Friday, 20 December 2013


            The collective nouns that are used for animals reveals a poetic sensibility that can be evocative but can also be downright impolite. If you were a rhinoceros and hanging out with other rhinos would you want to be referred to as ‘a crash of rhinoceroses’? Or if you were a hippopotamus and were gathering with other hippos would ‘a bloat of hippopotamuses’ float your boat? And I think calling a collection of tigers ‘an ambush of tigers’ is just pre-judging them, just expecting them to misbehave. Birds on the whole come out of this a lot better. ‘A parliament of owls’ is suggestive of thoughtfulness and deliberation even if today’s politicians tend to spoil these associations. You couldn’t imagine anything nicer than ‘a charm of goldfinches’ could you? But even with birds the naming of collectives takes on a gothic tilt: ‘a gulp of magpies’; ‘a murder of crows’; ‘an unkindness of ravens’.
             A murmuration of starlings has to be the best way of naming a collection of starlings, and therefore the best collective noun because starlings are really head and shoulders above the rest of us when it comes to being and acting collectively. For anyone who has witnessed a murmuration of starlings coming in to land in some wetlands, or finding a perch on the burnt out remains of a pleasure pier, it is a stunning sight of pulsing, swooping, flitting movement choreographed by thousands and thousands of birds in synchronised formations. The patterns that these starlings make are formless forms: it looks as if they are constantly on the verge of revealing something – a word, or the face of god. Murmuration is as near as you can get to describing the sorts of clustering that starlings make: it doesn’t suggest the visual aspect of their swarming but nails the white-noise impact of their movement, and the crescendos and diminuendos of their gathering. I think we should reserve the word murmuration for starlings, but if we did use it in another context it might be fitting, albeit differently, for actors. Thus ‘a murmuration of extras’ would designate a large group of actors in a restaurant scene, for instance, whose main role is to provide visual noise and the sort of rise and fall of a humming murmur as background to the protagonists’ dialogue.
              According to Chris Pagham – friend to the ordinary animal, scourge to those who sentimentalise cuteness – Britain is steadily losing its starling populations. It turns out that this has nothing much to do with global warming but is linked to global politics; to be precise, to a form of dictatorial state control in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 40s. It seems that Comrade Stalin was super keen on starlings as a form of natural pest control. He authorised a Union wide programme of environmental encouragement to starlings. When winter froze the ground the starlings migrated, and some of them came to Britain. In the 1940s the winter population of starlings in East Anglia alone was roughly forty million. Now that must have been some spectacle.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

North Sea Gas is coming…

In the November 1967 issue of Good Housekeeping a double page advertisement announces that ‘North Sea gas is coming’. On one side there is writing persuading you to invest £263 on a ‘High Speed gas central heating system’ – ‘the only kind that’s going to run on gas from the North Sea’ – on the other side a photograph of the North Sea (presumably) at sunset. The cold, dark abyss of the sea is glowing yellow and orange from the reflected sun. Perhaps central heating could do this for you – add a warm glow to the cold, dark abyss of your home? At the bottom of the photograph there is a slightly embarrassed aside “…the best bit of luck for 100 years!” It wouldn't do to crow too much about national good fortune.
In the May of 1967 the Natural Gas Conversion Programme was started. Every appliance that ran on gas (cookers, the odd fridge, water heaters and so on) needed altering to be able to use the new type of gas. In the end some forty million appliances were converted, at the cost of £563 million. Britain was ‘switched over’ district by district. A district would be isolated from the network and purged with a huge flame, flaring off what was left of the old gas before the new gas was introduced. Armies of gas engineers went house to house to ensure that all appliances were safe and working. The programme took ten years to complete.
Natural gas might have been expensive to install but it was a cheaper product than the old coal gas. Coal-gas, town-gas, or (with more than a nod to its original purpose) illuminating-gas was the result of an industrial process, and that required large factories for its production. Natural gas arrived, ready to go, from beneath the seabed. The cheapness of natural gas, and its sense of national luck, would have been one crucial incentive for many households to have central heating fitted. The years of the conversion programme follow the years in which central heating gathers momentum in Britain. It is only towards the end of the 1970s when over 50% of households have central heating. But another crucial incentive is home ownership: who would install central heating in a house they were renting? If old Victorian terraces were the architecture of coal-burning grates, and 1930s suburban semis the architecture of the gas fire, then the architecture of central heating was open-plan. Central heating fuelled a culture of shag-pile, floor cushions and informality.
Town gas was the kind of gas you could kill yourself with. ‘Sticking your head in the oven’ used to be the vernacular expression for suicide in general. I don’t know whether death by gas was more or less common than other forms of suicide, but it had a symbolism that other suicides didn't have. I guess it was the ease and domesticity of it that gave it such an awful symbolism, as well as the link to the Holocaust. It was a form of death that was available in the kitchen, on tap, so to say. I'm sure that Sylvia Plath would have had an intuitive sense of that symbolism when she chose this as her way of ending it all in 1963. Natural gas, on the other hand, wasn't going to kill anyone any time soon. You were more likely to blow yourself up than suffocate, and no chance of the woozy dreamless embrace of carbon monoxide poisoning. Natural gas was modern, clean and looked to the future.
In 1968 I started going to school in Chelmsford. Approaching Chelmsford from the east on the A12 on a dark winter’s morning, facing the inevitable traffic jam coming off the duel carriage-way you could see the Chelmsford gasworks on the right hand side. Or at least this is what I remember. It was huge. A mass of gleaming metal pipework, with each pipe illuminated by a string of electric light. It looked other-worldly. A gleaming citadel of metal and light with a flame jet burning off some residual gas. It smelt of sulphur. Natural gas would mean the end for the Chelmsford Gas Works, which had been producing gas since the early nineteenth century. Now the Gas Works has gone, the ground is contaminated, and the wasteland is home to some of the most respected graffiti art in Essex. In 1968, in the dark, with all that fire, electric light and metal, it looked like the beginning of the film Blade Runner. When Blade Runner came out in 1982 it seemed to be describing a future of ‘replicants’ and ‘off-world colonies’, but really it was showing us our past.