Magazine article The Spectator

Birds of a Feather

Magazine article The Spectator

Birds of a Feather

Article excerpt

Low life

Goodness it was cold here last week. I was sitting by the fire reading an old newspaper when a robin flew past and alighted on a framed sepia photograph of my grandfather. My grandfather loved birds: he kept quails and finches mostly, and once he had a tame jay, so it was an apposite choice for a perch.

In the photograph, my grandfather is dressed in the uniform of the Machine Gun Corps and about to entrain for Flanders. He doesn't look a bit worried. With his nut-brown outdoor face and his huge hands, one imagines that my grandfather will be shooting his machine-gun at the oncoming Germans with roughly the same emotional involvement he invests in blowing kisses to his finches. I met him only a few times, when I was still small. He was always in his shed, sawing and hammering. When I remember him now, I think of the sound of his confident hammering.

From his perch on my grandfather the robin gave me a quizzical look, lifted his tail and crapped down my grandfather's trench-coat. From here it was a hop and a flutter to the top of the piano, where it lost his balance momentarily on the black polished surface. He crapped on that, then flew right across the room and alighted, more circumspectly this time, on to the mantlepiece, from where he examined me critically.

Birds that occasionally find their way into our house tend to panic, sometimes with horrible consequences. In their frantic effort to get out again they kill or injure themselves against the windows. This dapper, self-contained little chap knew exactly what he was doing. He had come in out of the cold for a moment and he was checking us out while he was at it. He looked down at me from his vantage point on the mantlepiece. For such a small and insubstantial creature his self-possession was very great. So much greater than mine, in fact, that I felt inferior under his gaze. As I was having one of my more paranoid days, I didn't want to be scrutinised by robins much, either. I laid my paper aside and went for a walk. When I came back the robin was still there, perched on the video recorder.

That evening I went to a party. It was a freezing night - my car was covered with frost even before I went out. …

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