There are the conventional signs of spring and then there are bullfinches.
Despite a blizzard on Wednesday morning and torrential rain on Wednesday afternoon I know that spring is here because the bullfinches have arrived. Every year for a few days in March the bullfinches work their way systematically through the buds on the apple tree branches. They prefer Discovery to Bramley. I very rarely see them at other times of the year. I check their conservation status – amber. I know that in the past, when there were more commercial orchards and more bullfinches, they were killed in large numbers. Like other finches they were also caught as cage birds. (Old Mrs d’Urbeville tells Tess, “I want you to whistle to my bullfinches ... and we teach ‘em airs that way” but Tess is out of practice at whistling and ends up being instructed by the villainous Alec). My trees are so large and overgrown that the difference the bullfinches make to the autumn crop is negligible. I even wonder if the buds re-grow. A late frost does far more damage.
Spring was much in evidence when I went up to Edinburgh on Saturday. There were daffodils everywhere. Particularly attractive were the miniature daffodils, a deep free-range egg yolk yellow, around the Episcopal cathedral in Palmerston Place. Pigeons flapped and clapped their wings as they flew up from the pavement. In Rose Street people spilled out of pubs and cafes to sit outside with their pints, cappuccinos and delicate patisseries (Milne’s Bar in Rose Street was the haunt of a previous generation of poets – Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan, George Mackay Brown and several others). In St Andrew Square youngsters sat cross-legged on the grass, enjoying the warm sunshine.
As usual when I am in Edinburgh I visited the Scottish Poetry Library, skimmed the fine assortment of poetry magazines and borrowed my allocation of six poetry books (Tony Curtis, Elaine Feinstein, Paula Meehan, Angela Leighton, John Fuller, Martyn Crucefix). I picked up a copy of the excellent Scottish Review of Books, which always has some poetry coverage. The current issue has five fine poems by the late Elizabeth Burns, a review of John Burnside’s new collection Still Life with Feeding Snake (alongside his new novel Ashland and Vine), an article on Owen and Sassoon at Craiglockhart military hospital, and a review by Candia McWilliam of poet Brian Johnstone’s memoir Double Exposure.
Returning to Carlisle on the train I noticed a huge flock of hundreds (?thousands) of wild geese in fields somewhere between Edinburgh and Lockerbie. I assumed they were preparing to migrate to their breeding grounds.
Spring is here – watch this space (sun/rain/hail/snow/gales/more sun?).
For Tess and the bullfinches – see Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbevilles part 1 chapter 9.