A few thoughts on optimism

Much excitement locally last night and this morning as broods of twitchers arrive, binoculars and tripods much in evidence, following sightings not of our corncrake but of what Outer Hebrides Birds tell me is a (red-spotted) bluethroat – a bird scarcer round these parts than even the mighty ‘crake though nothing like as rare, globally.

Causing quite a bit of traffic chaos, too, as you can see, despite there still not being a lot of tourists around. A bluethroat is a migratory bird which spends its winters in north Africa and its breeding summers in Scandinavia. In the UK, it’s a passage bird – i.e. not a resident – and seen only around the eastern and southern coasts and on the northern islands of Orkney and Shetland during migration. So, right over here on the west, not only is it a bit late right here at the back end of May, it’s quite a way off-track. The lateness might well be explained by the northerlies we’ve been having recently, which are likely to have held it up; while the easterlies which we had earlier in the month might help account for why it’s been blown a bit off course. It needs to find its north-east bearings pretty quick, however: unless it’s heading for the Faeroes – and the lack of sightings here otherwise suggests that that’s not a common route – its prospects are pretty bleak: if its course has been generally northerly, there’s not a lot left after the Faeroes.

Today’s OHB update tells me that it was still around this morning, even after an early morning tide that was the highest of the month, so the twitchers’ chances were not zero. Nevertheless, you have to admire the dedication and the optimism which leads them to turn out here in numbers, to the precise spot where the bird was last seen, to try and catch a glimpse of a small bird that’s on its way from north Africa to Scandinavia. And which, by the way, ought to be seizing its chances, late as it is, as today’s wind has switched to the south and even, for the rest of the time before lunch, slightly to the south-west.

Me – I’ve only seen starlings, sparrows and wheatears this morning. Those, and one of our increasingly resident colony of young rabbits. Though let’s not go there…

There’s a twitcher present in a lot of us, too. I don’t mean the birding aspects, so much, but the optimism. It is this same eternal optimism which accounts for people driving miles in the hope of catching sight, and a photo, of a small bird that is also driving the ‘opinion poll bounce’ which is currently benefiting the party in government. It is because people are, substantially, optimists that, in the immediate wake of the pandemic – and case numbers are rising again, let’s not forget – a government whose approach has not only been hopelessly inadequate but also substantially corrupt is still ‘popular’. A government which ought to be dead in the water after the last fifteen months still commands strong, even rising, support in the opinion polls and Johnson commands significant personal support not because people like him so much as that they want, and need, him and his government to do well given the lack of any practical alternative. Thus, in these extraordinary times, people are prepared to overlook, it seems, pretty much anything, at least until all this is over. Our own essential optimism, in combination with the success of the NHS’s vaccination programme, is easily transferred to a belief in and support for the government of the day at a time when death is an ever-present fear.

Rasputin’s testimony yesterday, as extraordinary as it was, will change little of this in the short-term although, of course, ‘when all this is over’ is very much the operative phrase: yesterday had us watching – again – the Tory Party engage once again in internecine warfare, Cummings being allied with Michael Gove and thus with much to gain whenever the Tory Party, or its backers in the media or elsewhere, decide they have had enough of Johnson. The Tories’ post-Brexit truce with themselves seems to be coming to an end. Publicly sticking the knife in Johnson, with a media which is in absolute thrall to the whole circus, is simply preparing the way for Gove to become prime minister once that ‘opinion poll bounce’ is over – and when the optimists among us are likely, on the strength of the evidence of the last fifteen months, to think that ‘the new guy’ deserves a chance, too.

Tough times for all of us who are sick of all this. The answer of course is to do what we’ve always done – agitate, educate and organise. These times will end but making sure we’re in a good position to take advantage of them when they do means continuing to hoe those hard rows in the meantime.

Now: where were we?

Twitter brought me the very welcome news last week that Andy Kershaw is making a return to music broadcasting, via a fortnightly podcast series – ‘AK Plays Some Bloody Great Records’ – produced in conjunction with ‘Songlines’ magazine as media partner and released to his website as well as, soon, at all the usual podcast sources. Following Nos. 3 and 4 in ‘The Kershaw Tapes’ in Radio 3’s ‘Sunday Feature’ series, showcasing Kershaw’s legendary field recordings, and broadcast earlier this month, this is AK not just dipping his toe back in the broadcasting water but making quite a bit of a splash in it.

Kershaw’s programmes on Radio 1 in the 1980s and 1990s did more to shape my musical tastes, and purchases, and gig attendances, than probably any other DJ. I heard his first show, a one-hour slot early one Saturday evening in 1985, when I knew him as Billy Bragg’s driver/tour manager/roadie and whose programmes were, by association therefore, likely to be well worth a listen. Apart from a fascination with Paisley Underground psychedelia in the early days – there was a time when Rain Parade and Green on Red seemed to be on every week – he’s never let me down whether it be with sparkling African guitars and rhythms, downhome Cajun stompers, soul-searching alt country, traditional Celtic and Anglo folkies or slices of long-buried US southern soul. His weekly programmes were required listening and I rarely missed a single one over the following years without having a grump about it. A glance at his wiki and at the live guests on his radio shows at the time is like a tour through my record and, ahem, cassette collection. He’s even a Springsteen fan, too. It’s truly great to see him back and re-enthused about music. One Easter Sunday at the back end of March in 2013, I went to one of his gigs promoting No Off Switch, his autobiography detailing his life up to the loss of his first radio career, and the saddest response of the night, before I wended my way back north by train to Perth via a 45 minute change of trains at Croy, in the snow, was when a questioner asked him what he was listening to on the drive to Edinburgh. ‘Nothing,’ came the ever-honest and somewhat apologetic reply, ‘I was enjoying some silence and a bit of my own company.’ Well, given where he’d been to, getting back on the rails again can take a bit of time and, I suspect, enjoying your own company occupies a key role in that, too.

A two-fer of Little Richard and the Mighty Grynner kicks us off with a statement of rockin’n’rollin’ Calypsonian intent and the programme blends a never-flagging two-hour-plus path through old and new: African horns and guitars, blues and country, acoustic and toasting reggae, the Staples Singers, a bit of Dylan in celebration of today’s landmark birthday and some new folk. There’s even a live session socially-distance recorded in his Todmorden kitchen, re-creating the best bits of his halcyon days when touring Americans and Africans would stop off on his Crouch End porch, sample some food and drink, feel absolutely at home and record a few gloriously settled, authentic tunes while they were at it. Sprinkling a mixture of tunes and enlivening the bits in between with reminiscences, solid information and humorous, self-deprecating observation, delivered in his forthright, matter-of-fact manner and with apparently-rejuvenated enthusiasm as well as an interview technique that continues to be gently under-stated – informed and focused questions, but determined to let the subject speak – this is a right proper radio show perhaps only missing a bit of audience interaction. He’s on fairly familiar musical ground throughout, perhaps, but his one man war on musical mediocrity is off to a sound start and I’m looking forward to more of his broadcasting mission – you never quite know what’s coming next – in future episodes. And, as the best African bandleaders always knew – if something worked well the first time around, it’s likely to work just as well the second time, too.

It’s a bit too early, of course, but, should he ever fancy the gig, there’s a vacancy for A Kershaw in the 6Music schedules these days and, if ‘Radio John Peel’ wants a living connection with the man himself, what better choice than he who shared a room in Broadcasting House, and a producer, and several musical genres, with Peel?

Whatever the future might hold is irrelevant, however. And flights of such fancy may play no part in it. And that’s fine, too: the broadcast world is now much, much wider than formal homes-of-music alone, and professionally-produced podcasts can build a sizable following and generate their own momentum. For now, the podcast is a sure sign that AK’s got his mojo back. Next episode is out on 31 May and you could do a lot worse than spend two hours of your bank holiday in his company to soundtrack your BBQ. A hearty welcome home, Andy.

Corncrakes ahoy

One of the rites of spring is the arrival home of corncrakes, a migratory bird which, despite not looking as though it has the strength to fly from one side of the road to the other, and which seems to prefer running around to flying, actually spends its winters 2,500 miles away on African savannahs.

They’ve been back on the islands for a while, but none had made it out as far west as here until last week when I managed to photograph one seeking a bit of cover among the daffodils – mostly the remains, although some were still not out last Friday. I say ‘back’, but the migration takes a huge toll with only one in five thought to complete the return journey so the ones now here are more than likely to be the offspring of last year’s broods, obeying the mystical call of nature to return ‘home’. I tweeted this out at the time, remarking that a period of ten minutes from first hearing him to seeing him is some sort of record, but, for those who didn’t see it, here he is:

I say ‘he’ though it’s a bit hard to tell. Only the males make the tell-tale rasping noise – like a couple of sharp twists of a nylon pepper grinder which gives the bird its Latin name (‘crex crex’) – although females in captivity have been reported to make a similar sound. The female is, it seems, a bit less grey than the male although when you tend only to see one bird at a time – and that’s if you’re lucky, as they are notoriously secretive – that’s quite a tough call to make.

With the winter being long, and quite harsh, the nettle beds and the marsh iris which give appropriate amounts of cover to a bird that much prefers to skulk around than to show off publicly are very late, although an amount of sunshine and rain in the past week, as May’s daylight hours begin to stretch out noticeably, has improved the picture somewhat. Faced with little cover, the birds have had little chance to do much else than disport themselves in a most uncorncrake-like manner and it was amusing to watch two chase each other around the garden, from daffodil clump to daffodil clump, soon after arriving – whether two males indulging in a bit of territorial debate or an elaborate courtship ritual I can’t say. A neighbour has a wonderful picture of one actually sat on a window ledge looking in, with all the appearance of a bird more than ready to audition for a remake of Chicken Run.

Late this morning, however, I did catch two making their way furtively along the fence line and, by the time I managed to grab the camera, they’d made it to the corner of our stone byre, heading for a gap underneath the fence. The pictures aren’t great – they’re taken through a window, for a start, but they do look like a pair to me either heading off to an assignation or, perhaps, otherwise to a nest site. If the male is ‘a bit more grey’, and indeed a bit larger, then that looks like the male to the left (see pic 1) the browner (and better exposed), and slightly smaller female leading the way (see pic 2). The relatively unhurried, even stately, progress tells me that it’s not two males not quite yet sure about the rules of territorial defence.

To see one is rare but two together is highly unusual – so, not for the first time, I count myself to be very lucky about where I live. That spring 2021, with lockdowns only now starting to be lifted, is – as a result of the absence of cover which nature is now very quickly correcting – among the better ones to be able to see corncrakes is a great shame for the tourists who aren’t (yet) here.