The birds who know how to improvise

Like a human infant, a young bird begins with an inherited, hard-wired gift for the song language of its species and, like human beings, each has a sensitive period when it learns how to sing from a parent or (in laboratory studies) a “tutor”.

According to the American writer Andrew Hudgins, there are some things that are “basically poetic about birds”. They are pretty, they sing and they can fly, he writes. “And if their ability to sing makes them easily emblematic of the poet, their ability to fly makes them immediate and compact symbols of the ancient, human desire to transcend our earthbound nature.”

All this is true but there is another aspect of bird behaviour that may be even more poetic and that is the ability, of some species at least, to improvise – because improvisation, a form of play and at the same time a variety of practical magic, is the basis of all our poetries.

Like a human infant, a young bird begins with an inherited, hard-wired gift for the song language of its species and, like human beings, each has a sensitive period when it learns how to sing from a parent or (in laboratory studies) a “tutor”.

The similarity does not end there, however. As in those human instances in which young children are deprived of language (the best known case being that of Genie, a brutally abused American girl who, over a period of 11 years in captivity, rarely heard normal human speech), what develops when no parent or tutor can be found is an abnormal, sometimes unrecognisable facsimile of true song.

It is painful to imagine this condition. For a bird, especially for the more musically inventive, song is the defining characteristic, the primary way by which it knows itself and is known by others. To lose its species song is to lose not just its identity but some part of its presence in the world.

Like Genie, who lived in a detached, almost ghostly silence even after she was rescued, a songless bird is a sort of local vacuum, a dropped stitch in the fabric of universal consciousness that seems, to those of us who can express ourselves, both eerie and tragic.

Having learned the basics of its species song from a tutor, each bird goes on, through practice and close listening, to perfect a version of that song. Once this has been achieved, some birds develop no further; others, however, build vast and highly inventive repertoires, incorporating musical inventions from their own and other bird species and even mimicking humanmade sounds.

Everyone is aware of the virtuosity of mockingbirds and starlings in this regard, but their repertoires of 200 or so “tunes” at most seem rather limited compared to the brown thrasher’s 2,000.

Yet repertoire is not the whole story. Indeed, as with human improvisation, real mastery comes in combining a limited range of notes in complex performances – and surely this is where the most musical songbirds prove most “poetic”.

With human beings it could be argued that all music-making is, in essence, grounded in improvisation. Whether it is Bach constructing the astonishingly lyrical and inventive Goldberg Variations from a simple original theme or John Coltrane transforming a standard such as “Bye, Bye Blackbird” into a jazz classic, we begin with a given datum or experience, draw upon a vast inner encyclopaedia of other experiences (only some of which are sounds) and arrive at something unexpected. And this applies not only to music; it is just as true for poetry, architecture or dance at their best.

This gift for improvisation, that serious discipline in which the safe ground is abandoned for the possibility of marvellous play, is arguably the one gift we share with the birds and it is only here that we can aspire to be their equals. We cannot fly and few of us are pretty enough to bear comparison with the vireos or orioles but occasionally our ability to improvise (or to recognise great improvisation when we encounter it) allows us to transcend our earthbound nature, for a while, at least.

Poetry in aerial motion: our feathered friends dazzle with variations on a theme in the same way we do. Image: Joel Micah Miller/ Gallery Stock

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Anti-semitism and the left: something is rotten in the state of Labour

Labour held three separate inquiries into anti-Semitism within its ranks during the first part of 2016. A new book by Dave Rich investigates how we got to this point.

The relationship between the left and the Jews has always been a complex one – ostensibly harmonious but with an underlying unease. For decades, the left’s ideological stance against racism and intolerance made it – in Britain, at least – a natural home for Jews. Its largest party, Labour, could rely on a majority share of Britain’s Jewish vote. Yet the 19th-century German socialist August Bebel, who described anti-Semitism as “the socialism of fools”, understood that, like a tumour, it has always existed in the left-wing body politic.

It is this duality that Dave Rich seeks to explore in his impressive and important book. How, he asks, did we get to the situation in which Labour, the party whose founding principles include opposing bigotry, felt the need to hold three separate inquiries into anti-Semitism within its ranks during the first part of 2016?

For so long, the dichotomy was simple, consisting of a clash of two notions of the Jew: an oppressed figure deserving of the left’s solidarity and the perennial embodiment of socialism’s great enemy, capitalism. In the words of (the Jewish) Karl Marx:


What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money . . . Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man – and turns them into commodities . . . The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew.


Whether or not Marx meant the words ironically (as many academics contend), he articulated the most prominent leftist critique of Jews of his time. However, as Britain’s former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks has argued, anti-Semitism, like any virus, must mutate to survive. Now the most significant word in the quotation above – which Marx uses figuratively – is not “money”, as he would have seen it, but “Israel”.

As Rich notes, the link between British Jews and Israel is almost inviolable. While support for Israeli policies is mixed (there is much opposition to the settlements), he records that 82 per cent of British Jews say that the country plays a central role in their identity, while 90 per cent see it as the ancestral home of the Jewish people. Set against this is his (correct) observation that: “Sympathy for the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel have become the default position for many on the left – a defining marker of what it means to be progressive.” He argues that once you discover what someone on the left thinks about Israel and Zionism, you can usually guess his or her views on terrorism, Islamist extremism, military intervention and British-American relations.

When Stalin’s show trials and bloodlust finally discredited communism, many on the left, bereft of an ideology, fell into a dull, almost perfunctory anti-Americanism, dressed up as “anti-imperialism”. Intellectually flaccid but emotionally charged, this strand of thought became – to those on the hard left who had for so long been confined to the margins – all-encompassing. The dictum “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”, in effect, was adopted as its slogan. Any Middle Eastern or South American dictatorship that “stands up” to the US ipso facto is an ally, as is any Islamist hate preacher who does so. Israel, viewed as a US-backed colonial outpost, became the physical manifestation of all that was wrong with the world.

With Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader last year, this particular leftist world-view entered the heart of the party. In 2008, Corbyn wrote of the Balfour Declaration – the UK government’s promise to British Jews of a homeland in Palestine – that it had “led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the expulsion of Palestinians . . . Britain’s history of colonial interference . . . leaves it with much to answer for.” The description of Israel as a colonialist enterprise, rather than a movement for sovereignty through national independence, and the culpability of an “imperial” Britain, encapsulate the twin impulses that drive Corbyn’s beliefs about foreign affairs.

The problem, Rich argues, is that it is just a short step from these beliefs to the ideas that Israel should not exist and that its Western supporters, who include most Jews, are racists. Combined with a resurgence of social media-charged conspiracies about Zionist wealth and power, the left has formed an anti-racist politics that is blind to anti-Semitism. Jews are privileged; they are wealthy; they cannot be victims.

Thus, “Zionist” has become not a term to describe a political position but an insult; thus, Jews, unless they denounce Israel (their “original sin”), are excluded from the left that now dominates the Labour Party. When such ideas become normalised, anything is possible. Jackie Walker, the recently suspended vice-chairwoman of the Corbyn-supporting group Momentum, can claim with sincerity that “many Jews” were the “chief financiers” of the slave trade, a modern myth and piece of bigotry popularised by the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan – a notorious anti-Semite – in a 1991 book.

By the middle of this year, as many as 20 Labour Party members had been suspended or expelled for alleged anti-Semitism. At times, Rich appears bewildered. Though he never articulates it, the question “What has happened to my party?” echoes through these pages. Is it a case of just a few bad ­apples, or is the whole barrelful rotten? The answer, Rich concludes convincingly, in this powerful work that should be read by everyone on the left, is sadly the latter. 

The Left’s Jewish Problem by Dave Rich is published by Biteback, 292pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood