After two weeks of high energy blockades and demonstrations at four sites in central London, members of the Extinction Rebellion movement came together with others on the evening of Monday 29 April for an evening of music, poetry and remembrance — and to stream nightingale song from their phones.
They chose Berkeley Square. This is in Mayfair, a global centre for hedge funds, offshore capital and the super rich. So the peaceful occupation of a green space at its heart had obvious symbolism. But the square has other resonances too. It features in a song that almost everybody in Britain knows. A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, composed in 1938 and made famous in 1940 by Vera Lynn, is a love song associated, in the imagined national story, with a moment of extreme crisis and danger. Further, the nightingale is totemic for those concerned about wildlife. This species, celebrated for more than two thousand years for its beautiful song, is in catastrophic decline in Britain. (Populations are relatively robust elsewhere for now.)
On display in the square, and speaking to a troubled history, was a painting by the artist ATM of a nightingale on the tail fin of a Wellington bomber. In May 1942 the BBC discontinued its annual broadcast of nightingale song when it was feared that the drone of bombers passing overhead might forewarn the Nazi military. The painting will be featured in a new film The Last Song of the Nightingale.
“To understand nature we have to love it,” Sam Lee, a folk singer and member of The Nest Collective, told a crowd of two to four thousand. He conveyed greetings and support from Sarah Darwin, a botanist and great granddaughter of Charles Darwin, who works in Berlin — a city where nightingales are thriving to the extent that their songs, which can be so loud as to break EU law, are an annoyance to some Berliners.
Lee led the crowd in practice runs of an old French round about the nightingale, and an adapted version of Lynn’s schmaltzy, seductive hit, later reprised with a string band. If it wasn’t a folk song before, Lee later said, it is now. Lee also highlighted Let Nature Sing, a campaign by the RSPB to get a track of pure birdsong including the nightingale to number one in the UK charts. The song can be streamed or downloaded here.
An Extinction Rebellion organiser reflected on the significance of the evening of meditation, song and poetry. “Nightingales sing loudest when it is darkest,” she said, “and this is the darkest moment for humanity. We come together not in fear but in hope and love.” There was praise for the Metropolitan Police — “the most light-handed police force in the world.”
The composer Cosmo Sheldrake joined Sam Lee in a performance of Children of Darkness. Sheldrake then mustered all those assembled into tranches to sing the names of disappeared species on different notes. The dissonant but arresting ecophony that this produced was followed by two minutes of silence. The event continued with songs and poems in small and larger groups, coming together again for a last sing.
Alongside the global youth climate strikes, Extinction Rebellion has commanded significant attention over the last few weeks even as horrors dominate the news cycle. In response, some politicians and others in positions of power have said they recognise the need for change. There is talk of a Green New Deal. The Scottish and Welsh governments have declared a climate emergency, and the Labour party wants the UK to do the same. According to a poll by Greenpeace, 76% of people in Britain say that they would cast their vote differently to protect the planet. What follows in practice remains to be seen. The climate and anti-extinction movements themselves are evolving. One thing seems sure: those present in Berkeley Square on Monday night showed that love, music and story can play a vital role in our possible futures.
Caspar Henderson is the author of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings and an Associate at Perpsectiva
Photo by Hugh Warwick