I was feeling grim.
In fact, if you’ve got a moment (and with due gratitude and apologies to Richard Curtis, Ben Elton and Rowan Atkinson for requisitioning what is now an outdated but still mildly effective trope) I was feeling grimmer than a fairy tale containing a gingerbread house, a long-haired maiden, and a group of surprisingly helpful elves.
I’d been in Norfolk. A short trip, devoted to twin endeavours: looking for birds and trying not to be crashed into by Prince Philip. Both were successful, but nemesis lurked in the form of Campylobacter jejuni – or one of its cohorts, at least.
Winter birding isn’t for the faint of heart. There’s a fair amount of standing around being cold, but this, if you’re lucky, is offset by an equally fair amount of excitement, and this had come my way the previous evening in the form of twenty-six marsh harriers. To put that into perspective: in the early seventies there were only about four in the whole country, so a gathering that size takes on the shape of a small miracle. In any case, they are majestic birds. The sight of one of them, slim of wing and stubby of head, flapping languidly low over the reed beds, never fails to lift the heart; twenty-six of them, their paths cross-crossing as they stream in from the day’s activities before flopping down to rest… file under ‘breathtaking’.
And then came the grimness. I’ll spare you the gory details, but let’s just say that the next morning, pale of visage and shaky of tread, I swore off pub burgers for good. The debilitation was almost enough to make me back out of my early morning tryst at Snettisham beach. But the lure of geese and waders in their thousands is strong, and if they didn’t quite perform in the way I’d hoped – the geese rising in unison from the mudflats of The Wash was spectacular but distant, and the waders were in more of a ‘sitting around’ than a ‘swirling spectacularly’ mood – the experience was nonetheless balm to the ailing soul.
Nature does that, I’ve found. I’m not saying it’s going to heal a broken leg or cure cancer, but given the choice between staring at a concrete wall and a lavender bush, I know which I’d choose. Throw in a flitting wren or a couple of long-tailed tits, and it’s a done deal.
If only the same could be said for driving. It was during the journey back to London that the grimness set in, seemingly for keeps. The M11, for all its strengths as an arterial route from London to certain parts of East Anglia, is less than inspiring, and did its best to unravel nature’s healing work. It was a good job Prince Philip wasn’t around to take advantage of my drowsiness. Four times, aware of the dangers of driving when ill, I stopped for a sleep. Four times I roused myself with a brisk slap to the chops; because I needed to be in London, and while I’m all in favour of succumbing to illness rather than ‘brave little soldier’-ing my way through it, there was an orchestra waiting for me, and without wishing to get all egotistical on you, it wasn’t going to conduct itself. Not this time, at least.
It’s safe to say the prospect of a day and a half of conducting was rather lower on my list of preferred activities than, for example, a day and a half of sleep, or even a day and a half of light languishing accompanied by the occasional feeble moan.
But here’s the thing. Music has strange, mysterious powers. Weak as a kitten, I summoned energy from somewhere to start the rehearsal, and from the first note I felt the music’s power surge through me, intensifying with every passing bar.
This isn’t fanciful, by the way. Those who know me will attest that I don’t go in for much of that whimsical ‘the stars are God’s daisy chain’ nonsense. And I’m sure scientists will pop up with some solid evidence, probably including the words ‘adrenaline’ or ‘dopamine’, and possibly ‘neurons’ (or is that something else?) But while I would certainly acknowledge the scientific and medical explanations for my (at least partial) recovery, there’s something about the physical effect of air vibrating in a certain way, especially if you’re lucky enough to be slap bang in the middle of it.
It helped that the music was Stravinsky’s Petrushka – an antidote to grimness if ever there was one – and that the orchestra (the marvellous Rehearsal Orchestra) was responsive and alert to compensate for my sluggishness and grimmery. If you want to feel like a magician, conduct good musicians.
And so it was that I made it through the weekend and returned home for the much overdue languish-fest, there to sleep, perchance to dream, mostly of distantly honking geese, swooping dunlin and wheeling harriers, all accompanied by the sound of a lovestruck and hard-done-by wooden puppet.
Music and nature, wonder healers. Give me excess of them.