One Friday night in the month of May, 2000, I went for a curry in west London with my wife and some friends, and with said curry I drank three pints of Kingfisher, the Indian beer. I am not much of a beer drinker, and by the time I staggered back to the car, at midnight – my wife was driving – I was pretty light-headed.
As we got to the car door I thought I could hear a mobile phone ringing, and as we opened it, I realised I could. It was my mobile. I had left it on the back seat. I stared at it dumbly. Why would anybody be ringing me at midnight? After I had just come out of an Indian restaurant?
My wife said: “Well, aren’t you going to answer it?”
So I did, and a voice said: “Mike?”
“It’s Chris. Listen.”
And into my ear came a flood of birdsong, a flowing river of unceasing sound, and the amazement and the wonder spread over my spirit and the smile spread over my face as I realised that here on the Chiswick High Road in west London, on a Friday night, post-curry, I was listening to a nightingale.
Live. Real. Not a recording. Singing now. The five pure slow deep notes, then the characteristic jug-jug-jug, then the machine-gun rattle, all delivered fresh and clear on the night air.
For a moment, as the alcohol fumes swirled around my brain, I thought I was hallucinating; but by no means. The bird was singing in a copse just down the road from the house of my friend, the environmentalist Chris Rose, at Salthouse on the north Norfolk coast 140 miles away, and he had heard it through his open window, wandered down to it, and simply dialled my number.
Chris’s urge had been to share it; and anybody who has heard a nightingale close up at midnight will understand that, such is thrill of the bird’s springtime song. It has excited poets such as Keats down through the centuries – it is “the most versified bird in the world”. But it is a creature and a sound which in Britain is rapidly disappearing: since 1970 nightingales in England (they’re not found in Scotland or Wales) have declined by 90 per cent.
Now, with your chances of hearing the bird shrinking by the year, Chris Rose wants to share live nightingale song again, but this time his ambition goes beyond a mate with a mobile phone. He would like the BBC to do a live nightingale broadcast every year, to the whole nation, beginning later this month.
It’s by no means a new idea; in fact, in terms of live outside broadcasts, it’s the oldest idea of all, because the world’s first-ever OB, which took place on the new BBC radio service at midnight on 18 May, 1924, was of the celebrated cellist Beatrice Harrison playing her instrument in her garden at Oxted in Surrey, as a nightingale sang along with her.
A million people are thought to have tuned in; 50,000 wrote in to the BBC to express their delight, and the broadcast became an annual event until 1942. That year, BBC engineers pulled the plug on it when they realised that the drone of RAF bombers leaving to attack Germany could be heard in the background, and they thought this might alert German spies.
The time has now come to revive it, thinks Chris, as the bird’s numbers are falling so fast that it is dropping out of people’s consciousness. He has written to the BBC Director General, Lord Hall, asking him to start the outside broadcast once again this 18 May – a week on Sunday, 90 years after it first took place – and to make it an annual event. “So many of our songbirds such as this one are in decline,” Chris says. “We need to keep a place for the nightingale in our lives.”
To back up his request, he has just started a petition on the 38 Degrees website, which you can find at http://bit.ly/1iiPFJR, and which already has more than 1,000 signatures.
I know it’s not a lot of notice, and the Beeb might not be able to manage it, although I’m sure the Corporation would be in general sympathy with the idea, not least because its award-winning Tweet Of The Day birdsong series kicked off with the nightingale last year. If they can’t, Chris is exploring other ways of making it a nationally live event, perhaps through the internet.
But I can testify fully to its potential worth: to hear a nightingale live at midnight, singing gloriously through the surrounding quiet, is a riveting experience, even when conveyed to you over the airwaves, even when it’s down your mobile phone, in Chiswick, after your curry, and your three pints of Kingfisher.
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