Cannes canned

I love this time of year – almost but not quite autumn; the mists, damp mornings, the smells of the meadows and woodland that aren’t here at any other time; the earthy richness of the land. Today we picked our first blackberries and gathered the first fallen apples for a pie with lunch in a little ritual that we undertake each year; a private affair that celebrates the harvest and the year’s promise of closing down for the winter. I’ve had people tell me that autumn is depressing because it signifies the end of the year and that the shortening days are no reason for celebration but I’ve never felt that. For me it’s an evocative time, a rich and essential part in the process of renewal. So it’s always been important, in a way I can’t explain, to acknowledge these subtle markers of the changing seasons as signs of continuity; proof that life renews itself and is ongoing.

I guess it’s an aspect of the human psyche to take continuity for granted so long as the path travelled is relatively smooth and the direction it follows relatively agreeable. Sometimes, however, life delivers a blow that forces you to stop and draw breath, like it did for me this week. So the sojourn to Cannes is cancelled and I find myself in England, spending a lot of time standing outside in wet, long grass, looking at the changing season and thinking far too deeply about the frailty of existence.

I lost someone very dear to me this week and the hardest thing to comprehend is that the world didn’t stop.


The bottle uncork’d

Wet, wet, wet; wind and floods too. A depression that the weather boys missed in their forecast hit us on Saturday and we got off lightly with some water coming through the porch roof. That seemed to be due to a combination of the deluge and storm-force winds working to prove that water can flow uphill but a lot of other people woke to flooded basements, overflowing drains and cars in metre-deep puddles. It’s just about passed now and, after two dull, cloudy days the skies cleared today to treat us to a bright, sunny and cooler afternoon.

Golden Eagle over the garden

One of the reasons that I enjoy this place so much is the wealth of natural wonders and I could bore for the Nation about it. In autumn, birds migrating south in Scandinavia travel down a landmass that gets narrower below a line drawn roughly between Oslo in the west and Stockholm in the east. It narrows again, by about two-thirds, when they get to Skåne so the numbers are concentrated into a smaller area. It’s a bit like sand running out of a funnel and, where we are, the sky at this time of year is often full of birds flying overhead in a more-or-less south-westerly direction. The general movement south starts slowly in July and gets frantic through to September and October and experts know what to expect is on the way through at various times in that period. The weather affects things so if there are depressions, like this week for example, or strong winds the general flow can be disrupted. Birds seek shelter, go to ground or just stay put but when the weather breaks it’s like drawing a cork from a bottle and the flow starts again, often in a great rush. Today was such a day.

This morning the strong winds had gone but there was still low cloud and a constant, heavy drizzle of rain that rendered everything dull and thoroughly depressing. No birds overhead and, unusually, not much to be seen in the garden. When it eventually cleared up I strolled down to the end to look over Fyledalen. As the sun came out an adult Golden Eagle was soaring just above with two Common Buzzards and a Kestrel moving it along. They were taking advantage of the improvement in the weather and, as there were more Buzzards in the distance, a cycle ride around the village was called for. I counted over forty species in the few remaining hours of daylight; the highlights included four more Golden Eagles, two Honey Buzzards, four Hobbies, two Marsh Harriers and over twenty Common Buzzards. Those aside, there was also a Wryneck, twenty-two Red-backed Shrikes and a group of over twenty Spotted Flycatchers.

The principal watchpoint is Falsterbo, at the extreme south-western tip of the country. Migration here often involves huge numbers of birds; often more than are seen anywhere else in the world. A reasonable estimate of the total number that passes through southern Sweden each autumn puts the figure at around 500 million. A lot of them fly right over my garden and many spend some time in it.

Scandinavia; it’s a funny place

Back in Scandinavia and it’s the Vikings’ version of the silly season in Denmark and Sweden. Despite promising myself a few quiet days that included some gentle birding [migration is underway and the skies are filling], a few glasses of good red wine and a little garden tidying before embarking on a sojourn to Cannes I was dragged out of my repose by Greg [from Denmark via Berkshire] and Bill [from Vancouver] to waste another evening of my life trawling the bars and cafés of Copenhagen. It was Fashion Week so the city was heaving, packed to the brim with the fashionable, the wannabes, the glitterati, the hangers-on and that most exquisite of creatures – the Danish Girl on a Cycle. Now if you haven’t seen this phenomenon you have missed a treat that no man should miss. There is something unique and singularly Danish about flowing blond hair, a short dress hitched up to thigh level, long legs and high-heeled shoes cruising past on the way to an evening out. Now you need to understand that my appreciation is purely an intellectual concept; cultural and aesthetic, it’s not sexist at all. Here’s some further serious reading, for the enthusiast, with a few pictures thrown in.

We started in a busy and crowded Tivoli and ended, an Italian restaurant, two bars and an Eastern European street party later [which was supplying waitress-served free beer, by the by], at Café Victor. This place is a highlight of Copenhagen and a personal favourite. The evening was warm, despite some light summer rain and the atmosphere nothing less than splendid. Construction was underway for the longest catwalk in the world – a 1600m long carpet that 250 models would stride along the following evening. Copenhagen was in party mood, none more so than the Navy guys sitting near us who were plying a bevy of very pretty girls with pink champagne in exchange for some very model-like posturing in their dress uniform caps. The bars had spilled out to the streets; there was a lot of laughter and noise, an appropriate amount of throwing-up and, of course, those blond girls cycling back and forth. Only Ray Milland knows how I felt next day after I’d crashed at Tove’s apartment but I think it was worth it.

Compare that to Sweden, where an altogether steadier but nonetheless just as silly atmosphere prevails. The Swedes do like a party and, I understand, an occasional drink, but as summer wanes and the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness arrives their thoughts turn to berries. Well, mushrooms too, but mostly berries. They love berries and as the undergrowth of the northern forests grows heavy the eager consumers in the warmer southern bit grow restless for punnets resplendent in the blues, reds and yellows of autumn. Imagine, then, our horror to find that not only is the harvest being ‘outsourced’ to Vietnamese itinerants but that they are also being exploited by the wholesalers. Last week we heard that tragedy stalked the harvesters among the bushes as, like our summer, the autumn was late this year and the berry crop with it. Apparently, the 300 guest workers had to pay their own travel, lodging and food and were contractually obligated to pick 90 kilos of lingonberries, 50 kilos of blueberries or 20 kilos of cloudberries per day in order to be paid their wages. The late crop meant no berries and that meant no wages. No money meant no food so it all came to our attention and that of the police when hunger drove them to go foraging in the woods with – listen to this – catapults and bows and arrows to shoot birds and animals to eat. I haven’t quite understood if the Swedes are alarmed at the Vietnamese workers’ plight or the potential loss of wildlife but I am greatly concerned that the berry-pickers appear not to have been told that a catapult will not stop an elk or a brown bear even if you get close enough to hit it over the head.

A little further south, but still in the forest, three middle-aged German women went for a hike and got lost. So what? Well, like a lot of Germans and, in some respects like our Vietnamese visitors, these ladies had a strong connection with nature. Instead of picking berries they were tripping through shady dells and across sun-dappled clearings stark naked. Whether or not they didn’t know the area or hadn’t brought a map [no pockets, of course] they soon realised they were lost and struck out for any signs of civilisation. Nothing, not even a Vietnamese berry-picker hunting birds. The women were part of a naturist group vacationing in a woodland cottage and the remainder, alarmed that the three hadn’t returned, called the police. The report in The Local, my source of important news, didn’t state that they had to use a land-line but I have spent a moment or two wondering how or where you carry an iPhone 4 when you are stark naked. Anyway, after wandering around until 10.30pm below circling police helicopters and, most embarrassingly, approaching sniffer dogs the ladies chanced upon their rented cottage and were welcomed into the naked bosoms of their naturist companions.

This has all made me feel very uneasy. One of the things I’ve always liked about Swedish forests is the solitude and the dearth of people. Sitting on my deck with a glass of red wine this evening I was wondering just what lurks beyond the garden fence and it was safe to go down to the woods today.

But there aren’t any birds in Chelsea

I’ve just spent the day with a good man in a charming place called Cley-next-the-Sea, which is a picturesque village in north Norfolk. I’ve been there many times before – more than I could possibly remember actually – since my first visit in the early 1960s, although it’s been about twelve years since I was last there and that was just a drive-by.

If you take any interest in birds or birding then you’ll know about this place, but for any readers that don’t I can tell you that it’s perhaps the most significant of avian locations in England. Due to its location and the variety of surrounding habitats it receives an extraordinary number of rarities so, at one time or another, every birder who takes his or her craft seriously makes the pilgrimage to Cley. Many birders have even moved there.

Cley is a pretty village, with many houses constructed using the local flint cobbles, a fine medieval church and a famous windmill but it has changed a lot over the years. Although it was warm and sunny today the bittersweet scent of nostalgia hung in the air. Now whether or not that was nostalgia for a carefree youth spent wandering unrestricted in Britain’s wild places or sadness at the changes progress imposes on places one’s come to love I haven’t yet worked out. Nevertheless, there was something about the traffic queues, gourmet food, missing Post Office and improved properties – and in all fairness there were some beautifully renovated properties to see – that didn’t sit well with me.

Although Simon had given me directions, I drove into Cley from memory. The single-track lanes and hamlets became increasingly familiar the nearer I got to the sea and as I arrived I waived a hearty ‘Good morning’ to a lady walking her dogs. When I asked if I was on the correct road her response was more than helpful and provided me with a lot more information than I needed about the church, the village green and the lanes I should use. But she spoke to me in the friendly manner and singular Norfolk twang that told me she was local. Compare that to the couple further along. Despite their worldly appearance, tailored shorts and London accents, they could barely make eye contact to acknowledge my ‘morning’ as I eased past them beside the churchyard wall. These days Cley, like many of the surrounding villages, has a great many holiday or weekend homes and is often described as ‘Chelsea-on-sea’. Around half the properties in the village remain unoccupied for part of the year. The population of Cley remains at something around 380, less than half what it was in its heyday, but the village supports art and ceramic galleries, antique shops, restaurants, a smokehouse and a pretty robust delicatessen. Plenty of places to shop if you’re up from town, no? Not so interesting if you are a local kid and want a home.

In the days when I first made the journey north it was desolate, wild and informal. It was mostly cold, too and often really very cold. I loved the place. Information on what or who ‘was about’ was obtained from a hand-written notebook in Billy Bishop’s hut [actually the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s [NWT] hut; he was their warden for over forty years] above Arnold’s Marsh or pinned to the wall in The George Hotel, so those were essential ports of call at some time during the day depending on when you arrived there. Billy’s hut is now an ‘environmentally friendly’ visitors’ centre. If you’d arrived to ‘twitch’ a particular bird then you’d have received a telephone call and consequently had to know the area or know who to ask to get at it. It was a more innocent time, before personal communications took hold; free of e-mail, mobile phones, pagers and satnavs. Getting to see your bird then was more of a hit-and-miss affair than it is today, when GPS coordinates will pinpoint an exact tree for you. It was also more of an adventure. If the weather was fine you’d pause in the walk down the East Bank towards the sea and catch up with gossip through friends, acquaintances or anyone else in a bobble-hat and rubber boots carrying binoculars. Back then we just wanted to keep warm and our uniform was more or less standard; it would be a while before today’s efficient clothes and designer footwear offered us the opportunity to ‘twitch’ a Cream-coloured Courser and make a fashion statement. Access wasn’t that good but you could park fairly near to where you wanted to be and it was free. Now the High Street is a car park most of the time and if you don’t keep your windows shut as you creep along someone will try to take three quid off you. 

And you had to take your victuals with you then as there were no award-winning delis or organic vegetarian restaurants. That’s where I learned to like warmish soup from a thermos and dry cheese sandwiches even if my palette is a little more sophisticated these days. 

But the birds are there, the first rule of nostalgia still being that nothing is as good as it used to be. We didn’t do much birding but watched a resting Barn Owl from the garden, then Whimbrels and Little Egrets on the marsh. Four-wheel drives or not, Cley will still keep delivering.

Trying hard; could do better

It’s been interesting, as our parliament goes into its new short summer recess, to hear differing views on how the leaders of our coalition are doing. I’ve written before that I think this different approach to our traditional two-party system of politics could be a change for good and, in broad terms, I still hold that view. Yes, there have been glitches and, in a world where you are frequently judged on what you say rather than what you achieve, there are bound to have been catcalls from the sidelines. What intrigued me though, sniping from David Davis aside, was what would go into the end of summer term reports.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg looked good together at the outset and there is clearly a mutual respect existing that was never apparent when Blair and Brown were the incumbents. A couple of months of reality, public scrutiny and party politics have put more clear water between the Prime Minister and his deputy but for me two points of focus stand out as indicators of where we stand.

Last week Clegg stood in for Cameron at PM’s Questions when the PM was in USA. He was less at ease than in the famous televised election debates and his performance was unconfident and stumbling. He came under pressure and was mauled by Jack Straw, who as a former Foreign Secretary is a very experienced adversary. Whilst it could be argued that Clegg might have been better briefed his comment about the legality of the invasion of Iraq was misguided and politically naïve, particularly as Cameron had voted in support of the invasion at the time. Clegg was repeating a consistent and firmly-held personal view but he was speaking from the dispatch box and not from his sofa, so the views he expressed were those of the government. There were more uncertain responses before Straw went on to quote the results of a limited poll indicating a belief that the Liberal Democrats had sacrificed principle for power in joining the Conservatives to form the coalition. The government had to issue statements of clarification afterwards and the voters’ darling has been below the parapet ever since, tail firmly between his legs. I’ve read today that his personal approval rating – whatever that is it provides an indication of what the public thinks of you – has dropped from 72% ahead of the election to less than 10% now. Not good when your job is to win friends and influence people.

Following his trip to the States Cameron embarked on the tour that took him to Turkey and India. Of course, this was a heaven-sent opportunity to ‘have a go’, as we say here, and he obliged by using some unguarded language in both countries. David Miliband’s comment that Cameron was a ‘loudmouth’ struck me as being a little unimaginative and spiteful rather than incisive and pertinent; not great stuff from an aspiring leader of the Labour Party. Charles Moore, in the Daily Telegraph and more specifically, accused Cameron of being hypocritical and telling his audiences what they wanted to hear. Well, he was on a trade mission so he would, wouldn’t he? Cameron, in less than diplomatic terms, had described Gaza as a ‘prison camp’ and accused Pakistan of looking ‘both ways’ on terrorism but Moore asked why Cameron wasn’t expressing such comments at home when in England supporters of Hamas, of the killing of homosexuals, of female circumcision, of the execution of apostates, and of terrorism against all armed opponents of any Muslims anywhere’ are treated as partners by police and public authorities. Well, Gaza is just that, isn’t it? And it’s probably beyond reasonable doubt that what Cameron said about Pakistan is true also. Was offence caused because what he said was incorrect or because he had the audacity to say it in public? If Israel and Pakistan behaved better, no offence could have been caused. I don’t necessarily disagree with Moore’s concerns but I fail to see why voicing opinion abroad should preclude you from adopting a policy of dialogue at home, where you might actually achieve something.

For my part – and the need for exercising caution in international relations notwithstanding – I find it refreshing to have a politician speak his mind even if it does mean that a diplomatic slight is imparted. It seems altogether more honest than when Charles Moore, who is a respected journalist, uses criticism of Cameron’s expressing some commonly-held concerns to raise issues associated with his own right-wing views on dealing with home-based radicalism.

Despite the odd bump in the road the coalition is enthusiastic. The Guardian carried an interesting piece by Francis Maude, concluding that this government was more radical than that of Margaret Thatcher. Whether or not that’s true they are certainly trying to make progress at an alarmingly fast pace. Perhaps it is naïve to attempt so much so soon and the uncertainty in the footwork is there to see. We’ll all know soon enough but I think it’s long past time for a government to take a different view on major areas of public expenditure – health, education, defence, benefits – and at least try some new ideas instead of forcing through policies that are based on party dogma and idealism.

The strength I saw in a coalition was the basis of two parties being held comfortably together by each other’s strengths; twin stars each needing the other’s gravitational pull to remain in place and not go spinning aimlessly into space. I felt that one party’s extremes would be balanced by the other’s moderations and that the whole would be greater than the sum of the two parts. The accountability inherent in such a forced marriage would, I believed, make honesty on the part of each partner a necessity. That seems to be the case even if it is, as the examples above show, likely to cause glitches and provide fertile ground for criticism.

Defending your position is part and parcel of Cameron’s job and, quite frankly, the criticism offered thus far has been weak and unlikely to deflect him. Of more worry is the apparent inability of Clegg to impose himself and his party’s values in the manner of his pre-election performances. A poll result today suggested that his perceived ability to influence the government’s policies is diminishing and if that trend continues his weak performance will come under increasing attack and may become a liability.  

Those points made on the leaders of the coalition I’m also less than satisfied with their green credentials as this is far from being ‘the greenest government ever’, as was promised in one of Cameron’s early speeches. Yes, it does look as though energy and climate change are being addressed – and these are major political issues – but in doing so some of the more politically low-key aspects of the natural environment will fall by the wayside. The consequences of that will affect us more as individuals. This concerns me greatly but somewhere along the line one has to put trust in people and believe that they’ll do the right thing. On face value, Cameron and Clegg appear to be trying to do just that even if a lot of pain and heartache will ensue as a consequence.

I take a very sceptical view of politicians, whom I believe to be self-serving and duplicitous for the most part. So I’m not critical of the mistakes or the perception of weakness that flows from expressing honestly-held opinion.  The summer recess will give everyone some time to reflect on things; is honesty the best policy? Yes, but you need to think before you speak.

England and a cool evening

Back in Blighty and a perfect evening spent watching Jools Holland’s Big Band at Audley End House. What a cool band and such a tight sound. Alison Moyet was the star guest [pity she didn’t sing ‘That ole devil called love’] but as far as I saw it Ruby Turner was simply unbeatable. Of course the glorious sunset, clear skies and a chuggable zinfandel helped. Look at this.