Articles written by Steve Osborn (OZ) in the year 1999




COUNTRY NOTES - The other evening, walking home in the dusk from choir practice and still humming the last few bars of music, we heard an owl hooting in the trees in  Kearsney Abbey. It reminded us that, twenty years ago, the owl was a familiar sound at night, as magical and as reassuring as the sound of the waterfall across the road. Since then, the combination of the Great Hurricane and the council’s safety policies have ensured that the most precarious trees have been removed, and the owls and bats that lived in them are not now around in the same number. It also reminded us of Gilbert White, author of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, and his preoccupation with the sound of the owl. On the 4th. December 1770 he wrote in his journal “ Most owls seem to hoot exactly in B flat according to several pitch-pipes used in tuning of harpsichords, and as strictly at concert pitch.” John Julius Norwich, in Christmas Crackers (Penguin 1980), published this quotation and added the following from Professor Howard Evans of Fort Collins, Colorado: “ Even the simple wing sounds of midges and mosquitoes play a role in bringing the sexes together. In this case it is the female that attracts the male by the hum of her wings, a fact quickly apparent to singers who hit a G in the vicinity of a swarm and end up with a mouthful of male mosquitoes.” Which is perhaps a good a reason as any for limiting oneself to no more than humming when walking home from choir practice.


COUNTRY NOTES - Over 300 years ago the great John Milton, in Book 1 of Paradise Lost, wrote:

                                  “the sun…from behind the moon

                                    In dim eclipse disastrous twilight sheds

                                    On half the nations, and with fear of change

                                    Perplexes monarchs.”

With all the media build-up to our own Great Eclipse on 11th August, I don’t think that too many people found it ‘disastrous’ in the Miltonic sense of ‘ill-starred’ or ‘ominous’ and I hope that our monarch was not too perplexed. In the backyard the most impressive feature of the eclipse was the change in temperature, from 20°C to 8°C (ie a fall of some 22°F) in under 30 minutes. Our neighbour was dead-heading geraniums at the time and she noticed that the ends of her fingers had turned blue, just as they do in the winter. The seagulls were fooled; every evening at dusk they come over in formation, like the Dambusters, on the way home to wherever they sleep at night; and so they did, at 10.40 am on the morning of the eclipse. When our moment of 95% eclipse finally came, it was accompanied by a fairly heavy cloud cover, and we took deliciously wicked glimpses that would almost certainly not receive governmental approval. The sun looked for all the world like a harvest moon, not so much a sun as a ‘sun-burn’d sickle’. It’s a timely symbol as the harvest is now well under way after this wonderful summer; as we drove along the Alkham Valley the next day we saw mile on mile of golden fields with the occasional blush of red from the poppies. As for the events of 11th August, surely the last word should be with Dennis O’Kelly, the Irish racehorse owner, speaking at Epsom on 3rd May 1769: “Eclipse first, the rest nowhere.”


COUNTRY NOTES  - It was gratifying to learn last month that Kent Wildlife Trust had succeeded in its appeal for resources to buy another area of land at Lydden Temple Ewell Down. The land is necessary in order to save several endangered species, including the wart-biter bush cricket. A reference from 1829 states that “In Sweden warts are destroyed by the Gryllus verrucivorus or wart-eating grasshopper.”  A.H. Swinton, in Insect Variety (1880) refers to “The Great Green Leaf-cricket, or Wart-biter.”  Fifty years ago the wart-biter was common on the chalk downlands of Kent. As with many other species it then went into a rapid decline under severe environmental pressures and was finally declared extinct in Kent in 1976. In 1993, 20 adult wart-biters were re-introduced onto Lydden Temple Ewell Down. Currently, the population, although still expanding, remains vulnerable, which is why the extra land is needed. Gilbert White, the author of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, was, when not investigating owl sounds (this column, August this year), fascinated by crickets. Writing in the late eighteenth century, he devoted three long and consecutive letters to this topic. In the second one, he refers to house crickets (Gryllus domesticus) as “…noisome pests… like Pharaoh’s plague of frogs…” and goes on to say that they “may be destroyed, like wasps, by phials half filled with beer …for, being always eager to drink, they will crowd in till the bottles are full.” We’ve been destroying slugs that way for some years now, the best bait being a dark, sweet, mild beer, purchased in 2-litre brown plastic bottles from a local supermarket. It’s amazingly successful, killing thousands during the season. Most people accept that it works, but occasionally I get that wary, disbelieving look that sometimes greets the news of the wart-biters. 


THE SUMMER AT HOME  - Throughout the summer a male sparrow has been furiously attacking the study window. He was at it all day but I only noticed when doing paperwork. Derwent May, in The Times on 31st July, asserted that “…birds behaving like this are simply mistaking their reflection for another bird intruding into their territory. Unlike real birds, their reflection does not retreat when it is attacked, so they get into a frenzy of rage”. In reply, readers reported carrion crows attacking windows, car sun-roofs and television aerials, and a goldcrest that moved from window to window as curtains were drawn. Crows are clever and resourceful birds, well able to survive in either town or country. Lord Tennyson, in Locksley Hall, referred to “The many-winter’d crow that leads the clanging rookery home”. One of our neighbours persisted in putting out whole slices of dry bread for the birds. The small birds struggled, but the crows simply dunked the bread thoroughly in the birdbath in the back garden and took it to feed their youngsters. In an effort to deter white butterflies this year, we protected the cabbages with a 6mm mesh stretched taut on 1m high canes. After a while, we were amazed and horrified to find butterflies happily fluttering beneath. Further observation revealed a butterfly to land, close its wings, and squeeze through the mesh. However, we then watched as a wasp zoomed in through the mesh, rolled a caterpillar up into a ball, and flew back out with hardly a stop, which we saw as a form of natural justice. I forgot to mention that the sparrow’s attack on the windows was at its most agitated when I was struggling with my Income Tax return. Perhaps it understood something of the human condition.


O COME ALL YE FAITHFUL  - Derek and Marion Banks Nash, who live at The Hermitage on Slip Lane, were in the congregation at the recording of the BBC’s Advent ‘Songs of Praise’ at Canterbury Cathedral. Evidently the service is not quite the seamless performance as seen on television. My friend and contributor to the Newsletter, Steve Osborn, is a bass with the Dover Choral Society and other local choirs. He too was there and has written the following account of what went on.

By the time the recording started, I was nearly asleep on my feet. There had been some ‘note-bashing’ sessions in earlier weeks, and a technical rehearsal two evenings ago, where the film crew checked out lighting, sound balance and so on. On the previous evening we had recorded the Lent 2000 ‘Songs of Praise’, and here we were, lighting our candles in preparation for the traditional carol service. Overnight the cathedral had been transformed from Lenten austerity to Advent splendour with huge towering sprays of seasonal foliage. The worshippers’ dress had also changed, from sepulchral reserve to joyous abandon, with many bright reds and greens. The floor manager had been careful however to ensure that no one was wearing a Remembrance poppy for either service in view of the planned transmission dates. Just after 7.30 there was a dimming of the lights, the conductor raised his hand, and the cathedral treble began to sing the first solo verse of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. The huge invited choir and congregation joined in for the third verse while the cathedral choir processed, singing, towards their place on the altar steps. As the descant spiralled away into the roof there was a stunned silence and then the telephone rang in the pulpit.  The BBC’s director, in the control van out in the cathedral close, was less than happy with something. And so we did it again, together with the procession, and again, until the director was content.  This set the pattern for the evening; at the end of each recording there was a pause while the director replayed the tape, and then the telephone would ring in the pulpit to give the conductor, David Flood, the thumbs up or down. Of course, if the recording was particularly unsatisfactory, the telephone would ring straight away; this became an invaluable source of humour as the evening wore on and fatigue began to set in. Eventually the final take of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ was ‘in the can’, as they say, and the bishop and the producer sent us on our way with prayers. The BBC’s attention to detail was impressive; there were retakes of some individual lines, joins and even of a cymbal crash. The BBC crew members, from the Religious Affairs Team at Manchester, seemed to have been hand-picked for their courtesy and sincerity. The presenter, Pam Rhodes, was as happy and sensitive as she appears on television. The cathedral organist and conductor, David Flood, paid tribute to his colleague, David Leeke, and their mutual friend, Canon Plumber. So watch out for the transmission at tea-time on Sunday 19th December, or make sure you set the video, for an inspiring and seamless performance. And don’t forget the Millennium programme in March 2000!