Blackbird has Spoken

Over the last few days we’ve been having something approximating springtime here in Cardiff. It has been sunny and quite warm, my garden has started to come to life, and the crocuses have appeared in Bute Park. It’s also getting to the time when I won’t feel guilty for walking home in daylight. Soon I’ll even be able to walk home through Bute Park, which closes when it gets dark, currently at 5.15.

I hope this all continues into a pleasant spring and summer, without the heavy continuous rain we had last year. I’m not betting on it though.

However, the clement weather has given me one headache recently. With sunrise happening a bit earlier and the good weather giving the local wildlife something to shout about, the dawn chorus has been waking me up around 4am.

Or, actually, it’s not so much a chorus as a solo. A very loud blackbird has taken to sitting right next to my bedroom window and singing at the top of its voice.

I’m very fond of blackbirds. Once while I was in the garden in my old house in Beeston, a blackbird flew onto a fence post about a yard away from me and sat there looking at me as I stood with a spade in my hand. I looked back. We looked at each other for ages, the blackbird turning its head every now and again so as to peer at me with a different eye. I slowly raised my arm and extended a palm. To my absolute delight the bird hopped onto my open hand. It stayed there only a minute or so, probably until it realised my fingers weren’t actually big fat worms like it thought. For that moment, though, I felt a bit like a latter-day St Francis of Assisi.

Blackbirds have a very attractive song, but this one seems particularly loud and he certainly does go on a bit. For about a week now I’ve been unable to get back to sleep after being woken by this critter, and instead got up and had a cup of tea while he says what he has to say. Columbo finds his song quite interesting too, although the bird is always out of reach…

Years ago, I used to suffer very badly from insomnia so being awake at 4am is not an unfamiliar experience to me, although it’s much nicer to be woken by birdsong than to be unable to sleep in the first place. This all reminded me of a devastatingly brilliant poem called Aubade and written by Philip Larkin that was published in the Times Literary Supplement in 1977. This is one of the last poems written by Larkin, and is undoubtedly one of the greatest.

Written by a jazz-loving bachelor who drank too much, someone not unlike myself in some respects, I found it uncanningly accurate in its depiction of the bleak thoughts that tend to engulf you when you’re alone and awake in the silence before dawn. But I can assure you the mood is a whole lot lighter when you have a blackbird (and a cat) for company!

I work all day, and get half drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
– The good not used, the love not given, time
Torn off unused – nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never:
But at the total emptiness forever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says no rational being
Can fear a thing it cannot feel, not seeing
that this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no-one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

11 Responses to “Blackbird has Spoken”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    Or to quote R. S. Thomas,

    It seems wrong that out of this bird,
    Black, bold, a suggestion of dark
    Places about it, there yet should come
    Such rich music, as though the notes’
    Ore were changed to a rare metal
    At one touch of that bright bill.

    (From “A Blackbird Singing”)

    Incidentally, R. S. Thomas was born in Cardiff, although on the other side of the river to your house.

  2. telescoper Says:

    Incidentally one of the clues in last week’s Times Literary Supplement involved Eleanor Farjeon, a writer of children’s stories who also wrote Morning has Broken, made famous by the hit record of Cat Stevens in 1971. That’s where I got the title from:

    Morning has broken,
    Like the first morning,
    Blackbird has spoken
    Like the first bird;
    Praise for the singing,
    Praise for the morning,
    Praise for them springing
    Fresh from the Word.

  3. telescoper Says:


    I haven’t really read any of RS Thomas’ poems, but have read a lot about him (primarily through his involvement in CND). Which part of Cardiff was he born in? It doesn’t say on Wikipedia.


  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    R. S. Thomas was born in Newfoundland Road in the Maindy or Gabalfa area of Cardiff. He moved at the age of five years with his family to my home town, Holyhead.

    He later attended the grammar school in Holyhead. I went to the successor comprehensive school, and therefore encountered his poetry frequently. This has meant that I suffer quite strongly from the R. S. Thomas problem with English-language poetry in Wales: his style was so strong and full of intent that it tends to eclipse a lot of other poetry. I remembered the lines from A Blackbird Singing quoted above from my school days, despite my strange general inability to remember strings of words.

    I’m not surprised that his place of birth is not quoted in Wikipedia. But then I wouldn’t be particularly surprised if Wikipedia claimed that he was born in Acapulco …

  5. telescoper Says:

    It just says Cardiff. Is there a little-known suburb of Cardiff called Acapulco?

  6. Bryn Jones Says:

    No, it’s just that I tend very sceptical about what appears in Wikipedia. I tend to expect some glaring errors.

    And on the issue of animal stories from Beeston, the only one I remember is about the time I found the shredded remains of a frog under my lawnmower when cutting the grass of my back garden. Poor thing.

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    RS Thomas is wonderful. His depictions of the toughness of Welsh hill farming life are deeply moving, although I can only take him in small doses. He was obviously a complex character, if you read his life.

    It’s lovely that the blackbird came to you. He might have been raised by humans (I never loved a pet more than the starling my mother helped me to raise who had fallen out of the nest, when I was 7, and released back to the wild), but you might indeed have a touch of St Francis. Some people do – a few years ago I read two amazing books, Birds As Individuals and Living With Birds, by Len Howard. The author was a professional musician who lived up a remote farm track in 1950s Sussex long before it became commuterland. She (Leonie?) was able to get to know the birds in her garden individually, and they would come and land on her when she called them. She got to know the features of each species; great tits were her favourite. She also analysed birdsong and found it to be based on a 12-point scale rather than an 8-point one. She said that for them time goes much faster than for us (recall Treebeard in Lord of the Rings), and that their reaction to anything larger than themselves is dominated by fear – but she was able to build up trust. Her books (long out of print, but the internet can help) made great gifts for birdlovers I knew.

    She found robins aggressive, although I was fond of the ones who nested in our neighbours’ garage when I was a teenager; they would hop onto my hand to take fishing bait. I once dug up a large number of worms for a blackbird who had a nestful of young in the hedge, and strewed them over the lawn nearby, but it walked straight through them. Evidently not the brightest of birds.

    Birdsong has never kept me awake, although light is a pain and I have a very lightweight piece of dark silken cloth (actually a pair of old running shorts) that I drape over my eyes. Try turning a fan heater on to cold, as the white noise it creates should drown out the bird, and white noise does not disturb. Or feed Columbo a little less to encourage him to catch the blackbird. ‘My’ cat (actually the neigbours’, but we sleep together) is an accomplished killer.


    PS What happens if you get locked in Bute Park? Is it as easy to climb out of as Magdalene?

  8. telescoper Says:

    Curiously, I can quite easily sleep in the light but noise disturbs me quite easily. Earplugs are probably the answer.

    As for Bute Park, it’s only the gate on the east side of the river that is locked. You can exit or enter from the west (i.e. my side of the river) at any hour. I think this is just to deter the city centre riff-raff from getting easily into the park at night; it takes a good 20 minutes to walk around to the other entrances.

    The composer Olivier Messiaen kept notebooks full of birdsong, which he was able to put down in musical notation by ear. He apparently often used transcriptions of birdsong when trying to express religious ideas in music.

  9. I tried to go through Bute Park one evening on my way home from the university when I was a PhD student. The east gate was open and the information board stated that it would remain open for another 15 minutes. Thinking that there would be enough time to get through, I entered the park and walked to the south gate. It was locked shut. The information board next to it stated that it had been closed about 10 minutes before. Fearing that I was going to be locked in overnight, or that I would have to wade through the river to escape, I rushed back to the east gate. Fortunately it was still open.

    So they used to do things differently in those days. That was before the pedestrian bridge to Sophia Gardens was built (the bridge was constructed around 1999 or 2000).

    I’ll avoid telling stories about squirrels for now.

  10. The footbridge does actually have a barrier on it which is closed at night, but it’s dead easy to climb over. I’m not particularly tall and I can step over it more-or-less. Thereafter you can leave through any of the gates on the west of the river. I’m not sure when they lock the south gate, as I never leave from there. Around Sophia Gardens the paths are lit at night, so it seems they are quite happy with people walking there at night.

  11. […] is Here All of a sudden it seems like Spring. We had a little foretaste a few weeks ago, but this was followed by a return into chilly miserable weather for a while. That […]

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