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:

www.lrb.co.uk/v41/n16/contents

The Swift

From Dreyfus to Shamima

The paths of racism are so well trodden. I’ve just come across a lecture given by Jacqueline Rose about the Dreyfuss affair in France back in the 1890s.

It is about injustice, the way that antisemitism is such a ready tool to hand for those who want obscure a wrong; it asks questions about what justice looks like.

It is about the Jewish experience but the issues it raises don’t rest there. For example I didn’t know that,

‘In November 1938, a law was passed allowing French nationality to be stripped from those [jews] already naturalised should they be deemed unworthy of the title of French citizen.’

This was immediately before the aggressive collaboration of so many in France with Nazi antisemitism – but in a week that has seen our own Home Secretary seek to strip a British Citizen of her rights and newspaper columnists claim she was a Columnist from the Telegraph claim that ‘she may have been born here but she was never British’ feels uncomfortably familiar.

It’s an important lecture that feels prescient and relevant – worth a read (or a listen – here’s the video)

From Dreyfus to Shamima

Still 83:17 in the London review of Books

Telling letter in a recent LRB from Sarah Walker, describing the proportion of women reviewers, writers and poets in the paper as well as the numbers of books reviewed. She’s counting them all and says that, in 2017 :

In the five issues of Volume 39 to date, men have made up 78 per cent of the reviewers and used 83 per cent of the total word count dedicated to reviews; 78 per cent of the authors reviewed have been male, with 73 per cent of the books reviewed being written by men. Reviews of books by women average 80 per cent of the length devoted to reviews of books by men. All of the Short Cuts and At the Movies features have been by men; 87 per cent of the letters published have been from men, using 88 per cent of the total word count for letters; 75 per cent of the poets are men and they have supplied 83 per cent of the poems published.

As she wonders, perhaps the preponderance arises because:

 women are just that much less interesting, less significant, less likely to publish review-worthy books, less likely to submit work to you, less likely to write to your standards, less likely to write you letters, more terse overall in their expenditure of words. Possibly. But the ratios that appear – 78:22; 73:27; 70:30; 87:13; 67:33; 85:15; 83:17 and so on – are eerily familiar. Research suggests that people perceive men and women – whether in zombie movies, panel games, crowd scenes or business meetings – as equally represented when the male-to-female ratio they are looking at actually hovers around 83:17. They start to regard situations as unduly female-dominated when women approach 30 per cent of those present.

I like the LRB, but it does feel like a bit of a men’s club sometimes. Inexcusable these days.

You can read the whole letter here

Still 83:17 in the London review of Books