Earlier this year, a group of authors gathered to protest against ongoing changes in the Oxford Junior Dictionary, in which the language of nature is gradually being replaced with the language of computer and mobile technology. The list of words removed is a thing of soothing poetry in itself: acorn, almond, apricot, ash; blackberry, bluebell, bramble, bray; carnation, catkin, chestnut, clover; gorse, hazel, walnut, willow. Robert MacFarlane, the nature writer, was quoted in the Guardian saying: “We do not care for what we do not know, and on the whole we do not know what we cannot name.”
Names are important in Bea Roberts’ And Then Come the Nightjars. It matters whether the bird whose cry punctuates the text is a nightingale – the muse, the musician, symbol of romance – or a nightjar: “the bird of death”. Devon farmer Michael has a sewer mouth: not a sentence falls from it without a fuck tucked in. But he also understands the power of names. Every one of the cows he has tended the whole of his life has a name; he can tell you the names of their calves, and the names of his father’s cows, too. And sure, this is sentimental – but it’s effective. When unseen, unknown, unnamed men gather to slaughter his animals, it actually matters. We care.
Adder, ass, beaver, boar. Colt, cygnet, doe, drake. Minnow, mussel, otter, ox. Stoat, thrush, weasel, wren.
On the surface, this is a play about a relationship: that between Michael and posh vet Jeffrey – nicknamed by Michael, in a stroke of genius, Herriot – from some mysterious point in the past (it’s frustrating to me that I can’t work out how the pair became acquainted) through the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001, and on to 2013, when the idea of being a small-scale dairy farmer who names each of his cows is frankly preposterous. And at that level, it’s a gorgeous play: deft, funny and full of care for these two men coping with the deaths of a wife and a marriage. There’s a moment when Michael admits that there are still days when, not thinking, he makes two cups of tea in the morning: Roberts gives the line an exclamation mark in the text, but David Fielder flattens it, and the simplicity of his delivery stabs.
Michael’s wife was unaccountably young when she died – only 58. And this is Roberts’ deeper point: gracefully she argues that the death of Michael’s way of life, the slow and patient farming of a man who has never travelled, never lived in any house other than the one in which he was born, is no less unnatural. His cows are a tiny, minuscule proportion of the four million or so killed in 2001, and Roberts questions whether or not their deaths were necessary by insisting that Michael’s own cows are healthy and every precaution has been taken to prevent the disease creeping in. Yes, mass slaughter was in the most bludgeoning sense effective: only 2000 cows were actually infected. But animal welfare was much lower on the agenda than Britain’s export status.
Attachment, blog, broadband, chatroom. Cut and paste, drought, endangered, Euro. Export, food chain, negotiate, vandalism. These are some of the new words introduced to the Oxford Junior Dictionary. They tell a story of their own.
It’s not just foot-and-mouth that encroaches on Michael: it’s Grand Designs, and property developers, and the wedding industry, and rich Londoners for whom a second home in the countryside is a necessary status symbol. I’d love to be able to distance myself from all that, but I’m implicated, too: each year I go on holiday with a group of friends (at last count, 20 adults and 15 children) and we stay in converted barns and farmhouses just like Michael’s. It’s supposed to be a time when our kids get to run around semi-naked in fields, but more and more they spend it huddled on sofas playing Minecraft.
It’s named after nightjars, but Roberts’ play is a nightingale’s lament, not just for a way of life but a relationship with nature and time. The passing of time in the play is exquisitely rendered in Sally Ferguson’s lighting, falling through the barred roof of Michael’s barn in shadows and slats, shifting from the soft peach of dawn to the burnished glow of autumn leaves. There’s another gorgeous moment when Jeffrey hands Michael a single horse-chestnut, still in its sharp green shell, and they pause to admire its perfect shape, its elegant prickles, its smell. These are the things being written out of children’s lives, written out of attention. Their loss will diminish us.
Brook or bullet point?
Dandelion or database?
Violet or voicemail?
Cowslip? Or cautionary tale?