A selection of short sentences to begin, since I’ve been thinking about attention spans of late. Probably prompted by my recent efforts at video montages from the garden, and how to manage to slot them in with blog posts. Also, thanks to watching another one of my very talented nephew’s You Tube videos where he critiques the films of director Wes Anderson. I’m not a fan of Anderson’s style, or films, but as always, was hugely impressed by Ben’s knowledge, and analysis.
But what about the typical scene length in a compilation like this? Or indeed most contemporary films? Or TV based adverts? Does it bother you? Have you noticed? I remember watching director David Lean’s film “Lawrence of Arabia” (LOA) quite recently, prompted by my bike fall, and was struck by just how long some of the scenes were. And how riveting. In spite of almost nothing happening in some of them – a particular clip where a lone camel rider appears, eventually, out of the shimmering horizon mirage margin of blue sky and flat sand. It must have lasted well over a minute. But that film was released back in 1962, and won 7 Oscars, to boot. I discovered in putting this post together, an excellent discussion of LOA, and how that amazing scene came to be set up and filmed, and how Lean even regretted cutting it down to be as “short” as it finished up being. “I lost my nerve”, he recalls. Well worth a look.
Come a film from 2001, though, and I was very conscious styles were changing. I nearly switched the DVD player off and walked away after the opening 20 minutes or so of Baz Luhrmann’s, 2 Oscar winning effort “Moulin Rouge!”. I could hardly cope with the onslaught of colour and sound which came from an opening sequence where there seemed to be almost NO clips longer than a couple of seconds for all that time, until at last things settled down. A bit. But this was indeed a sign of where cinema, TV and attention spans were heading. In the 1930’s the average scene clip length for feature films was apparently more than 12 seconds. By 2005 it was down to just 2.5 seconds, although there is much variation between film genres and individual directors.
Is this what we want? Do we really all have such terribly short attention spans? Is it, even, healthy? Read anything on video compilation and the message is similarly clear – grab a viewer’s attention quickly, keep it brief, and change scenes frequently, or no one will make it to the end. Time is just too short for most people – at least it is for the typical mobile phone holding individual who now spends well over 5 hours a day, apparently, viewing the small screens that their eyes are glued to, being bombarded with just such constantly changing sensory input.
Although bizarrely, in the world of blogging, which is also, apparently, still a growing phenomenon, there is an almost counter cultural movement – the most highly read blogs seem to average around 2,200 to 2,500 words – seriously long reads for the average short attention span human. And out of interest I’m typing this on a desktop with a 24 inch screen. I don’t possess a ‘smart’ phone. We don’t own a TV. I can possibly see a lot more detail with my failing eyes in the reduced quality images that I’ll upload (to limit data gobbling), than you’ll ever pick up if you’re viewing them on a smaller screen.
To chuck in another thought, I’m REALLY worried by where this addiction to mobile devices, and such manipulation of our digitally experienced attention span, with ever more frequent visual and auditory stimulation, is leading us. Click here to listen to the recent and excellent Radio 4 “In our Time” programme on Homo erectus, the most successful hominid species on the planet thus far, having survived for around 1.5 million years, just before our own Homo sapiens, around for a mere 60,000 years or so, contrived for one reason or another, to see it off. This review with 3 articulate contributors, intelligently questioned by Melvyn Bragg, highlighted how changing environmental and climatic conditions created the perfect storm of drivers for Homo erectus to evolve such physical, social and behavioural changes, that saw it massively expanding its range, and indeed, conquering the world.
Only losing out when H. sapiens trumped it with a further spurt of cranial enlargement, and social and behavioural changes. All fuelled, for both species, by a flexible, omnivorous diet and the taming of fire, which many see as a key factor in allowing the nutritional advantages necessary to fuel such a large brain.
But are such short attention spans, and hyper-sensory stimulation unnatural? Most insects and animals I observe operate within a much less varied sensory environment. For sure there are examples of very rapid response times, and superb motor co-ordination, but the backdrop, or scenery, whether visual or auditory, changes less dramatically, or frequently, or so it seems to me. Quite how such changing, digitally delivered bombardment of our brains will affect our visual, auditory and background reticular formation activity, regulation of sleep and habit formation, in the short to medium term evolutionary sense remains to be seen. (My limited knowledge of the reticular formation came from gruelling, 3 student physiology supervisions, in Dr. Woods’ Garden Court room in the late seventies, with nowhere to hide, intellectually or physically). It was clear to me even then, how this diffuse network, deep in the brain stem, was absolutely critical to many aspects of consciousness. Overstimulate it, or mess with it physically, at your peril.
Suffice to say that there’s already evidence that simply removing access to mobile devices for at least 30 minutes before lights out, can significantly improve sleep patterns, in those professing to have sleep problems, within just 4 weeks of instituting such a change. For some recent studies, click here (where the average daily use in 1900 university students aged 17 to 23 was a staggering 8.5 hours), and here.
Another angle on attention spans, is how long it can take, simply standing and looking, and doing nothing at all, to observe many things in the natural world. Take my 3 currently unoccupied bee hives. We’re fast approaching the time of year when swarms may occur, and scout bees will appear to check out such potential new homes. But really one needs to spend at least 2 or 3 minutes in front of each one if you’re going to establish if any interest is actually yet being shown. Yesterday, 2 out of 3 had no obvious interest, the third had an occasional bee around and entering the hive. Just an hour later, numbers had risen to perhaps half a dozen. This is the only hive with any remaining honey present inside the structure, since I’d added a glass jar with residual honey, right at the top of the hive, a month ago. I suspect the bees have smelled this, and hence their interest, rather than genuine scouting for a new home. However, just standing and watching very little happen for 2 or 3 minutes is way above the average attention span now, for many, it seems. Excitement and entertainment need more constantly changing stimulatory fare.
Perhaps these changes in attention span are, in part, why angling currently seems to be in decline as a hobby/pastime. According to a recent report on the state of angling (“Angling for Good”) in the UK, the numbers of anglers has dropped at quite a rate in recent years. (Have numbers improved since Covid, and lockdowns, I wonder?) The remaining enthusiasts, at least in the UK, also seem to represent quite a skewed demographic slice of the population, being predominantly white, male and older, judging by the report’s data.
As one of 4 brothers, angling in various guises – coarse, sea and for trout, was a key hobby in our early years, until dinghy sailing tended to push it a bit to the side lines as the older brothers hit teenage years, and the more competitive potential of dinghy racing perhaps fitted the inter-sibling rivalry and family lifestyle, whilst still retaining the wonderful water centred, outside vibe. I haven’t fished, or sailed, for probably 30 years now, although my 3 brothers still do fish, quite frequently, and I’ve recently mused on why I haven’t been drawn back to these hobbies/sports in later life. I can certainly remember the unique physical thrill of the bite, strike, contact, thrumming line, and fight, that concludes the piscatorial hunt that angling, distilled to its very essence, consists of.
This has all been brought into very sharp focus for me, by the delight in being able to read an advance copy of my younger brother Mark’s book “The Catch: Fishing for Ted Hughes”.
To quote from Bloomsbury’s description of the book, in advance of its official launch on April 28th:
“Using Hughes’s collection of poems, River, and his fishing diaries as a guide, Mark returns again and again to the places where the poet fished. At times, he uses Ted’s fly patterns; at others his rods. It is an obsession; a fundamental connection to nature; a thrilling wildness; an elemental pursuit. But it is also a release and a consolation, as Mark fishes after the sudden death of his mother and during the slow fading of his father.
A brilliant blend of memoir and biography, The Catch is a stunning meditation on poetry and nature, and a quiet reflection on what it means to be a father and a son.”
Or for a more complete insight from a recent review, read this from Alex Diggins in The Critic, which begins thus:
“The Catch is not a book for the angling-averse. If you have an allergy to fishing’s luxuriant cant of rods, reels, flies and spinners, then I fear you’re likely to pass Mark Wormald’s non-fiction debut by. But that would be a shame: it’s a beautiful book — as quick and deep and strange as its subject….”
Or even better, hear Mark talking in his own words in this interview with Martin Shaw, about how the book came to be written.
I’d heard many elements of Mark’s painstaking, lengthy, detective work in tracking down lots of the people, places and stories which reflected Ted Hughes’ own fishing obsession, and its influence on his writing, in phone calls in recent years. Yet I still found the book an intense read. Both Hughes and Mark were/are extremely committed to addressing the many threats to their survival that wild salmon, in particular, are facing. Both were/are involved in much work to try to improve this dire position, which I’ve referenced here before. ‘The Catch’ isn’t, for me as an infrequent book reader, something I’d normally have tackled, so I was breaking it down into bite sized sessions (sorry!), mainly read before bedtime – perhaps not the best time for clear thinking and reflection, but in another run of extremely dry weather here with frenetic lambing and gardening activity, my only free time option to complete reading it in a timely way.
However, this approach changed suddenly after a curious synchronicity.
I’d just been stung on the back of my neck by a bee, (a rare event for me), after rashly breaking 3 of my cardinal rules for avoiding such incidents. Fiona had noticed that although all the hives had seized a brief weather window of real warmth, as they speedily do, one hive was really noisy on the first day when this significant warming and drop in winds allowed the bees to forage in numbers, together with a nectar flush. In a rush to capture this dramatic event, I’d stood too close in front of this hive, unprotected, in order to video them (rule number one – I’m convinced bees don’t like certain electronic devices, so beware of phones, and video filming cameras); 2 days before a full moon (rule number two – I’ve always been stung within a couple of days of a full moon); wearing my black jeans and dark blue sweatshirt (rule number 3 – bees dislike dark clothing – I normally wear very light blue colours as a practical alternative around the garden to white, and bees indeed perceive light blue as white).
Dashing inside after the sting, we swiftly instigated our sting protocol – Fiona quickly found the sting, and having failed to speedily remove it with a sliding plastic card in a scraping movement (preferable), pulled it out, to minimise the ongoing pumping of more venom into the punctured skin from the venom sac which will otherwise continue this pumping for many minutes. I washed the area down as best as I could with cold water, whilst Fiona retrieved the Medihoney, which she applied generously over my neck/skull base, before a pre-prepared cold pack of ice cubes in a plastic bag was held over the already swelling sting site, for 15 minutes. I sat down. End result? The swift removal of the sting structure, the very efficient antihistamine properties of the Medihoney cream, and the icy chill to limit venom diffusion from the area, meant that there was almost no pain, and only modest swelling, 20 minutes later.
I decided that then, mid-afternoon, would be a good time to take a break from outside work, sit down, and finish the book. So I opened the book at the point I’d left off, with Mark’s lovely photographic bookmark of one of his own catches, “Living Metal”, marking the place. My eyes quickly scanned to the top left and instantly fixed on the short sentence of 4 words on page 252.
“That must have stung”.
(Which referred to Hughes’ likely reaction to a critic’s response to the recent publication of his challenging work ‘Gaudete’.)
Whether from the frisson of this timely coincidence, or from the adrenaline rush, post-sting, I read on and was gripped by the culmination of the book, which built to a crescendo of events, reflections and dramatic writing in its last few pages. The book finishes with the two titular words, ‘The Catch’, after a final description of a very special fishing moment Mark had, whilst in Ireland, with a friend and fellow Hughes scholar.
The whole book has created much discussion and reflection here, and I hope, as Mark clearly does, that it will encourage more people to read and view some of Hughes work, particularly his nature based poetry writing in ‘River’, in a different light. I shall certainly be digging out my own copy of ‘River’ and re-reading its poems. I’ll leave a few last words on this to Cal Flyn, writing in her review of ‘The Catch’ recently in The Times:
… It’s a strange irony that so many of those who are most enchanted with nature and who spend most time outside in it, are those who kill its wild creatures for fun. Or perhaps not so strange; there is a terrible intimacy in inflicting death on another, the opportunity to admire nature’s best work at length, and in the closest of quarters when it lies limp in your arms…
Although I guess many anglers would dispute whether they’re really going out to “kill wild creatures for fun“, and much angling now uses barbless hooks, and insists on catch and release of any caught fish.
In summary ‘The Catch’ is a unique book, and well worth reading. Provocative, and thought inducing, I’d say. Or you can hear Mark reading it himself, in his audible version.
And for a real flavour of The Catch, added as an addendum to this post, you could listen to Mark reading 3 small sections of his book, and an interesting Q&A in this Orvis hosted event from 26/04/2022 https://exploreorvis.co.uk/fish-in-the-reads/mark-wormald
But the conundrum highlighted by Cal Flyn in the quote above is, perhaps, why after a working life of vetting, with its attendant and all too frequent requests for euthanasia of much loved pets, as well as more recently, nurturing animals on our smallholding many of which at some point will surely meet their end, even if now indirectly, at my hands, I’ve left my fishing rods gathering dust in the barn. I think I’ve become happier trying to appreciate and ‘capture’ nature over recent years through just images, or words.
At last, 3 years after our last Easter egg hunt, we were able to lay another for our son’s family who visited for a few days just before Easter. Fortunately, the weather was generally benign if a little cool, with only a half day of rain, and it was fabulous to have the now 6 grandchildren racing around and managing to find all but one of the rabbits and eggs Fiona had secreted around the garden.
Sadly, one arrived with a fever, cough and headache, which passed onto our son, and after they’d left another two of the family However all are now almost back to normal, and Fiona and I, perhaps courtesy of a very well aired house, and trying to maintain a degree of social distancing (difficult to do with an extra 8 around!) seemed to have dodged the bug, whatever it was…
With the start of honeybee swarm season nearly upon us, as well as having re-jigged the 3 empty hives as I mentioned last time, I’ve also trawled my blog posts from the last 11 years, and set up a new webpage incorporating all my posts covering my ongoing journey into establishing honeybees here, and some of the tiny amount I’ve learned about what I consider to be “The Best Worker in Europe”. (To borrow the title of a poem that Hughes wrote about salmon smolts in 1985, which was published by The Atlantic Salmon Trust, to raise funds for their conservation work.)
With another exceptional run of dry, if not really warm, weather here, lambing has just finished, and what looked like being a very upbeat season has been marred by one of the few ewe lambs, suddenly taking a downhill turn, which I fear may prove to be terminal. As well as a battle with a first timer, flighty ewe to get her to eat properly and care for her two tiny lambs.
The final tally of 12 lambs from 8 ewes, is about what we’d hoped for, although not the sex bias – 9 rams and just 3 ewe lambs. We’ve now chosen all the new names which we always select from Ron and Adrian Scamp’s list of daffodil cultivars, and this year, they all have to begin with the letter ‘i’. So we’ll be placing an order shortly, with the name list including (and we already have 3 of these, in italics). In order of arrival:
(Ice) Follies and (Ice) Wings, Itzim, Indian Maid (Indie), (Irish) Linen, (Iced) Diamond, Invercassley, (Irish) Fire and (Irish) Light, below: (Irish) Minstrel,(below)Immaculate and Insulinde (‘Incie’ – she’s so tiny, as the second of the last set of twins, since her mum refused to eat both sheep nuts and hay, all winter and spring).
And in due course these bulbs will get added to the copse of Sorbus and Malus grown from collected seeds, where a lovely display is already developing, probably peaking around now. We know from our visitors, that the general awareness of the options for late season daffodils is low, so we hope that as well as being a long-term sheep/lamb memorial for us, it will also develop into more of a visual treat as the years go by.
From “Beyond Blue Monday”:
Gwawr and Noddy hang. Still.
Kempy coats declined.
Just stiff. Just cold.
Transformed, and nameless.
Just memories now.
Or slumbering. Soil-bound.
Spring plans already rooted,
For glorious bulbed resurrection.
A discovery this year, thanks to checking out one of the bee hives just before dusk when most of the bees were safely inside, was noticing how the setting sun at this time of year, beyond the hill rising up through our upper hay meadow, results in wonderful backlighting of many of these flowers, when viewed from below. I do hope that next year, I’ll manage to spend a bit of time updating our cultivar lists so that we, and any visitors, might be able to put names more easily to any in flower at a particular time.
With rainfall now so low for the third month out of four in 2022, and garden visitors also tailing off to a trickle, it was lovely to share with 2 different couples this weekend an experimental planting of 2 tulip cultivars we’ve used before, T. clusiana ‘Peppermint Stick’ and T ‘Little Beauty’ in part of our larch copse. We know they won’t survive long term, but flowering when they do, amongst the white and bluebells, aided by some wonderful sunny spells to get the flower’s petals splaying wide, has been very special, and well worth the effort and minor expense of whacking them in, last autumn. Definitely something to repeat, to plug a slight visual understory hiatus before all the London Pride flowers begin to froth in a week’s time.
When April’s moon fills full, and pink, with Easter’s
Plans already laid; the forecasts scanned, the dank
Dawn fog a swift deceit whilst ewes are fed.
The lamb chins tickled, squatting low through hurdled bars
In chorused, jet free, valley cloaking chill,
This is a time so rare. Of Peace. Of Joy.
But how do you, do we, escape?
Look in, look out? Sit still, or shout?
The trails of snazzy, low-slung cars processionally snake,
Across the valley’s void, along the mapped out route.
The revving bikers thrill, with visors fixed,
The bars are gripped, a twisting road ahead.
Helmeted, remote, alone,
Yet communal in passion.
Warmth builds, the unexpected rush soon spikes,
The bees touch base, their butter yellow laden legs,
A thrilling, stinging jolt, of season’s change.
And left amongst the fading Flaming pinks
Actaea’s swaying, siren-eyed nymph blooms,
Fair Thalia’s white, near virginal,
More modest, nodding down.
Prompts pastoral reflection. Lines shot, words dapped
And flicked. So sweet, such privileged indulgence
This quarter hour, with hot-crossed buns
Before fair Itzim, hunched and failing?
Limps and pants, and