Bird of the Month John Mcewen

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - by john mcewen il­lus­trated by carry akroyd

But where a pas­sion yet un­born per­haps Lay hid­den as the mu­sic of the moon Sleeps in the plain eggs of the nightin­gale. ‘Aylmer’s Field’, Al­fred Lord Ten­nyson The song of the nightin­gale ( Lus­cinia

megarhyn­chos) ‘re­ver­ber­ates like a chord through Euro­pean and Asian po­etry’ wrote the poet Ed­ward Hirsch. ‘Sweet Nightin­gale’ and ‘A la claire fon­taine’ are just two tra­di­tional folk songs it has in­spired. Izaak Wal­ton wrote that its song ‘might make mankind to think mir­a­cles are not ceased’. The BBC’S first wildlife record­ing (1924) fea­tured cel­list Beatrice Har­ri­son ac­com­pa­ny­ing a nightin­gale in her Surrey gar­den. A mil­lion lis­ten­ers tuned in. Folksinger Sam Lee repli­cated this event, singing to the ac­com­pa­ni­ment of nightin­gales and mu­si­cians for an au­di­ence on the South Downs in last year’s Brighton Fes­ti­val. John Clare (1793–1864) imi­tated the le­gendary song in verse: ‘Wew-wew wew-wew chur-chur

chur-chur Woo-it woo-it’ – could this be her? ‘Tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew Chew-rit chew-rit’ – and ever new – ‘Will-will will-will grig-grig grig-grig.’

From ‘The Progress of Rhyme’

Nightin­gales (old English, ‘nightsingers’) have 200 dis­tinct songs, most sin­gu­larly sung at night (23½ hours non-stop the record), in late April and May af­ter its sum­mer ar­rival from equa­to­rial Africa. Se­cre­tive and ‘clod-brown’ (Clare) the nightin­gale is hard to see. I could not think so plain a bird Could sing so fine a song.

From ‘To the Nightin­gale’

In old po­etry it is of­ten called Philomel, from the myth of Philomela. Philomela was re­born a nightin­gale af­ter her tongue was cut out on the or­ders of her rapist brother-in-law Tereus, King of Thrace. Coun­try­man Clare would have agreed with the po­et­ess Sap­pho 2,500 years be­fore, who wrote ‘spring’s mes­sen­ger, the sweet-voiced nightin­gale’.

It is not the only noc­tur­nal song­ster. Black caps are called ‘north­ern nightin­gales’, sedge war­blers ‘fish­er­men’s nightin­gales’. Paul Mc­cart­ney wrote ‘Black­bird singing in the dead of night’ in St John’s Wood. Ar­ti­fi­cial light can dupe birds into think­ing night is day. Lon­don nightin­gales were once so nu­mer­ous Ed­ward the Con­fes­sor com­plained they dis­turbed his prayers. But when in wartime Lon­don Eric Maschwitz wrote: The cer­tain night, the night we met There was magic abroad in the air, There were an­gels din­ing in the Ritz And a nightin­gale sang in Berke­ley

Square he was right; only the love-struck could imag­ine such a mir­a­cle. The bird is claimed to have another mirac­u­lous power: Tom Cruise, Vic­to­ria Beck­ham et al ap­par­ently swear by anti-age­ing fa­cials of Ja­panese nightin­gale drop­pings.

The di­min­ish­ing 3,000 Bri­tish breed­ing pairs are con­fined to the South-east, prin­ci­pally Kent and Es­sex. But our most fa­mous nightin­gale re­mains the bird Keats heard one night in Hamp­stead: Now more than ever seems it rich to die, To cease upon the mid­night with no

pain, While thou art pour­ing forth thy soul

abroad In such an ec­stasy!

From ‘Ode to a Nightin­gale’. Carry Akroyd is run­ning the first Oldie Draw­ing Day on 13th April in Lon­don SW1. Tick­ets £150. Call 01225 427 311.

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