at Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. My eye fell on the lines,
‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard//Are sweeter’
I read this line aloud to Bob. ‘Do you think that’s true?’ I asked. ‘That unheard melodies are sweeter? I’m not sure I agree with Keats about that. I reckon that the sweet melodies you can actually hear are at least as nice as anything you can imagine.’
Bob considered. ‘Depends what’s not being heard’, he said.
our friendly robin
The winter weather has brought some unusual birds to our garden. A week or so ago we had a little flock of birds about the size of thrushes, but more colourful, with orangey plumage on their necks and chests. At around the same time the Guardian mentioned that its readers were reporting unusual bird sightings, and we learned from a photo that our own visitors were fieldfares. I’m sure I had never seen any in our part of London before.
For the past few days we’ve had an incredibly tame little robin in the garden. He seemed quite unafraid of us, and was happy to let us stand right underneath the tree and converse with him. He let me follow him round the garden with my camera, and he almost seemed to be posing for his photograph (see picture). I tried to communicate in what I thought were robin-like whistles until Bob told me to stop. ‘You’re probably saying something unacceptable.’