For the birds

For the birds blog

The AGM of the American Acclimatization Society (A5 ink and coloured pencil 2019)

On one of those leisurely disengaged days between Christmas and New Year – you know, you’ve just finished an extended breakfast at around 11 and have no particular plans for the day – a few of us started discussing murmurations of starlings. I wondered aloud if starlings were common in the U.S. and it transpires that they are, all thanks to the American Acclimatization Society and especially a man called Eugene Schieffelin.

It is said, though not proven, that Eugene insisted that as an aesthetic goal the organization should introduce every bird species mentioned in the works of Shakespeare (of whom Eugene was an avid admirer). Whether you think Eugene was a hero or a villain depends on your view of Victorian scientists playing God. One could argue that if the Deity had wanted there to be starlings in North America, He, above all, was well-placed to put them there. Whether it would be wise to wait for a rather obsessive New York pharmacist to get the itch seems rather hit and miss to me.

It’s usually the case that if you introduce a foreign species into an ecosystem things start to go wrong in a Sorcerer’s Apprentice kind of way. Sure enough, the 100 or so starlings that the Society let go in Central Park now number over 200 million across North America. They have endangered other native species competing for nesting places and food – especially the delightfully-named sapsucker – and have even been blamed for the spread of English ivy throughout the continent. In 2007 the San Francisco Chronicle called Eugene’s Society “the canonic cautionary tale of biological pollution.” That’s a high price to pay even for some pretty spectacular murmurations out west.

It’s not recorded whether the members of the AAS dressed up in comedy bird beaks, indulged in avian puns and got up to the sort of high jinks  pictured above, but I like to think they did. You had to make your own entertainment in those days, after all. They strike me as an idealistic, sentimental and innocent bunch, but as history as demonstrated time and again, those are probably the most dangerous people of all.

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Precious

Mystery object – see below (pastel and collage 60 cms x 42 cms) 2018

Recently the New York Times printed a photograph (by Nat Farbman) of the young Lawrence Ferlinghetti – one of the leading lights of the Beats – reading his work to a group of onlookers. There he stood, dark and dashing in a tweed jacket and cord trousers, looking every inch the charismatic 1960s poet. At his feet lounged a young man in a similar outfit and a woman in a black sweater and tight skirt. People are drinking wine from tumblers.

As well as being an admired poet, Ferlinghetti was one of the co-founders of the City Lights Bookstore and Publishers. He was the first publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, for example, which – whatever you think of it now – was a tornado blasting its way through the poetry landscape of the time.

San Francisco is a different place than it was when Ferlinghetti first opened the doors of City Lights in 1953. It was never a city associated with business, but with alternative lifestyles, freedom and revolution. Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane called it “49 square miles surrounded by reality.” Now, with the arrival of Google, Apple, Twitter and the – seriously – 5,249 tech start-ups in the city, there’s no place for California Dreaming.

City Lights is not just a bookstore but a vital landmark on the map of modern culture. Ferlinghetti is 99 this year – what’ll happen when the inevitable occurs? I fear poetry isn’t that high on the list of requirements of the twentysomething techies waiting for the WiFi enabled buses to whisk them off to Silicon Valley, so will it just become another artisan coffee shop?

I thought of this recently when I was having dinner with a close friend in Greenwich Village. We’d booked a table at the magnificent Pearl and were enjoying a pre-dinner drink at the Cornelia Street Cafe. The Village is another place where cultural history swirls around you like ghosts in a cartoon film. Think of those writers, artists and jazz musicians who lived, worked and played here. The Bottom Line and the Village Gate –  names familiar from the sleeves of jazz albums of the 1950s and 1960s, are gone – replaced by a pharmacy and university departments.

Shouldn’t places like City Lights be preserved, immune from rent rises and speculation? These are the names that pepper the cultural histories of the 20th century and should be as precious to us as medieval castles or Tudor chimneys. It’s not just architectural excellence that should be preserved but those places that contributed to the spirit of the times, and preferably not turned into tacky museums. Slap them all on the National Register of Historic Places before it’s too late!

So what is that thing that heads this post? Is it Ferlinghetti’s appendix, perhaps? Far from it: it’s a steamed clam, drawn from a photograph of one taken from my dinner companion’s plate. Or should I say it started off as a drawing of a clam, but then I added more and more colour and texture to it and made it into something that is now just an abstract idea of a steamed clam, a variation on a theme of a steamed clam. Don’t worry, chef Rebecca Charles would never serve this to you in Pearl.