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

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist