‘To be recognised and accepted by a peregrine,’ wrote J.A. Baker in 1967, ‘you must wear the same clothes, travel by the same way, perform actions in the same order. Like all birds, it fears the unpredictable.’ Sitting around in the same old clothes, performing chores in the same order, travelling by no way at all, I’ve found comfort in Baker’s assurance that I may at least prove attractive to birds in my slovenly purdah. Sir David Attenborough read The Peregrine beautifully on Radio 4 just before Christmas, but if you were too busy steaming puddings to listen, you may find this a good time for enjoying the series online. I recommend it because, while Baker’s diary begins in October, when the peregrine soars over the fields and flicks acorns ‘like a potter spinning’, it culminates in the most joyful descriptions of spring. I recommend it also because there is precious little else worth listening to this week.
Perhaps I’ve grown too accustomed to the silence of quarantine, but I’ve lost patience with podcasts in love with their own sound. By that I mean presenters in love with their own sound. I’ve tired of the concept of eavesdropping on friendly chitchat destined to interest only the contributors’ mum and dad. I cannot bear guff masquerading as medicine for mental improvement. I am ravenously hungry for richer meat.
Like Lidgates, The Peregrine delivers on that front, transporting us to the skies and dipping us into estuaries after victim gulls. Weighing between 1 and 2.5lb, with eyes so large and heavy that a man would require sockets three inches wide to accommodate them, Baker’s majestic peregrine is both hunter and spy. He snatches a jay and watches Baker by a brook. ‘He’s found a meaning for me,’ Baker says. ‘But I don’t know what it is.’
In late March, a falcon flies over the water and drifts leisurely on the wind. Baker, waiting below, spots a seal in the water. ‘It’s a good life, a seal’s, here in these shallow waters,’ he reflects. ‘Like the lives of so many air and water creatures, it seems a better one than ours. We have no element. Nothing sustains us when we fall.’ All man can do is stand in awe.
While we can’t go to the theatre, Radio 3 is airing a new performance of Henry IV, Part I this Sunday evening. Few, perhaps, would name it their favourite play (Henry V has my vote among the histories) but it is brilliantly bawdy and ribald and perfect end-of-weekend fare. As chaos ensues in the world outside, Toby Jones, superbly cast as Falstaff, ‘that villainous abominable misleader of youth’, and Prince Hal (the talented Luke Thompson) draw you comfortably into their shadowy taverns and plans until you feel close enough to clink tankards with them.
King Henry, necessarily more remote, sees his forces dominate at Shrewsbury, where dishonourable Falstaff declares himself ready to confront Hotspur: ‘Let him make a carbonado of me.’ The clinking of tankards is overtaken by the clinking of swords and heaves of men. The battlefield scenes are just real enough to cut through the comedy. This balance, difficult to achieve on radio, is handsomely struck. All in all, it’s nicely done, and should fill the pub-sized hole in your evening.
Speaking of which, in a week of pub quizzes minus the taverns and virtual ‘dinner parties’, I’ve benefited from the always meaty Witness History on the World Service. Many of the recent episodes, tea-break-length at nine minutes each, have focused on technological discoveries, specifically those that have made it possible to work from home and socialise while social distancing. Most have involved journeying back into the 1990s — comforting in itself.
This was the era of Six Degrees, the first social-media network, which aimed to index the contacts in people’s address books online. The idea was that everyone could see their second degree of separation via their first and ultimately trace a link to anyone in the world. The downside was that the website lacked photographs. ‘At the time,’ said Andrew Weinreich, who launched the platform in 1997, ‘I don’t think I could have foreseen that… everyone would have the ability to import digital images of themselves.’ He sold the business for $125 million just two years later, in 1999, the year the first camera phone was released.
The webcam had been invented in 1991, though it was some time before its value was realised. Astonishingly, scientists working in the so-called Trojan Room lab at Cambridge created the prototype simply to monitor the amount of coffee in the lab coffee pot. The image, which refreshed every few minutes on the screens of the workers, was later connected to the internet and eyed worldwide. It was ten years before the watched pot finally went off the boil. The webcam has never been hotter.