They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air,
The intellectual sweetness of those lines
That cut through time or cross it withershins.
Holed up for a fortnight recently in a west Somerset village, I acquired a new skill. I reckon I’m now able, for the first time in my life, to identify with confidence each member of that glorious scimitar-winged trinity: the swift, the swallow and the house martin.
I’m now starting to wonder whether WB Yeats was ever able to say the same. We’ll never really know for sure, obviously: so there’s no point me stating definitively that the gregarious birds he describes in Coole Park, 1929 were martins, not swallows.
Someone somewhere would be sure to put me right, pointing out that swallows sometimes behave in exactly the way he describes. Or that they were particularly prone to do so in County Galway during the 1920s. Or alternatively they’ll invoke Yeats’s poetic licence and say it’s hardly worth quibbling about. And, you know, they may well be right.
On the other hand, maybe this is an unlikely scenario, because the poem isn’t much talked about these days: for many Yeats scholars, it’s a source of awkwardness and embarrassment. After all, you can’t read it without being reminded, even in passing, of one of the 20th Century’s most shameful acts of cultural vandalism.
Coole Park was the house and estate of Augusta Gregory, prime mover in the Irish Literary Renaissance. As such, the building should have become a national treasure; instead, because of its emotive associations with the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, a family seat in a time of civil war, it was bulldozed to make way for the Irish Republic. Celebrate that the next time you’re in Dublin for the Bloomsday craic.
Spookily, in the last stanza of the poem, Yeats offers us a vision of the building as a mound of rubble. He could hardly have guessed this would actually come to pass less than two years after he died.
So maybe he was fallible where swallows are concerned too. We have an odd attitude to writers, especially the ones we endow with god-like powers, who get things wrong. And this is not just a modern thing. Shakespeare, for instance, though steeped in country lore, often invoked the natural world in ways that tax the ingenuity of those minded to police his ex-Cathedra infallibility.
But such concerns have become even more marginalised in the wake of the English cultural revolution. Thanks in no small part to the subsequent rise of New Left Criticism, with its aggressively hostile attitude towards the English pastoral tradition, we’ve seen (to take one obvious example) the literary novel peppered, in recent decades, with all manner of shabby improbabilities. Daffodils in August, nuts in May.
So chuffing what, I hear you say. And, again, maybe you’re right. Maybe we’re all Magical Realists now. Literary people, and artistic people in general, are less curious about the natural world than they’ve ever been.
I’ve seen this at first hand several times. A decade ago, walking across Clissold Park in London with a couple of very talented painters, both newly anointed by the Royal Academy, I was astonished to discover that neither could identify a single one of the trees we passed.
Some were hard. It’s not everyone who knows what a grey poplar looks like. But they were confounded even by the humble horse chestnut.
It wasn’t their lack of knowledge that upset me at the time: more the fact that this didn’t give them pause for thought. Quite the opposite.
And indeed I witnessed a variant of this in Somerset. One afternoon, we came upon a man standing staring up under the high eaves of a derelict clapboard warehouse set back from the path by the old weir. We stopped to say hello. You tend to find yourself doing that sort of thing when you’re in west Somerset.
He said he was curious to see so many swallows coming and going and wondered what they were up to. We chatted for a while. He was colourfully dressed, flamboyantly so, urbane and cosmopolitan. Late 30s, middle class, affluent, well-educated. He was clearly a cultivated and curious and open-minded man. There was a compelling sense of mischief about him too: he had a giggling sort of laugh; and I could see he had that effortless knack, one I’ve always envied, of making instant friends.
We shared some of our own (admittedly limited) knowledge about what the birds were up to. We pointed out their nests, rough hemispheres of mud and twigs in the ragged shadow of the roofline. We told him if you looked carefully you could see the chicks peeking out. That’s what all the incessant coming and going was about. Swallows feeding their young.
We watched in silence for a while. Just the sound of water over the weir somewhere in the background.
And then, breaking the spell, I said: “But of course they’re not swallows, they’re martins.”
This seemed to irritate him; and what he did next, I realise now, should be regarded as a kindness. “Oh, come on,” he said as he turned to walk off. “Now you’re just being technical.”
People often ask me: “How do you go about writing stuff? What’s the secret?”
I rarely answer. Or rather, I use a technique so correctly identified by RL Stevenson as the Edinburgh gambit: I respond with a question of my own. Such as: “What do you mean stuff?” Or: “Oh look, what’s that over there?”
Today, however, for some inexplicable reason, I feel ready to succumb to more charitable inclinations. And believe me, I’m going long here. No teasing. No chickenfeed. Straight to the heart of the matter.
Here it is: Quality writing, the genuine article, best in class, is assembled out of prefabricated blocks in a modular process. As in Lego or Meccano. Or, more to the point, Ikea furniture. And, as Mozart discovered when he re-engineered the sonata form, you don’t really need all that many bits of kit. Half a dozen at most.
Below, for instance, is the Universal Ending. I’ve used variants of this on countless occasions. To tie up a profile of a septuagenarian advertising executive, for instance. And as a parting shot appended to many a colourful travel piece. And a user manual for an industrial air conditioning system manufactured by a well-known Korean company. And a review of Make My Wish Come True by Katie Price. Etcetera, etcetera.
If you send me a bottle of Islay* malt, I’ll tell you where I originally found it.
The last time I saw [insert name here] was just a few days before he died. I didn’t know anything about death, but I knew he was dying when I saw him. His voice was very faint and his face was drawn; they told me he had a lot of pain. When I got ready to leave the room, he asked me to bring him a tin box that was on his bureau. I got it and handed it to him. He poked around in it for a while with unsteady fingers and finally found what he wanted. He handed it to me. It was a quarter, or rather it looked like a quarter, but it had heads on both sides. “Never let the other fella call the turn, Jimmy, my boy,” said [insert name here], with a shadow of his old twinkle and the echo of his old chuckle. I still have the two-headed quarter. For a long time I didn’t like to think about it, or about [insert name here], but I do now.
* From the south side of the island, naturally. Only a deranged fool would consent to be fobbed off with anything concocted around the shores of Loch Indaal. Bruichladdich? Don’t make me laugh.