The Eve of May

It is the Eve of May, Beltane, one of the Holy Days in my calendar, and I'm getting myself ready for tomorrow, Oxford's May Morning. As usual I'll be leading out a band of artists, poets, dreamers and ne'er-do-wells - The Hurly Burly Whirly, by Christ it's Early, got you by the Short and Curlies, Band - to bring in the May with bagpipes, fiddles, drums and effrontery, at 6am, from the steps of the Clarendon Building on Broad Street. Do come along.

Here's one of Nomi's photos from last year. I've used it here before but it brilliantly captures the revellious spirit of what we do.


There will be May celebrations up and down the land (try and stop us if you dare Mr Cameron), most famously in Padstow, where they dance two Obby Osses through the streets all day, and which by all accounts is a wild and magical affair. We're getting there.

Padstow has its May Song, sung by one and all, and I'd been thinking for some years now that Oxford needed something comparable. A few May Mornings ago a tune arrived, and last year, the words. So here is my May song, an offering to the city I love, for the day when I love it the most. If you like it too then do sing it tomorrow.


Oxford May Song by andyletcher


It was also at this time of year, a couple of years back, that I heard a bird singing at dusk out on Burgess Fields, by Port Meadow. Its song was like nothing I'd ever heard: rich, plunging, inventive, ever changing, as if it had its hands on some vintage analogue synthesizer and had patched in strange loops and filter sweeps. I was transfixed, agog.

The hard thing about learning birdsong is remembering what you've heard until you can get home to compare it to a recording. In any case, I was fair twongled that night, which perhaps contributed to the magic of what I'd heard. But I couldn't help wondering if it weren't a nightingale. No way, said the birders. Not in Oxford. Too rare. You're imagining things. Almost certainly a song thrush.

Well, I know my thrushes and a song thrush it wasn't. So a mystery.

Anyway, the other night we were on Jim's boat having a Wod rehearsal when he announce with delight that he'd heard a nightingale singing in the scrub not far from where his boat is moored (he should know - he used to live feral in France where he heard them regularly). Sure enough, at 10.30pm sharp, we cocked our ears and heard the distant, unmistakeable sound.

Last night I went out with Nomi, sound recorder in hand. Stealthily, we managed to get right up to the tree from which this virtuoso sings. It was every bit as enchanting as the Romantic poets keep banging on about, but hey, I'll let you decide for yourselves.

Nightingale edit by andyletcher

I have a fantasy about the past, that the ancient Bards graded themselves according to their progress through the rigorous training, and named those grades after the thrustle family. You began as a Wren, progressed to Blackbird, and finally, to Song Thrush. A woeful Bard would be lambasted as a Mistle Thrush (beautiful bird but a dismal singer, the karaoke crooner of the family). And the highest grade of all, the Chief Bard? Why, Nightingale of course.

They are so rare these days that to hear one in the lea of a major road, on the edge of Oxford, on the Eve of May, is what I count as a blessing.

3 comments:

  1. A happy Beltane to you, Andy! What luck to be able to record a Nightingale, its truly beautiful. I love the whistling.... when I lived in Greece, I lived not far from the valley of the Nightingale's, but never heard one. We're off to dance the Maypole tomorrow, and earlier in the morning, the all-night revelers will throw old man winter into the raging river and sing bawdy songs at the gorge and dance in the May with Morris Dancing. Last year I unfortunately had a bit of the whiskey at 5am... I DID quite regret that as I really never do, it was a bit too much for my system that early!

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  2. Happy Beltane. I used to be at University in St Andrews, and our Mayday celebrations involved running into the North Sea at Dawn, and swimming to a particular point then back again, whilst being serenaded by bagpipes and madrigals. Wonderful. Cold though...

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  3. We had a huge fire, music and mead down here on Dartmoor. We won't be working this day in the future, whatever those sillies do.
    And may I congratulate you on 'revellious'.
    Marvelous: words, songs, all.
    Beltane blessings.

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