Desperately poor start in the back garden for the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch yesterday. Not a dicky bird; seemingly they’ve all flown, even the pigeons. So I go and make a cup of tea and – lo and behold – in the front garden on the feeder we have 6 goldfinches (is that enough to constitute a ‘charm’ of goldfinches? – one of the great collective nouns) so I stick around in the kitchen. The goldfinches come and go, but we also get 5 sparrows, 3 starlings, 2 chaffinches, 2 wagtails (on the drive so that still counts), 2 robins, a dunnock, a blue tit, just the one pigeon and a blackbird, which is pretty good; better than last year, though where have all the greenfinches gone? Not in the RSPB hour, but lately, we’ve had regular sight of a blackbird with a white tail.
So … I like birds. Which just happens to be the title of an Eels song, one of the many from the splendid ‘Meet the Eels’ compilation CD that have charmed me this weekend. I’ve always loved ‘Mr E’s beautiful blues‘ (“Goddamn right, it’s a beautiful day“) – definitely on the Desert Island Disc shortlist – but apart from the first single I didn’t know much else. Mark Oliver Everett, who basically is Eels, is one of the originals, a man of great talent with songs pouring out of him, and great integrity (if you believe him … which I do) and strength and intelligence and wit; with the best he goes his own way at a tangent to the mainstream (and alternative mainstream, as he is at pains to point out) music industry. A truly qualified survivor, to quote a phrase, whose life was saved by rock and roll (to quote another phrase) though more strictly that should just be, saved by music.
If you’re small and on a search
I’ve got a feeder for you to perch on
‘I love birds‘ is one of those songs where the singer starts whistling and you feel compelled to whistle along too. I got hold of ‘Meet the Eels’ because I’ve just read Everett’s autobiography, ‘Things the grandchildren should know‘ (Little Brown, 2008), one of the books I took out from the threatened Stony Stratford Library to fill my ticket as part of the celebrated ‘Wot no books’ empty the shelves campaign. In it he pleads guilty when others deride his career choices, and you can just hear the desperate pleas of his publishers to let them put the sticker saying ‘Rock music, Death, Crazy people, Love!’ which you would never guess from the tasteful grey cover, with its silhouetted tree with its pale green falling leaves.
In fact it reads like a novel, one of those American rite of passage novels out of the Holden Caulfield stable four decades – and all that entails – on. Shy messed up hip kid from a dysfunctional middle class family, orphaned early – father a misunderstood quantum physicist who never talked to his kids or most other people, laissez-faire childcare mum, much loved sister a train wreck, all sorts of traumas and deaths and he comes out – saved by music – positive, celebrating life, acknowledging bad times as a part of it, pretty confident that better must come; just like Mr Dylan said, “It’s all good”. He keeps to a vernacular to the end, an integer of integrity, but there are passages where he flies, in particular the omega moment in a sold out Albert Hall, playing with the extra accompaniment of a string quartet, when all the songs and the life they came out of are, to him, vindicated – this is where I belong. Goddamn right. I look forward to exploring more of the music.
Some sort of spurious link now follows:
He remembers one night in summer when the footballers had stood silent, looking up. It was dusk. The note from a single recorder wavered in the air, thin and piercing. A blackbird picked up the note, and sang from a bush by the water gate. A boatman whistled back from the river.
That’s from Hilary Mantel‘s ‘Wolf Hall‘ (Fourth Estate, 2009). What a great book. You are there, right there, where the man is. The man is Thomas Cromwell, a sinister and powerful beast, mainly in the background in C.J.Sansom‘s outstanding sequence of Shardlake novels set in the England of Henry VIII, but in ‘Wolf Hall’ he’s an operator not averse to brinkmanship, a decent enough if sometimes ruthless man with a refined instinct for survival and self-advancement who, when he gets home to his children he’s a family man … you know the ‘Beggar’s banquet’ score.
It’s beautifully written; there are tremendous insights into the public and private man. The authorial voice and view is invariably Cromwell’s but he never actually addresses the reader directly (and so Mantel allows him to retain a certain privacy); so once I become adept at recognising which ‘he’ we were talking about sometimes in the action, I was hooked. Cromwell, uniquely for the time, worked his way up into a position of great influence from wretched circumstances via mercenary soldiery and successful merchant activity abroad, coming home to the patronage of Cardinal Wolsey, who doubled as Lord Chancellor to the young Henry VIII. We learn some of the specifics of his time away in passing. His tutelage in the corridors of power under Wolsey is a fascinating mix of ‘The thick of it’ and ‘Blackadder’ among other things.
I could go on, but the book is just magnificent. I look forward to the sequel immensely, something I never thought I’d be saying about Hilary Mantel, whose previous work, or at least that which I had read, left me uneasy. This is a very fine piece of writing. ‘Wolf Hall‘ scores on so many levels – the personal, the political (as in the art of the possible), the societal, the compassionate and the contemporary. There’s a vivid and numerous cast in attendance too. It feels like Thomas Cromwell the first modern man; it is a book you feel, hear and breathe in the fragrances, the smell. More birds:
There is a chill in the air; the summer birds have flown and black-winged lawyers are gathering for the new term in the fields of Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s.
This is Cromwell worrying about delivering what Henry wants:
How can he explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Nor from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechansim of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.
And lest you think we are slipping into marxist territory, later on:
The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rosewater; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.
This is a huge book.