Monday, 17 August 2009

Birds, aye.

I'm not what you'd call a bird nut or anything - but I've always held a candle to our feathered friends. As a schoolboy, I'd be hyper-excited to get an invite round to a chum's mum's house for tea if I knew there'd be a budgie squawking away in the corner. And on the rare occasion that I got to square up to a parrot - nose to beak - you can imagine my glee.

While still a shorts-bearing sproglet, I would covet the times that my mum would break up the boring Saturday grocery runs with a quick dive into the pet shop in Sidwell Street. The rabbits, kittens and fish would be cool enough, but it would be the African Greys, the Macaws and the Mynahs in the back room that would grab my full agog attention. The first time a Mynah whistled back at me and a parrot mimicked my dad's "Hello!", I thought I'd faint with joy. Can it really be possible to talk to these animals? To grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals, just like the good Doctor Dolittle?

One time, circa nine or ten years old I think, I suspected a pet budgie might be heading my way for Christmas. That was an exciting prospect but like I say I've never been a bird nut per se - and at that tender, invincible and forever-cosseted age, most things are exciting. I ended up with a whizz-bang Meccano set - ace!

I suppose my relationship with birds took a supercharged leap in my early 30s with the arrival of 'Flappy', a bedraggled but beautiful little crow that I befriended outside the offices of the Western Mail and Echo newspaper in Wales, where I slaved as a hack. The Flappy story is a long one (long enough for Bob Dylan to turn into a ballad, I suspect) and his sad and surreal tale will follow in a later 'Letter from Claptonia'.

For the present, suffice to say Flappy and I became great mates over one summer, autumn and dark winter. I would feed him every day with pork pies blagged from the sandwich shop outside the office. "Is it for your bird? Here you go then..." they'd say, handing over a bag full of miniature pastries. Flappy - who always lived in the same tree - would come hopping down, one branch at a time, when he saw me coming with his lunchtime bounty. I'd break the pies into little bits and toss chunks onto the earth under his tree, his little empire, while I'd sit there and contemplate my existence. There was recognition, respect and something deeply spiritual going on between me and that bird. I was there when he died, at the murderous talons of bigger and stronger crows, one fateful afternoon. I could only watch helplessly as my feathered friend used his last ounce of strength to drag himself into a bush to die. I was devastated. I think at that time something died and was reborn in me too. Don't panic, it's not a religion thing... but it was a big one for me, and I will have to come back to all that.

My next close contact with birds, apart from the nesting swans and ducks that I see in the pond, canal and river near my Claptonian home, occurred on St Mary's in the Isles of Scilly. I was there on a camping trip to see British Sea Power play an extraordinarily rural gig, but I had been blighted by full-on flu. While the band and a gaggle of music press and friends went out for an afternoon pint, I lay shivering in the baking heat, with my thumping head sheltering inside my tent and the rest of me dangling outside to ache in the sun. I drifted off into a feverous sleep, groggy from the illness, the heat and the paracetamol until I was woken by a tapping on my thigh. I brushed off what I assumed to be one of my friends trying to get me up and out for an adventure, but still the prodding continued. I unzipped the tent flap and sat up sharply and angrily - and found myself face to face with a tiny wren who was fearlessly jumping up and down on my thigh.

I sat up a bit and he jumped off. But then he jumped back on again and carried on hopping, seemingly unfazed by the knowledge that I could at any time crush his tiny bones with just one slap. He hopped, chirped and trotted up and down my leg until I realised he wanted a share of the bag of fruit that was sat next to me. I bit off a small section of apple and tossed it at him. From nowhere, his mates came into view - all wanting their own bit of this fruity action.

I'd never seen wild birds acting so tamely, with the obvious exception of Flappy, and it struck me that the Scillian vibe must be a very laid back one - for humans and animals alike.

There is no crime on the Scilly Isles. And just as the locals think nothing of leaving their doors open at night and their cars unlocked with bags in full view on the back seat, so do the birds of St Mary's trust the flightless giants they share the island with to act peacefully.

That would not happen on our mainland, of course, where it seems de rigeur for children to run screaming through frightened flocks of pigeons in parks, unhaltered by their goon-faced, jeering grown-up guardians. In Claptonia, as in most places today, the birds are poised to take flight whenever they need to, which is frequently. That has to be a great shame. Perhaps the trust between man and bird will return one day. Honestly, though, I think that particular bird has flown.

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