Bird of the Year 2014

I added eight birds to my life list this year, all in Portugal; including two species of vultures, five eagles, two storks, two bustards, bee-eater, roller, hoopoe, golden oriole, two kinds of shrike, two kinds of swift…

Among the species I’d seen before, highlights included Montagu’s Harrier, which is an elegant, long-winged bird of prey that I had wonderful views of; Southern Grey Shrike, which I’d seen before in Morocco and Spain, but certainly never so well; Black Stork, a species I last saw over twenty years ago on the day I did a bungee jump at Victoria Falls; Pallid Swift, because I had previously ticked it on the basis of a somewhat dodgy sighting, so a really good sighting was a weight off my mind (and also because it was picturesque to see them nesting on cliffs overhanging the sea). Bonelli’s Eagle and Golden Eagle are certainly worth mentioning as well, although neither were particularly good views.

And there are all those Mediterranean species which are always a pleasure to see: Black-winged Kite, Short-toed Eagle, Griffon Vulture, Collared Pratincole, Black-winged Stilt, Little Owl, Alpine Swift, Bee-eater, Hoopoe, Golden Oriole, Azure-winged Magpie, Crested Tit, Blue Rock Thrush, Crested Lark, Nightingale, Black-eared Wheatear, Serin, Cirl Bunting.

One of the particular attractions of the trip I took was the unusual cliff-nesting storks. These are White Storks, the ones better-known for nesting on chimneys (and bringing babies). Along this particular bit of the Portuguese coast they’ve developed the habit of nesting on rocks just offshore. I think there are probably at least ten or eleven nests in this picture, although admittedly you may have to take my word for it:

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You should at least be able to make out the streaks of guano, and the flying white bird with black wingtips in front of the left-hand rock. Here’s a photo, taken through binoculars, of a nest which was unusually close to the cliff:

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Of the eight species I saw which were new, the least interesting was Iberian Chiffchaff: a bird which is effectively identical to the (very common, small, drab) Common Chiffchaff, but with a different song. I didn’t even definitely see one — I saw chiffchaffs that weren’t calling and heard Iberian Chiffchaff singing — but I’m ticking it on the song.

Then there was Western Bonelli’s Warbler, another little greenish bird in the same genus as the chiffchaffs. I have to say, it was a much more attractive bird in person than you would think looking at illustrations; but that’s not saying much.

Black Vulture (or Cinereous Vulture, if you want to avoid confusion with the New World species) is a cracking species — the largest bird of prey apart from the condors, with a wingspan from eight to ten feet — but again, not particularly good views. Spanish Imperial Eagle (or as my Portuguese guide tried to persuade me it was called, Iberian Imperial Eagle) is a majestic species which used to be the rarest eagle in world until good conservation work managed to upgrade it to the second rarest*; there were estimated to be 324 breeding pairs in 2012. Again, though, very distant views.

I also saw some Black-bellied Sandgrouse — the sandgrouse are ground-living desert pigeons, sort of — which was the first sandgrouse I’ve seen in Europe. And quite good views of a pair of Stone Curlew, which is a magnificent, goggle-eyed bird.

But when I booked a birding guide for a day, there were three species I particularly wanted to see: Little Bustard, Great Bustard and European Roller.

The roller is a truly spectacular species, a big electric blue bird the size of a crow with deep, royal blue patches on the wings when it flies. We spent a while watching them, and it would almost certainly be my bird of the year if it hadn’t been my winner for BOTY 2007.

Little Bustard is also a great species, and we saw them reasonably well; but my Bird of the Year 2014 has to be Great Bustard. I believe the world’s heaviest recorded flying bird was a Great Bustard; with the slight caveat that the particular individual may have been too fat to fly. On average it’s the second-heaviest, after Kori Bustard, and it’s a big beast of a thing. Here’s the distant, hazy photo I posted for BOTY:BPiaSR:

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Here it is zoomed into the centre a bit, clearly showing five birds:

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The two in the middle [enhance! enhance!]:

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But what’s so good about bustards is what they do to attract a mate. Stick with this video for at least a couple of minutes to get the full effect:

Amazing. I didn’t get views like that, sadly, but I did see them a bit closer than in my photos, and I did see them displaying, and they are brilliant birds.

*The massive, monkey-eating Philippine Eagle is now the rarest.

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

I think there’s a great division among readers between those who read fiction primarily for the plots and characters, and those who read for the pleasure of the prose. Not that the two are mutually exclusive — indeed one might argue that at its best literature should provide both — but I do think there’s a real difference there, and if you read book discussions on the internet, you often see people from the two sides talking across each other.

I would generally say that I am one of those who are more interested in prose style than narrative. But The Book of Disquiet really served to test that idea. It contains some of the finest writing I have encountered for a long time; it also has absolutely no plot.

It is presented as the ‘factless autobiography’ of a Lisbon clerk named Bernardo Soares, and it is a compilation of short pieces — some just a few lines, others three or four pages — which chronicle his inner life: philosophical musings about literature, love, dreaming, religion, and so on. Sometimes it’s aphoristic, sometimes detached and analytical, sometimes more personal and emotional; but it’s almost all inside his own head. We get little glimpses of his office and colleagues, and the streets of Lisbon; but really very little.

The result is often brilliant, sometimes funny, sometimes moving, sometimes waffly, sometimes aggravating — Soares is too snobbish and solipsistic to be completely likeable — and I did actually enjoy it as well as being impressed by it. But what it doesn’t have is a lot of forward momentum. And so it took me quite a long time to read and I had to make a conscious effort to pick it up again and push through to the end.

» The two photographs are by Eli Lotar from the series ‘Lisbon from 1930-1934’. I found them on the website of the Réunion des Musées Nationaux [1, 2].

The Maias by José Maria de Eça de Queiroz

The Maias, by Eça de Queiroz/de Queirós, is a proper doorstop of a C19th novel, over 700 pages long. It’s late C19th, though, 1888. I was trying to think of apt comparisons, and none of them seemed exactly right, but it’s more like George Eliot or Tolstoy than Dickens. Or even early C20th novelists like Forster or Proust. Though the Proust comparison is not so much to do with style as subject matter: the romantic entanglements of wealthy, mildly bohemian society types.

One of the blurbs on the back compares him to Flaubert — ‘Eça de Queiroz rivals Flaubert in his suavely satiric pictures of provincial torpor and metropolitan glitter’ — which is another plausible choice.

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Among the themes running through the book, the one I found most interesting was the question of Portugal’s place in the world, which is seen in terms of tradition vs. modernity but also Portugal’s cultural relationship with other European powers: there’s a real sense of a smallish country on the edge of Europe looking towards London and Paris with a hint of an inferiority complex. So the characters swing between claiming unique virtues for Portugal and admiring, for example, a dress that could only have come from Paris. Every discussion, of literature or an event or whatever, turns to comparisons with other countries; the yardstick for quality is an external one. It’s oddly like reading post-colonial fiction, even though Portugal was in fact colonist rather than colonised.

I think what I liked most about the book was the leisurely pace of it. Events at which nothing much happens — or at least nothing which is essential to advancing the plot —are allowed to spread over five or ten pages. There’s a 30-page description of them going to the races which is a big set piece within the book, full of social observation, incident and humour, but none of it is actually crucial to the plot. On another occasion, in another mood, I might have just been bored by it; but this time I enjoyed that expansiveness.

In Lisbon, from the Grémio to the Casa Havanesa, there was already talk of ‘Ega’s mistress’. He, for his part, was trying very hard to keep his happiness safe from prying eyes. While perfectly serious about the complicated precautions this entailed, he also took a romantic delight in mystery, and so always chose the most out-of-the-way places, n the outskirts of the city, in the area near the slaughterhouse, for his furtive meetings with the maid who brought him Raquel’s letters. But his every gesture (event he affected way he had of pretending not to look at the clock) revealed the enormous pride he felt in that elegant adultery. He was perfectly aware that his friends knew all about this glorious adventure of his, and were au fait with the whole drama, and this was perhaps why, when in the company of Carlos or the others, he never even mentioned her name or betrayed the slightest flicker of emotion.

One night, however, a night lit by a calm white moon, as he and Carlos were walking along together in silence on their way to Ramalhete, Ega, doubtless filled by a sudden inrush of passion, uttered a heartfelt sigh, reached out his arms and declared to the moon in a tremulous voice:

Oh, laisse-toi donc aimer, oh, l’amour c’est la vie!

This escaped his lips like the beginning of a confession. Carlos, at his side, said nothing, and simply blew his cigar smoke out into the air.

Ega clearly felt somewhat ridiculous, because he immediately recovered himself and pretended a mere literary interest.

‘They can say what they want, but there’s no one like old Hugo.’

Carlos still said nothing, but he recalled Ega’s Naturalist outbursts, in which he had inveighed against Victor Hugo, calling him a ‘spiritualist blabbermouth’, ‘an imitative yokel’, ‘a lyrical old fool’ and worse.

But that night, Ega, the great phrase-maker, went on:

‘Ah yes, old Hugo, the heroic champion of the eternal truths. We need a bit of idealism, damn it, because the ideal might one day become reality.’

And with this formal recantation he shattered the silence of the streets.

It’s good stuff. Another of the blurbs says ‘Eça ought to be up there with Dickens, Balzac, and Tolstoy as one of the talismanic names of the nineteenth century’, and without deciding at this moment exactly where I think he ought to come in the leaderboard for C19th novelists, I would say this: The Maias is undoubtedly a substantial, high quality and important novel, and at the very least deserves to be better known. I certainly hadn’t even heard of it before I noticed it in a bookshop.

A quick name-check for Margaret Jull Costa, who translated this edition, and has done a good job of it, as far as I can tell without knowing any Portuguese.

The Maias is my book from Portugal for the Read The World challenge. I realised after making up my original list that I had actually read a book from Portugal already: The Lusiads by Luís de Camões, which I read in a second hand copy of a 1950s Penguin Classic edition which I seem to have lost. But I was happy to read another.

» The photo, which comes from Wikipedia, is of Eça de Queiroz.

FIFA London Cup 2006

I was thinking the other day that it’s surprising and slightly disappointing that, while London is covered in England flags for the World Cup, you don’t see many flags from other countries. Something like 25% of people resident in London were born outside the UK, so there must be plenty of people supporting just about everywhere.

But I went to a friend’s house in Oval yesterday. Oval is ‘Little Lisbon’, the Portuguese centre of London, and Portugal were playing their first World Cup game that evening against ex-colony Angola. Everywhere were people wearing Portugal shirts, or the Portugal strip, or Portugal scarves, or waving the Portuguese flag. It was great. There was even some banter between Angolan and Portuguese fans on the bus (at least I think it was banter, but I don’t speak Portuguese).

I love that. I loved the fact that when South Korea won some key match at the last World Cup – beating Italy maybe? – hundreds of Koreans turned up in Trafalgar Square singing and waving Korean flags.

I suppose a comment about England’s first game is in order. it wasn’t that encouraging, let’s be honest. But we got the three points; we’re clear at the top of the group; it’s a marathon not a sprint; it’s a game of fourteen halves; it’s still a while until the fat lad sings.

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