Bird of the Year 2010: best performances in a supporting role

2010 wasn’t a vintage wildlife year for me. I didn’t go anywhere exotic, or even spend much time outside the M25. My longest wildlife-watching trip was to the car park of B&Q in Folkestone.

Despite that, I did manage to rack up some pretty good bird sightings, but it was pretty slim pickings for the minor categories.

Best Plant

Clearly it’s ludicrous that I can’t think of any stand-out plants for the year. After all, they’re not difficult to see. But nothing springs to mind.

Best Fungus

I don’t think I’ve had this as a category before, but this was a good year for fungi, and I saw loads of them. However I made the important discovery that actually identifying them is almost completely fucking impossible. This one at least is easy; Shaggy Inkcap:

Best Insect

It was nice to see a few seven-spot ladybirds in the garden, because it meant that the Harlequin ladybirds haven’t completely eliminated them. There was the parasitic wasp Gasteruption jaculator, which was a neat little beastie. And apart from the  the usual mix of butterflies and dragonflies, there were a couple of stand-out species. One was a very battered convolvulus hawkmoth brought in by the cat: which means that I have now seen this species exactly twice, and in both cases it was because the cat brought them in.

But the species of the year, both because it’s a dramatic-looking thing and because it was so unexpected that it turned up in the garden: Silver-washed Fritillary (in the name of full disclosure: that picture was taken by me, but not this year and not in the garden). One of Britain’s largest butterflies. And not exceptionally rare, but still a complete surprise, especially as it’s mainly a woodland species.

Best Invertebrate (other), Best Fish, Best Reptile

Best Fish and Best Reptile are often quite difficult categories, of course. But it’s a bit embarrassing that I can’t think of anything for Best Invertebrate (other), which is such a big group of organisms. Obviously I have seen various spiders and slugs and things in 2010, but none I can think of that seem worth a namecheck.

Best Amphibian

This was the year of toads in the garden (i.e. Common Toad, Bufo bufo). There have been the occasional toad before, but this year they were all over the place — commoner than frogs. Which was nice.

Best Mammal

Discounting your basic urban vermin (foxes, rats, mice, squirrels) and the remnant of hedgehog I found in the local woods, I think I saw five species of wild mammals this year.

In January when it was VERY COLD, there was a particularly active and fearless stoat at Rainham Marshes which was scurrying around near and on the pedestrian walkways. Stoats are always a pleasure to watch, bouncy manic furry wiggly critters that they are. And I saw some deer: muntjac, fallow deer, red deer and Sika — but only the muntjac counts as ‘wild’, I think, as the others were in deer parks.

And I went on a bat walk in the local park, where we saw three species of bat: Daubenton’s bat, Common Pipistrelle, and my mammal of the year for 2010 which is… Soprano Pipistrelle.

The best thing about the Soprano Pipistrelle is the brilliant name. Common and Soprano Pipistrelles were only split into separate species in 1999; there are apparently various differences of food and habitat, but they were initially split because the Soprano Pipistrelle has a higher-pitched call: 55kHz to the Common’s 45kHz.

Best Ecosystem

Because most of my birding has been in London this year, all my best sightings have been in artificial habitats: a wetland on the site of an old water-treatment plant, a marsh which was formerly an army firing range, a canal and reservoirs originally built to supply water and transport for industrial north London, Victorian suburban parks and ancient royal deer parks, all of them now managed as public amenities and for the benefit of wildlife by various conservation charities, by local councils, and by central government agencies.

Now I know that ‘nature reserve’ is not actually a distinct ecosystem. But fuck knows, if you live in a densely populated, post-industrial, intensively farmed place like southern England, and you have any interest in nature, you owe an intense debt of gratitude to the people who create and manage little pockets of land for the benefit of wildlife instead of turning them into golf courses and housing estates.

Specifically, thank you to: the RSPB, the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, Southwark Council, the Royal Parks, London Wildlife Trust and anyone else who puts in the hard work to make sure these animals have somewhere to live.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 24: El Greco

I have a thoroughly secular approach to Christmas — family, a tree, presents, turkey with all the trimmings, booze, the Doctor Who Christmas special — but still, the obvious choice for the last painting in my calendar is some kind of nativity scene. And for me, there was only ever going to be one choice. So here’s The Adoration of the Shepherds by El Greco:

Now THAT is what I call a painting. I feel proud to be part of a species that can make something like that. I was absolutely blown away by the El Greco exhibition at the National Gallery a few years ago; I’d seen a few of his paintings, but his work wasn’t really part of my mental furniture. But to see it all together, and especially the big religious paintings like this one: I just think he is the most extraordinary painter, amongst the very greatest.

It seems so modern, so fresh, that it’s hard to believe it was painted in 1614, with those distorted figures and dramatic colours. Although actually I think to call it ‘modern’ is to claim too much for our own time, to suggest that we have progressed so much that modern painters produce work like this all the time. No, this work would be extraordinary at any time. It’s just even more amazing that it was painted when it was, at a time which was perhaps less prepared for these kind of stylised images.

Happy Christmas everyone, however you celebrate it.

The 6th annual Christmas stuffing post

The annual Christmas stuffing post may be the most pointless of the arbitrary traditions that have accreted themselves onto this blog, but it doesn’t take long to do, and what better time of year for arbitrary traditions? So here we go:

As usual, two stuffings both made with a base of sausagemeat, breadcrumbs, onion and celery. The more savoury one has returned to the usual chestnut version, after a brief dalliance last year with pistachios. This year the fruity one is pineapple and ginger, using dried pineapple reconstituted in a bit of water and candied stem ginger.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 23: Goya

This is The Straw Manikin, by Goya. It’s actually a cartoon for a tapestry, according to the blurb at the Prado.

It’s a great image: fun, surprising, silly and a little bit creepy. I suppose that creepiness might be my masculine response to the fact that it’s ‘a clear allegory of women’s domination of men’. Or it might be that the slightly contorted, limp figure with the fixed smile and blank eyes is firmly in Uncanny Valley territory.

Ham

I cooked a ham. Looks good, innit:

Unfortunately I don’t think it’s going to taste as good as it looks, because I trusted the man who sold it to me when he said it didn’t need to be soaked before cooking, and the little bit I trimmed off to taste was VERY SALTY. Which is irritating, because it was quite an expensive chunk of meat. Ho hum.

It probably didn’t help that I steamed it instead of boiling it, but that’s how I cooked last year’s (after soaking it) and it was fine.

I also made an Italian Christmas cake thing called pangiallo, which was mildly stressful because of the not-very informative recipe and turned out to be a pleasant but completely unremarkable fruitcake of the kind I don’t like very much.

Bah humbug.

CHRISTMAS EVE HAM UPDATE:

I cut a few slices, and it’s certainly saltier than I would ideally like, but it’s not unbearably, mouth-shrivellingly salty, which I thought it might be after the little test bit I cut off. So let’s call that a partial win!

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 22: Ofili

Contemporary art is incredibly obsessed with ideas, and with the idea of ideas — when you read the exhibition blurb, it’s always full of stuff about the conceptual background to the work, and the ideas the work is supposed to provoke in the viewer.

I don’t have a principled objection to art based on ideas — a lot of it is crap, that’s Sturgeon’s Law for you — but it’s slightly odd, really, that it has become such an apparently essential element of art. Art is fundamentally tied to the physical reality of made objects*, and to suggest that those tangible objects are not enough to justify themselves, that they need to be dressed up in abstract ideas, almost seems to show a lack of confidence. As well as sometimes having a whiff of Emperor’s new clothes about it.

Chris Ofili can certainly do ideas with the best of them — his work engages in various interesting ways with blackness, Africa, religion, the canon and so on — but those ideas are expressed via exciting, beautiful objects. They have colour and texture, they are attractive at a distance but have fascinating fine details that draw the eye. Big paintings, leaning on the wall supported by varnished lumps of elephant dung, the way they are displayed emphasises their physical presence.

To quote the Tate:

No Woman, No Cry is a tribute to the London teenager Stephen Lawrence. The Metropolitan police investigation into his racially motivated murder was mishandled, and a subsequent inquiry described the police force as institutionally racist. In each of the tears shed by the woman in the painting is a collaged image of Stephen Lawrence’s face, while the words ‘R.I.P. Stephen Lawrence’ are just discernible beneath the layers of paint.

But it doesn’t need that context to work: in 200 years time, when the name of Stephen Lawrence is a historical footnote, it will still be a beautiful painting.

* yeah, I know, it’s more complicated than that.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 21: Lear

Despite being a birdwatcher, I’m not actually a huge fan of bird paintings. Or at least not a certain kind of bird paintings done by the certain kind of wildlife artist. Ducks huddling against the cold in the dawn light, that sort of thing.

They tend to be a bit chocolate-boxy, or a bit over-precise… whatever it is, they usually leave me unmoved. The artist’s passion for birds somehow doesn’t make for great art.

The works I’m more drawn to are those which were not intended to be hung on a wall, but to go in a scientific monograph, or a field guide. What you might call bird illustration, rather than bird art; paintings done primarily with an analytical rather than an aesthetic eye. I find them more compelling than those bird paintings which try harder to be Art.

That tradition includes Thomas Bewick, Audubon, John Gould, and today’s artist, Edward Lear. And yes, it is the same man who wrote The Owl and the Pussycat and The Dong with the Luminous Nose. His eyesight deteriorated early and forced a change of carer, but as a young man he was a very fine natural history illustrator.

I picked this picture, a study of a Scarlet Macaw, partially because it is rather lovely, with the bird peering over its shoulder among the blobs of paint. But mainly, I have to admit, because most of the works by Lear on the internet are actually lithographs, and I am too much of a pedant at heart to post a lithograph to a series calling itself an ‘advent calendar of paintings’. You can see the finished print here, if you’re curious.

This is one of the lithographs, of a Pale-headed Parakeet.

Christmas biscuits*

I did some baking yesterday.

There’s nothing especially Christmassy about the recipes themselves — ginger biscuits with candied peel and chocolate chip oat cookies — but I did make them sparkly.

It’s quite hard to photograph the glitter. It’s actually holographic rainbow sparkles, but in photographs it just looks silver.

* Note for Americans: not those kind of biscuits, obvs.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 19: Carrà

This is The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli by Carlo Carrà. To quote Wikipedia:

The subject of the work is the funeral of Italian anarchist Angelo Galli, killed by police during a general strike in 1904. The Italian State feared that the funeral would become a de facto political demonstration and refused the mourning anarchists entrance into the cemetery itself. When anarchists resisted, the police responded with force and a violent scuffle ensued.

I saw it in the Tate’s Futurism exhibition last year, and thought it was pretty striking, but looking at it now I find myself strongly reminded of a lot of images I have seen in the news recently: that angry claustrophobic mass of figures, the horses, the batons.

Over the past few weeks we’ve had violent confrontations between protestors and police on the streets of London, we’ve had protestors closing down high street shops in protest against tax-avoidance by big business, we’ve even had Mrs Prince Charles poked with a stick by a group of people chanting ‘off with their heads.’

And we’ve even had the word ‘anarchist’ being thrown around, a word which seems as dated as Futurism itself. I don’t know how many of those who have been on the news smashing windows and setting fire to things would say they were anarchists, and I don’t know what they mean by it. But then perhaps anarchism has always been a mood as much as a political ideology. And yes, I know, political theorists have devised versions of anarchism which are more sophisticated than the caricature; but still, that wish to break down the overarching structure of society is a remarkable thing. You have to think that the world is very broken indeed to believe that throwing all the pieces up in the air is likely to make it better.

But then whether many people in the UK are ‘real’ anarchists is hardly the point; what matters is that a lot of people are angry. And not just in Britain. Are there enough of them, are they angry enough, to have a powerful impact? And for better or worse? These are interesting times.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 18: Bosch

I’m feeling ill today — perhaps I managed to poison myself with homemade chicken soup — so I thought perhaps I’d see if could find a painting with a medical theme. So here’s a cracker by Hieronymus Bosch, known as The Extraction of the Stone of Madness or The Cure of Folly.

All that amazing Gothic writing apparently says

Meester snijt die keye ras
Mijne name Is lubbert das

Which apparently means ‘Master, cut away the stone / my name is Lubbert Das’, Lubbert Das being the name for a fool in Dutch literature.*

It is presumably allegorical of something, but The Prado and Wikipedia disagree about what it means. I don’t think I care, though. It’s a striking image, and that gold calligraphy is just astonishing.

This name is sometimes translated as: ‘Castrated Badger’.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 16: Poussin

I think it’s interesting how much particular styles and periods can go in and out of fashion. The fact that whole artistic movements can gain and lose popularity for no simple reason serves as a valuable warning if you ever start thinking that your taste is in any way objective or reliable.

Nicolas Poussin is a painter of high neo-classicism; a genre which is about as unfashionable as it is possible to be.

Some of the reasons why a painter like Poussin is unfashionable are clear enough: for example, people are much less familiar with all the Greek and Roman references. Others are easy to articulate but less easy to explain: I think it’s a fair generalisation that history paintings, and narrative paintings more generally, are unpopular today. But it’s not transparently obvious why that should be true.

This painting, A Dance to the Music of Time, is more approachable than many of his works; compared, for example, to The Rape of the Sabine Women. It’s more intimate in scale, and it’s sort of allegorical or symbolic rather than properly narrative. Both of those things make it seem less stagey. Still, it’s not the kind of painting that would pull a lot of punters through the doors of a London gallery in 2010.

But fashions change. Maybe in twenty years time, Poussin will be THE hot ticket, and Van Gogh will be regarded as terribly old fashioned and déclassé.

Fashion aside, there is one thing about this painting which makes it remarkable: the whole surface is covered in thumbprints. When the paint was still wet, Poussin covered the surface of the painting with the imprint of his own thumb. Why did he leave his mark on it in this way? No one knows.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 15: Nolan

2AM tonight is the start of the third Ashes test, with England one-nil up in the series and with the opportunity to ruthlessly grind Australia into the dust in the same way the Aussies have done so many times to us over the past 30 years.

So it seems fitting to pick an Australian painting; this is The Trial, from Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series. Ned Kelly was the Australian outlaw and folk hero, famous for his home-made suit of armour.

Part of his folk hero status comes from the fact that he was, according to one interpretation, rebelling against the oppressive British colonial power. Which brings us back to the cricket, since the particular best-of-enemies edge that surrounds the Ashes is partly because of the frisson that comes with a match against the former colonial power.

The Ashes got their name in 1882 when Australia beat England in England for the first time, and the Sporting Times printed a mock obituary announcing the sad death of English cricket: ‘the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia’. Which is, incidentally, just two years after the execution of Ned Kelly.

Going back to the actual painting: I was interested to read that Nolan was very influenced by Henri Rousseau. Because I reckon that Rousseau actually wanted to be a proper painter in the classical academy tradition, but having taught himself to paint in his spare time as an adult, he just wasn’t technically capable of that style of painting. The paintings he did produce are beautiful — he had a great eye for design and colour — but they are in a naive style because that was all he could do. Which is something rather different from the self-consciously naive style of a painter like Nolan.

Anyway, there are a lot more paintings by Nolan (and indeed other Australian artists) on the National Gallery of Australia website, if you’re interested.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 14: Matisse

I was looking over the paintings I’ve posted so far, and it’s weirdly unrepresentative of my personal taste. I mean: Aelbert Cuyp, Jacob Jordaens, Jenny Saville, Lubin Baugin… these are fine artists but not exactly my particular favourites.

So here’s a particular painting that made a personal impression on me. The Piano Lesson, by Henri Matisse:

It’s a big painting, 8′ by 7′. It normally lives in MoMA, in New York. I’m not quite sure, but I think I must have seen it when the Matisse Picasso exhibition came to Tate Modern. It has stayed with me ever since, though it’s hard to articulate why. It’s something to do with the collision of modernism and formality, perhaps.

One reason I haven’t posted more of my personal favourites so far might be because I’m slightly protective of them; a little 500 pixel version is never going to be the same, and I want to do the paintings justice.

Is it weird that I worry about doing the paintings justice, rather than the artists?

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 13: Baugin

I thought it was about time for a still life. This is Le dessert de gaufrettes by Lubin Baugin, from about 1630. ‘Gaufrettes’ are wafers, in this case ones which have been rolled up like brandy snaps or cannoli. I must say they look a little bit dry like that, but with a few mouthfuls of dessert wine to ease them down, I expect they’re delicious.

I like still lifes; there’s a kind of conceptual purity to them. By which I mean: if the challenge is to make a painting which engages the viewer’s attention, then anything with an actual human in it is pushing against an open door. People are so naturally drawn to faces that they see them everywhere.

But to stick a carafe of water, a couple of books and a pile of fruit on a table, and to make it into something beautiful and precious, something that people want to linger over in a way they would never linger over a real bowl of fruit: that’s magic.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 12: Renoir

Has there ever been a supposedly great painter who produced as many awful paintings as Renoir? I mean, look at this:

It’s not just the fact that it is, in the least subtle way possible, a painting of a pair of boobs which happen to have a girl attached to them. Or that her arms and hands appear to be suffering from a complete lack of skeletal structure. Or that every one of Renoir’s jeunes filles have interchangeable gormless faces. No, what is most annoying about this painting is that it was painted by the same man who, On a good day, when he was really trying, was capable of occasionally producing paintings like this:

I don’t think it’s a surprise that when I find a painting of his I like, it’s when he’s being least Renoir-y. Although some of his more typical paintings are also rather magical:

Anyway, that seems to be three paintings, which is probably cheating. Better stop before I accidentally post any more.

Waxwings!

This year there has been an irruption of waxwings into the UK, presumably because of a shortage of berries in Scandinavia and Russia. It’s a bird I have wanted to see forever: it’s exceptionally glamorous looking and it’s a regular-but-uncommon visitor. So since it became apparent that there were a whole lot of them around, I have been religiously checking birdguides.com for news of sightings, looking for somewhere conveniently reachable by public transport from London. Initially they were all up north — flocks of hundreds in Scotland — but they have been spreading down across the country, and over the past week or so there have been quite a few seen in London. But a lot of those are records of the ‘twelve seen flying west’ variety; great for the person who saw them, but hardly worth rushing across town to try and get a look at.

But three days ago there were about 90 in the trees opposite the B&Q at Folkestone; and then the day after there were 160, and it seemed like a good bet that there would still be some yesterday, so off I went.

Result! That’s just a few of ’em. And I know it’s not the greatest picture, but I took it by pointing my phone camera through a pair of binoculars, so all things considered, I reckon it’s pretty good.

Here are some waxwings bathing in water that had collected on the roof of the Action Carpets warehouse:

And here are some waxwings scoffing berries:

I had some pretty amazing views, although my photos don’t do them justice. If you want to see what they really look like, check out this photo which someone else took in Folkestone.

Incidentally, it would be nice to think that birdwatching would all take place in beautiful wild environments, like the Ecuadorean cloud forest or Pembrokeshire clifftops, but surprisingly often it seems to end up involving the car park of a large DIY retailer, or the roof of a carpet warehouse, or some other equally glamorous setting. I guess if you live somewhere as built up as the south of England, the birds just have to fit in where they can.

And I guess if I had been somewhere wilder, I wouldn’t have had access to a van selling what might be the most British sandwich I’ve ever seen: the Breakfast in Bread. Oh yes, it is what it sounds like: bacon, sausage, tomatoes, mushrooms, black pudding and fried egg, stuffed into a baguette. Amazing. I wimped out and had a BLT myself, but just the fact that the Breakfast in Bread exists is good enough for me.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 11: Unknown

Yesterday I featured a picture by a great painter of cows. To be fair, Aelbert Cuyp had many other notable qualities, including being a fine painter of skies and light… but one way or another an awful lot of his paintings have cows in. Maybe there were just a lot of cows in C17th Holland; if your country is flooded half the year, grass is a pretty good crop to focus on.

Anyway, here’s another great painting of a cow. But this is a wild cow, the ancestor of domestic cattle: the aurochs. The aurochs actually survived all the way to the seventeenth century before we wiped it out. But this is much older than that.

We don’t know who painted it, of course. Or why, although no doubt there are plenty of theories. What we do know is that fifteen thousand years before the birth of Christ, some people were living down inside a very dark cave in what is now the middle of France, and that on the walls, they painted the wild animals that lived around them: aurochs, horses and stags, especially.

They are beautiful images, I think, but what’s really amazing is their age, and what it says about the deep history of humanity. Before the Egyptians, before the Sumerians, before Çatalhöyük, there had already been hundreds of generations of our ancestors who were at least human enough to produce art. And Lascaux isn’t even the oldest cave art we’ve discovered; the art at Chauvet is another thirteen to fifteen thousand years older. In other words, there is nearly as much time between Chauvet and Lascaux as between Lascaux and us. Recorded history is just a pinprick in comparison.

You can see more of the paintings at the Lascaux website.

More thinking about Wikileaks

One interesting thing I’ve noticed since Wikileaks exploded out of its relative obscurity: I keep finding myself of things which I wish someone would leak to them.

So, after FIFA awarded the World Cup to Russia and Qatar in what is widely asumed to be a more-or-less bent bidding process, I thought ‘there must be someone who has some dirt on Sepp Blatter and the FIFA organising committee, someone who knows where the bodies are buried… be nice if they leaked that to Wikileaks’. And today, when we learn that no charges will be brought following a probe into phone hacking at the News of the World, I thought ‘those nasty fucks have got away with it again… there must be someone who has the evidence that Andy Coulson knew what his reporters were doing and could send it to Wikileaks’.

Because the powerful have so many ways of suppressing information, the simple idea of an avenue for people to anonymously release information is rather intoxicating. And the higher-profile Wikileaks becomes, the more likely it will be that individuals within organisations like FIFA, or the News of the World, or the Metropolitan Police, will feel able to get that information out.

Interesting times.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 9: Saville

Whoops, nearly forgot to post one for today. So here’s Plan, by Jenny Saville:

It’s another one where the size is relevant — it’s actually 9 feet tall and 7 wide. So it’s a big painting; it changes it from an intimate perspective into something more monumental.

I’ve always found the subject of size in art kind of fascinating, incidentally: not just big paintings versus small ones but the difference between reading a 900 page novel and a 200 page one, or a poem of 14 lines versus one of 400.

Although the comparison between literature and the visual arts doesn’t quite hold up, because you can’t just keep a novel the same but make it twice as long; whereas you could scale a painting or a sculpture. How different would Vermeer’s paintings seem if they were three times the size? Or if Michelangelo had made David life size instead of 17 feet tall?

Indeed we frequently do see works of art in the wrong size, because we often see them in photographs, and it’s not an unusual reaction, I find, to see the real things for the first time and be surprised by their size — like Gauguin, whose paintings were surprisingly small.

Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 8: van der Weyden

Today’s painter is Rogier van der Weyden. This is, perhaps self-evidently, The Annunciation:

I have a real thing for the painters of the Northern Renaissance: Jan Van Eyck, Memling, Dürer, Holbein, Bruegel, Bosch, Cranach. In fact, I love medieval and renaissance art generally, and that certainly includes the Italians, but for some reason I have special soft spot for the northerners.

It’s appealing to think that there’s some kind of specifically northern European aesthetic, some kind of cultural continuity that stretches over five centuries to form a link between me and them… but that’s the kind of explanation that would annoy me if someone else came up with it. Apart from the fact that it’s too hand-wavy to actually explain anything, it doesn’t match the facts; there’s plenty of art and literature from southern Europe that I love, and plenty of northern stuff that bores me silly.

I guess it has something to do with the fact that the medieval influence lingered longer in the north; the paintings are gloriously well-painted and lavish, but they are still in a more constrained, stylised world. Something about that stiff intricacy appeals to me.

Here’s a detail from the same painting:

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