Spugs

Sparrows are the loose change of the birding world. Unremarked and undervalued they gather in the neglected pockets of our townscape where their busy lives attract little notice. Yet this spring they have given me more pleasure than almost any other bird.

The yard outside my kitchen window is part of the well between two rows of terraced houses. Beyond the fence is a confusion of alleyways, lean-tos and flat roofed sheds. From upstairs you can see the Ivy that has swallowed the asbestos roof of a neighbouring  outbuilding; Elder has found purchase in a crack in the concrete by some bins next door and produced a stunted tree that in May and June puts out a creamy froth of flowers. A Hop has scrambled from an abandoned garden further down and run riot over the expanse of a corrugated bin store. Gulls stare down into this urban valley from the rooftops. From first light the joyous chirruping of Sparrows fills the space. 

House Sparrows are red-listed birds. According to the BTO their numbers have declined by over 70% since the 1970s.  Much of this can be put down to loss of habitat. Today – like typhoid, unemployment, and drug-dealing – they tend to thrive in areas of social deprivation. They love unkempt gardens that are strangers to pesticides. Undulating clay pan-tiles that offer access to roof spaces. Cracked concrete where rainwater gathers and weeds and invertebrates thrive. Unmodernised run-down buildings are prime sparrow real-estate. Redevelopment is all too often their nemesis. Building regulations usher in plastic mesh to keep them out of the eaves. Roofs are dressed with modern interlocking tiles, which offer no access. Weed filled gardens become sterile patios. The inevitable result is that gentrification deprives them of their traditional nesting sites just as surely as neglect offered them a home.

Sparrows are never still. More than any other bird they seem to bustle. The females are slim and agile. The males, despite their diminutive size, have an almost matronly heft. They shoulder their way in and out of the guttering with all the purpose of Hattie Jaques arriving on the ward. They are the comic turns of lockdown, wheeled on to keep the audience happy before the main event.

My own sparrows share the yard with a pair of Dunnock, who were sparrows once – Hedge Sparrows – but after a name change are sparrows no longer. Dunnock are promiscuous birds. They lower the tone like a couple of swingers at a family barbecue. What passes for Dunnock foreplay involves the male pecking at the female’s cloacal opening trying to encourage her to eject any sperm left by a previous amorous male. When he’s satisfied at last his leap onto her is so ungainly that it sometimes leaves him flat on his back. A moment of pure carry-on comedy to follow the sordid preparation.

Inevitably the birding world tends to favour the rare and the exotic, the vagrants from distant lands, the megas. Sparrows don’t really cut it in this company. But the Sparrows don’t give a toss. They’ve got things to do. Nests to build, young to rear, seeds to find. They are the cheery, round-shouldered ambassadors of Here. Sparrows are a reminder that you don’t have to dash up to Fair Isle to see a doomed Desert Wheatear to feel your world enlarged.  Instead you could just pull up a chair near the open back door, pour yourself a glass of wine, and soak up their joyful celebration of the everyday.

The Wheatfen Beetle

Island populations are always vulnerable.  As habitats shrink and populations become isolated they lose resilience. If you want to survive as a species then numbers and geographical reach are your friends.

The Norfolk and Suffolk Broads are home to a number of iconic species which have found a localised foothold in this watery corner of East Anglia. The outrageously lovely Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio machaon) is probably the most recognisable. Britain’s largest butterfly with its black-veined yellow wings and blood-red spots at the base of its swallow tail it looks like a scrap of yellow handkerchief fluttering over the milk parsley. The Norfolk Hawker dragonfly (Aescha isosceles) can be found here too, patrolling the drainage ditches of the grazing marshes like a green-eyed wind-up toy. It shares some of these ditches with Britain’s largest spider, the Fen Raft Spider (Dolomedes plantarius) which has found a stronghold among the water soldier on Carlton Marshes.

But there is another species which has made its home here, less glamorous and less well-known, but no less remarkable. Galeruca laticolis is a small brown beetle barely a centimetre long – a beetle  so unprepossessing  no one has thought it necessary to give it a common name. To point to it you must still revert to Latin.

You can find maps of the range of most of these creatures in the handbooks. For the Swallowtail the area of cross-hatching covers the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads – though there are other isolated colonies on the Humber and the Isle of Wight. (As the climate warms the British sub-species of Swallowtail (britanicus) is threatened by the northward movement of its continental neighbour  (gorganus). If, as seems inevitable, the two species meet and interbreed the unique form of britanicus will be lost.)  The habitat cross-hatching for the Norfolk Hawker shares much of the territory with the Swallowtail, reaching down into the Suffolk broads. This species too is under threat, this time from loss of habitat as rising sea levels bring salt water incursions into the drainage ditches where it lives and breeds. The Fen Raft spider faces a similar threat.

However, you will search in vain for the cross-hatching that delineates the range of Galeruca laticollis. Because effectively this small brown beetle has no range. It is known at a single site in the United Kingdom, a small patch of protected fen and carr in the Yare Valley. You can walk the boundaries of Wheatfen in an hour. And while the beetle is here it would be wrong to say it was easy to find. It is confined not just to this single small site, but to a small area of this single site. It likes creeping thistle. So to locate it you have to seek out patches among the reeds and search the leaf axils.

To confirm your ID you could use this description found on the coleoptera.org website. 

Colour: brownish
Pattern colour: none
Number of spots: none
Leg colour: black


It might charitably be described as unremarkable.

But the fact it is here at all is extraordinary. The whole of the Yare Valley is under threat from rising sea levels. It would take very little to upset the delicate ecological balance of the few square metres of marshland where Galeruca laticollis lives. An exceptionally high tide would probably do it.

We have grown used to the idea of ecological collapse, but all too often the narrative of melting ice caps, acidified oceans and disappearing rainforests operates on a scale that seems overwhelming. The precarious foothold of this little brown beetle has the power to turn a global issue into an intensely local one.  Drill down into the existential crisis that threatens us all and one of the routes which opens up brings you to a small patch of creeping thistle at Wheatfen.

The Sparrowhawk’s Lesson

It’s the the end of an unremarkable day. You’ve spent the last few hours in the open enjoying the sights and sounds of the natural world. Your thoughts are starting to drift towards the cold beer that’s sitting in the fridge at home. You turn a corner and there in front of you is something that stops you in your tracks. A Sparrowhawk mantling its prey. Or a Tawny Owl watching you from a dead branch almost within touching distance. A Fox, facing you on the path. Suddenly you are looking into the eyes of a wild animal and everything stops.

It doesn’t happen every time you go out. But when it does, if you pay attention, it can tell you why you are here.

The Sparrowhawk is fully engaged in the mundane task of killing. We can’t know what is going on behind those yellow eyes. We have no privileged access to the bird’s psychology. But there are things we do know. We know the bird isn’t worrying about its reputation, whether or not we admire him, whether he’s a good husband or lover or hunter, whether he should have turned left rather than right when he left the roost that morning, whether losing that starling to a blundering rabbit is something he’ll ever get over. Instead the bird is fully occupied with the urgent business of being. Like all wildlife the bird exists in a perpetual now. What matters for us is that the instant we exchange glances the encounter hauls us out of the narrative of our daily lives and into the crucible of this shared present.

It’s not the murderous act that gives the encounter meaning. It is there too in the quiet pulse that passes between you and the fox, the moment each of you is seen by the other.

A moment like this is its own destination. Nothing further is required – either of you or the animal. It is utterly complete. This is entirely unlike the rest of our experience which is invariably coloured by the narrative noise in our own heads. The endless often mindless commentary, the time spent ruminating on the past, or worrying about the future.

All of our brain’s chatter, in a moment, stilled. This is what the glance can teach us. The message it has for us is always the same, always urgent, always important. It’s something we know but have to learn over and over again.

Here, it’s saying , Now.

This.

Breydon – special delivery

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The voice of the reeds has changed since pre-lockdown days.  On my last visit in early March it was a dry, papery susurration as the wind moved through the lifeless stems.  The dead architecture of the phragmytes was vacant and drained of colour except for the odd Reed Bunting clambering about like a janitor in an abandoned building.

But today everything has changed.  The bright green re-growth is visible and the whole swaying tenement is alive with Reed and Sedge Warblers.  Every few paces a bird is noisily proclaiming its territory.   Whitethroats in the bushes add to the cacophony.  There’s something lapidary in all this bird song. It’s too substantial to be just moving air.  Pebbles and bright shining coins are being tumbled together in the reeds.

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Reed Warbler

On the water side of the raised bank that makes up the south wall a small party of Whimbrel – the Seven-Whistlers – are working away at the water line.  They’ve dropped in on their way out of Africa heading north. Tomorrow or the next day or the day after that they’ll be gone making for their breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra, whistling as they go. Out on the water an Egyptian Goose is doing its donkey impression, braying asthmatically. Shelduck and Avocet and Redshank are busy in the wet mud revealed by the retreating tide.

On Fisher’s Marsh a pair of Marsh Harriers wheel over the reedbeds .  A  number of pairs nest along the south wall, dividing up the territories much as the warblers do. As the air warms Wall Brown butterflies appear on the path. A cuckoo starts up in the trees behind Church Farm Marshes. Moments later a second joins in from across the water.

And then a sudden flash of yellow on the slub piled up from the drainage ditches. A pair of yellow wagtails flickering across the drying spoil. Their colour is astonishing. As if the yellow mustard that grows in drifts here, has been distilled and poured into a bird.

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Yellow Wagtail

I found myself laughing out loud at this unexpected lockdown gift, the sheer Maytime excess of it all.  Instead of spring creeping up with the slowly lengthening days, marking its approach with the first migrants, and the slow warming of the air, suddenly here is was all at once, the whole delicious kit and caboodle delivered at my feet.

One Spring, guv’nor. Sign here.

 

Lockdown. Day 31

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By 9.30 the sun has levered itself above the school next door but it is still cool in the garden. A blackbird is singing somewhere out of sight. It sounds relaxed and conversational with none of the urgency of it’s 4.30 wake-up call. The euphorbia, backlit by the sun, looks as if it’s been gilded. 

There’s a peacock butterfly on the coiled hose on the lawn. It probably overwintered in the tool shed along with the mower and the rusting spade. Goldfinches are chipping away in the flowering plum. We have bluetits in the nest box on the silver birch. Honey fungus is killing the tree from its extremities. The top is bare of leaves. There are dead branches in the emerging green outlined against the creamy backdrop of the whitebeam. This too is under threat and leans precariously over the lawn. Later we will sling the hammock between their compromised trunks.

K is busy tying straw into a mini bale to drop into the cloudy pond. Her industry is a reproach to my idleness.

But I’m busy too. I am waiting for the swifts.

News v Writing. Daily life in a changed world

In the middle of January, I embarked on an experimental news diet.  In the early days of the new decade it seemed a perfectly reasonable thing to do.  Back then, it seemed possible to step back from the 24 hour news cycle and the promptings of Twitter in an attempt to avoid the time-sink – not to mention the probable rewiring of the brain – that following it seemed to involve. The arrival of Covid-19 has changed everything. We have entered a world of lock-down where knowing what is happening in the world beyond our front door can be for some a matter of life and death.  The emerging pandemic promptly  ushered in a bewildering round of briefings, comparative charts, and mortality figures that are a daily and even hourly reminder of the urgency of the situation we find ourselves in.  The calls on our attention are even more clamorous than before and there is the nagging feeling that following the daily twists and turns of the corona narrative is somehow our civic duty. So has the central argument about following the news changed? Or is the attempt to wrest our lives back from the damaging effects of monitoring the constant stream of new information as relevant as ever?

I can divide my time since early January into pre- and post-Corona.  In the pre-Corona period, or The World As We Used To Know It, the effects of the news diet were  almost entirely beneficial. My periods at the desk, particularly in the morning, were immediately more productive. I got there earlier, and I got there with a clear head. Finding the space where the writing happens is a constant battle. To simply begin can be the hardest thing in the world. And without the constant information upload it had become easier.  The experience  was akin to putting on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones to cut out distracting sounds. The only difference was that the noise suppression seemed to have happened internally.

I had been on the point of starting a new play. What surprised me was that I started two. When the first slowed , I turned to the second.  I was reading more. In the extra time that had appeared in my day I was actively listening to much more music. My screen time – at least on the phone and the ipad – dropped from an hour or more to minutes. My time with my partner was more rewarding. My world might have contracted but it was richer and I felt more a part of it. I was sure as I could be that whatever happened I would be unlikely to go back to my old habits.

And then Corona arrived.

First slowly, then abruptly, life changed. I found myself in a world where something as mundane as going to the shops needed a carefully executed plan.  The virus was proving so contagious that even the government’s team assembled to deal with the pandemic came down with it. Within days the Prime Minister was in intensive care.  Contacts with friends moved online. Zoom and Facetime replaced real life contact as the infection spread through the community. In the empty streets joggers gave each other a wide berth. Nor are the changes happening on a local scale. The pandemic is wreaking havoc world wide. The death toll could reach a million. And  bizarrely, in the street outside, a man is pollarding limes in a front garden.

This is not normal.  Or rather this state of affairs has become the new normal.

So – inevitably – the news diet was an early casualty. Once again The Guardian live feed was open on my desktop, so too was my Twitter feed. The daily 4.30 briefing found me in front of the tv. Life became noisy again. For a few days work at the desk carried on. It was a little less satisfying and my grip on the project I was working on slipped. It was harder to hold things together on the page. And then, also inevitably, it all got away from me. Writing stopped.

I dug a pond. I made mesh covers for the raised beds. I planted lettuces. I baked bread. I photographed a buzzard in the empty sky over the house. But on the play – nothing.

So as the lock-down drags on the obvious question becomes: can I take the lessons learned from the pre-corona days into the changed world of today and start writing again?

Of course the idea of a news diet never did mean closing my eyes to what’s going on in the outside world. It was the constant moment by moment distraction of the feeds that I was trying to cut out. So to make life more productive again I know what I have to do. I have to close the news channels and Twitter on my desktop. I have to let them do the 4.30 briefing without me. By limiting my exposure to the current crisis to a once a day catch-up I ought to be able to both stay abreast of developments and get back to work. Or at least that’s the theory.

Ok. Let’s try that.

 

 

Here is the News

Each week on a Sunday I get a message on my iphone (and another on my ipad).  It tells my my Screen Time has gone up or down this week by a number of percentage points. The time itself varies but is never less than an hour a day. Sometimes it’s a good deal more.  I usually dismiss this as unimportant. It’s where I read the news, which is just like reading the paper, and check Twitter. I don’t have Facebook or Instagram or any other social media so I don’t consider myself in thrall to this stuff.

I begin the day with the Guardian over breakfast. I’ll read the main news stories and any article that grabs my attention. Then I’ll check Twitter to catch up on the people I follow. Only when that’s done do I find my way to the desk and start work. This seems harmless enough but by this time I open the computer I will already have engaged with more than 50 different items. News stories, a bit of audio attached to a report, an opinion piece by someone I will almost certainly agree with, videos of earthquakes in Indonesia, a fire in the Australian bush, a cuddly dugong calf. There will be hyperlinks to click through to other linked stories or images I might save for later.

What all these things have in common is that by the afternoon I won’t be able to recall more than about 5% of them and by tomorrow or the next day that proportion will be so small as to be insignificant. Yesterday’s news is a dead thing. But it doesn’t matter because the redundant information will have been displaced by fresh information and so on, over and over. The 24hour news cycle ensures that this refresh is available – and clamouring for our attention – every hour of every day.

It’s not as if the news I consume can be taken at face value. I go to what I consider a reliable source (but then so do readers of the Daily Mail and Fox News). But in today’s media landscape the main purpose of much of the news is to deliver eyeballs. Even on reputable news sites a dramatic video will trump serious analysis 9 times out of 10.  It’s becoming harder to separate news from advertising. From news which is not news at all but is entirely fake. The most egregious crap leaks into the mainstream media because of the pressure to be first. Publish first, check later. More significantly most of it does not impinge on my life at all.  The news delivers nothing but unease about things I have no control over and can do nothing about.

If then all this news and other ephemeral digital content doesn’t actually contribute anything to my life then it would wise to question the hour day I’m giving over to it. But it’s worse than this. Given what we know about the plasticity of the brain this constant and repeated short-term engagement it’s clear that the effect will be to bring about physiological changes. The brain will be rewiring itself to handle this deluge of stuff. And in the process it will make it more difficult to engage with information on a deeper level. Out concentration spans are being reshaped. Which is why people argue they find it difficult to read a novel or to engage in anything that involves concentrated attention.

So that’s two strikes against my harmless online routine.

But let’s go back to our original observation that I am giving over an hour a day to an activity which might actually be harmful and do some sums. It’s easy to dismiss an hour a day. But over the course of a month it adds up to 30 hours. That’s  2 1/2 twelve-hour days. Over the course of a year it means that I am giving an entire month (weekends included) of twelve-hour days to Twitter and the papers. Over a decade I am giving almost an entire year to my devices. And this on a very modest estimate of my daily screen time. It might easily be double this. Imagine that. Imagine someone saying the next decade is going to fantastic for you – except 2028 and 2029 because you’re going to spend those two years in a room looking at your phone.

This is not an original observation. It was brought on by reading Rolf Dobelli’s book Stop Reading the News. For the next month I’m taking his advice and running an experiment. I’ve removed all the news apps and Twitter from my devices. I’m going cold turkey.

 

Harriers

5th December. A bright crystalline morning on Breydon. The boardwalk white with frost. A flock of bearded tits seemed to track me as I walked under the Roman Wall. Low tide and the mud hosting godwit and curlew, redshank and shelduck. A sizeable flight of pinkfeet in full cry coming in over Halvergate Marshes and wheeling overhead before dropping out of sight. On mornings like this there’s nowhere I’d rather be.

The first of the marsh harriers appeared on the far bank across the Narrows. It was wing tagged, but I couldn’t read the marking as it rose and fell out of sight behind the raised banking of the North Wall. Almost at once I spotted a second bird inland working the drainage dykes. They are an airborne contradiction, these harriers. One moment a model of elegance gliding above the reeds; the next they’ve turned into a bundle of rags on two sticks as they lever themselves into the thin air over a dyke.  Their hunting flight seems lazy and haphazard. A few slow wingbeats, a level glide then that untidy climb from the wet ground. In a few weeks they’ll be carrying nesting material, trailing lengths of phragmites longer than their wingspan into the reed bed.

John B. monitors the nests on Breydon and tags the young birds before they fledge. He knows the individual harriers by sight. Walking the bank with him is to see a whole new world open up. A couple of years ago I watched a harrier drop onto a nest in the middle of a reedbed by the pumping station. Wedging my back against a gatepost on the track I pulled out my iphone, fired up the compass and took an accurate bearing on the spot.  A few days later I found John on the path and smugly showed him the phone. He seemed genuinely interested. He listened politely, admired the technology. Then he reached into his own pocket. This is what I use, he said.

He brought out a notebook he’d bound himself. Each double page spread was dedicated to a single nest. Each contained a fine drawing of the nesting birds highlighting the plumage that would identify them. Next to them what started as a map of the flat terrain  morphed into a line drawing of bank features and the skyline. A cartographic hybrid which managed to locate precisely individual nests and their occupants in the flat and featureless landscape of Breydon. It was breathtakingly beautiful. He makes one each year. Taken together they would make an astonishing archive of Breydon’s harriers.

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Auditions

Down to London for casting.  The initial sift for the cast of The Tide Jetty was done by Director Scott Huran and Ivan Cutting of Eastern Angles  a week or so ago. I’ve now been invited to Toynbee Studios in London  to watch the recalls.  As the writer I have no special authority in this process. Ivan and Scott will be interested in my take on who does what, but my voice is just one more in the mix.    For me this is the start of the process of handing the play over to the production team.  Theatre is a collaborative activity and its time for others to start bringing their expertise to bear. Waiting in the wings is a team of set and costume designers, composers, sound designers, musicians, set builders all preparing their own input for the show The Tide Jetty  will become.

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When you’re ready…

During the course of a long afternoon a selection of Tuckys, Mortons, Annies, Nudds and Elizas  are all put through their paces in extracts from key scenes. For the actors this is tough. At their initial audition they were on their own. This time they are working in small groups. Scripts are handed out, parts assigned, and Scott leads them through each extract in turn – an initial cold sight-read sitting in a circle, followed by standing the scene on its feet. The actors are given minimal direction and the freedom to move around as they improvise the scene. For me it’s the first time I’ve seen the whites of their eyes.

The atmosphere is friendly and co-operative but  everyone knows the actors’ livelihood for the next five months depends on the outcome of this session. It’s not just the prospect of earning a crust that is on the line.  The lucky ones will join a closely knit team in an intense, exhausting, exhilarating collaboration that will see them criss-cross the county in a van laden with props,  welcomed and applauded (we hope) in a different venue every night.   The rest return to pulling pints and the day to day hustle that is an inevitable part of an actor’s life.

It’s exciting to see scenes start to come to life – a glimpse into the way things might work. I find myself moved unexpectedly by one of our Eliza’s confrontation with her daughter. Then delighted as a Tucky nails the earthy nous of a marshman. At this point we’re not necessarily looking for the best actors. The challenge for the casting team is to judge how these different personalities work in combination. It’s not a soloist we’re looking for but the full quartet.

As yet, I don’t know the outcome. Even when decisions are made there are agents to be contacted, availability to be checked, the outcome of auditions with other companies to be balanced. Does the actor’s agent recommend the security of a four/five month tour in the regions or does he suggest his client hold out for the possibility of some lucrative telly work? It’s all up for grabs. But somehow from somewhere within this group of talented individuals the final cast of The Tide Jetty  will emerge.