Serenaded by a nightingale


LAST week contributor Derek Reynolds left a comment about a wonderful visitor near his Shropshire garden:

‘For the first time in my life, I heard a nightingale. Yesterday evening my wife popped outside and quickly came back to fetch me to listen to a bird in the woods adjacent to the house. It was dark, and the bird song she heard had stopped. But then it came again. It was just beautiful. We have an audio book and checked the song as recorded, absolutely no doubt – we have a nightingale!’

I have never heard or seen a nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos). I don’t imagine they are easy to spot, being just about the most inconspicuous birds, with no distinctive markings (if you got close enough you might notice a reddish tinge to the tail feathers), and not much bigger than a robin.

However when the male birds get going they have an amazing and powerful range of notes, chirps, whistles and trills which pour out for minutes at a time. If they are on the look-out for a mate they often sing at night, hence the name which derives from the Old English nihtegale, which means ‘night songstress’. (The Old English folk didn’t know the females don’t sing.) It is claimed that they have a vocabulary of more than 1,000 sounds, compared with 340 for skylarks and about 100 for blackbirds.

It is a migratory bird, common all over Europe in the summer and spending winters in West Africa. Britain is at the northern end of its range and numbers here are falling. The British Trust for Ornithology says there has been a 48 per cent decline since 1995, partly because of loss of the scrubby woodland habitat in which nightingales breed, including by browsing deer, and estimates that there are 5,500 breeding males. The BTO also says they are confined to south-east England, so Derek Reynolds was very lucky to hear one in Shropshire.

Writing about the nightingale gives me the opportunity to play one of my favourite songs, A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. The lyrics were written by Birmingham-born Eric Maschwitz, whom I wrote about here and here, and the music was by Manning Sherman.

Here is a 1940 recording by Vera Lynn.

This is the incomparable Glenn Miller band with vocalist Ray Eberle.

Maschwitz had a varied and successful career which included sharing an Oscar nomination for his co-adaptation of Goodbye Mr Chips; these days his main claim to fame is that as a BBC executive he was responsible for the creation of Doctor Who, which started in 1963.

This leads me neatly on to another BBC topic, and a story which reveals that faking is nothing new for the corporation: in fact it has been at it since its very earliest days.

During my childhood a record that I heard many times on the radio was called Nightingales with the subtitle ‘Beatrice Harrison playing Londonderry Air ACTUALLY RECORDED IN BEATRICE HARRISON’S GARDEN, OXTED’ (1927)

Beatrice Harrison was a leading cellist of the time and found that when she practised in the evenings in the garden of her home, called Foyle Riding, in Oxted, Surrey, a nightingale would join in, apparently echoing her notes.

This duet became the subject of the BBC’s first live outside broadcast on May 19, 1924. According to the Science and Media Museum in Bradford: ‘BBC engineers P.P. Eckersley, A.G.D. West and others were called in to set up the equipment up the day before. The microphone was set up on a table about 100 yards away from the nightingale. When the time was right, the amplified signal would be sent through the telephone lines to be broadcast from the central BBC station in London, 2LO. Rex Palmer was to announce.

‘The first broadcast was made at midnight on 19 May 1924. It was reported that approximately a million people listened while Ms Harrison played a duet with the nightingale. Having proved so popular with listeners-in, it was repeated the next month, and for the next twelve years the BBC broadcast her Nightingale concerts in May.

‘In the years to follow, thousands of visitors flocked to Foyle Riding during nightingale season; the Harrisons entertained musicians and friends, and chartered buses to bring families from the East End, giving them tea and beer until midnight. The broadcasts gave Harrison a good deal of publicity, and nightingales were depicted on her concert posters and embroidered on her concert dresses. It was reported that she had received over 50,000 fan letters. Recordings made by HMV were released on 10” shellac phonograph discs, and proved extremely popular.

‘The first HMV Nightingale recording was made on 3 May 1927; it included the Northern Irish folk song Londonderry Air, also known as Danny Boy.’ (This is the record above.)

You can see some great pictures here. 

However what this account does not mention is that on that first occasion the feathered star of the show did not show up, probably suffering stage fright after numerous BBC types trampled around the garden with their heavy recording equipment. Evidently this had been anticipated as a possibility because the BBC had a bird impressionist on hand as back-up. It was the understudy imitating a nightingale on that pioneering broadcast. Later performances were genuine (so they say). You can read about the fake broadcast in a Guardian article here. 

It quotes a sweetly naïve gent, bird expert Professor Tim Birkhead, who said: ‘Today, that would be unacceptable but, in 1924, it was probably perfectly acceptable.’

Start as you mean to go on . . .


Bovine of the Week

These majestic animals are English Longhorns, or simply Longhorns. Despite similarities with the Texas Longhorn of rodeo fame, these cattle are British-made, originating in northern England, principally Lancashire, Westmorland and Yorkshire, particularly in the Craven district of the West Riding.

The Longhorn was originally a draught animal, which was also used for meat and low-yield but high-quality milk. In the eighteenth century Robert Bakewell of Dishley in Leicestershire, who was a central character in developing sheep breeds, applied his methods of selective breeding to these cattle. His ‘Dishley Longhorn’ was highly successful, and for a short time became the predominant British breed.

The Longhorn Cattle Society says: ‘With the emergence of the Shorthorn cattle, the glory of the Longhorn was short-lived. But a few enthusiasts throughout the 1800s and early 1900s kept the breed going. This was partly due to their decorativeness but also because of their excellent ability to produce good cross-bred animals. A Longhorn-Hereford heifer won the gold medal at Smithfield in 1847 as best female of any breed. Post World War II there were just some 50 registered Longhorns. 

‘With the foundation of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in the 1970s the Longhorn, along with many other endangered native breeds, found an advocate. The breed slowly grew in popularity thanks to a dedicated core of breeders and in 2005 the breeding population had grown to such an extent that the breed was no longer “rare”. Today there are over 12,000 registered females owned by around 500 Society members. In the 21st century the breed has come into its own and farmers recognise its outstanding qualities as a suckler cow and producer of quality beef . . . Whilst their horns may, to some, give an opposite impression Longhorns are noted for their exceptional docility.’

Some are used for conservation grazing, like these in Oxford.

The cattle are variable in colour, but are always ‘finched’ – with a heavy line of white along the spine, tail and underside of the belly. The horns are not always symmetrical.

How on earth they do not take each other’s eyes out I do not know.

You can read more about them at the Longhorn Cattle Society website here


Wheels of the Week

This week I am handing over again to DAVE HIPPERSON.

RED TAPE has been with us since time began but it has got worse over recent years, and not in our favour. To illustrate the point with a nostalgic note, in my 20s one of my happier experiences in motoring might appear in today’s limited world rather extraordinary. 

Before VAT arrived in 1973, a large chunk of the cost of a car was purchase tax. A few UK specialist manufactures offered a dodge whereby you could avoid purchase tax if you assembled the car yourself. I took advantage of this and bought a Marcos 1600 sports car in 1969 for £1,700, thus saving the 50 per cent purchase tax, or £850.

The ‘kit’ as such came in two sections (and on two separate low loaders.) Pretty much a finished body, with upholstery, instrumentation, wiring, trim etc and separately the engine, gear box and suspension. This may sound slightly daunting, however remember how much easier nuts and bolts are when they are brand new and clean. This was not a grease-monkey operation even if it did require a big garage and preferably some lifting gear. It was more of a clinical assembly operation. Fiddly and time-consuming but a pleasure.

I had some mates on hand the evening it all arrived to hump it into the double garage at my parents’ house in Beckenham, and then a couple of weeks of evenings and it was ready to roll out. Pretty much on the day man first walked on the moon, as it happened (that was July 20, 1969). Although we could test the engine and brakes up to a point and ensure all the fluids were doing what they were supposed to do, it was not road legal yet as it needed number plates, tax and then insurance of course. (I was 24, this was a fast red sports car made of glass fibre and marine ply from a race car company. Insurance? What? Don’t panic.)

To obtain plates all I was asked to do was to produce the invoices for the two sections of the kit and serial numbers of the engine and chassis at the post office and they did the rest. Then adhesive plates, of course, as no one in their right mind would add weight with rattly metal nonsense. Phone my insurance broker who sent over a cover note by return. (I already had my MGB and Lotus 7 insured with him.) The premium for this extra automobile was two or three hundred pounds more. A lot at the time but just think . . . no, maybe best not to.

I kept the car immaculate and used it regularly for 14 years. On my wedding day I drove my bride in it from the church to our reception. (Yes, we are still married.)

In 1983 I felt that it was too vulnerable to vandalism as it attracted a lot of attention. I sold it for £2,200 to someone who had one already, and the pictures here are on the day I let it go.

Marcos 1600, cross flow Ford engine. Marine ply chassis (no rust) glass fibre body (no rust). 0-60 approx 7 secs. Top speed 115mph.

Back to me: Marcos was founded in 1959 by Jeremy ‘Jem’ Marsh and designer and aerodynamist Frank Costin, its name formed from MARsh and COStin. It built plywood-framed sports cars after Costin’s experience designing the wartime Mosquito aircraft in World War Two. (It switched to steel in 1969.) Various models used Volvo, Ford and Triumph engines.

The company went bust in 1971. Marsh bought back the rights in 1976 and built redesigned cars with V8 engines until it went bust again in 2000. The name was relaunched by Marsh and Canadian entrepreneur Tony Stelliga in 2002 with production of V8 cars, but it went into voluntary liquidation in 2007.

In 2010, Tony Brown relaunched Marcos Cars Limited and 2013 saw the launch of the Marcos Spirit 220. I can’t find out if this ever went into commercial production. You can read much more at the Marcos Owners Club website here. 

If you fancy one of these super-glamorous cars, there are very few around, but one which to me looks similar to Derek’s sold in 2021 for £23k. 

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