Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life

Article excerpt

A mixture of mallards, coots, shelducks and moorhens were milling about at the water's edge; some standing in the shallows, some lightly afloat, others toddling about on dry land. Also two bloody great mute swans, possibly dangerous, swelling, hissing, bridling, and generally threatening anyone silly enough to presume that a handful of bread was enough to earn their gratitude and trust.

Beside these graceful thugs, the practical little coots, treading purposefully on clownsized feet, had the greater perspective, and more wit.

My grandson, Oscar, and I sat down on one of the four benches provided by the parish council. The freshwater lake stretched away before us: cloudless blue sky above.

The unseasonable warmth was stoking the water fowl into a frenzy of courtship, nest building and squabbles. Clouds of midges were out, too, as though we were in high summer already.

The other three benches were occupied by elderly day trippers on a coach tour of coast and villages from one of the big Torquay hotels. I could tell by their clean shoes, their colour co-ordinated clothes, and their delightfully modest air of being en fete. Occasionally one or other of them, surprised by the insolence and persistence of these midges, was driven to flapping a retributive hand at them. Clearly no one had warned them of the tenacity of the local midges when they'd assembled earlier on their Torquay hotel forecourts.

These trippers had smiled gladly at us as we sat down. They'd liked us immediately. If I'd greeted them they'd have greeted me back with knobs on. And as usual Oscar's blond curls and surly expression had won the women over from the moment they clapped eyes on him. They liked us above all though, I think, because we weren't above sharing their simple pleasure of sitting on a bench on a sunny afternoon and looking at the ducks.

But once we'd settled ourselves, and begun to appreciate the waterfowl politics that were being played out in front of us, we realised that what these placid old folk were really enjoying - and what had made them so glad that we were able to join them - was the spectacle of a jolly good fight. For the doting mallard drakes especially, it was one vicious fight after another.

Typically what happened was this. …

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