This is not ornithology

Thinking about Phil Rickman’s Historical Paranormal Pagan Police Procedural Exorcism Thrillers starring fictional Deliverance Minister Merrily Watkins (as we were) I started tangentially pondering some of the artist Marcus Coates’ work from the turn of the millennium. I’d come across his work courtesy of Megan Calver, whose own ‘Throw Only To Alert Catcher’ we celebrated in the 50/50 series back in 2016. Part of Megan and her group’s work at that time involved lying on the sand at Dawlish Warren mimicking seals (because of course you would), itself an intervention with the landscape that would surely have been informed by some of Coates’, in particular his ‘Red Fox’ work of 1998 and the ‘Indigenous British Mammals’ of 2000. It’s Coates’ ‘Crucifixes for Various Amphibians’ work from 2000 however that most strongly resonates with some threads pulling through from the Rickman novels, specifically in the way in which these small sculptures made from lolly sticks, elastic bands and paperclips resemble strange pagan symbols that one might (but rather hopes wouldn’t) stumble upon within the depths of borderland forests.

Coates’ accompanying childhood recollections that contextualise these crucifix sculptures are certainly the kind of thing Merrily Watkins might stumble into as part of one of her ‘investigations’. The descriptions of 1972 summer days spent building dams on a stream and capturing toads on the banks and in the woods begin in almost idyllic tone, with Coates’ words certainly conjuring memories of my own times spent during what would have been the same years building dams on the Collennan burn that ran behind our house and alongside the golf course in order to catch eels. However, there the similarities end, for if we did to the eels what Coates and his friends apparently did to their captured toads then I have either long since forgotten or blanked events from my memory. Certainly the descent into darkness that Coates goes on to describe in his recollections is something I could not claim to have ever really experienced other than vicariously through other forms, in other words through books, poetry, songs and perhaps film. Film is certainly only a perhaps because the truth is that I have always found these kinds of ‘horror’ themes to be much more accessible through written rather than visual text, horror films not being high on my list of pleasures (guilty or otherwise). Coates’ macabre recollections however are certainly something I could imagine underpinning a ’troubled’ character’s backstory in a Merrily Watkins novel. Jane would probably fall in love with them.

Elsewhere in Coates’ work we see characters standing in shaded glades shouting colourful football terrace chants at the trees. These works are informed by studies of birdsong and they challenge our interpretations of birdsong as something ‘pretty’ and decorative. Indeed in much of Coates work there is an almost gleeful perversity in challenging perception of landscape and nature. Nature, Coates reminds us, is bloody and ugly and brutal and wholly unsentimental. There is an implicit acknowledgement too that the countryside we see around us, certainly in the UK, is barely ’natural’ at all but is rather the ongoing product of human intervention. We impose ourselves on the landscape. We bend it to our desire and portray it in ways which make us feel better about doing so.

Elsewhere I have seen Coates refer to himself as an ornithologist and I assume this is true if only because his birdsong interventions appear (to the lay-person like myself) to be informed from study. It is not a study I have ever been able to get enthralled by, despite trying in more recent years to spark an interest. David Callahan’s ‘History of Birdwatching in 100 Objects’ and Matt Sewell’s little bird illustrations sparked an idle wandering down this path (the temptation is strong to tell you I loved Sewell’s little illustrations and wooden sculptures years before his first book was published, but that would be my Indie-hipper-than-thou tendencies coming through and I have been trying so hard to fight those learnings) but the truth is that I quickly came to realise that I liked these mediated artefacts much more than the birds themselves. Callahan’s delicious plotting of ornithological history remains fascinating to me primarily because of the objects and their meanings rather than any connection to wildlife itself. Similarly Sewell’s illustrations are those of characters rather than scientific studies and I think this remove from the creatures themselves is what I connect with. Edwyn Colins’ studies of Some British Birds lean much less towards caricature than Sewell’s but still retain a certain distance from being informational studies. Then again, maybe I just like Edwyn’s drawings because he is Edwyn Colins, and maybe I just like Callahan’s book because he is the guy in Wolfhounds and Moonshake.

Some of Matt Sewell’s birds

Thinking of music then, let’s remember that last time out we also thought about Nick Drake, and in my meanderings I told you about how I first heard Nick Drake in a house on the Bristol Downs in the late 1980s. Coincidentally (or barely coincidence at all when you think about it) this was also the first time I knowingly heard Bert Jansch. The ‘knowingly’ modifier is used because it is just possible I had previously heard some Pentangle songs, most likely the glorious ‘Light Flight’ which sounded so like a blueprint for the sound of Hurrah! And speaking of coincidences that are not really coincidences at all, later that same day we walked across the Bristol Downs to The Garden Flat (made famous by ‘Are You Scared To Get Happy’, Sha-La-La and Sarah records) and had tea with Clare and Matt. My friend Stuart was with us but I do not believe that on this occasion he indulged in treading biscuits into the carpet (this anecdote presented – very much tongue in cheek, honest – as another of those ‘Indier than thou’ references).

Bert Jansch did not immediately grab me at that time in the way that Nick Drake did, but in some ways I prefer listening to his records now. Perhaps this is down to a lack of other cultural baggage. In other words perhaps it is just that Jansch never quite became such a recognisable name in the ‘mainstream’ monoculture. In other words still, he never provided the soundtrack to a motor car advertisement (not that I’m aware of at least).

Getting back to birds (as we were a couple of paragraphs previously, sort of, kind of) then let us note that Jansch released a record in 1979 called ‘Avocet’ and it is really rather lovely whilst occasionally being a little peculiar and unexpected as many of Bert Jansch records are. The title song (the entirety of side one on the vinyl artefact) is eighteen minutes of elliptical guitar refrains, in places beefed out with mandocello, violins and flute courtesy of Martin Jenkins. I believe fellow Pentangler Danny Thomas provides bass on the record. Other wading and water birds on the record are captured in sparser lines. A few minutes of sonic sketching and then they are off. Quite delightful.

The 2016 reissue of ‘Avocet’ came in a deluxe art vinyl package (it would be odd if any vinyl reissue in these times did not have some kind of limited edition deluxe package) that included six illustrations/prints (one for each of the birds on the record) by Hannah Alice. I admit that the idea of switching these prints around so that a different one appears through the diecut frame in the sleeve troubles me somewhat, mostly because the title ‘Avocet’ would always appear above the illustration. Perhaps it could be read in a vaguely ‘Ceci nest pas one pipe’ Treachery of Images manner. This is not a lapwing; this is not a kingfisher; this is not an avocet. I’m not sure.

More convincing are the illustrations themselves. Like Matt Sewell’s drawings, Alice’s images concern themselves in finding the base identifying features of each bird type. Unlike Sewell’s little caricatures however Alice presents the birds less as individuals and more as diagrammatic idealisations. Flat planes of colour shaped just so. Not yet abstract but barely a few steps away. This appeals very much and feels more in tune with Jansch’s music than the slightly kitschy watercolour that graced the original record sleeve. For Jansch’s music here (and elsewhere) treads the line between naturalistic and abstraction with a fine sense of balance and poise.

And since we are still (just about) talking of our feathered friends let’s not forget Daniel Williams and his lovely exploration of birds in song on his Nightingales blog of a few years back, within which there are three Jansch songs included (‘Kittiwake’ and ‘Lapwing’ from the ‘Avocet’ set and ‘The Black Swan’, which perhaps is a song about Dawlish and perhaps is not). Dan’s blog is also very likely where I first heard (of) Rozi Plain, but that’s a story for another time (but don’t hold me to that).

One thought on “This is not ornithology

  1. Ah, that accounts for the sudden spike in Nightingales’ stats! You can imagine how I pounced on Avocet when I first came across it, hungry as I was not only for bird songs, but also for sounds that were new. to my ears, at least.


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