I’ve begun the task of writing descriptions of the illustrations for the book and adding some personal reflections which put the poems in context. I thought I’d share the first of these, which relates the drawing of a sparrow I’ve made to illustrate the poem Bird Song.
An A4 portrait black and white line drawing depicting a side-on view of a sparrow, which takes up the whole of the central two thirds of the picture. The bird is very carefully and delicately drawn, with a great attention to the detail in the feathers and the markings on the feathers. It is a male bird as defined by the dark markings around its eye and beak and down the extent of its wing feathers. It sits on a short branch, which comes towards the viewer into the foreground of the picture.
The sparrow looks upwards with a fragile, slightly quizzical expression on its face, which emphasises a sense of its innocence. Surrounding the bird is a mesh or web of delicate markings resembling a lattice of small interlacing branches. Many of the larger branches are shaded with small dots creating a grey cloud-like shadow around the bird, which seems to pulsate in the background.
The sparrow symbolises a lot of thoughts and feelings in relation to childhood memories. My mum conferred a love of nature and the bird-life in the garden was very important to us. The chirpy little sparrow was our favorite. We’d put bread out and would love to watch these shy, innocent birds hovering around our offerings.
Mischeviously they would peck the aluminium tops of the milk bottles left on our doorstep by the milkman. “Look mum”, I’d say “They’ve been at it again”, and we’d share a smile at their daring do. I think we shared an intuitive connection to their fragile natures. We would delight in counting the numbers of male and female birds we could spot at impromptu moments when a ‘quarrel’ of them would come to visit.
The decline in numbers of sparrows in our London garden in the late seventies seemed to parallel the worsening of my mothers health and wellbeing. The disappearance of the birds was inextricably linked, in my mind, with the irrevocable changes in society wrought by the rise of Thatcher. It seemed that the world fast became a harder and more corrupt place with the influence of American Economist Milton Friedman’s free market ideology, that was so important to the Thatcher government. From the late-seventies their policies spelt an end to the spirit of cooperation and collaboration that had been a marked feature within society since the Clement Atlee government of 1945. After 35 years of common ownership of all essential utilities and industries, we were subject to policies that established a framework of private enterprise and competition. The idea was that we learn to rely on market forces to ensure the ‘survival of the fittest’, rather than attempt to work together to achieve a fair society. However the political appropriation of the phrase, first coined by Herbert Spencer and then used by Charles Darwin as a synonym for the idea of natural selection in the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species, published in 1869, was incompatible with the meaning both scientists intended in their search for an understanding of evolutionary theory. Darwin had intended the phrase to be a metaphor for how life adapts to its immediate, local environment, often working collectively to achieve common aims. The political interpretation that Darwin was vindicating the actions of the rich and powerful over and above the needs of the weak and those less well-placed was in fact a fallacy.
As the 1980s dawned, in my mind at least, there was a direct association between the increase in Corvids in London parks and gardens with the harsher pragmatism of the dismantling of the welfare state. The crows, magpies and jays replaced a lot of the smaller more benign birds. The families of finches, tits and sparrows decreased dramatically within a short space of time, never to return in the same numbers. The decline of the sparrow, especially, who my mum and I identified with so readily, was especially symbolic as indicative of our own predicament.