Monday, 26 April 2010

Blackbird Days

As I mentioned in a comment the other day, spring and summer are not my favourite seasons. I dislike hot weather unless I'm on holiday and it's not humid, and there is no pressure to do anything. I suffer from the usual ailments of northern folk -- hay fever, easily sun-burned skin, and heat rage (like road rage but more seasonal and much more random). I don't like cold food; I don't like flies. I especially don't like the combination of flies and cold food, therefore a picnic can bring me close to an existential despair. I have also reached that point, physically, where keeping one's clothes on is a public service.

But of all the varieties of spring and summer weather, what I hate most are those still, humid, overcast days which always seem to be full of the song of blackbirds. The poem "Adlestrop" by Edward Thomas, written in 1915, captures the mood well:
Yes, I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

A lovely, atmospheric poem, justly famous, but I always think there must be a missing, final verse, which describes how -- in a sudden fit of heat rage -- he punched the guy with the irritating cough and then leapt from the carriage and set fire to the station. "It was that damned blackbird that sent me over the edge, Your Honour..."

We had an early blackbird day yesterday. I knew it was a waste of time going out in such weather, but felt the urge to get out of the house. I ended up slumped in my car in a layby for an hour listening to the Radio 4 adaptation of John Le Carre's Smiley's People. Perfect. Then, just for the sake of form, I trudged up and down the verge of the A3057, peering over hedges and into fields. The light was rubbish.

These newly laid poly-tunnels were almost enough to raise my spirits beyond the "Eeyore" end of the spectrum, but not quite. I'll come back another day -- maybe after some lovely rain -- and try again.


Dave Leeke said...

Interestingly, I have just used "Adlestrop" as the second lesson in a new scheme of work. My daughter said it went down very well with her Year 8 class - perhaps I should have added the writing of a final verse into the plan!

There's something of the curmudgeon in your feelings towards Spring. My only problem with bird song is the bloody greenfinch that seems to sit on a neighbour's ariel and make its ridiculous "jzoo" noise. Obviously first in the queue for looks but last for a song.

Mike C. said...

Well, there is an element of self-parody at work here...

However, I do find birdsong is one of those things that flip-flops very easily between the sublime and the infuriating. A nightingale (or some other, less-scarce-but-insomniac bird with a mellifluous song) took up residence in the copse outside our bedroom window in the summer of 1990. For the first few nights we thought, "How lovely!" and lay awake listening to it. After that, it was just an annoying noise that was keeping me awake. I began seriously to consider buying a shotgun and firing random blasts into the branches.

That moronic "teacher, teacher" racket that Great Tits make is pretty infuriating, too...


Poetry24 said...

A good friend of mine works the woodland that borders the A3057. No shortage of birdsong there.

We pass those rows of cloches virtually everyday. Pretty boring as they stand, but they were hilariously funny as teams of people wrestled the polythene in extremely gusty conditions!

Mike C. said...

"they were hilariously funny as teams of people wrestled the polythene in extremely gusty conditions"

I think I would have paid to watch that...

(Did your friend lay waste to the centre of theroundabout to the M27 near the golf club? I keep meaning to stop and photograph that).


Struan said...

Mike C. said...


"Oh blackbird, die in the hazel-brake!" -- it's a clear precursor of The Wurzels "Blackbird Song" ("'E sees Oi, and Oi sees 'e -- Blackbiiiird, Oi'll 'ave 'ee!")

How on earth did you stumble across that?


Poetry24 said...

No, he's not guilty of that piece of handiwork. He manages his precious trees with a good deal more subtlety.

Struan said...

I wish I could claim an extensive knowledge of C19th light verse, but....

"Hazel brake" is the English working title for my wanderings in a local hazel and oakwood. The Swedish ("hasselsnår" - "hazel snare") has less cutesy associations.

Nightingales stop singing once they've found a mate. Blasting an enduring singer doesn't dilute the gene pool much. Just don't harm the tree :-)

doonster said...

Ah, birdsong. At least in N Europe it's largely seasonal.

Here in the tropics they sing a different tune and not to the rhythm of perfect time. Much more tribal.
The birds rise early, bed late and there are no seasons so they're active all year in trees that grow to within a few feet of my windows.

Damned annoying.

Kent Wiley said...

Reminds me of my feelings about the beach in the summer. Only three things wrong with it: sun, sand, salt. But surely those days are months away yet, aren't they?

Mike C. said...

"surely those days are months away yet, aren't they?"

Curiously, in recent times we seem to get an early onslaught of heat in late April / May which then fizzles out into a classic British washout like last summer. But it doesn't have to be very hot for the humidity to do its evil work on my equanimity. Indeed, the worst "blackbird days" are often relatively cool.

How -- indeed why -- anyone lives in the tropics is beyond me, doonster... Add annoying bird calls on top of extreme heat and humidity and I would be an early candidate for "running amok".


Gavin McL said...


You need to move to the North East Coast. Often during the summer when the rest of the UK bakes in a"sorcher" a Haar or Fret (depending on which side of the border you grew up on) sneaks in over the beaches and up the rivers enveloping the area in a damp coolness that feels as if it has come from somewhere deep, the sun is occasionally visible as washed out white disc.

Mike C. said...

Sounds great to me, Gavin, a bit like opening the freezer cabinets in Tesco on a hot day.


Struan said...

There's a residence test:

From the author of the wonderfully-grim "Wee book of Calvin".

Mike C. said...


That is brilliant...

I score so highly on the "yes" side it's truly spooky. I am actually sitting here right now at my office PC with a Fisherman's Friend in my mouth as a post-prandial treat(I almost choked on it when that question came up).

And what could be more spine-tingling than Gaelic psalm-singing? Or the sound of tyres in rain on the street outside?

It's true my Y chromosome does come from the Lammermuir Hills, but even so... How appalling to be a cultural stereotype!

Many thanks for that,


Martyn Cornell said...

Since Adlestrop station closed, the railway sign that let Thomas know where he was is now hanging in the village bus stop.

(This is a "fact" that is TGTG - too good to Google. It may therefore have only a glancing acquaintance with reality.)

I also recall that someone once worked out what train Thomas must have been on, and why it had stopped (waiting for the express to pass, apparently. This too is TGTG.)