The Chough by H.J. Massingham



The Chough is a spectacle for the eye in its iridescent black dress with green and purple reflections, the long scimiter-like coral bill and bright legs to match, flashing about the sombre basalt headlands of Cornwall, striding like a Rook among the surf-fretted rocks or darting along a stretch of level sand almost as quickly as a Sandpiper.

The movements are decidedly Daw-like, but the flight is more buoyant and effortless and the volatile nature of the bird  sends it careering down the precipices with half closed wings into the maw of the fanged rocks below to sweep with a lightening turn into some cave or hollow at the foot of those black towers of Plutonic stone.

Like the rest of the Corvine race, the Chough is temperamentally sportive and enjoys idling about in the air, sailing briskly half-way up the giddy heights with up-curled tips of the primaries and in a Lapwing delirium of joy twisting and curving in a series of fantastic diagrams and then tumbling downwards like a raven.

The rock-face with a pair of Choughs disporting in its shadows relaxes its grimness.


This description is by H.J. Massingham in his book ‘Birds of the Seashore’ . Read more here.

The Rock-Dove by H.J. Massingham



The Rock-Dove (or Rock-Pigeon, White-backed Dove, Doo or Rockier)

“The Rock-Dove is another species which is a maritime dweller but whose racial and structural affinities are of the land. But it is not so exclusively littoral as the Rock-Pipit, darting inland on swift and rhythmic wing to feed on grain and seeds about the farm-house or in the pastures. Here it commingles with its domesticated descendants, the wild original of them all.

It has a dreadful influence over these tame pigeons, breeding with them so that their young desert the ways of men and revert, even in colour,  to the wild in their later descendants.  It can infect even adult birds with the poison of liberty, and these throw off their ornamentalisms , break with their acquired habits, swing off to a sea-life and indulge in promiscuous gallantries on the farm-house roof no-more.

They become complete outcasts, shunning the human form and oblivious of the benefits of parasitism which man has showered upon them. They become liable to being struck down by Peregrine Falcons and shot by their former protectors, while they are exposed to the full rigours of the northern winter and to every hazard of a free existence. Yet these birds never return to the human fold.

Consequently, you can never be sure whether the birds you see are renegade  fly-aways or the genuinely primitive ” Blue Rock.”  If you see a male pigeon strutting and cooing before his fair one on a rock-ledge half-way up the perilous cliff up, you think – “The parent of these birds trod the farmyard as the stage for this identical scene.”

As like as not, you will be wrong, for this kind of wooing is an inherited memory of the wild in the tame. When a party of birds springs out from the cliff-head and circles low over the sea, rejoicing in the sun and waves whose strength has entered their buoyant flight, and racing pace, you will deny that such grace and command could ever emerge out of a dovecot. You may err again, for it is astonishing how speedily the rebels slough off their civilization.

The true Rock-Dove is a bird of the north and west, nesting abundantly in the Hebrides, the Orkneys and Shetlands and among the rocky Scottish islands. Except for its plentiful colonies along the Welsh coast on Flamborough Head and in parts of Ireland, it is an uncommon bird, with wide gaps between its breeding stations, many of which are now deserted.

The pairs make a rude nest of twigs, grasses, ling or seaweed usually on the higher ledge of a cavern, for like the shag, the Rock-Dove is a troglodyte. Two pure white glossy eggs are laid and the young are fed in the universal pigeon-fashion.


This description is by H.J. Massingham in his book ‘Birds of the Seashore’ . Read more here.


Canada Goose or Cravat Goose by H.J. Massingham.

Canada Goose


“The Canada Goose is native to the American Continent, migrating from Alaska down the Yukon and so to its winter quarters on the Gulf of Mexico. It is possible that a few of the winter Hebridean birds are storm-deflected strays, though it would surely take a tornado rather than a gale to turn a wild goose from its self-appointed course.

But these geese have been  acclimatised to England as a domestic or ornamental bird since the eighteenth century.

Many of these birds have broken from their polite servitude, and these pioneers have formed and maintained so genuinely a free-living race of wild geese that they have positively added a new species to the British list.

The birds are less nocturnal then the Barnacles, and feed on cultivated land. The succulent mere-grass is a favourite diet. The cry is as wild, deep and resonant as the Brents’, and less shrill than the Barnacles’. Wild geese are said to “honk,” but that is what motor-cars do, not geese. “Homg, hong” is a truer onomatopœism, and the Canada Geese I have heard at Holkham, on the North Norfolk coast, honged their way between sand and sky”.

This description is by H.J. Massingham in his book ‘Birds of the Seashore’ . Read more here.


The White-Tailed Eagle by H.J. Massingham

The White Tailed Eagle


“The home of the White-Tailed Eagle is among the more tremendous of natural bastions against the unwearied sea, and on some veteran pinnacle outposted in the surge it loves to survey a boundlessness of sea and air, heraldically opening its mighty wings as the Cormorants  do on rocky islets or, impatient of this ultimate foothold on the earth, with slow and ponderous winnowing it sails vastly into space, climbing sunwards with flight-plumes that let shafts of light between them, their tips upcurled, their motion still. Spirally mounts the lord of the air until to us he dwindles to a little bird.

Not so royal is his land temper, though less furtive and ignoble than the Golden Eagle’s, the White-Tailed Eagle with loud and ludicrous yelps will allow itself to be bundled off the territory  of some puny, arrogant Rock-Dove, while the smaller Gulls can make it sue piteously for respite from their teasings in the air”

This description is by H.J. Massingham in his book ‘Birds of the Seashore’ . Read more here.

The Barnacle Goose by H.J. Massingham.

The Barnacle Goose


“Why retain this fantastic title for the second member of our Black Goose tribe?

It is derived from the old bestiary legend that geese were hatched of ship-barnacles, a legend fervidly credited by he wise men of old. It is a pity that men have been so slow to recognise the natural wonders of wild animal life that they have frequently invented an insane make-believe about it.

The Barnacle differs from the Brent only in comparative degrees. It is less maritime but even more northerly, It gaggles southwards in autumn down the west coast from the Hebrides to Cornwall rather than the east, but in much poorer numbers upon such celebrated goose-stations as the Dee Estuary and the Solway.

Its habits are more nocturnal than the Brent’s and the flights are probably higher above the earth. This is partly gathered from what happened the year before the War when eighteen Barnacles, winging north to their lonely homes, were struck by lightening over the Solway and shot to earth without having been seen before the gods smote them.

Their Valkyrie cry as they go their airways is not quite so grand and sonorous as that of the Brent, is on higher note and more percussive. It is of the Barnacle the saying goes – “There’s bad luck coming when the hell hounds are on the hunt,” and the mighty din of a gaggle in full cry often suggests an excited yelping”.


This description is by H.J. Massingham in his book ‘Birds of the Seashore’ . Read more here.



The Peregrine Falcon by H.J. Massingham.

Peregrine Falcon .

“The Peregrine is justly described as one of the noble reptorial species, partly because of its lightning power of flight, its dauntless courage, and its total lack of the meaner habits of feeding which characterise the Buzzard, the Sparrow-Hawk and even the Golden Eagle.

This bird will never stalk the shrubberies like a conspirator, nor feed on carrion. It takes its prey in full flight and with a swoop like a thunderbolt. In repose, it will perch like a heraldic figure upon the most prominent bluff, investing the whole landscape about it with dignity and unregardful of the so often hapless consequences to itself

It will take a whole valley with a cleave of its wings.”


This description is by H.J. Massingham in his book ‘Birds of the Seashore’ . Read more here.


The Brent Goose by H.J. Massingham

The Brent Goose

“How unaccountable is the attribute of dull-wittedness we ascribe to the goose! I should call the wild goose the most thinking biped of any shore-bird that exists, with the possible exception of the Raven and the Grey Crow. Even the domestic goose is no moron, though his civilized decadence in comparison with his wild brethren is almost as painful as the caustic caricature of the wild boar in the farmyard pig.

Anthony Collett has described the semi-responsive emotions of these petty officials of the home-pastures when a skein of wild geese passes trumpeting over them. They lift their bristling necks, pose amazed at the articulate sky, flap their wings like the birds in Dürer’s Melancholia, too impotent to lift their earth-born robustness and fall to gobbling the meadow-grass again.

The farmyard goose is the self important Bumble of the steading, with the itch for minor tyranny common to the breed, but he is certainly no fool. But the wild geese, as they drive apocalyptically through the upper darkness, clanging to the wild-eyed stars – they seem the flying angels of noble freedom, a freedom the race of men has lost”.

(You can read more about Massingham’s book Birds of the Seashore here )


Birds of the Seashore by H.J. Massingham

Birds of the Seashore by H.j. Massingham

I picked up this book in a Cambridge charity shop years ago.  What I like about the book is Massingham’s eccentric but poetic descriptions of the birds, for example, this is how he describes the Spoonbill:

“Its companions on the flats are usually Herons, but Gulls will often persecute it for,  it appears,  its very mystery and unearthliness, as though offended like a vulgar mob by the radiance and purity of its shining dress”

…and this passage is included in his description of the the Red-Necked Phalarope:

“…they are so lamentably indifferent to the human prescence and ease of approach that both they and their cousins, the Grey Phalaropes, are frequently stoned to death. The cry is a faint pleeping”.


It is as though Massingham is describing the quirks of wayward children, rather than birds, and there is some charm in this eccentricity. Unfortunately, this charm  may go hand in hand with some dodgy politics.

H.J. Massingham (1888 – 1952) wrote mainly about rural subjects and agriculture. After being educated at Westminster and Oxford he became a journalist, he knocked about a bit with DH Lawrence, and by the 1930s he was writing extensively and almost exclusively on rural matters.

The ruralist revival of the 1920s and 1930s, of which Massingham was part,  was often mixed up in some of the more eccentric far-right politics of the age – especially in its emotional and reactionary belief in ‘the soil’ as the basis of society.  The best-known figure who represents this tendency was Henry Williamson, the author of Tarka The Otter, who was a fascist sympathizer and supporter of Mosley. Another key figure in this revival was Rolf Gardiner a champion of morris dancing, a proselytizer for organic farming, a fan of naturalism and someone who had way too much time for Nazi theories on race and soil.

Massingham, even though he was part of that world, wasn’t a fascist and he objected to the pro-German tendencies amongst elements within the rural revival movement. He does seem to have been, however, a tiny bit bonkers and perhaps his reactionary politics does cast a slight shadow over his often charming and funny anthropomorphic descriptions of birds. Massingham, like a few other reactionaries (and fascist fellow travellers),  went on to play a part in the creation of the Soil Association – where we find the origins of modern organic farming and post-war green politics.






My Favourite Book That I Read Last Year – Great Expectations.

The last book I finished in 2017 was Great Expectations. I read it to my eldest daughter as her bedtime book.

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I’ve never really read Dickens before, and I was expecting the book to be little more than vivid and overblown characterization,  fuzzy sentimentality and unlikely dramatic coincidences.

This book has all of that,  and all that stuff is great fun (“What Larks!” ). But beyond the funny names and fortuitous turn ups, this book is as alive to the ‘stuff of life’ – to psychology and time and space, to love and flesh and home and death – as almost any book I’ve ever read.

The pulse of Great Expectations is about the interconnection between place, movement and thought. The greatest novel I’ve read about the interconnection between place, movement and thought is  Joyce’s Ulysses. 

In Ulysses, the city of Dublin, and the subconscious world, and the conscious words of Daedelus, Bloom and Molly, expand into each other in ways that make the secular sublime and makes the prosaic epic. Dublin breathes as the characters live, and the characters breathe as Dublin lives.

And this is how Ulysses becomes immersed in the ‘stuff of life’.   In page after page,  line after line,   place and character are bound together around memory,  sex,  love,  decay,  children,  bodies,  buildings,  fathers,  food,  transport,  mothers,  desires,  ambition,  words,  sleep,  the absence of God,  time,  other people,  language,  wanking,  reason, the  sea,  movement,  politics,  dreams;  cocks and guts,  snot and flesh,  arses and offal,  seaweed and shit.  God. Tits. Death.  In its complexity and mess, its misplaced longings,  its sadnesses,  and in both its tiny and epic epiphanies,  the novel becomes so like life that it may as well be life.

Ulysses can,  if you make the effort,  be how we talk to ourselves as we find ourselves in the world,  (and specifically in the city – where the world is at its most worldly).  Ulysses seems truer and more real to me than anything  religion or politics or science can offer up.  It is a book that climbs the giddy heights of imagination at its most vertiginous,  and in doing so it is art that makes the greatest sense of us.  It is a book that you can live in and you can find life there.

And much of what I think is true of Ulysses is also true of Great Expectations.  Dickens’s novel is also a masterpiece about the human condition,  full of all that stuff about sex and death and love and families and so on.  It is also the measure of life,  and is a work of imagination so expansive that we can live in it.  We can find life in it. 


In the novel,  the journey that Pip keeps making from the Kent marshes to London and back again, is the axle around which so much of the substance of the book revolves.  As Pip commutes back and forth in horse drawn coaches along the south bank of the Thames, between the Blue Boar and Cheapside, his head is full of love and ambition,  affection and guilt,  money,  chance,  family. His head fills with this stuff as he grows from adolescence into being a young man, and as he becomes increasingly conscious of himself.

But Pip’s introspection and self analysis is really unreliable. In the book Pip is like an erratic Hamlet;  he is self aware,  but again and again he is wrong about himself.  He is also often wrong about Miss Havisham, and Joe, and most importantly he is wrong about Estella.  The nasty, self serving, self centred Estella is way more accurate in her understanding of herself than Pip ever is in either his understanding of her, or in his understanding of himself.  This book makes clear that self knowledge,   as well as being sometimes muddled headed,  is also not necessarily tied to virtue.

So there is a space in the book between Pip’s self awareness and Pip’s self delusions,  and that’s where we come in – pacing around his world, wandering through Dickens’s imagination,  with a much clearer understanding of circumstance and desire than Pip has.  We can inhabit that book almost as moral agents. We can be a little bit God-like as we look down on Pip, judging his faults, measuring his virtues. Lots of books (most books)  invite the reader in like this – but not as well as this.   In this book we’re invited into this world though the gaps that exist between Pip’s subjectivity and the objectivity of the world that surrounds him.   And this is where the book comes alive,  because what exists in the gaps between how Pip is, and how he sees himself, appears to us as something physical – it is the Kent marshes, and the Blue Boar, and Newgate.  It is that road between London and Kent that Pip keeps travelling along.  It is that difference between London and Rochester.

Great Expectations does not have the complexity or the ambition of Ulysses,  but like Joyce’s book,  it is a novel that comes alive around the extraordinary sense of place that you find on the page;  the physicality of the Kent marshes and Soho and so on. The ‘stuff of life’ quality in the book is down to how Dickens makes life course through these places – the places Pip moves through and between.

 Most importantly,  these places become the objective correlative of Pip’s thoughts.   They are the manifestation of the gap between who he is and who he thinks he is. The psychological divisions that exist within Pip are the physical divisions that exist between London and the Kent marshes.

Miss Havisham

And those characters in the book;  those brilliant, weird characters – some of whom, like Miss Havisham – with her rotten, decaying virginity , seem to have crawled out a corner of the subconscious,   are extensions of how place becomes this objective correlative of Pip’s half grasped self awareness. 

Many of the key characters are tied to specific places:  Miss Havisham never leaves the decay of Satis House – and is the dust and death that goes with Pip’s failed love.  Joe is hopeless (but still decent) anywhere other than in his home or at the forge – and he is the home that Pip doesn’t realize he longs for.  Jaggers, with his precision, his amoral agency and his energy,  is London – and is everything Pip expects to be – but will never be. 

Like Dublin in Ulysses, Kent and London – and the characters that go with these places –  breathe and live in Great Expectations.  And when we, the reader, inhabit this book – when we inhabit the gaps in Pip’s psyche that Dickens has made for us, these are the places where we live, in the marshes, in Newgate, in the overgrown garden of Satis House. It is a novel that maps the world and maps life  by mapping Pip’s thoughts and we are invited to make our way through both simultaneously. 

It is so brilliant.

I don’t know if the rest of Dickens is like this but I want to use 2018 to read more.