Do you think I'm sexy? Rod Stewart. Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
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Never underestimate how unbelievably boring we all are

Rod Stewart laps it up in the BBC's first History Hour of 2015.

The History Hour
BBC World Service

“Light and shade for you this week,” cheeps Max Pearson at 2am, presenting the first of 2015’s History Hours (4 January, 2.05am), the weekly slot that showcases historical reporting, from the Battle of the Bulge and Hong Kong’s 1967 riots to the Kyoto conference and the release of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. “In a moment, a post-World War One tragedy concerning servicemen returning to Scotland,” says Max, “but before that . . . the biggest ever free party on a beach!” It’s a segment on Rod Stewart’s humongous New Year’s Eve 1994 gig at Copacabana, featuring a recent interview with the Epoxy Resined One himself, who turns 70 on 10 January. “I thought there was, like, 30 rows of fans at most . . .” mused Stewart. In reality, there were 3.5 million people in the crowd and 35 million watching on the box. Rod’s spatial awareness is about as good as mine. Three and a half million: that’s like the entire population of Uruguay.

Never, ever underestimate how unbelievably boring we all are. Or forget that the biggest-selling album in the world is Thriller and the second is The Eagles: Greatest Hits. Stewart’s faithful Swedish production manager Lars interjects, entirely without double-entendre: “You are enormous down there. Enormous. Down there. Enormous.” This, Rod takes seamlessly as his due. “I love it down there,” he says. But then adds Scroogeishly, “It’s one of the hardest places to work, mind you. Down there. They’ll tell you one thing and do another.”

“The morning sun when it’s in yer face really shows yo age,” goes the song in the background and you have to admit it sounds pretty good. Followed by snatches of “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy”, played in such a way that immediately indicates it’s the stadium version – the kind that stretches out like a fat man in a hammock while you go off and look for more ketamine – and no doubt featuring Stewart’s session favourite Jeff Golub (RIP. Best blond curls in rock, bar Daltry) casually walking about the stage while noodling away convivially on his guitar, occasionally approaching the 300-foot-high sound desk and staring at it with his back to the audience for another unhurried 15 minutes, as though reprogramming a gas metre. Still, the crowd are lapping it up. “I think they’d been drinking a little.” No shit, Rod. 

The Biggest Rock Concert Ever is available on BBC Radio iPlayer until 3 February

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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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