Yesterday - Beatles, Beetles and Birds

Mick Conway.
Mick Conway.

Mick Conway has worked for many years with local schools teaching environmental education and appears regularly on local radio.

The film director Danny Boyle’s latest film ‘Yesterday’follows huge success with the likes of Train Spotting, Four Weddings and Funeral, Notting Hill etc.

Dawn Chorus: The humble house sparrow

Dawn Chorus: The humble house sparrow

Boyle, like many of his generation, is a huge Beatles fan. The plot has the very unlikely premise that the rest of the world has forgotten the Beatle’s music until a struggling singer song writer wakes up from a coma after being hit by a bus. He realises he is the only person who can remember the Beatle’s songs. He then goes on to claim their work as his own.

In reality we know this could not happen. The Beatles sold millions of records. Their work is preserved in every possible format. Countless artists have reinterpreted their work to great effect. Many current bands readily admit to their influence. The real measure of their work is felt at a totally non commercial level. At family gatherings and parties where people singing their work is always included. Very few artists have this distinction... Bob Dylan, but very few others spring readily to mind.

The rest, in Ireland at least, is made up of traditional ballads made popular by the Dubliners and Clancy brothers. These songs are not restricted to people who were contemporaries of the Beatles - they are the repertoire of the young.

Their renown goes beyond the normal frontiers of pop music. They have already become part of the folk culture.

Young people have in this sense embraced their work as readily as their grandparents did in the ‘60s. Unfortunately, there is something that young people are not able to access that was part of the everyday soundtrack of their grandparents - birdsong.

Children never hear the once familiar sounds of once common birds. This is not a fanciful scenario envisaged by the film. It is a present tragedy.

In 1962 Rachel Carson’s classic ‘Silent Spring’ attacked the indiscriminate use of pesticides. She realised that these changes had a profound effect on our wellbeing. Her predictions have unfortunately been realised. Pesticides, habitat destruction, pollution of every kind and global warming has led to massive reductions in invertebrate numbers, including beetles. Their numbers have collapsed by 49 per cent.

Birds depend on these smaller creatures for food. Bird numbers are in rapid decline.

Three examples among many spring to mind. Until recently we shared our towns with house sparrows. These dull little birds were hardly noticed except perhaps for their tuneless twittering. Their absence leaves us with almost no natural backdrop to the cacophony of the urban roar.

A favourite party number is ‘The lark in the morning’. Most children have never heard a lark. Nor will they have seen its vertical rise to almost disappear at 300 ft to begin its song.

With birds, it is not just the sound of their music that interests us. The context of their singing is equally fascinating.

The sparrow surviving on scraps in the heart of our towns is remarkable. The flight of the lark equally so. When we heard the first cuckoo, we may not have known it had made a 3,000 mile journey from the rain forests of Africa but we were delighted to hear it. Summer was on the way. We may even have become irritated with the constant repetition of its call.

Like an absent human friend we would give anything to be annoyed again.

The pity is that most children never hear this part of our past.

For all our supposed superiority, none of us can replicate birdsong.

Technology could allow us to hear the sound but context is all: an early morning sparrow on a window sill, twisting your neck to spot a lark almost out of sight above your head or the mysterious cuckoo, heard but rarely seen.

The continued existence of these birds and the whole of our planet depends on our efforts to rectify mistakes of the past.

Unfortunately there is no guarantee that this will be achieved.

We need to wake ourselves from our self induced coma of indifference. Like the Beatle’s ‘Blackbird’, we must fly on broken wings.