Odd books and Oscars

Anthony D’Offay's generosity hasn't gone down well in all quarters, this week in the arts world

And so to the 2008 Oscars: best film went to Juno, best actress to Ellen Page for Juno, best actor was Johnny Depp for Sweeney Todd and best supporting actress went to Cate Blanchett for her gender-bending turn as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There. These would have been the results if the public had decided, according to the E-Poll/Reuters survey.

Instead, the Coen brothers came away with four awards including best picture for No Country for Old Men. Not that this was the critics’ choice. When the Coen brothers did win, Ryan Gilbey decried the Academy’s decision to give the best picture award to No Country rather than the There Will Be Blood, an error that he compares to Citizen Kane’s losing out to How Green was My Valley back in 1942. However, Gilbey is optimistic that Hollywood conservatism will be out with the Bush administration. For the full article, read here. Ken Levine pointed out that, as usual, the best films going were the foreign films and animations, one of which, Persepolis, a young girl’s view of the Islamic Revolution will be showing at the forthcoming Bird’s Eye View film festival, details of which will be in next week’s New Statesman.

The art world received its biggest benefaction since Henry Tate this week when art collector Anthony D’Offay offered 725 pieces of postwar and modern art to the Tate and National Galleries of Scotland for just a fifth of their estimated £125 million value. But not everybody was waxing lyrical about his generosity. London private dealer Ivor Braka called it “the biggest loss” to the arts scene in over 20 years, claiming that D’Offay’s collections were needed to maintain the reputation of London’s galleries as exciting, relevant viewing rooms apart from its museums. And with D’Offay’s donation plugging some major gaps in the UK’s 20th century art collections, critics such as Jonathan Jones are now anticipating a cooling of lending relations between the Tate and New York’s MOMA. Let’s just hope D’Offay doesn’t do an Eli Broad. He was the American collector who recently retracted his donation of around 2000 20th and 21st century art works promised to
LACMA. For an American verdict on both the D’Offay and Broad donations, try Edward Winkleman’s blogspot.

Read any oddly-titled books lately? How about Cheese problems solved or Are Women human? These were just two of the mavericks that made the Diagram prize shortlist for Oddest Book Title of the year this week, along with possibly the most abrasive self-help title on the shelves, If you want closure in your relationship, Start with your legs. Cast your vote now on the Bookseller’s website. The winner will be announced on March 28.

And finally, Mike Smith, lead singer of 60s Beat group, the Dave Clark Five has died, aged 64. The band, famous for hits such as 'I Like It Like That' and 'Any Way You Want It' were already due to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 10. A fittingly-timed tribute.

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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As the falcon flew towards us, its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle

In your faces, twitchers!

The BBC2 programme Springwatch may have made the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk the Mecca of popular birdwatching, but Cley on the north Norfolk coast is still its Alexandria, a haven for wanderers of all species and a repository of ancient and arcane knowledge. I learned what little I know about birding there in the early 1970s, sitting at the feet of the bird artist Richard Richardson as he gave his sea-wall seminars on the intricacies of behaviour and identification. Richard could put a name to any bird, but he never believed that this process rigidly defined it.

The reserve at Cley has been gentrified recently, with smart boardwalks and a solar-powered visitors’ centre, but something of its old, feral spirit remains. On a trip early this winter, we were greeted by birders with the news: “Saker! Middle hide.” Sakers are big, largely Middle Eastern falcons, favourites with rich desert falconers. No convincingly wild individual has ever been seen in Norfolk, so it was likely that this bird had escaped from captivity, which reduced its cred a mite.

The middle hide proved to be full of earnest and recondite debate. The consensus now was that the bird was not a saker but a tundra peregrine – the form known as calidus that breeds inside the Arctic Circle from Lapland eastwards. We had missed the first act of the drama, in which the bird had ambushed a marsh harrier twice its size and forced it to abandon its prey. It was now earthbound, mantled over its dinner on the far side of a lagoon. It was bigger than a standard peregrine, and in the low sun its back looked almost charcoal, flaring into unusually high white cheeks behind its moustachial stripes.

Then it took off. It swung in a low arc around the perimeter of the lagoon and straight towards our hide. It flew so fast that I couldn’t keep it focused in my binoculars, and for a moment its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle. At the last minute, when it seemed as if it would crash through the window, it did a roll-turn and showed off the full detail of its tessellated under-plumage. In your faces, twitchers!

It was a thrilling display, but that didn’t entirely quieten the identity anxieties in the hide. One or two dissenters wondered if it might be a hybrid bird, or just a large but eccentrically marked common peregrine. The majority stuck with the tundra option. This form migrates in the autumn to sub-equatorial Africa, and days of north-easterlies may have blown it off-course, along with other bizarre vagrants: an albatross had passed offshore the day before.

Calidus means “spirited” in Latin. The Arctic firebird treated us to ten minutes of pure mischief. It winnowed low over flocks of lapwing, scythed through the screaming gulls, not seeming to be seriously hunting, but taunting a blizzard of panicky birds skywards. At one point, it hovered above a hapless tufted duck that dived repeatedly, only to resurface with the quivering scimitar still above it. Then it took another strafing run at the hide.

Does it matter whether the peregrine was a rare variety, or just an odd individual? Naturalists often categorise themselves as either “lumpers”, happy with the great unlabelled commonwealth of life, or “splitters”, rejoicing in the minutiae of diversity. I swing from one to the other, but, in the end, I can’t see them as contradictory positions.

The bird from the tundra was a hot-tempered peregrine to the core. But its strange facial markings – however much their interpretation panders to the vanity of human watchers – are the outward signs of a unique and self-perpetuating strain, adapted to extreme conditions and yet making a 6,000-mile migration that might take in a visit to a Norfolk village. Lives intersect, hybridise, diverge, in the counterpoint between what Coleridge called “uniformity” and “omniformity”.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage