The Blackbird

January 8, 2016 § Leave a comment

Sometimes you just have to celebrate good news. You really have to hand it to the French, the way they took time out from their national pastimes of burning sheep’s carcasses in the streets, policing the anti-burka laws and their President Hollande dyeing his ever decreasing hair an ever more unconvincing shade of black. In the midst of all those demands they pulled together and magnificently managed the Paris Accords on global warming. I am rather fond of the Maldives, lovely people, beautiful scenery and stunning reefs. Okay, when I’ve been snorkelling there my neck ends up aching from constantly looking over my shoulder in fear of its terrifying, and stunning in an entirely different sense, marine monsters. Yes, it is great that due to the Paris Accords the Maldives are now less likely to be submerged under rising tides.

But for all that, politicians never seem to grasp the concept of the law of unaccounted for consequences. Most mornings I’ll go and sit in the back garden and watch the birds feed. It’s the middle of winter, the sky is blue, the daffodils are starting to push through and it’s one of the warmest winters on record. So, notwithstanding the Paris Accords, occasionally I’ll be sitting there, as I was this morning, drinking a cup of tea, and think “bugger the Maldives.”

Although they are there in summer, somehow garden birds stand out better in winter. An occasional shy heron glides between the trees unamused by the blue-tits, sparrows, finches and occasional robin that flock around the bird feeders hanging from the walls. A pair of blackbirds that inhabit our garden year round are my favourites though. The male is splendid, he flies down and struts around the lawn, his feathers a glistening blue-black and his orange beak held high with pride.

blackbird rspb images

He struts and struts until joined by his female mate, then he struts and struts some more. She is pretty unimpressive, her coat a dull brown, her feathers usually ruffled as if she is in a rush and her beak ragged and worn. I’m not too sure what he sees in her, she is so unexceptional she even has to take his name: Blackbird.

Mind you, for all his strutting, the Blackbird does little else; strut, strut, strut and that’s about it. In contrast his female mate is a whirl of activity. She flies down and first has a little wander around her strutting companion as if to say: “Looking good this morning, mate” then she’s off, scurrying around, constantly alert to the danger of neighbourhood cats, scavenging for food and, in springtime, debris for nests. Brave as well. Cautious yes, but not so much that she will not wander down towards me as she seeks out the overspill from the bird feeders. Her resourcefulness and intelligence can be irksome as when, during last summer, she discovered that the withered vine on the wall hid some grapes and one by one she stole them all. So I sit there and watch the strutting male and the endlessly energetic and resourceful female and think “Blimey, why do you let him get away with it?”

In the almost forgotten far off days when women were fighting for equality and, fair enough, men didn’t always give them their due, women would sometimes accuse men of aspiring to fast cars as some sort of symbolic penis extension. Totally untrue of course, but as I sat there this morning watching the Blackbird I couldn’t help thinking that if the little sod could drive, there would be wheelie marks all over the lawn. Inspired by my insight and capacity to construct a decent metaphor, I thought I’d pop indoors, have another cup of tea and draw up a blog post. First things first though, I had noticed that before she went out this morning my wife had taken the decorations and lights off the Christmas tree. She’d been pretty quiet as I guess she hadn’t wanted to wake me. I’m big and strong so I reckoned I could get the tree outside on my own, that way when she gets in from work she’ll be pleased as she will have free range to vacuum up all the needles left behind from the tree.

It’s good to strut your literary stuff and pull your thoughts together in a blog post. Before I post anything I usually run what I’ve written past a few people, oddly all women, all of whom in truth, are infinitely better writers than I am. There’s a friend, about my age, in England who I regularly send stuff to. One of the brightest, sharpest, literate and best informed people I’ve ever come across, she gives feedback that absolutely nails what I’m struggling to express (even if she is prone to overdo the hyphen!) And then my wife, she has a grasp of the English language that leaves me struggling, even without the strand of Australianism in me. After “I’ve bought you some new razor blades”, one of the most over used phrases in our house is “I think that the sentence would sound better the other way around.” My two daughters had also both outpaced me in any literary race before they entered secondary school. On the rare occasions when I persuade them to share anything they have written with me, it totally blows my feeble efforts away. My youngest daughter has just sent me a wonderfully witty and erudite poem she insists is as yet unfinished. I sat there all day, reading it again and again, thinking “Where did this come from?” and “How did you pull this off?” Even her word choice was a few literary light years away from anything I’ve ever managed. Strange thing about the four of them, not one of them ever publishes anything. They claim their writing isn’t good enough to be published, even more unbelievably, they reckon they just don’t have time!

So anyhow, I drift inside and start tapping away at the kitchen table. Time passes but I seem to have enough of it so I make another cup of tea and wander back outside to watch the birds. The blackbird has disappeared, I guess he’s tired and has gone for a rest. His dowdy mate is still scurrying around in the background, picking up seeds and poking her head under trees as she goes about what seems to pass for her daily business. It will be a shame if the Paris Accords kick in early and the poor Blackbird spends his winters shivering in his nest. His mate seems a good sort though, so perhaps she’ll find the time to collect a bit more moss to keep him warm. Perhaps the Paris Accords are not all they are cracked up to be. For a start they seem incredibly over complicated, twenty-five years of targets, plans and infinitely complex gobbledegook. Surely the obvious solution would be for all nations to agree one simple universal law. I’m pretty sure that if men could only purchase and drive cars with a horse power which was statutorily tied to the size of their penis, carbon emissions would reduce by 35% almost overnight and the Maldives would double in size over the next decade.

It starts to rain, no wonder the Blackbird has disappeared. I notice that the bird feeders are getting low so I’ll ask my wife to get some more seed the next time she goes shopping. She claims she is pretty busy these days, even if she does manage to fit in quite a bit between doing the housework, going to work, doing the shopping (I have been instructed at this point to add: “and the cooking!”) and calling in on her aged father. According to her, it’s demanding being the sole carer of an elderly man (I think she is referring to her father) but he’s not a bad old bloke, tries to keep the pressure off her, why, even when she is going through his paperwork with him he’ll sometimes say “this seems a bit complicated, perhaps I should ask your brother to help me with it.” For my part, I try and do my bit, I may even let her use my car when she goes shopping and picks up the bird feed. Not a bad car, a BMW getting on a bit (like me) but can still pull away first from the lights when it wants to (unlike me). Perhaps, on second thoughts, she should use her own car. There is always the danger that if she uses my car, as she goes past the local car dealership on the way to the shops, she will call in, rapidly conclude a good trade-in deal and part-exchange my BMW for a Hyundai i10.

So, to all the women I know and have ever known before, one simple question: “Blimey, why do you let us get away with it?”

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Silent Night…sleep in heavenly peace

January 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

It is probably fair to say that on the festive continuum I fall somewhat more on the side of the line that snorts “Bah Humbug” than the side that trills “Mistletoe and Wine”. That is not to say I don’t make just a little effort to enter into the spirit of things. For at least a couple of weeks of the year a scratched CD of Phil Spector’s Christmas album rattles around in the foot-well of the car. Say what you like about him, Spector sure knew how to throw up a wall of sound (probably to muffle the screams around him). Unfortunately, each year the CD gets a little less listened to and a lot more scratched as I cannot get past Spector’s monstrous preoccupation with shooting women. Still, (to the relief of those around me) other little rituals have begun to replace Darlene Love, the Ronettes and The Crystals. I always, for example, have a couple of viewings of 1970s film Heartworn Highways. Sometimes I just watch the end scene; Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle et al, sitting around a cluttered table in a dingy kitchen belting out an amazingly drunken and incredibly poignant good old boys version of Silent Night. I guess even I need the festive fix of a carol.

Christmas isn’t just a time for inflicting your appalling musical tastes on others. For a start there have to be others around you to do that, so Christmas is also a time for families. I usually manage to spend at least a bit of the time with some of my grown up children. This year I jumped in the car and headed off to see the two who live in London. I sometimes take the train or a ferry from Dunkirk but this time I made for Calais. I hadn’t been through the port for a while and noticed a scurry of activity on the approach road. As I passed by the flapping blue tarpaulins of the refugee camp on the right, usually referred to as “the Jungle”, surrounding the camp and all the way to the port a massive five metre high double fence was being erected complete with CCTV and razor wire. As usual I was running late for the ferry so didn’t take that much notice. I did, however, recall a story from a few months earlier in which the UK had agreed to finance a fence around the camp and the port as a way of tackling the refugee crisis. The story was supported by newsreel of the British Home Secretary, Teresa May, gazing down over the port with the mildly disapproving glare of a School Headmistress watching her muddied-kneed gals troop off the hockey field after a particularly humiliating defeat at the sticks of a rival public school.

Anyhow, the port was quiet and for once my engine compartment wasn’t searched for contortionist asylum seekers. The boat was three quarters empty, the roads almost deserted and I made it safely to London. It was a lovely couple of days in which well-worn rituals warmed the passing hours. The usual things, my children’s feigned exclamations of surprised delight at their unwanted presents and of course the forced feeding of mince pies. And then of course there was the Dr Who Christmas edition. Peter Capaldi truly is giving David Tennant a run for his money and is certainly up there with some of the earlier greats like John Pertwee and the criminally undervalued Peter Davison (I never could buy into the shouty excess of Tom Baker) Even the best of days begin to run out of steam and that’s the time for the Christmas film.

In ancient times when there were only three or four television channels the choice of which film to fall asleep to on Christmas night was pretty limited and generally repetitive with endless reruns of Holiday Inn and It’s a Wonderful Life. Now I tend to go along with the gruff voiced wisdom of John Prine when he sings “Jesus don’t like killing no matter what the reason for…” but for all that, even on Jesus’ birthday you can’t beat a good war film. And what was Christmas without a re-showing of The Great Escape? Not my favourite though; for me, my must see Christmas film was always Zulu. Directed by a blacklisted Hollywood escapee Cy Endfield with the inspired pairing of Stanley Baker and Michael Caine (cast entirely against what became his type) together with the magnificent Nigel Green as the fearsome and resolute Colour Sergeant ( avuncular hand on the shoulder of terrified boy soldier…”Steady, lad”).What is there not to like? The film even ends as an honourable score draw between the Redcoats and the Zulus. It is the final battle scene that always does it for me though. The beleaguered boyos from the valleys of Wales, short of ammunition but not spirit, respond to the advancing Zulus’ war cries and the deafening clutter of spear on shield with a rousing visceral rendition of Men of Harlech before all hell breaks out. Okay, the film is almost complete nonsense, based on Victorian myths constructed to obscure one of the worst defeats ever of the British army a few days earlier at Isandlwana. And yet, watching the Men of Harlech scene never fails to touch me on some deep atavistic level.

The supply of old films at Christmas is now infinite but instead my children chose to download a recent film, Jurassic World, as a tribute to the sort of films I took them to as kids. I won’t try to describe the film as it would defeat even my capacity for clichés but it was highly enjoyable. It had it all, right down to the icy businesswoman progressively losing her reserve, coldness and half of her clothes through the course of the film. I also could not help but wonder how much Mercedes paid for the product placement privilege of having several fleets of their vehicles destroyed by rampaging genetically distorted dinosaurs. And then there were the high tech fences and enclosures which contained the threat of savage primitive beasts. Once they were breeched, sirens screeched and blue lights flashed…Darkness loomed.

The roads were even more deserted as I drove down to Dover the next day. I took my time, stocked up at Tesco’s and arrived in the Port of Calais just as, well, just as darkness loomed. There was an eerie familiarity about the drive out from the port towards the E40. The fences I had noticed two days earlier were now floodlit and every few hundred metres strewn along the road were the flashing blue lights of bull wagon after bull wagon of Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS), the French national riot police. I guess the creatures from the jungle, Syrianosausus Rex, Afganoraptor and Sudanarolophus were becoming restless. Scary stuff, really makes you realise why the fence is needed.

I have heard the tales from the jungle and before then Sangatte, I have even met the occasional refugee and asylum seeker. When you hear their stories it makes you wonder why the UK didn’t fork out a few million more and build even higher fences. The lonely young man who, twelve months earlier, fled the dust and despotism of his sub-Saharan village being sent on his way by his extended family who clubbed together their meagre belonging to give at least one member of the family some hope. Navigating his way through desert, Spanish enclave, the open sea and mountains he now spends his time in the jungle mending bicycles and sharing with younger children whatever food he scavenges. Or the prematurely aged war widow from Afghanistan, her shoulders stooped and her arms aching from having them wrapped around her young children’s shoulders as she steered them through the safe havens and cesspits of the treacherous 6,000 km refugee route until she arrived at Calais. And then there is the middle- aged Syrian, leaving behind his home and business to escape the horror of civil war but taking with him his elderly parents, his wife and three children, only one of whom drowned in the Aegean Sea. Let’s face it, they are not the sort of people you would want living next door to you, are they? After all, as the UK’s response to the refugee crisis demonstrates, it is a nation that already has more than enough hope, resilience, bravery, compassion and generosity.

Of course, given France’s enduring track-record of military brilliance, police effectiveness and its stoic defence of Marianne’s virtue (see for example, Algeria, Indo-China, half of the First World War and pretty much all of the Second), it is unlikely that the savages will ever break out from the Calais jungle. Even so, if they did I’m sure the UK’s response would reflect its national characteristics. I remember about ten years ago how well its citizens faced down one of the alarmingly frequent existential threats to the Realm. I listened through a meeting as local politicians in southern England discussed how they would defeat Avian flu. One of the less bizarre, and roundly supported, recommendations was that they would all take up their twelve bores and, supported by reinforcements from the local Lions clubs, ring the cliffs surrounding Dover and blast away at anything with feathers that flew in from the direction of France. Given the number of cross-party defections over the past few years I am surprised this suggestion has not become  UKIP national policy. Again, it would be one of their less bizarre ones.

Notwithstanding the inspirational leadership and resourcefulness of its local politicians the British can sleep safe in their beds knowing that there will always be one final line of defence against any threat to their green and pleasant land. Should the jungle savages storm and overwhelm the barricades that enclose them and then hijack a ferry or invade the channel tunnel (no doubt swiftly followed by packs of rabid dogs and hordes of French onion sellers on black sit-up-and-beg bicycles), they would undoubtedly be greeted by the sight of a few platoons of sturdy Welsh Guards forming squares on Dover’s beaches. The first rousing verse of Men of Harlech would swiftly dullen the “spear points gleaming” and send the savages scurrying back to their sanctuary in Calais, the Lost World.

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