A singing wren. Photo: Wikimedia commons
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The birds are getting louder: untangling the dawn chorus with Chris Watson

Birds are able to discriminate between waveforms in a way we cannot - and their cries are mutating.

Broadcasting House
BBC Radio 4

“We’re asking if the dawn chorus is getting louder. We’re looking into it and have unravelled an amazing story for the ear.” This was a brief report on Broadcasting House (Sundays, 9am) – just four minutes, if that – but powerful. The nature sound recordist Chris Watson had recorded a dawn chorus in Northumberland that “quickly became a dawn solo” because a wren perched near the microphone had dominated the soundtrack. (“So much energy and vigour in such a tiny bird!”) He played the recording – a deafening trill, a blur, which to other wrens is heard in eloquent, individual notes.

Birds are able to discriminate between waveforms in a way we cannot. Watson played back the recording at half-speed to show the trills resolving into discrete phrases, and it was as startling and eerie as the moment in a horror movie when someone descrambles a tape recording at a seance and you hear a voice saying, clear as day, “The body is under the stairs.” It reminded me of speaking to a friend on the phone last week and not being able to hear him properly because of a blackbird outside his window in Hammersmith, singing in the most penetrating way. My friend said that this bird had taken to sitting there all day, and that its voice seemed to him louder than ever.

The Northumberland report failed to ruminate, but is this sort of thing simply our current dry weather conditions rendering all sound intense, or a more profound species change? Such things do happen. There has been some suggestion that the base hum of bees is getting slightly louder, and higher, too. Possibly this has something to do with disease making their wings smaller, and the increased, more frantic fluttering producing a lighter but far keener sound. Such X-Men-like mutations deserve more than snatched reports. Here’s hoping that Natural Histories, the just-announced, 25-part weekly series on Radio 4, made in partnership with the Natural History Museum (starts 2 June, 11am), might touch on these things. 

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 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?

Harry Styles performing in London on April 11. Photo: Hélène Pambrun
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How Harry Styles’ European tour was transformed into a LGBT-positive safe space

And all thanks to two fans, 50 volunteers and 28,000 pieces of paper.

After 21 dates, 20 cities, 19 suits, 14 countries and one kilt, Harry Styles’s European tour came to a close last night in Dublin. Some of his most dedicated fans attended a handful of dates in a row, organising their own queuing systems, and arranging tributes to the Manchester terror attacks. “Feel free to be whoever you want to be in this room,” Styles said at every gig, always bringing an LGBT flag on to the stage as he performed. As ever, his shows were a always collaboration between artist and audience to create a safe space for teenage girls and LGBT fans.

On this tour, two fans in particular went above and beyond to create a visually striking, affirmational statement. Ksenia, 17, and Luna, 20, came up with the Rainbow Project, a labour-intensive and involved plan to invite those attending the London dates of the tour to participate in a giant rainbow running around the circumference of the O2 Arena. The project involved distributing 14,000 pieces of differently coloured paper and instructions each night to different seat sections: fans were then invited to put the paper over their phone torches during the song “Sweet Creature” to create a rainbow light effect.

Ksenia and Luna tell me they have been fans of Harry's since his One Direction days: in 2014 and 2012 respectively. “We are really proud of how far he’s come,” Luna explains, “from being afraid of what people thought of him, to confidently pulling off wearing a dress!” The two say they were inspired by Harrys support of the LGBT community: “We just wanted to do something for him.”

Such fan projects aren’t new. As the writer Aamina Khan explains, One Direction fans – who are known for collectively organising to win polls, drive obscure songs to become chart hits, or raise money for charities the band have supported in the past – have been organising fan projects around the rainbow flag since 2014. As the presence of such flags became more and more visbile, Styles in particular started engaging with both the symbol and its message: draping flags around him speaking of love and equality to the crowd. Last year, fans brought hundreds of #BlackLivesMatter signs to Harry Styles concerts.

But Ksenia and Luna’s project seems by far the most complex and challenging so far. “It took us three months to prepare the project,” Luna explains. “We had a group of about 25 volunteers for each show who helped us to hand the colours out. Almost everyone in the arena got a colour, so we made 28,000 pieces in total for the two days.”

Aside from the hours and organisation needed to produce, print, cut out and distribute close to 30,000 small pieces of paper, they both feared that the strict security teams at venues like the O2 wouldn’t take too kindly to their plan. “Obviously you are scared that what you planned doesn't work out,” Luna explains. “But we were pretty optimistic.”

“The venue sadly did take 5,000 pieces away from us on the first night, as we needed permission to do the whole thing – which we didn’t know. The next day, the O2 and its venue manager Rachael reached out to us, and we were happy to have official permission. That night everything worked out perfectly and we’ve never seen something more stunning. It left us speechless.”

“Harry creates wonderful safe spaces each night he steps on stage,” they tell me. “We think we speak for everyone when we say that we’re thankful for that.”

Luna says that the inclusive feeling of Harry Styles concerts is a collaboration between both audience and artist:  “He brings a message, and we as fans chose what we can identify with or look up to. The combination of that creates the feeling at a concert.”

The Harry Styles tour has left Europe, but it’s far from over. As it moves on to Australia, Asia and America, more creative fan projects are undoubtedly on the way.

All photos by Hélène Pambrun.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.