Skip to content

Woods Mill

Thursday 24th May, still very warm; a luminous overcast.

Tuesday evening, the first actually warm evening of the year, as the sun set like a luscious red blood-orange, we drove out to the Sussex Wildlife Trust HQ at Woods Mill, to hear the nightingales. Which we duly did, sitting on the worn grey oak bench under a thorn thicket by Nightingale Bridge, a blackbird couple scolding us for camping on their doorstep. As on previous occasions kind of wondered what the fuss is about*. Glug, flugggle gluggle, wheep wheep tuiu tuiu. Our domestic blackbirds seem much more musical, esp the one who sings at dawn, every morning, outside our house. And the one (could be the same songster?) who grandstands on the chimneypots opposite my window, at the close of day... But Woods Mill itself was in beautiful form, May blossom and chestnut flambeaux almost back to Houseman's settings this year (ie, just about to fade at the end of May), cow parsley in hazy glimmering masses all along the paths. Thrushes shouting, a small grass-snake swimming along in the stream, a hovering kestrel above the Barn Owl Meadow (where the kestrels now have a nesting box, and reared five last year). Never free from the sound of traffic, but you can't have everything. Nightingales, and a cuckoo's song, shouting away in the dusk, somewhere off in the woods, and the evening stars coming out overhead, in an extraordinary deepening golden-green sky. Such a feeling of privilege, and gratitude, what did we do to deserve this.

*We met the warden on the way out, and he told us the nightingales sing better when they do their second show, around 11.30pm, when there's no competition. We'll bear that in mind. The creatures making extraordinary noises in the big pond, snuffling and sneezing and flopping (too dark for us to see their origin) are the big carp.

Watching: Bit stuck for anything to watch, now Homeland's gone (will I watch the second series? Probably not, I can tell when a programme is getting a little LOST, know what I mean?). And Scott and Bailey is over (I could tell you who it is Rachel sees sitting by her mum in the pub, in that parting shot. But I won't as my "guesses" often turn out to be right, and then it's a spoiler, innit); and The Bridge too (Saga was a splendid invention, a woman after my own heart, but who's idea was that worthless mash-up of a plot?. Actually, I suspect it was a lot of people, all thinking they were writing separate self-contained episodes of a police procedural, but then at the last moment, some nutcase decided it was to be a single, through-composed storyline. So! What to do! Saw off the resolution part of each episode, and just ravage them, weld them all together, any which way...

But now it doesn't make sense the poor mugs of writers wail?

Nah, shut up, no problem. Life doesn't make sense, and the punters will never worry, anyhow.

Oh well, back to my jigsaw and The Great British Menu. Which has the beauty of being amazingly daft this time.

Reading Elsa Osorio, My Name Is Light, an Argentinian novel written as the personal account of one of them, about the stolen children of The Disappeared (victims of the military junta, 1976-1983). Came to this via Clea Koff's The Bone Woman, which I read and greatly admired last year, which in turn lead me back to Christopher Joyce and Eric Stove's Witnesses From The Grave, which is largely the story of Clyde Snow, and the birth of forensic anthropology, the technique for nailing the perpetrators of genocide and other "extra-judicial" massacres, he and a group of young Argentinians pretty much founded. But now, and strangely, from Osorio's angle, the political struggle all but disappears. In this world there are no ideas, words like "social justice", "communism", "police state" mean nothing. There are only sensual responses, it's a naked Gender War. Nature red in tooth and claw, women and their babies, versus men and their hierarchies of power, erotic allure versus brutal physical force. Creepy but compelling

Giving Medical Foundation For the Care Of Torture Victims. Check out what they do. You already know how much the torture victims who arrive in this country need protection

Writing News: Lynne Jamneck's excellent and very well-reviewed Lesbian themed sf anthology Periphery is now available in e-book format. Check out her blog for venues:

Also the action on the Authorlink mailing list, which is currently all about the loving and intimate, (did someone say corrupt?)links between Google and our PM, constantly in each other's pockets. Sweet.

And before I forget (again) the best fun (in English) on the Beneluxcon programme, and the best science fiction con, totally and convincingly straightfaced "scifi science" feature I've seen in a long time, was the lightsaber talk, and I was going to post about it but I didn't so here's the link:

The blossoming May tree was at Burwash, two years ago.

Can't Pay? Won't Pay! #n

Wednesday 23rd May, very warm, very clear, it's going to be a hot day. I've been waiting and looking for the swifts, even a glimpse; I saw a few last thursday, early, flying high & since then nothing. And it's not just me, I've checked the usual venues, nobody is seeing swifts, where have they gone? This morning, about 9am, I heard a shrilling, looked up and saw a strange, double-winged black butterfly shape, speeding high up above the Crescent gardens, and realised I was watching a pair of swifts, mating on the wing. What a rush, eh? They must have a nesting place nearby, are they alone?

Gabriel's Student Loan statement arrives. Whoa, look at that interest! A moment's calculation, not requiring the back of an envelope, tells one that the ex-student, First Class Honours, full scholarship for his Masters, (along with many like him, the scholars, teachers, scientists), hasn't a hope. He might, might reach the repayment threshold before he's forty, but by that time the idea of catching up and paying it off will be out of sight. He can't do it. Ever, really.

I thought tuition fees as an interest-free loan, repayable when earnings reach a threshold, was a very reasonable idea. Since all this "everybody has to go to university, it will keep them off the dole figures" lark was really the government's idea (previous governments, I mean), the government should pay for it, unless those years of study turn out to have been an investment for the student him or her self. But that's not what's happening. What's happening is a weird, blindfolded aversion therapy, which will work, in the torturous end. Young people who aren't rich will learn that they can't have Higher Education, and things will settle down, the way the Tories like it, the rich and the poor in their proper places.

My son, who probably hasn't given a thought to the concept of Compound Interest since he met it briefly in a maths class when he was twelve or something, just throws the nasty thing aside. Can't pay, won't pay. I immediately start thinking how can I possibly get the money together and stop this juggernaut? NOW! Before my child becomes a serf for life, or the government, I'm sorry I mean the Student Loan Company sells off the debt to Organised Crime... But Gabriel's alien attitude is gaining on me. They told me what the rules were, and then they changed the rules... It's a prisoner's dilemma situation. Always default? Nope, you'll lose. Always co-operate seems ideal, but it leaves the field open to any determined bad guys. Tit for tat, and its derivatives; you're onto something. Can't pay, won't pay.

Mealworms continue to go down a treat. The starlings cleared out the wooden feeder before 9, but as yet they haven't figured out how to sneak into the dome feeder, and the blue tits are doing well.

Must think of some way to feed live food to the Greeks. They were bad, but they are my neighbours. Go there and spend money, I guess. Soon as I can. It's a long trip if you don't fly. And I won't fly.

Click through the keynote image for a gallery of swift photos at the swift conservation site.


Tuesday 22nd May, sunny and breezy under clear blue skies, & much warmer, said to be reaching mid-twenties before the end of the week. Suddenly the gardens are in leaf from top to toe, the Christopher rose is in bloom, the big flowerbed is thick with columbines and foxglove spikes. Feeding mealworms could become an expensive hobby, the starlings (although national population horribly in decline) are still the voracious thugs-of-the-birdtable that they always were.

A long time ago, a year ago, in Gabriel's last year at Trinity, I thought I would write here about modern composers, find out the (literary) lowdown about the authors of the music I kept hearing about, and became excited about by contagion. The Rest Is Silence (Alex Ross) kept me enthralled for weeks. Shostakovich, Stravinsky. We were to proceed backwards, through the game-changers (Ravel, Debussy), but it never happened, though I read the biographies and listened to the music. The moment had passed. What prodded me towards Schubert? It was returning to Thomas Mann, esp The Magic Mountain, a book I started and never finished when I was an undergraduate, a story that ends in the trenches, with, for our hero, the poignant tender resignation of Der Lindenbaum (the Lied that became a folksong) running through the foul din of battle.

Trouble is, there's not much of a literary lowdown to be found. All I knew was that "he was truly great, comes straight after Beethoven, & died young" & he mainly wrote songs, also piano sonatas people thought unplayable at the time, and one very famous symphony called The Unfinished (nb I come form Manchester, was often taken to Hallé orchestra concerts when young, & Sir Charles Hallé was, I now know, one of the few, an early adopter, hugely keen on the Schubert repertoire. Or I probably wouldn't even have known that much). The more you look for Schubert's music the more riches you find, but biography is thin. He was born in Vienna, of lower-middle class parentage, just before the turn of the nineteenth century, was a child when Napoleon was at the height of his powers, lived to be adolescent and young adult in the pleasure-loving and cultured capital of a small country much diminished in world (ie European) politics, and, after the excitement of the Revolutionary Wars, in the throes of a deep repression. He had friends, they drank (a lot), made merry and made music. His mother died when he was thirteen; he would have got married when he was 19, but the law said he had to prove he could support a household and that he couldn't do. He trained as a chorister, but that career ended like the careers of most boy choristers. He trained as a primary school teacher (his father was a school-master), but that didn't work out. He made a very decent name for himself (though not much of a living) as a songwriter, on the local, domestic music scene; he tried for years to forge a career in opera, but failed to gain a foothold, as everyone was mad for Rossini, while he favoured German opera & it seems he had an unfortunately short fuse besides: and he contracted syphilis when he was 26.

All the while, music was pouring out of him. He wrote one piece, he started another... Symphonies, chamber music, song-cycles, a mass of works, great and small, a whole catalogue of challenging, innovative, beautiful and powerful music. He was arguably the best ever interpreter of the Romantic school of German philosophy, not only the passion for the sublime, but the insistence that the study of interior experience is not a frivolous indulgence, but the source of all our knowledge of the world and of ourselves, that was later, rebranded as "psychology" to shape another century of European thought. But nobody really knew. When he died he'd just begun attract attention, and the line on Schubert, for long afterwards, was "what a shame, he could have written such great music". He'd already done it.

He lived in Beethoven's shadow, in the same city, without ever (it seems) having any direct contact with the great man, who died in 1827. He saw himself as the successor of the master he revered, a figure in the socially radical model Beethoven has just invented (I am no man's servant, I am Beethoven). But it was impossible, because Schubert wasn't a virtuoso performer. Far from it, he was (far as I can tell) no more than an ordinary domestic pianist. It's hard to achieve fame, when the route to celebrity is closed. Hard for him to get a proper job in the conservativbe musical establishment either: the odds and the trends, were not in his favour. What he could do was write music, all kinds of music, but this was a trap for his career, and his reputation after death. Publishing deals were awful and the demand (as even the greatest celebrities found to their cost) was for home entertainment, shortish pieces that could be played, preferably at sight, by the average ordinary music lover (comparable level of skill, ability to load an ipod with taste, ah well). So Schubert was a local hero, prolific producer of popular stuff, who struggled in vain to get published outside Vienna, and when he died, he was the tubby little man who wrote charming songs and piano duets for the masses. Which didn't sound like much of an oeuvre.

The irony is that this passionate back-bedroom fan-boy really was Beethoven's rightful heir, Beethoven and more, things Beethoven couldn't do; and how often does that happen? If he'd been taken seriously in life, his music would undoubtedly have lived in Beethoven's shadow too, and he'd have had different frustrations. As it is, Schubert's status is a controversy that never happened. There are passionate Schubertians, and he has a secure place in the repertoire, and there it lies.

When he'd recovered from the acute phase of the disease his health was poorish, but okay, for the last five years of his life. In October 1828, when he was thirty one, he was taken ill at a dinner party. A few weeks' later he was dead. His sudden death is held to be a puzzle, but given the many forms syphilis can take, and given the horrific, grotesque long-drawn out torture it could and can inflict on the way to killing you (in the absence of antibiotics), I don't see any mystery, and you could say he got off lightly. The sublime, unbearable sadness of his late and greatest music, the intense poignancy in the happiest, is also held by some to be a puzzle, since what, in his uneventful, modest, lower-middle-class biography prepares one for such intensity? Well, I don't know. He knew his own worth (and he was dead right). He knew he'd contracted a shameful, hideous disease that was going to kill him by inches; that all his hopes were blighted, his chances of love and happiness destroyed. He "lived with death as a constant companion for five years", and came to terms with this dark angel, faithful friend, in the language of a composer of genius. What does his class background, and failure to play before the Crowned Heads of Europe have to do with it?

(The portrait at the top of this entry is the standard model. The one on the right at the bottom is a disputed sketch of Schubert at 16. See here (scroll down the comments, until you get to the informed response, which is the long one). Who can tell? I've looked at the two faces side by side, I think it could well be him).

His last sonata, in B flat (D960) is my favourite piece of music.

File beside John Keats.

The biography I read was: Schubert, John Reed, Master Musicians series; OUP; series edited by Stanley Sadie. It's really more of a Schubertian handbook, best on dates and the catalogue, and critical examples. I'm not convinced there isn't a literary biography (debunking, revisionist or otherwise), and I have my eye on one, ( but I've no idea if I'll get round to it.

Der Leiermann (linked through the keynote portrait) is sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; piano, Alfred Brendel.

A More Equal Society

Tuesday 15th May, cool morning, heavy grey skies promising more rain. Rain in the afternoon yesterday, blackbirds scrapping in the new leaves of red maple and green elm.

I find it very mysterious, the way our rulers in government have no trouble at all spotting the need to offer substantial salaries for important posts in, say, banking, because otherwise we cannot attract the good candidates, and yet completely fail to understand that this phenomenon is scale-free, and must apply equally when you're hoping to attract and retain the good candidates for nursing, for teaching; even for hospital cleaners. You have to show people you respect them, if you want them to do their best work.

Perhaps the government is living in dreams of the past, times when one could assume that nurses and teachers had vocations, not mere jobs, and their compassion and integrity could be assumed to rise above filthy lucre... Failing to note that Tories have worked very hard to destroy the more equal society that underpinned those happy assumptions.

Reminds me of the slow-of-thinking Green revolutionary rank and file in my Bold As Love books, who sawed down all the unsightly masts, and then couldn't figure out why their mobile phones didn't work anymore.

Still reading De L'Allemagne, and I can understand why this book in particular made Napoleon so mad. It's not that the the justice and peace, liberty and enlightenment agenda is so offensive, Emperors like that sort of thing, in the abstract. It's the needly bits about great servants of the people deciding to hand out the spoils to their own families; the pitiful way men of remarkable talent fall apart, morally, when they mistake their personal vanity for a value system... But how modern it all seems!

Mme de Staël, getting on the case of her own version of the twittering and facebooking generation: "The young people, having hardly left school, hurry to embrace a career of luxurious idleness, as if it were the true mark of adulthood. Young men and young women spy on each other, picking on the most minute details, not so much out of active malice, but just to have something to say, when they have nothing to think. This kind of daily spite destroys goodwill and loyalty... "

Her point is that only a real, liberal education will teach them empathy, since the book of Nature has been closed to them by modern urban life. Il faut beaucoup savoir pour bien sentir...

That Enchantress

Wednesday 9th May, another cool, still grey day, very low cloud, slightly less chilly. The swifts ought to be here, and we've glimpsed them twice, but it isn't just the weather, it's the shrinking population, finally heading for zero in my little patch. They're still around, but they don't live here any more, they won't be shrilling down Roundhill Crescent again, or diving over my garden.

Spring rituals: I realised just the other day, thinking of Houseman's poem about the wild cherries: within living memory, ie for about the last five years my best wild cherry viewing, year by year, has been along the M40 corridor, between the M25 and Oxford; where the red kites soar. At least their numbers, as the number of buzzards, is increasing; which tells a good news story about the small mammal population also. Motorways as nature reserves, likewise military installations and even airports. Anyway, to Patching Woods and the Angmering Estate to see the bluebells, this year a very beautiful one, the blue as rich as I have ever seen it, and the grey skies and cool rain seeming to make all the colours deeper and more luminous. Crowds of insect-hawking swallows and a pair of grebes on the fishing lodge by the A27, and later once, a red deer hind went darting away, but otherwise we were almost entirely alone with the birdsong. (I tried to make a movie to capture the thrushes, but it's rubbish & I won't bore you with it).

Meanwhile, France has a socialist President, Greece has ditched austerity (I think Greece should ditch the euro, always have thought that, but if the bail-out queen of Europe wants to prolong the agony and trash the eurozone, who am I to protest?) Andrew Lansley is inviting vulture "health" firms to pick over the corpse of the NHS, and Cameron and Clegg are retrenching, after a drubbing in the local council elections. How annoying it is to have the Tories say, whenever taking another lunge toward the extreme right wing, that they are serving the concerns of ordinary people. Hey, count me out! On the other hand, when it comes to reforming the house of lords, I'm sure I speak for ordinary people everywhere in the UK when I say I could not care less... (except that I assume, and I'm sure I'm correct, that any project undertaken by our lovely government has the purpose and will have the effect of a further shift towards feeding the rich, robbing the poor and the already-not-too-wildly-distant goal of open neo-fascism*). Reform them to appease the Liberal Democrats? Nonsense, they don't need appeasing. They will swallow ANYTHING, they already have. Leave the lords alone! They're a mild source of entertainment, and they occasionally annoy our ruling caste, which one can only applaud. Otherwise, in the immortal words of W S Gilbert:

The House of Peers
Throughout the war
Did Nothing In Particular
And did it very well!

& last week, a "massive attack on Avaaz" report, relayed to me with an urgent demand for emergency donations. That's a little puzzling, I thought, and went searching. Didn't find out much, except the opinions proffered by TechWeekEurope, itself not exactly an organ I trust, but still. Bears wondering about, and I'll continue to do what I do. Just sign the petitions, on a case by case basis.

Btw, tried the cybersecurity quiz on the same site, which I aced. I am Fort Knox. I suspect if you score less than I did on this multiple choice sheet you should not be online unescorted by your mum, but it's fun. Try it and see! My live mealworms finally arrived yesterday, after spending eight days in the hands of the Royal Mail, and looking about at lively as that moribund organisation itself. Still, I picked out the wriggliest and set up my market stall, in despair as to how the birds would find them (having taken down all feeders but the niger seed for the goldfinches, who are still buying).This morning, two blue tits spotted the new arrivals, immediately followed by a tree rat (grey squirrel), that got itself a fairground ride spinning around on the top of the feeder.

The keynote tree is a horse-chestnut near Patching, just coming into bloom. The title of this entry comes from another Houseman poem, which I would love as much as I love the wild cherries one, except for the last verse; I find it petulant. The enchantress, if it's okay to use the term outside poetry, I met in Patching Woods, is neither heartless nor witless, and if she makes herself available to all comers, she's doing a good job.

*Did I say neo-fascism? I apologise unreservedly, I was in the wrong and should not have used that term. What I should have said was: "towards policies that would have been viewed as dangerously extreme, hard right wing immorality and corruption, in the recent past."