Corona Wildife Diary: Day Ninety-four
My bottom desk drawer is a graveyard, the final resting place for the obsolete. A compass, some Tippex, a model of a Dodo, two Whoopee Cushions, foreign coins, a golf ball, a giant novelty pencil from Malta, a Clanger, some buttons and a little book all about Sporty Spice. I was trying to tidy it up yesterday - it was one of the job's I had on my 'Pandemic To Do List'.
Amongst this rubble I found a Maxell C90 cassette.
I have no idea where it came from. An accompanying note says the tape contains “the song of a Nightingale in the churchyard of St John sub Castro, Lewes, spring 1985”. There's a note inside that says it was recorded by a lady called Barbara from an upstairs window in neighbouring Lancaster Street. So I stopped tidying the drawer, went up into the loft and found my clunky cassette deck. After some dusting, re-wiring, buzzing and hissing I put the cassette in the tape deck and pressed 'play'.
The sweet sound captured on the cassette swirled from my speakers and transported me back 35 years to a time when Reagan negotiated with Thatcher, Paul Hardcastle’s na-na-na-na-Nineteen topped the charts and a Nightingale sang in St John sub Castro, Lewes.
St John sub Castro churchyard. Photo by Simon Carey
To be frank Nightingales aren’t much to look at. Small brown birds; a robin without the redbreast. But when they open their beak there’s a Susan Boyle like transformation. These drab birds become the world’s most celebrated vocalists. For centuries poets have praised their performance. Homer, Shakespeare, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Clare, Keats, Dylan and Cohen. Shelley claimed “A poet is a Nightingale who sits in darkness, and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds”. Trust young Percy Bysshe to believe the bird was wallowing in its own self-pity. The Nightingale’s song is actually both an aggressive war-cry and a sweet, structured sonnet. A hymn to the silence in the hope of enticing a passing female.
Listen to the song here
Photo by Roger Wilmshurst
The Nightingale’s optimistic warbles have inspired everyone from Vera Lynn to Roxy Music. A BBC recording of a bird singing in Oxted in 1942 inadvertently captured the roar of Lancasters, Wellingtons, Stirlings and Halifaxes passing overhead laden with bombs destined for Germany. The contrast between innocence and beauty, terror and destruction make it the most powerful recording ever made. (here)
Photo by James Duncan
The sound of a Nightingale singing in the centre of Lewes may have been relegated to the bottom drawer of history and, sadly, its a song that is vanishing from all across England. Due to habitat destruction, the UK population of this amazing bird –so entwined in our cultural heritage – is in a steep decline. We are fortunate in Sussex that these wonderful birds still sing in many of our woodlands. Hope, as the poet Emily Dickinson famously wrote, is 'the thing with feathers' and we must never let the Nightingale's song of hope be silenced.
So, here's another song of hope about a Nightingale from Dame Vera Lynn (here).