When nightingales sang

Folk singer Sam Lee is addressing a crowd seated on the lush grass of Berkley Square in the heart of Mayfair.

‘The nightingale,’ he says, ‘is the spokesperson of our hearts… and the decorator of silence.’

He’s right. I heard one just the other day, far from London, admittedly, but festooning a hawthorn thicket with a virtuoso array of auditory baubles and garlands, twinkles and bells. There is magic in the tone, the variety and the stupendous volume of sound produced by this otherwise modest creature, but what takes it into a class of its own is the phrasing – the pauses that frame each burst.

Extinction Rebellion is taking a pause too. The rebels are still rebels, make no mistake. Their now familiar multi-coloured banners are still fluttering, but the vibrance of their hues is already sunbleaching towards pastel shades and the fabric is beginning to fray at the edges. This is a breath, after two weeks of extraordinary action, to emphasise what has just been and what will come next.

My eight year old son and I arrived earlier, before the crowd. He walked from Piccadilly in costume – part-bird, part-rebel-superhero, dipping and dodging other pedestrians, with wings spread and uncharacteristically bold behind his mask. A lone blackbird high in one of the Square’s famous plane trees greeted us as we found a spot on the grass, which has been allowed to grow deliciously, ankle deep.

We’re just in time to see street artist ATM, who specialises in murals of endangered birds and other wildlife, deliver his latest work: a singing nightingale painted on a section of tail wing from a Vickers Wellington bomber. Not just any bomber, but one of the very planes whose droning overpass meant that the annual BBC broadcast of cellist Beatrice Harrison accompanied by nightingales planned for May 19th 1942 had to be cut in case it warned Germans of the impending RAF raid. And now a part of one of those planes is here, grounded, but united with the bird once more. Talk about swords into ploughshares.

More people begin to appear – hundreds of them. They settle under the famous plane trees. And what trees they are. One, I’ve read, is considered not only the oldest street tree in London at 230 years, but also the most valuable. I suppose they mean in monetary terms, but all the hedgefunds in Mayfair couldn’t buy the way these gargantuan, gracious beasts are gilded green-gold this evening, bathing us in the dappled light the Germans romantically call Maeinshein, (May-shine) even though we’re not quite into May. 

Sam Lee has developed a special rapport with nightingales, and performs with them for small audiences throughout the season in darkening woodlands and thickets around the south east. This evening’s event is his brainwave, and the PA system is pulsing out live song from one of his most reliable avian accompanists, from a woodland somewhere in, I think, Sussex. ‘I hope you can hear OK’ he says. ‘We were planning a larger sound system but the Met confiscated it. Actually…’ he grins at the few officers hovering behind the crowd, ‘these are our last speakers – so if the police come any closer, please, everyone, hug a speaker!’

The police are here of course –  this throng does not have permission to gather – but the few officers in evidence are relaxed, amiable. Sam salutes them for their conduct throughout the XR action, for what he says must be the gentlest policing anywhere in the world. Even the Berkley Square park keeper is apparently keen for us to stay, hoping for a little overtime. Sam needn’t be worried about the sound however. Though silence is hard to come by with the steady flow of buses, black cabs and Range Rovers circuiting the perimeter of the square, the flutes and whistles relayed from the Sussex thicket are loud and clear. Artfully spaced as they are, they frame other sounds in a way that seems intentional. Sam speaks, or sings a line, and from scores of miles away, the bird, unwitting, finishes it for him. 

Whether nightingales have ever actually sung in Berkley Square is almost irrelevant. Before there was a city and a square here no doubt they did. But these birds are lurkers of green places. They like to sing from dense cover. Clear the thickets and the scrub and they will not stay. But this is not to say they can’t be city birds. The resurgent nightingale population of Berlin, currently estimated at around 1500 singing males, is proof that they can very easily live alongside dense human populations, if areas of park and garden are left to grow thick and wild. What we might perceive as neglect, to nightingales and much else, is opportunity.

We sing a cacophony of loss, led by musician and composer Cosmo Sheldrake. Each section of the crowd sings the name of an extinct species – Chinese paddlefish, Tasmanian tiger, Eskimo curlew, Galapagos damsel, nasal mite and many more: role-calling, recalling, louder and louder, then with a swipe of Cosmo’s hands, silence for two minutes. Lest we forget.

Sam leads a round of the traditional French song  Bonsoir (Bonsoir, bonsoir/La brume monte du sol, on entend le rossignol (Good evening, good evening/When the mist rises from the soil, one hears the nightingale), and then a reworded rebel rendition of A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square, in which angels, forsaking dinner at the Ritz, instead go ‘marching through this town’.

We split into the smaller clusters that have become a feature of ER events – but this time instead of talking, there is music. In one cluster a scratch string quartet, in others recorders and lutes, ukeleles, flutes and accordions, fiddles and guitars, a Swanee whistle, and singing of all kinds. Sam had asked for quiet from the listeners, but the children have ignored that and their shrieks and giddy laughter tumble through the music along with the still-singing nightingales, now broadcasting from every smartphone in the park. The evening is alive with song.

Darkness falls. Candles glimmer. An elderly man with bright eyes and a satchel appears – and is ushered to the microphone. He is Satish Kumar, pilgrim, activist and editor of Ecologist and Resurgence magazines. ‘We are nature’ he tells us, ‘Remember, the word ‘human’ comes from ‘humus’. We are the soil, we are the Earth.’ We sing again, and then it is time to go.

As we left I realise I can’t quite bear to think of this as a one off. I hope it will happen again. On the tube heading back to Kings Cross we talk with the children of coming back, one day, perhaps when they have children of their own, when there really are nightingales in Berkley Square.