Sunday, 22 April 2018

Three reasons to be depressed by cricket...

...other than cheating Australians and the misery of England's winter tours, I mean.

1 TalkSport getting the rights to broadcast England's tours next winter. I don't care who they recruit, it's not going to be Test Match Special, is it? And although TMS these days isn't always as good as it could be, it's still pretty great.

2 The creation of another new format for the ECB's city-franchise league. Why? They say it's partly to differentiate it from their 20/20 Blast competition, in which case why not just do one or the other? Preferably the former, as many cricket fans, me included, will have zero interest in supporting artificially created teams that ignore large parts of the country. Reading around the decision, it seems the ECB don't really give a damn what cricket fans think, though. They want to attract new audiences. Which is fine, but pretty pointless if you drive away your core audience in doing so. Also, why the obsession with speed? They've shaved time off the game anyway, but will then penalise teams for slow over rates, with the result, of course, that potentially close finishes (which is what people want to see in limited over and 20/20 cricket) will be ruined by late adjustments to the target. If I'm giving up an evening to watch a game of cricket, half an hour here or there makes no difference, but I do want to see the game decided by skill.

3 The appointment of Ed Smith as national selector. How predictable that it should be an Oxbridge educated former Middlesex player. There's a lot of talk that he'll take a stats-based, 'Moneyball' approach, which is fine up to a point, but I suspect will mean a return to the chopping and changing of the 80s and 90s. It's no coincidence that England's best years, during my lifetime, were with David Graveney and Geoff Miller as selectors – both of them emphasised continuity, consistency, and settled teams.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Redstart Day

I've probably written on here before about the fact that April 20th is, in my mind, Redstart Day. For years, on my old patch, I would see Redstarts migrating through the area, usually in a hedge at Thornton Reservoir, but occasionally at somewhere like Groby Pool.

The date already had great significance, because it was the birthday of my older sister Rebecca, who died of cancer in 2004, aged 35. And somewhere along the line, the two things became linked in my mind, and going out and seeing a Redstart became a little ritual of remembrance.

Of course, there's a self-fulfilling prophecy element to it. Migrating Redstarts favour particular habitat, so you have to go out looking for them specifically, and most years, I've probably not visited likely sites until the 20th has rolled around and jogged my memory. Still, it's a habit I can't kick.

So, when my colleague Mike Weedon found one at Ferry Meadows Country Park, just along the road from the office, this morning, I had to go to take a look. And there it was, a gloriously sharply-marked male, flitting up and down a hedgerow, and occasionally dropping down to the ground to eat a tasty morsel. A couple of Whitethroats were frequenting the same hedge, and a bit further along, a Lesser Whitethroat showed up, too. Evidence that, after the long winter and cold spring, migration is in full flow.

I wrote about this, and the miracle of migration more generally, in my book A Sky Full Of Birds, which is available online, at most bookshops, or direct from me (if you want a signed copy).

But I also talked about them for BBC Radio 4's Tweet of the Day, recently – you can listen to it here.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Aunt Margaret's Pudding by Alison Brackenbury


This arrived yesterday – Alison Brackenbury's new collection for HappenStance Press. Looking forward to getting stuck into it like I would any good dessert!

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Shibboleths

Here's a straightforward question. What do you understand by the word 'shibboleth'?

I ask because, in the reporting of the Barry Gardiner story, two different versions have been given as the standard, contemporary definition, and one of them surprises me. Not that it makes a huge amount of difference to the story, I'm just interested.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Scotland in Spring (4)


Finally, another pic from Hopeman harbour, on the Moray Firth. These Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers returned to these rocks to feed the second the tide turned, having roosted on the harbour walls while it was at its highest point. Purple Sands are always a pleasure to see, because as probably the most maritime of all our waders, they very rarely turn up anywhere even slightly inland.

There's a lot more about waders, birding in Scotland, and all of Britain's best birdwatching spectacles, in A Sky Full Of Birds. It's now a couple of years since it came out, but you can buy it using that link.

If you'd prefer a signed copy, drop me a line through the email link on the right, or through the comments, and I can sort one out. Paperbacks only, at the moment, sorry.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Scotland in Spring (3)



More waders – this time the Ringed Plover and a Redshank together, and Turnstones on the harbour wall. The latter were all at various stages of moulting into their summer plumages.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Scotland in Spring (2)



A couple more shots from last week – a Redshank on the harbour wall at Hopeman, and a Ringed Plover testing out its camouflage there.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Scotland in spring (1)



I was up on Speyside for a couple of days last week, with a Bird Watching Magazine/Heatherlea Birding readers' holiday. We saw around 90 species of bird in just two days, including White-tailed Eagle, Goshawk, Velvet Scoter, Black Grouse, Iceland Gull and Purple Sandpiper. But I'm not a good enough photographer to have snapped most of them, so here's a lovely male Bullfinch on the feeders, and a Red Squirrel doing its best to hide.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Ball tampering

If you have no interest in cricket at all, or if you're an Australian, you may want to look away now. It's taken me a few days to digest exactly what went on in the Newlands Test, but I've finally pieced together a few thoughts.

1 The statements made by Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft at the press conference were insulting to the intelligence of any cricket fan. They talked about it as if it were something that had happened to them, as if they had no control over it whatsoever. Do they really expect us to believe that, had they not got caught, they'd have been wracked by guilt?

2 Still, at least they made it to the press conference. Where was Warner, who was certainly part of the 'leadership group'? And Lehmann?

3 If Lehmann knew nothing about it, as they claimed, then what exactly is he doing as coach? If he did (and his utterly shifty reaction once he realised Bancroft had been caught on camera suggests that's the case), he needs to be sacked.

4 So do Smith and Warner, and both they and Bancroft need lengthy bans. I've some sympathy for the latter, because I suspect he was pressured into doing the dirty work because he's the youngest member of the side, and the one whose place is in most jeopardy. But if he isn't willing to break ranks and say so, then I'm afraid he has to cop the same punishment as the others.

5 A lot is made of the centrality of 'mateship' to Australian sport, and culture in general. And yet the worst thing about this is how willing Smith and Warner have been to throw Bancroft under the train. By talking about the leadership group, too, they've potentially implicated Starc and Hazlewood, and by all accounts neither are happy about it, saying they didn't take part in the lunchtime discussions. When Mike Atherton was caught mucking about with the ball in 1994 (and he should have been sacked as England captain at the time), he did at least have the guts to do it himself.

6 The ICC could have acted sooner. Warner has been wearing tape on his fingers while fielding for the last two years. He should have been told to remove it, or that he also had to wear it for batting. Its presence looks very suspicious.

7 Whenever something like this happens, the Aussies like to imply that there are only two ways to play. You can be hard, aggressive, push the limits and win, or you can do it the soft, 'English' way, and lose. But they're wrong. In recent years, New Zealand under Brendon McCullum showed that you could play aggressive, attractive, winning cricket without disrespecting your opponents, the game, or the cricket-watching public. The Aussies need a new coach in that vein – Jason Gillespie might be the man.

8 Finally, how on earth did they think they'd get away with it? With 30 cameras watching? Was it really worth the risk? At the stage that it happened, they were practically out of the game anyway.

Almost there

I'm just £25 short of my £250 target for Walk All Over Cancer, in aid of Cancer Research, with a few days of March left. If you feel like helping this very important cause, then please give whatever you can afford. Thank you.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Tweet of the Day: Redstart

Here's the last of the Tweets of the Day I did for BBC Radio 4 – it's the Redstart, which is an absolutely wonderful little bird in its own right, but which has also taken on some personal significance for me. I didn't see or hear one at all last year, either on passage or on the breeding grounds, so I'll have to put that right this spring.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Our Old Lady Of The Rain, by Jane Commane

I've only just noticed that The Guardian's Poem of the Week is Our Old Lady Of The Rain, by Jane Commane, from her debut collection Assembly Lines.

Jane, of course, runs Nine Arches Press and has worked absolutely tirelessly for its poets (including me) and many others over the years. It's a really fine debut, and I'll write about it at greater length in the near future, but you can get a taste of it in that Guardian feature.

As always at Poem of the Week, some of the comments are rather baffling, but at least it's people talking about poetry.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Free money!

Well, not quite, but if you're a UK author, you really need to sign up at the ALCS site – once you're registered, and have added all the works that you've written or part-written, then you'll be eligible to receive payments for library borrowings, photocopying for schools, etc. Lifetime membership costs just £36, which is taken from your first payment (so no upfront cost), but you might be eligible for free membership anyway if you're a member of certain unions or other organisations.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

A plea

This month, I'm taking part in Cancer Research UK's Walk All Over Cancer campaign, and trying to raise £250 for the charity by doing at least 10,000 steps a day. That isn't hard at the weekend, or on days when I'm working in the field, but on an office-bound day, it can take a bit of doing at times.

My dad recently underwent major surgery to remove cancer from his bowel – I'm pleased to say it seems to have been entirely successful and he's recovering well at home now. Throughout his long stays at Leicester General Hospital and Coalville Community Hospital, he received wonderful care from the NHS doctors, nurses and other staff, but I'm very aware that the advances that have been made in fighting cancer are at least in part due to the work of charities such as Cancer Research UK.

When my sister, Rebecca, died of cancer in 2004, survival rates for all types of the disease were lower than they are now, so if we want things to keep improving, both the NHS and these charities need help.

Anyway, I'm now only £35 short of my target, with 10 days left, so if there's any way you can donate even a couple of quid to help me reach it, it would be massively appreciated. By me, certainly, not that that matters, but more so by the many people who are currently facing the disease.

Thank you.

Tweet of the Day: Wheatear

I didn't expect my second Tweet of the Day to appear quite so quickly, but the last few days have seen a trickle of Wheatears starting to appear in the UK, so it's good timing.

My only slight disappointment is that they describe it on the website as the 'English Ortolan', which is perfectly correct, but isn't the fact that everybody likes to quote concerning the name of the Wheatear.

That, of course, is that 'wheatear' is a corruption of the original Anglo-Saxon 'hvit oers', or 'white arse'. As I may have mentioned in A Sky Full Of Birds, the Anglo-Saxon's weren't much given to thinking too long or hard about the names of birds, what with so much of their time being taken up with fighting, feasting, feuding, engaging in long and convoluted religious arguments, and writing epic poetry to annoy undergraduates in the centuries to come.

Instead, they just fixed on one very obvious feature of the bird in question, and named it after that. In this case, a white rump. If you're not lucky enough to live in an upland area where they breed, now's the time to look for them as they go through on passage. They favour areas of sheep or rabbit-cropped grass, and have a habit of perching on molehills or cowpats to survey the surrounding area for tasty morsels.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Tweet of the Day: Curlew

Apparently my Tweet of the Day about the Curlew was on Radio 4 yesterday morning at 6.40am. I recorded it and two more (on the Redstart and the Wheatear) last spring, but I wasn't sure exactly when they were going to use them. I think (or hope) that the Redstart one will be on April 20th, for reasons that will become clear when you hear it.

But anyway, if you missed yesterday's episode, and if you have a hankering to hear my dulcet Midland tones rambling about the glorious song of what's pretty much my favourite bird species, you can hear it here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09vzn2j

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Our Place, by Mark Cocker


I've written on here before about my admiration for the writing of Mark Cocker. Crow Country and Claxton: Field Notes From A Small Planet are both superb books, full of pin-sharp observation of the natural world, conveyed through precise but luminous prose.

Birds and People, his book with photographer David Tipling, and Bird Britannica, its predecessor, are perhaps even bigger favourites of mine, the sort of volumes that I return to again and again, for education and inspiration.

But this latest book might be his most important yet, asking the question of whether we can save Britain's wildlife before it's too late, and suggesting some radical solutions. It arrived at the end of last week, and I'm looking forward to reading it over the next few days.

I should also declare an interest here. I once did a reading with Mark (and Katrina Porteous) in Norwich, and I was also lucky enough to go on a birdwatching trip to Papua New Guinea with him. Lines from one of my poems ('At Gedney Hill', from Troy Town), are used as the epigraph to one of the chapters here.

But that's by the by. If you have any interest in the wildlife of these islands, and its conservation, then this is a must.

Friday, 16 February 2018

A Sky Full Of Birds reviewed at Booktopia

Thank you to Australian author Kate Forsyth for this very kind review of A Sky Full Of Birds – the whole Booktopia site is worth a good browse, full as it is of reviews.

A Sky Full Of Birds is available by following this link, or if you'd like a signed copy, drop me a line using the email link on the left.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Diversifly


This rather splendid book is out a week tomorrow, February 8th (the web page hasn't been updated yet), and as you'll see, it comes with a whole-hearted recommendation from me. As well as commissioned poems from the likes of Carrie Etter, James Sheard and Andrew McMillan, there's a lot of really fine work by other familiar and not-so-familiar names. The artwork is excellent, too, and there's a foreword by Brett Westwood. Enjoy!

Monday, 29 January 2018

Adrian Slatcher on The Fall

I don't know enough of The Fall's work to write anything remotely coherent about them – I've dipped in and out over the years and found stuff I've loved and stuff I've hated. But Adrian Slatcher has written an excellent blog about them here. I enjoyed reading it then started to explore some of the tracks and albums mentioned.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Under The Radar 20

The winter issue of Under The Radar is available from the Nine Arches Press online shop here – you can also buy four-issue subscriptions.

You can see the list of featured poets here, and of course there's also short fiction and reviews of poetry collections. I won't start picking out names here, but suffice to say that I'm delighted we managed to get such a strong selection of poets and poems for this issue.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Forward Prize judges announced

Interesting judging panel for this year's Forward Prizes for Poetry – Bidisha, Mimi Khalvati, Chris McCabe, Niall Campbell and Jen Campbell. There's a link there for entries, but essentially editors have until March 9 (through Submittable), or March 23 (for physical copies).

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Ocean Vuong wins TS Eliot Prize

This year's TS Eliot Prize winner is Ocean Vuong, for his debut collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds. I haven't read it yet, but I'll look forward to it. As always, there's been some debate on Facebook and other online forums about whether or not judges Bill Herbert, James Lasdun and Helen Mort chosen the right winner, but that's pretty much par for the course with such awards and competitions – the fact that they at least get people talking about contemporary poetry is partly the point of them, surely?

Friday, 12 January 2018

The UK's favourite nature book

I came across this earlier today – Land Lines are looking to find the UK's favourite nature book. They're all excellent, as you'd expect, but there's three in there that I'd find very very hard to separate – The Peregrine, John Clare's Selected Poems, and of course The Natural History of Selborne. But I'd have to go for JA Baker's masterpiece, in the end.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Steve Spence on Peter Dent

Another excellent review at Litter, with Steve Spence discussing Peter Dent's new collection about the Rendlesham Forest Incident. I've liked what I've read of Dent's work in the past, and I've also got a bit of a soft spot for UFO-related mysteries.