Magazine article The Spectator

Remains of the Day

Magazine article The Spectator

Remains of the Day

Article excerpt

Back in 1924 when radio was still a young upstart technology, full of daring invention and brazen selfconfidence, a nature-loving cellist, Beatrice Harrison, sat in her Surrey garden and played duets with a nightingale, which were broadcast 'live' on the BBC's Home Service. We heard a clip from one of them on Richard Mabey's inspiring quintet of meditations for this week's The Essay (Radio Three). Harrison's cello could just about be heard meandering below the speckles of sound that were distorting the archive. But the nightingale sang out loud and clear, as if no time had elapsed since that moment in a country garden.

The attempt to capture the evanescent trills and swoops of the bird's song was a piece of technological egoism, an attempt to prove that nature can be contained, boxed, encapsulated at the whim of a manmade microphone. Was the bird tuned into the cello's harmonies? Did it sing in time with Harrison's playing of 'Danny Boy'?

Mabey's use of the recording in his talk was not intended to pose such questions but simply to show how hearing a bird in full-throttled song can be the touchstone of memory. The song of the nightingale may not be a language in the sense of words and lexicons but it is fully expressive of something that we intuitively understand, of a state of mind, an emotional response. It captures the aura of a moment, that moment, on a late April evening when it is at last warm enough to leave open the back door as the last light of the day swells from the west and the dusk can be heard settling on the land. If you can garner one such moment in your life every year, said Mabey, it will remind you of all the other moments in your life when you connected with nature in this particular fashion.

In his talks, subtitled The Scientist and the Romantic (produced by Sarah Taylor), Mabey, whose book Flora Britannica has become the definitive guide to the natural life of our islands, took us through his own life as he attempts to reconcile the meticulous observation of the natural scientist (studying biochemistry at Oxford) and the imaginative response of the naturalist. …

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