The Swift

Lovely piece about The Swift in the LRB:

“Weighing less than a hen’s egg, with wings like a scythe and a tail like a fork, they eat and sleep on the wing. They gather nesting material only from what’s in the air, which means that there have been accounts of still-flapping butterflies wedged in among the leaves and twigs. They mate in brief mid-sky collisions, the only birds in the world to do so, and to wash they hunt down clouds and fly through gentle rain, slowly, wings outstretched.

I remember, at university, mobs of Swifts lapping the central courtyard of the halls of residence. The screeching and screaming echoed on those warm spring evenings distracting me from my revision.

We’ve seen them every year high above our back garden until recently. They always seemed a sort of confirmation – of the natural order of things I suppose – of spring and summer, of distances safely travelled, of continuity.

I don’t remember seeing any last year; this spring only two birds circled and didn’t screech. But, as the piece notes, populations dropped by 57% between 1995 and 2016 apparently – so I guess we should be grateful that two have been spared, for another year at least.

The terrible emptying of our world of any creature other than ourselves makes a lament for the loss of just one species seem almost superficial. But Swifts are such marvels! Their arrangements for sleeping, for example:

Most remarkable of all is their night. Swifts can find a state of unihemispheric sleep; they shut off one half of their brain at a time, while the other remains functioning, alert to changes in the wind, so that the bird wakes in exactly the same place where it fell asleep; or, if migrating, on the precise course it set itself. The left side closes first, then the right, so that it sways a little in the air as it sleeps. Chaucer knew it long before we did: in the Canterbury Tales he wrote about small birds who ‘slepen al the nyght with open ye’. And a French pilot during the First World War, flying by the light of a full moon on a reconnaissance mission near Vosges, saw a ghostly cloud of them, apparently hovering entirely still in the air: ‘As we came to about ten thousand feet … we suddenly found ourselves among a strange flight of birds which seemed to be motionless, or at least showed no noticeable reaction. They were widely scattered and only a few yards below the aircraft, showing up against a white sea of cloud underneath. None was visible above us. We were soon in the middle of the flock.’ Nobody believed him, at the time: it seemed impossible, because swifts do seem impossible.

Worth reading in full (it’s not very long) and it’s a wonderful homage to this marvellous bird:

The Swift

They don’t even need ideas

I thought this said something important about the risk to old fashioned democracy that the internet is posing:

By contrast, in an age of limitless bandwidth and ubiquitous data capture, the challenge for politicians (or anyone else) is to get noticed and exert influence. This calls for a very different set of political and personal talents: confrontation, wit, defiance, spontaneity and rule-breaking. The politician who wants to target the swing voter via television tries to seem as normal as possible. The politician who seeks to mobilise support online will do precisely the opposite. While it’s true that Farage has made mileage out of his ‘ordinary’ cultural habits (‘a fag and a pint’), a Trumpian refusal to play by the rules is his more potent quality.

The internet is an anti-hegemonic technology. It grants far more power to the consensus-breaker than to the consensus-maker. As the data analytics industry understands, it is a brilliant machine for mapping unusual clusters of feeling and behaviour, but far less suited to establishing averages and generalities. The internet fragments the ‘middle ground’ as a space of political argument, and grants a disproportionately loud voice to the niche and the crank. There are illusions galore here, but no sanctuary for the crucial synecdochal one on which representative democracy depends. Notions of ‘common sense’ and ‘the average voter’ lose their sway.

It’s from an excellent and – given the wretched Johnson’s current race for leadership of the Tory party – timely piece in the London Review of Books by William Davies:

They don’t even need ideas

The Colors of Our Dreams

Fascinating little essay about the changing ways that colour in general and blue in particular – has been associated with culture, class and feeling through the ages:

Blue was once little-known in the Western palette. Homer’s sea was “wine dark”; blue would not be used as water’s color until the seventeenth century. It has evolved from its original association with warmth, heat, barbarism, and the creatures of the underworld, to its current association with calm, peace, and reverie. Like the unruly green, the Romans associated blue with the savage Celtae and Germani, who used the woad herb’s rich leaves for their blue pigments. These northern barbarians also painted themselves blue before war and religious rituals. The ancient Germans, according to Ovid, even dyed their whitening hair blue.

The Romans, in contrast, preferred the color red—the Latin word, “coloratus” was synonymous with that for red, ruber. The Romans and Greeks did import lapis lazuli, the exquisite blue rock, from exotic locals such as China, Iran, and Afghanistan. But neither used the barbaric blue for important figures or images, saving it for the backgrounds for white and red figures. Even the Greek words for blue, like the names of colors in the Bible, largely were meant to evoke certain states or feelings as opposed to exact visual colors. Blue, like green, was the color of death and barbarism. The nobler colors—white, red, and black—were preferred.

Now read on

The Colors of Our Dreams