Let us not allow this incident to blind us to the great qualities of Charles Lindbergh; he is, and always will be, not merely a school-boy hero, but also a school boy

In September 1938, Charles Lindbergh betrayed not only Harold Nicolson personally but Britain too. Not quite two months after the outbreak of war in Europe, Nicolson wrote this piece about him in the Spectator, 20 October 1939, page 15.

COLONEL CHARLES LINDBERGH has again been broadcasting to the American people. He urged them (as he had every right to do) not to repeal the Neutrality Acts; but he also abused Canada for entering the war on the ground that “as an American country” she should have remained neutral. This extension of the Monroe doctrine has caused surprise in the United States and rage in Canada. Even in this country there are those who contend that the respect which all classes showed for his privacy might have tempted him to prolong that privacy until the crisis in our national existence had been surmounted. I do not agree with this criticism. I have myself enjoyed much hospitality in Germany and in Italy, but do not feel precluded thereby from expressing my views upon the foreign policy of Herr Hitler or Count Ciano. I see no need to excuse Colonel Lindbergh; I want to explain him.

♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣

His grandfather emigrated from Sweden; and on reaching the United States changed his name from Manson to Lindbergh. His father was a gentle, conscientious, almost fanatical Democrat. He represented Minnesota in Congress, and belonged to a small group of insurgents who fought the governing classes and Wall Street with might and main. As a child in Washington young Lindbergh spent much time listening to Victor Murdoch and other fiery radicals from the Middle West denouncing the whole political system of the United States and the “decadent Europeanism” of the Atlantic seaboard. Congressman Lindbergh died, and young Charles returned with his mother to the bleak farm in Minnesota and to the rigours of an impoverished boyhood. This tough existence was scarcely mitigated by the three terms which he spent in the engineering school at Wisconsin University. He entered the flying corps and became a pilot upon the St. Louis-Chicago route. At 10 p.m. on May 21st, 1927, he landed at Le Bourget, having flown the Atlantic alone.

♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣

He returned to the United States in a blaze of glory. The American public had been deeply disappointed that the war had produced no romantic figure, and they seized upon their “lone eagle” as the embodiment of all that American youth should be. His charm, his boyishness and his modesty were everywhere acclaimed. He drove in triumph through New York; he was the guest of the President at the White House; he visited every State in the Union and was accorded the freedom of seventy-eight cities. He found himself a national, even a world-hero, at the age of twenty-five. His head was not turned by this apotheosis; it merely became completely stiff. He remained from then onwards the lad from Minnesota, the slim pilot upon the Chicago-St. Louis trail. The ideas which he had acquired from his father, or at the University of Wisconsin, were no whit changed by contact with men of great experience of or wide outlook upon world affairs; when wealth came to him, and with it the contact with gentler and more sensitive minds, he retained unaltered his simple habits of life; he never drank or smoked; his life was completely ascetic; he continued to prefer corned beef to terrapin; he continued to believe that virility was the highest human virtue and that anything which might sap that virility (such as art, literature or music) must be something un-American, some “poisonous honey stolen from France.” To this day he remains the fine boy from the Middle West.

♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣

The strain was terrific. How was this young man to maintain his own simplicity, his own few clear-cut convictions, against the adulation of a whole continent? It was almost with ferocity that he struggled to remain himself. And in the process of that arduous struggle his simplicity became muscle-bound; his virility-ideal became, not merely inflexible, but actually rigid; his self-confidence thickened into arrogance; and his convictions hardened into granite. He became impervious to anything outside his own legend – the legend of the lad from Minnesota whose head could not be turned. Then came the murder of his child. The suffering which that dreadful crime entailed upon himself and those he loved did pierce the armour and enforce a change. He emerged from that ordeal with a loathing of publicity which was almost pathological. He identified the outrage to his private life, first with the popular Press, and then, by inevitable associations, with freedom of speech and then, almost, with freedom. He began to loathe democracy.

♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣

We cannot blame him. The life which he and his were forced to lead became abnormal. He is not possessed of any sense of humour and was unable to add that lovely lubricant to the harsh grating of his machine. He could not buy a stick of chocolate without being mobbed in the drug-store; when he visited a theatre both he and Mrs. Lindbergh were forced to assume disguise. I remember him telling me a story which explained much. He told me that when his child had been kidnapped he received a clue which seemed at the time hopeful. He leapt into his car to follow it up. As he left Princeton he found four Press cars following in his wake. He stopped and addressed the leading car. “Yes, boys,” he said, “I have got a clue. But unless I am left alone to follow it up, there is no chance of success. I beg you as human beings not to follow me.” The younger newspaper men were embarrassed by this appeal. An older one answered for them. “Sorry, Colonel,” he said, “but business is business.” Lindbergh turned his car back to Princeton and drove home in white anger. “So you see,” he said to me, “I have cause to hate the Press.”

♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣

It is not true to say that Colonel Lindbergh was ungrateful to the British Press and people for the reserve with which they treated him when he was living over here. He came to me one day in London and asked whether he could help in any way. “I’d like,” he said, with his shy smile, “to do something in return.” I introduced him to two Cabinet Ministers. Little came of his suggestion. He went to Germany. Like most aviators, Colonel Lindbergh is certain that any modern war will be settled in the air. He was shown all the more modern types of German aeroplanes and given full facilities to observe their pilots practising. He became convinced that both in men and pilots the Germans possessed the mightiest air-force in the world. There were other things that he admired. He liked their grim efficiency, he liked the mechanisation of the State, he was not at all deterred by the suppression of free thought and free discussion; he admired the conditioning of a whole generation to the ideals of harsh self-sacrifice; the rush and rattle of it all impressed him immensely.

♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣

He would return to the little Kentish village where he lived. Slowly the smoke of burning weeds would rise against the autumn woods, and lazily the apples would drop in the orchard. His mind had been sharpened by fame and tragedy until it had become as hard, as metallic, and as narrow as a chisel. The slow, organic will-power of Britain eluded his observation; he regarded our indifference to the mechanical as a proof that we, as they say in Minnesota, were “incurably effete.” He liked England; he had no desire to see her murdered; he hoped that we should run away before Marshal Goering could catch us.

♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣

Let us not allow this incident to blind us to the great qualities of Charles Lindbergh; he is, and always will be, not merely a school-boy hero, but also a school boy.

 

spectator_article_19oct1939

March: Belatedly, I’ve decided to add, as a comparison piece, Lindbergh’s reflections on England.

Sticklers will point out that the following paragraphs are highly unreliable. And they will be right. All autobiographies and journals, if they are published on the basis of their historical or literary merits, will be subject to judicious editing: but in most cases (especially where diaries and journals are concerned) the aim is to remove or compress much that is trivial or self-indulgent or quotidian or just downright dull.

Lindbergh’s autobiography, published two years after he died, was by its very nature the product of a more exotic editorial process.

In the weeks before Lindbergh died, he told his publisher, William Jovanovich, that he had begun a memoir, but had not finished it. The likelihood now was that he would run out of time. Would Jovanovich care to look over the manuscript and related papers?

Indeed he would. The draft, he discovered, was good but negligible. Of even more interest were the notes, sketches, earlier abandoned drafts, a fitfully maintained journal, scraps of philosophy and a memorandum of intent as to what he, Lindbergh, hoped a completed memoir would achieve. In other words, its design, its architecture.

So, soon after Lindbergh died in August 1974, Jovanovich set to work. He co-opted one helper: Judith Schiff, curator of the Lindbergh archive at Yale University. Another was thrust upon him: Charles’s widow, Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

Anne’s involvement complicated matters considerably: because of course Anne was keen to remove or amend anything that might compound the ambiguous nature of the Lindbergh legacy.

But in truth, even without Anne’s involvement, it would have been a task of Byzantine complexity. Beginning right back in the late 1920s, Lindbergh was continually rewriting his own history and recasting his opinions. The material was riddled with all sorts of contradictions and inconsistencies.

Students of the autobiographical genre will be familiar with this notion – and it’s a fascinating one in and of itself. The history of modern autobiography since Wordsworth’s The Prelude illustrates, if nothing else, the contingency of consciousness.

(Not, you understand, that I am offering the same sort of houseroom to Charles Lindbergh and William Wordsworth.)

But here’s the thing: most autobiographers, be they ever so unreliable on their own account, are usually able to affirm their own revisions.

Great swathes of Lindbergh’s testament were effectively written by Jovanovich or Schiff or Anne, sometimes using ingenious circumlocutions and editorial sleights of hand to weave together different accounts, often written decades apart, of the same events; sometimes paraphrasing as they saw fit.

The following is a case in point.

“The year and a half I spent in England left me with no desire to return for other than visits. I was impressed by the great traditions of the British and by their stability and laws and their sense of justice. The family summers at Long Barn were among the most wonderful summers of my life. I valued highly the friendships I made within a people who through commerce, Christianity and conquest had established the greatest empire ever to exist on earth. But there was a sense of heaviness of life in England that pressed like a London fog. It was as though the Englishman’s accomplishments, century after century, had become a cumulative burden on his shoulders until his traditions, his possessions and his pride over-weighed his buoyancy of spirit. I felt that England, aged, saw not her greatness year by year. She was satisfied with her empire and a legal status quo enforced by her warships’ guns. It was as though her desires blocked out the knowledge of her mind that life is not stabilised long by conquest, and that wings fly over land and sea and gun batteries.”

“I wondered whether the temperament of the English people was compatible with the rising tempo of other Western countries’ life. For it seemed more attuned to ship and sail than to wings and the speed of aircraft.”

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Wasn’t Charles Lindbergh a Hitler-loving Jew-hating Nazi-sympathiser responsible for the death of millions in the gas chambers?

It started back in the summer when Donald Trump began deploying “America First” as a campaign slogan. It wasn’t long before some commentators were pointing out that “America First” had historical resonance.Wasn’t there an America First Committee set up in September 1940 to lobby for continuing US neutrality as regards the war in Europe?

Yes, indeed there was. Its best-known supporters included John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gore Vidal, Walt Disney plus a handful of poets, socialites and socialists.

Oh yes… and of course… Charles Augustus Lindbergh. Aha! Hadn’t he been embroiled in political controversy of some sort? Indeed he had. He’d visited Nazi Germany in 1936, 1937 and 1938. He’d even, during that last 1938 visit, been presented with a medal by Hermann Goering. He’d also been friendly in the 1930s with Alexis Carrel, a French scientist who’d written a book about eugenics.

These facts were first triangulated by Lindbergh’s enemies (he had a terrific talent for making enemies) and then wheeled out as supposedly damning evidence against him when he made a speech for America First arguing that US public opinion shouldn’t be swayed by the Jewish lobby (one Rabbi had been particularly vociferous) pleading for the US to join the war on Britain’s side.

France had fallen and it looked as if Britain was about to follow suit. Should Britain go under, what hope could there be for the Jews in Germany?

Lindbergh’s view was, as it had always been, that not one drop of American blood should be shed in propping up the British Empire.

Those who disagreed with him stated with passionate intensity that he was only saying that because he was a Hitler-loving Jew-hating Nazi-sympathiser.

They’d have added that he was (directly, knowingly) responsible for million of deaths in the gas chambers. Except they couldn’t because they didn’t know about the gas chambers. Nor did Lindbergh. Nor, come to that, did many Germans, Nazi or otherwise. Not then.

But more recent critics have been at no such disadvantage.

As indeed you’ll soon discover if you enter his name into a search engine. Or venture onto Twitter. Twitter has had two Lindbergh meltdown moments in recent weeks. The first, back in late-November, early-December arrived on the back of two articles, one in New York magazine (not to be confused with The New Yorker) and one in the aptly-named Daily Beast. (I’ll link to them below if you’re interested.)

They are crude exercises in vilification, written by writers who don’t much care for Donald Trump and want you to believe that he is a Nazi on the basis that he’s been using a slogan loosely associated with, among others, Charles Lindbergh… the Hitler-loving Jew-hating Nazi-sympathiser responsible for the death of millions in the gas chambers.

This was exactly what some segments of the Twittersphere wanted to hear, because they not only tweeted links to these articles, they heaped on more bilious contempt (for Trump via Lindbergh) whenever they could.

The first hate storm died down in December… but back it came again in Inauguration week; and this time it seemed, if anything, even more venomous.

And me? I looked on, increasingly wide-eyed. I didn’t know what to think. I still don’t. I’m excited by the fact that Lindbergh can still inspire such intense emotions. Yet I wonder what I’d feel if that intensity were turned on me. If I became, even in the most superficial of ways, collateral damage.

Because I’m currently pitching a narrative in which Charles Lindbergh is one of the lead characters. My Lindbergh is no angel. He’s the least attractive of the protagonists; and speculation about the true nature of his political sympathies is certainly a driving factor one of the plotlines.

He’s more of a political ingenue (intellectually, he was no more mature than a schoolboy, reckoned Harold Nicolson) than a villain, though – and I suspect this may not be to everyone’s taste. During the research process, I became acutely aware that people who think they loathe Lindbergh can be equally aggressive towards anyone who disagrees with them.

So I’ve agonised about getting him right.

Because absolutely, at some stage down the line somebody’s bound to ask me… “Charles Lindbergh? He’s that Jew-hating Nazi sympathiser, isn’t he?”

And I’ll respond: “Do you want the short answer or the long answer?”

Synopsis of Flying Over Ruins, here.

New York magazine article here.

Daily Beast article, here.

Chamberlain, in short; Chamberlain plain

So it had come to pass. Exit, stage right, a weeping King, led by his belt buckle. Exit, stage left, a bruised bruiser of a Prime Minister, supernumerary, a worked-out Warwick, a provincial kingmaker needed no longer now the King was unmade. And in his place, stepping into the Premier spotlight, a man of quiet confidence, a man who had always known this moment would come and who was utterly assured as to its rightness: a conceited man, a man, in other words, well-practised in mastering conceit. Scrubbed, pressed, immaculate in a wing collar. A stickler, a grey man with a salt and pepper moustache: and yet, for all that, a man who’d almost succeed in convincing you there was a twinkle, a mischievousness behind the bombastic façade. Chamberlain, in short; Chamberlain plain.

It was like the denouement to a History Play. Or, who knew, the opening scene of its First Act.

He stepped right over to the lip of the stage and stood there, scanning to left and to right, as if to take the measure of every single member of his audience. And then it seemed as if he were about to strike a dramatic pose. Looking up now, uppish, his eyes fixed on the back row of the gods, it seemed possible that at any moment he might shape a definitive gesture; his hand might shoot up and he’d clutch at an essence in the empty air, destiny perhaps, and pull it passionately to his breastbone in his fist.

But of course this gesture, the gesture of all great dictators, did not come. He merely stood there, the faintest suggestion of a smile playing on his lips. There were a few scattered coughs from the darkest depths of the auditorium; but not a pin dropped. And the more he stood there in the spotlight, inviting you to take him in, Chamberlain plain, the more you were aware of motes of dust dancing in the column of lit air that isolated him from the darkness.

Motes, like microbes, like a swarm of tiny insects. They somehow made him seem moth-eaten.

And behind him, lit only by their leader’s reflected glory, his cabinet. The sort of supporting cast of which only a Caesar might dream: Hailsham, Halifax, Simon, Hoare, Eden, MacDonald, Hore-Belisha, Inskip. Even Harold was there, to the very back of this tableau.

Opening section of Book 8 of Flying Over Ruins, a project currently hurtling towards its ultimate destiny at a glacial pace

Elegy for Emma Tennant. With Bananas

Am I right in thinking that there were several attempts to revive Bananas (or something like it) throughout the 1980s?

Right up until fairly recently, there were those who believed fervently that exotic forms of flora could be encouraged to grow in the nexus formed by literature and counter-culture.

It may be true. But it seems unlikely.

And indeed that was always the problem with the so-called underground press: nice in theory, toxic in practice.

So we could also advance the notion that Bananas was responsible for what we did get in the end, the mind-numbingly stupid Modern Review. Which in turn inspired the monstrosity that was and is the Sunday Times Culture section, a sink-hole that’s done so much to undermine the sorts of adventurous writing that Bananas existed to champion.

If so… Oh the bitter irony.

Anyway. An Emma Tennant obituary can be found here:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/obituaries/2017/01/25/emma-tennant-novelist-obituary/

In which your humble correspondent finds himself in agreement with Sir Ronald Harwood and essays a sublimely pointless gesture of solidarity

I’ve said it before and I’ll (probably have cause to) say it again: the political is the enemy of the creative. So it goes without saying that I agree with Sir Ronald Harwood’s recent comments on the state of British theatre. I don’t often go these days (my most recent expedition took me to Kenneth Branagh’s excruciatingly awful version of Osborne’s mediocre play, The Entertainer – but that’s another story for another time). When I do turn out and take one for the team, I usually come away feeling profoundly depressed.

And yes, I’m well aware that Branagh’s production wasn’t state-funded. Of course it wasn’t. Or at least not directly – but it breathed deeply of the miasma emanating from that particular swamp.

And it’s almost inevitable that state funding engenders certain insidious forms of deafness. Or worse, numbness.

Few of those making a tidy living at, say, The National Theatre, can even begin to imagine how exciting it might be to rebel against a tired and outdated consensus.

Sadly, it falls to marginalised artists with nothing to lose (and therefore, almost by definition, little influence) to point out that tiresome is as tiresome does.

There is a better way. No, really, Melvyn, there is.

In which we confirm that it is more profitable to explore hidden bypaths of knowledge than to tread the common highways

Had it appeared 30 years earlier, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance by Edgar Wind, published in 1958, might have become a hugely important book, not just in the field of Art History but in the (slightly) wider world of general aesthetics.

Sadly, though, it arrived just as the English Cultural Revolution was hitting full swing (the paperback, for instance, was published in 1967). This was an era (and actually we’re still stuck in it) when anything that smacked of subtle complexity was routinely dismissed out of hand as just so much oppressively indulgent jiggery pokery.

And of course Pagan Mysteries seeks not just to elucidate but to re-evaluate subtle complexity.

There’s no immediate prospect of people rediscovering this book. But don’t despair. Its time will surely come (again). And in fact, in that respect, it’s somewhat self-reflexive. In passages like this one, it seems almost to evoke the mechanism by which this sort of resurrection might come to pass.

Not that this is really a hidden by-path:

The belief that because a thing is not stressed it must be important is not entirely without merit, but it can lead to exegetic madness. Gibbon ridiculed a faith which taught its adherents that a “contradictory doctrine must be divine since no man alive could have thought of inventing it.” By the same token it is a prejudice to assume that a thing must be central because it looks marginal. Yet, the supposition that some things which look marginal may be central is one of those judicious reflections that rarely fail to open up new fields of knowledge because they introduce a change of focus.

Not only is it true that great discoveries have generally “centred” on the “fringes” of knowledge but the very progress of knowledge may be regarded as a persistent shift of centre. In Cusanus and Pico, a sharp instinctive awareness of the rule, that any given knowledge may be transcended, was condensed into a mystical superstition: a belief that all important truths are cryptic. But from this bleak, retardative axiom of faith, perhaps the most perilous vestige of Neoplatonism, they drew a prophetic rule of learning: that it is more profitable to explore hidden bypaths of knowledge than to tread the common highways. Enlightenment and obscurantism are tightly linked in the method of docta ignorantia.

When I look up long enough to see a shooting star, I think of you

Of course I do. We lay on our backs on a Cornish beach that August night, staring into the sky, you and I, each newly single, or soon to become so; and because the Perseids performed for us we assumed, quite naturally, that we would fall in love.

But we did not.

The truth is we were worlds apart. I hardly saw you at all after that night; and never again the two of us alone.

But yes, in one of the luminous fragments in the sentimental novella of my life in a parallel universe, it all played out rather differently: though to what end, I’m still not entirely sure.

Even so, in August, when I look up long enough to catch a falling star, I think of you. Of course I do.

The dustbin of history escapes from… er, um, ah… the dustbin of history

Sounds a bit like the conundrum that triggered Bertrand Russell’s nervous breakdown in 1901 as he set about finessing set theory. Can a set be a member of itself? Turns out it depends who’s asking. Or put it another way: Is this a question?

But enough prevarication. I come bearing gifts. Because philologists, I have been informed, reliably, have recently been noting the improbable revival of that most hallowed of receptacles, the Dustbin of History.

This was, you will hardly need reminding, an object much-beloved once-upon-a-time by Marxist historians, though credit for its consecration can’t go to Charlie Marx himself. No: that plaudit goes instead to Charlie’s pithy grandson (philosophically speaking) Lenin.

But yes, clearly, the notion is properly Marxist. In a universe where the passage of time is synonymous with progress, it’s axiomatic that some ideas and methods will become obsolete. And where do you put things when they’ve become obsolete?

That’s right! Lenin initially evoked the bin as a final resting place for the moderate Menshevik wing of his party. The Mensheviks were bad eggs, the sorts of wretches we’d now call Blairites and spit at in the street.

So of course they deserved their fate. But over the years, though it had originally been fashioned from the finest galvanised steel, the bin began losing its lustre. The last thing consigned to it (or so we thought) was that sublime breezeblock monument to Marx’s life and work, The Berlin Wall.

In the last few months, though, we’ve seen it (the bin, not the wall) making the odd re-appearance.

Perhaps it’s something to do with the notion that sundry Mensheviks have been escaping, intent on wreaking all sorts of mischief.

But one commentator will be pleased, and indeed will feel vindicated. Over the last couple of decades or so, he has continued to evoke the Dustbin of History, and he has done so without any need to resort to apologetic irony. We are of course referring to that Hegelian philosopher and social commentator, Homer Simpson, famed for reducing the concept to a resonant three-letter acronym: “DOH!”

Suggested essay questions

  1. “Hegel hielt weniger auf Plotin als auf Proclus, und legte besonders diesem Buche des letzteren einen grossen Wert bei.” (Friedrich Creuzer) Discuss
  2. Set in order: i) the UK Parliament ii) British Home Stores iii) Welsh figure-skating
  3. Have you used both sides of your paper?
  4. Conjugate: i) ecstatically ii) with ironic detachment iii) soundly
  5. “All proper tea is theft” (Pierre-Joseph Proudhon on the Lapsang Souchong Crisis of 1764.) Are you calling me a liar?
  6. Can you catch the Zika virus from a toilet seat? (Please demonstrate.)
  7. Ever felt like just giving up and starting again?

I have sat up with them, the last of Edinburgh’s rentier class, as they blew what remained of their inheritance on amphetamines

Thanks to Lynn Barber’s recent TV interview with a portly pop-eyed gentleman, name of John Lydon, it has all come flooding back. Public Image Limited. That’s what they, we, were listening to. In chi-chi Cumberland Street mews flats, in shabby genteel apartments in Marchmont and Bruntsfield. The soundtrack to that time and space.

Ainslie, Fiona, Mark Cunninghame, Adj. Someone probably pledged one day to write about you. Only later might they have realised there was nothing really to say.

They came like house martins and like house martins went

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.”