Friday, 31 December 2021

Habitual Hope

There are periods in a life when certain routines have embedded themselves so deeply that they can seem to constitute that life itself. For a few years you're constantly changing nappies and reading bedtime stories, say, or getting up very early to get ready for work and to organise a school run, or – as I am now – sitting in front of a desktop computer writing stuff that very few people read but which seems somehow important enough to prioritise over other things I could – probably should – be doing with my time. The common factor, of course, is that all these cycles of habit will come to an end, whether predictably – children grow up, change schools, leave home – suddenly – one day you're at work, the next you're retired – or so gradually that you barely notice the change: one day, I'll wake up and realise that blogging is something I used to do. Often a new thing that at first seems like a welcome break from routine will quickly become the new routine. Our excursion at New Year to our Bristol flat, for example, is a new habit born out of disruption. So it goes.

And, look, here comes the end of another year. Again! The annual cycle being not so much a habit as a rut this planet has been in for longer than anyone can remember, although there's a lot to be said for that kind of dependability, really, isn't there? Christmas is done and dusted – very nice, thanks – our children have gone back to their real lives in London, and, having returned from Dorset to Southampton briefly to re-up our clothing, we now find ourselves in Bristol for New Year. Again!

And once again I find myself fuming in a supermarket queue on New Year's Eve with a modest wire basket of provisions, stuck behind a log-jam of trolley-pushers, all apparently under the impression that no shops will be opening in 2022. Mind you, the way things are going, they could be on to something. COVID has changed the shopping habits of many, quite possibly permanently, to online and home delivery (not us, I have to say), and a trudge up the High Street or through the shopping mall to gather the weekly shop may soon seem as remote as my father's stories of following the milkman's horse with a bucket to collect up dung for the garden. So what was a "shop", grandad?

The wonderful thing about New Year is that, for a day or two at least, we can persuade ourselves that all options are now open, all bets are off, and all psychic laws and constants are in abeyance. Anything is possible in the coming year: review, restart, reset, reboot! Obviously, the same possibilities for renewal exist at every other time of year, too, it's just that this little liminal pause, however illusory, is like stepping through a threshold bearing the opposite inscription to that over Dante's entrance to Hell: All hope is to be found beyond this doorway. It's always worth a gamble, isn't it, another throw of the dice? As that very wise man William James put it:
For practical life at any rate, the chance of salvation is enough. No fact in human nature is more characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance. The existence of the chance makes the difference, as Edmund Gurney says, between a life of which the keynote is resignation and a life of which the keynote is hope.
Afterword to The Varieties of Religious Experience
So, as we step serially through that threshold in our different time zones, let us all hope for more hope in 2022. There's no question that we're going to need it: it would be a good new habit to cultivate. So pass me those dice, and I hope you will accept my best wishes for the coming year. Again!

The long and winding road...

Wednesday, 29 December 2021

Yule Log

Somewhere near Morcombelake...

The day before leaving for our Christmas family get-together in Dorset, just over a week ago now, I took our Renault Scenic into our usual friendly local garage for a service. We've had that car for something like 15 years, now. It was a couple of years old when we bought it, a top of the range "Fidji" model, with the unusual 1.8 litre engine, double sun roof, air con, the works: a perfect family vehicle for hot summer trips into France, say, loaded up with all the necessary and even a fair amount of unnecessary gear. It has served us well, although an encounter with an unexpectedly deep puddle a few Christmases ago did give us a problem with water in the spark plugs (thankfully sorted out by Scenic-lover Robin Wilson's garage in Axminster), and it's been clear for a while that, like us, it's beginning to feel its age.

So it was less of a surprise than it might have been to hear the list of problems the garage had discovered while carrying out the service. Not least an exposed and worn bearing in the clutch, which, in their words, might carry on for 10,000 miles or a mere 10 before giving out; it was hard to predict. What would happen if it did "go"? Well, we'd simply glide to a halt, as if running out of fuel. Which, if you've ever driven on one of our stupid, ridiculous, moronic "smart" motorways, where the hard shoulder has been converted into a fourth traffic lane for thundering trucks, is not a prospect to contemplate with any equanimity. So, after a last minute rethink, we decided to load up our little Skoda Citigo instead, which, despite its 1 litre three-cylinder (!) engine, is something of a pocket rocket.

Obviously, without the Scenic's bottomless storage capacity, this also meant a rethink of what we could take with us, and what we would have to leave behind. With the result that, for the first time ever, I travelled without any photographic gear at all, apart from my phone. I know... Scary.

However, as I trust the few samples here will testify, I needn't have worried overmuch. The iPhone 12 mini is a pocket rocket in its own right even if, like the Skoda, it is challenged by the photographic equivalent of a very steep hill. I am increasingly persuaded by the sheer convenience and versatility of a camera that also receives phone calls and texts, not to mention paying for car parking, or telling me exactly where I am and which way I'm facing. Which last, on a foggy day in deepest Dorset, is pretty handy, and a definite plus over any "real" camera I've ever used.

Golden Cap

Pickaxe Cross

After we had arrived at our destination – Morcombelake, midway between Bridport and Lyme Regis – and made a few trips to gather provisions and Christmas necessities (a 3 kilo free-range duck, for example), I knew we'd be needing more petrol before everything shut down for the holiday. So I got in the Skoda, started up, and checked the fuel gauge. Which, to my consternation, read "full": impossible, as we'd already driven nearly 150 miles. Which meant it must be faulty, which meant I would never have any idea of how much fuel was actually left. Fuck. The only answer was to head to the nearest garage and fill the tank up to the brim, and hope for the best.

Which I did. But I had barely managed to squeeze a few cupfuls into the tank before the pump shut off the supply. It seemed the tank was still full! And remains so even now after we've driven home, which is taking "fuel efficiency" to a whole new level. Incredible, really; the engine must run on petrol fumes alone. So, well done, little Skoda! And well done, little iPhone, too!

At the other extreme of efficiency, I got to watch Peter Jackson's marathon three-part, six-hours-plus re-edit of the material filmed during the sessions that led up to the famous "concert on the roof" by the Beatles, and ultimately the less-than-satisfactory Let It Be album. Our daughter has a Disney Plus subscription, and our Christmas hangout is well-equipped with TV screens, so the Prof and I were able to retreat to our bedroom and watch it there, John and Yoko style (minus the bag).

Now, although I was quite enthusiastic about the Beatles in my early teenage years, I was well over that enthusiasm by the time of Abbey Road and Let It Be in 1969/70. As, on the evidence of The Beatles: Let It Be, were the Fab Four themselves. Frankly, Jackson's film is like watching a simmering family row spread over an entire month (appropriate Christmas viewing, some might say). Someone characterised the mood of the rehearsal sessions as "hostile lethargy", which is spot on. It's not exactly fun to watch, although if you've ever been curious about what the Beatles were really like as, you know, real people, then it is fascinating. But the hype about revealing a less negative view of the period leading up to the final explosive and litigious Beatlegeddon is, well, hype. Jackson's trailer has extracted pretty much all the positivity to be found in hundreds of hours of footage; the rest is about as upbeat as a documentary about Dutch Elm disease.

What makes it almost worth the slog are the moments when they do re-discover the joy of playing together – the rooftop gig is always a treat – but above all it is fascinating to observe the creative processes of genius at work, for example how a song like "Get Back" emerges gradually out of McCartney's improvisation until it is suddenly there, like some ectoplasmic entity squeezing out of a spirit medium: it's uncanny to watch. I think my favourite moment, though, is when Lennon and McCartney sing "Two Of Us" at each other through clenched teeth, like duelling ventriloquists: it's hilarious, and something of the enduring depth of their friendship and the magic of their songwriting partnership still manages to shine through the boredom and barely-concealed impatience and hostility.

To be honest, I recommend watching Part 3 alone: you miss nothing much by ignoring the preceding two parts unless you are, say, a professional student of conflict resolution, or a fan of lengthy, unproductive meetings. In fact, why not just watch the various trailers on YouTube? Then you need never discover, at length and in depth, that Paul is a needy, manipulative control-freak and John an utter ████, joined at the hip to his freaky new girlfriend. The other two? They're just sulky bit-part spectators, acutely aware that – no matter what anyone says to the contrary – they are eminently replaceable as musicians. At one point George Harrison famously storms out, and they casually discuss replacing him with, oh, maybe Eric Clapton? Ringo, wisely, says and does nothing to rock the boat, other than look terminally bored as he endures slow death by paradiddle. There, I've saved you at least five hours of unnecessary viewing, and a large measure of disillusion... You're welcome!

Huh? I thought you died alone, a long, long time ago?
(Bridport hair salon)

Friday, 24 December 2021

The Oxen

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Thomas Hardy

Thursday, 23 December 2021

Seasonally-Adjusted Greetings

Despite the fact it hasn't actually snowed at Christmas in the south of England for many years (not since 2010, I think) it seems there is a possibility it may do so this year. We’ll see. It doesn’t look very likely, at least not here in Dorset, where we’ve come to spend yet another quiet Christmas with our now very grown-up children. But the association between Christmas and snow is — so far, at least — indissoluble (unmeltable?). In parts of the Northern Hemisphere the snow does indeed already lie deep and crisp and even, of course, but in these counties along the English Channel coast that's a rare Yuletide sight. What snow we do get tends to fall in the early months of the year: the "Christmassy" photo above was actually taken in March 2018. Nonetheless, as a conventional seasonal gesture, it's the picture I used on most of the Christmas / New Year greetings cards I sent out this year. 

Somehow I doubt that it snowed much in Bethlehem at the alleged year zero [1] of the "Christian Era" / "Common Era" either, despite the evidence of Nativity scenes on old-style Christmas cards, which tended to imply that Jesus was born in a barn somewhere in rural North Yorkshire; not so much a lack of geographical awareness as an indication of the extent to which Christianity has infused and in turn been coloured by our native culture since Saxon times. However, Nativity scenes now are increasingly rare on the card racks, as the paganisation and commercialisation of the all-purpose mid-winter festival continues apace: robins, reindeer, conifers, and above all wrapped presents denote "Christmas" far more readily to the contemporary child's eye.

What hasn't changed is the deep-seated feeling that these darkest days of the solar cycle are a time for feasting and family gatherings. Unless, of course, some inconvenient Scrooge-virus gets in the way. Bah,     humbug Covid! I have no sympathy whatsoever with those ultra-libertarians who claim that wearing a mask in a shop is an infringement of their liberty equivalent to life under some oppressive totalitarian regime, but nonetheless I think we all feel the necessary constraints on our behaviour more keenly at this time of year, particularly if you have family and friends living abroad or elderly relatives in care you haven’t been able to visit, even if, like me, you haven’t been to anything resembling a “party” for many years. TBH I thought parties had gone the way of flared trousers, music centres, Watney’s “party sevens” (a very large tin of disgusting beer, m’lud),  and sausages on sticks, but apparently they’re still very much a thing at the highest levels of government, although it seems they don’t like to refer to them by that name.

I’m unlikely to post anything further now until I return to the South Coast Conurbation after Christmas, so I hope you can a find a warm corner with some congenial and certified COVID-free company as this peculiar year comes to an end, and I wish you all the best for 2022!

1. Actually, year one. The failure to allocate a year zero has caused confusion ever since.

Saturday, 18 December 2021

A New Union

 In a post last year (Mysteries) I wrote in passing:

It's curious how much current popular entertainment seems to be aimed at affirming and enlarging the mystery constituency: magic, superpowers, and alien life-forms are more or less standard issue on Netflix, along with deep-reaching conspiracies and textbook narrative arcs, all set in a glamorous world free of tedious workaday concerns like washing up, or even facing trial for a series of murderous assaults on life's extras: negligible, nameless folk like guards and henchmen.

Having watched more such streamed stuff over the last two years than is probably healthy or wise, I have become quite concerned about the casual and often lethal violence meted out to those nameless guards and henchmen. It seems that whenever some vengeful protagonist breaks into or breaks out of some villain's lair – be it an office block, a medical lab, a repurposed stately home, or some underground labyrinth – the inevitable exchanges of gunfire will result in a bloody massacre of inept "guards", usually dressed in sub-standard protective gear that clearly offers no protection whatsoever, and equipped with faulty assault rifles that could not hit a moving row of ducks at a fairground, never mind the sort of person who can outrun and dodge multiple sprays of automatic gunfire, clad in nothing but pyjamas.

Now, villains, criminal masterminds, and outright psychopaths deserve whatever comeuppance they get, which is usually some ironically symbolic obliteration involving a self-constructed petard-cum-MacGuffin. In films, that is; in real life, they get legal representation and a fair trial. Which brings me to my original point in the quoted passage. Yes, you, our hero ruthless protagonist: you have saved the world, solved the mystery, reaped vengeance, got your life back, whatever it was that drove you on so single-mindedly; but along the way you have killed and maimed dozens of mere employees. We saw you do it! But, look, these were actual people, who hoped to pay their bills and raise their families by patrolling the grounds and manning the CCTV monitors of some organisation that, as far as they knew, did something sorta high-tech and secretive but which was all so far above their minimum-wage pay-grade as to be invisible. It's boring work, and the hours are inconvenient, but like security staff everywhere, you do at least get to dress up and play at being police or soldiers without any proper qualifications, training, or exposure to real danger.

That is, until you turned up.

Of course, real police get mashed, too. That car chase, for example? The one when you drove way too recklessly, totalling the vehicles of several innocent civilians, not to mention the market stalls and fast-food stands you demolished on the roadside, before taking a short-cut through a plate-glass shop window? You remember? And then, FFS, when you careened at high speed the wrong way down a dual carriageway into heavy oncoming traffic... Well, all that resulted in multiple cop cars crashing, overturning, flying off flyovers, and bursting spectacularly into flames. Again, let me emphasise, driven by real people with families to support. And all because you knew you were right, and therefore had to evade police detention in order to pursue some idiotic self-imposed mission. But the thing is, tragic as their loss is, those guys at least have pension benefits to pass on, widow's insurance, and a union to press their case for compensation against their employer. Guards and henchmen? They've got nothing.

So, what I'm proposing here is proper trade union representation. Let's call it the Association of Representatives of Guards and Henchfolk, or ARGH.

For a start, the union will demand proper protective clothing in the workplace, up to full military standards – and maybe not head-to-toe in baddie black? – as well as firearms that can do more damage than just knocking chips off concrete pillars and brickwork. Members will be required to undergo proper vocational training, so that they can detain a suspected invader or escapee without the situation escalating into a bloody one-sided massacre, or at the very least so that they can shoot straight. There will be full compensation for injury or death in the line of work, with benefits for bereaved fictional family members. The union will insist that those responsible for such injury or death be brought to justice, and face trial for their reckless actions: the ends do not justify the means, and any sinister cover-up of the serial assault and murder of union members will not be tolerated (unless this is the seed of a new multi-part thriller on Amazon Prime, securing further employment). Clearly, there is also a need for better pay, shorter hours, and proper breaks: there's a reason security staff keep losing concentration on the CCTV monitors at crucial moments, don't spot suspicious movement at the other end of the corridor, or fail to find the lethal dessert spoon tucked in a detainee's sock in a routine body-search.

Most of all, members will have a right to be fully informed about what the hell is really going on in that "secret" laboratory on Level 6, or in those maximum-security cells in the basement. They may work for monsters, but that doesn't make them monsters: they were only obeying orders! [Hi, ARGH Legal Dept. here: please don't ever use that argument in court; it really doesn't play well]. 

So watch out, Jason Bourne, John Wick, and all you other trigger-happy vigilantes and vengeance junkies. ARGH is coming for you. The movies are about to get a lot safer for everybody! And next, we'll be turning our attention to organising the villain's lair cleaning staff: what an awful, messy job that can be...

Florence 2016

Tuesday, 14 December 2021


A two-foot silverfish nightmare
(wax model in Hamburg Natural History Museum)

It's a curious business, isn't it, the way we unconsciously acquire behaviours from our families? From my father, for example, I inherited the habit of giving my shoes and my clothes a good shake before putting them on. This made a lot of sense if, like him, you have spent years camped out in the Libyan desert or the jungles of Burma, where scorpions, spiders, snakes, and other nasties find the nooks and crannies of clothing a congenial daytime refuge. In Britain, obviously, this is not so much of a problem, although in autumn the spiders that come into the house for refuge do seem to take a fancy to my boots, it's true, and there was a time when we were regularly invaded by slugs. Until, that is, I discovered the apotropaic properties of self-adhesive copper tape (as described in one of my very first blog posts); highly effective, applied to a threshold, against slugs, witches, elves, and even vampire squirrels. You shall not pass!

However, habitual shaking has proved a necessary caution against a fresh invasion of another unwanted pest: silverfish. In a house full of books and paperwork of various sorts, and in which "housework" tasks such as hoovering up and dusting are neglected, to put it mildly, I suppose this was inevitable. They thrive on the glue of bindings and even paper itself, and whenever I open a book or lift a pile of prints I brace myself for a couple to scuttle out. I really HATE the little fuckers. I have bought various sprays and traps, the most effective of which seem to be the Dekko Silverfish Paks [sic], little cardboard sandwiches containing a boric acid paste, about the size of a bubblegum card, which you can scatter around all their most likely haunts. Nothing is 100% effective, though, and shaking, chasing, and stamping are now embedded in my routines.

There is something rather eldritch about silverfish. They vary in size, from tiny ones a few millimetres in length to the biggest ones which are half an inch or more. Whether this reflects different species or different stages in their lifecycle I haven't investigated. They bristle with extra-long antennae and tail appendages, as if designed for radio-control, and tend to sit motionless, radiating a sort of malevolent dark electricity,  until you make a move to squash them, when they will flee with quicksilver rapidity. They can be incredibly elusive, even when trapped out in the open in the bathtub, as they often are on summer mornings. Crushed, though, they crumble into a cloud of dust, like a vampire exposed to sunlight.

The twelve-inch house fly
(Horniman Museum)

Then in the early autumn there was an invasion of flies in one of our bedrooms. It had a mystifying, Aristotelian quality: the flies seemed to be generating out of nowhere. No matter how many you killed or persuaded to leave, the next morning there'd be more buzzing around or frantically trying to headbutt their way through a window-pane. Plus any we'd missed the day before lying dead or exhausted on the windowsill. In the end, I realised they must be emerging from behind a sheet of hardboard I had taped over an open fireplace to eliminate draughts (in the 1930s, when our house was built, a fireplace in every room was the mod con du jour). The tape had worked loose, and something – probably a pigeon or jackdaw – must have fallen into the chimney void and died there. Although I suppose it might have been a chimney-sweep's boy who had got stuck, given the sheer quantity of flies. Well, kids are obese these days, aren't they? Rather than investigate, I simply retaped the hardboard.

In general, though, I am absurdly soft-hearted when it comes to the more benign household invaders, such as spiders, moths, and even most flies. Like Zen poet Kobayashi Issa, I tend to let the spiders do their thing:

sumi no kumo anji na susu wa toranu zo yo
Spiders in the corners,
Don't worry!
I'm not going to sweep them.
Translated by R. H. Blyth

I have made various bug-catching devices from clear plastic CD canisters and cardboard, so that I can trap them and release them back into the open air, even if that's not really what they had in mind. Nooo! The light! I must follow the light!! But should any big buzzy flies make a untrappable nuisance of themselves, then I have a nuclear option: the rubber-band pistol. Zap! It never fails. Although I've never quite managed seven at one blow.

Eat rubber death, fly

Thursday, 9 December 2021

Book Recommendations 2021

 (from my current project, "36 Views of the Avon Gorge")

As I keep telling myself, I'm buying rather fewer books these days – no, really – although somehow they do keep turning up on my doorstep, most recently a couple from France. Unlike the government, however, I continue to welcome them all into the house, regardless of where they come from, even though we're several stages past "full". They can doss on the floor or under a table until we can make room for them.

So, I hesitate to make book recommendations but, as I see I didn't make any last year, I see no reason not to bring just a few to your attention. Spending other people's money is always a pleasure, isn't it? The only problem is, if you leave it much more than a year most good photobooks will have already ascended into the "collectible" sphere. None of these have yet, however, AFAIK.

Me Kaksi, by Pentti Sammallahti (EXB, 2021)
I keep buying Sammallahti books, only to find they contain much the same photographs as the last one. This one is no different,  but it's beautifully produced by Atelier EXB (formerly Editions Xavier Barral) and if you don't have a Sammallahti yet, this is a good place to start. Buy direct from the publisher.

End Time City, by Michael Ackerman (EXB, 2021)
Another EXB book, a new edition of a classic, first published 20 years ago, impressionistic B&W glimpses of Benares, "the most sacred city in Hinduism, which welcomes pilgrims who have come to die here to erase their sins and put an end to the cycle of rebirth". A bit grim, and not a book to cheer you up on a wet Wednesday, but an enthralling and unblinking view of the Hindu way of death.

Blind Spot, by Teju Cole (Faber & Faber, 2016)
I kept coming across Teju Cole's name, and when the penny dropped that as well as a well-regarded writer he is also a photographer, I decided to buy this fat hardback brick of a book, which is still available new at a bargain price if you shop around. You get 150 photos, many of which are superb, accompanied by little prose essays, not much longer than a typical blog post. I've enjoyed dipping into it over the year.

Gigantic Cinema: a weather anthology; edited by Alice Oswald and Paul Keegan (Cape, 2020)
If you're into landscape, you're probably also into weather. This is not a photobook, but an anthology of bits of poetry and prose about weather in all its manifestations. As you may know, Alice Oswald can do no wrong as far as I am concerned, and this incredibly diverse and well-chosen selection is a wonderful read. I'm not sure about the decision to present the pieces without attribution – they are numbered, and there is an index – which I found irritating (OK, Alice Oswald can almost do no wrong), although it is true that the absence of names can have an interesting effect, rather like reading an enormous cento, if you're in the right mood.

Island Zombie: Iceland Writings, by Roni Horn (Princeton University Press, 2020)
Also not a photobook, as such, although like the Teju Cole it combines photographs with essays, rather longer in this case. I have an unaccountable enthusiasm for Roni Horn – almost the definition of the sort of conceptual artist I tend to avoid – which dates back to an exhibition at Southampton University's John Hansard Gallery in 1996 that featured some of her atmospheric photographs, and where I bought a couple of volumes of her multi-volume magnum opus about Iceland, To Place. If only I'd known how much they'd come to be worth (those collectors again!) I'd have bought the lot. Her artistic relationship with Iceland (somewhere I'd love to visit some day) is explored in depth and with great honesty, erudition, and insight.

Cold Mountain Poems, by Han Shan; edited and translated by J.P. Seaton (Shambhala, 2009 and 2019)
If, like me, you have a liking for the poetry of Zen, you may well already have this, or some other version. Although I've had the book (in its original pocket hardback version) for a long time, I have found myself dipping into it quite often during these quasi-monastic days of the pandemic. Incredibly, these poems were written during the T'ang period (618-907), when we here on this island were mainly singing the praises of violent men or lamenting the vicissitudes of fixed fate. The very attractive hardback is now ridiculously overpriced, but it's still available in paperback.

When people meet Han Shan,
they all say he's crazy
face not worth a second look,
body wrapped in rags...
They haven't a clue when I start talking:
I wouldn't say what they say.
But I leave this message for those who
come looking for me:
"You could try to make it to Cold Mountain."

Saturday, 4 December 2021


As will be well known to long-term readers of this blog, I'm an admirer of the birds of the crow family. And, as will be well known to fans of crows, there is a long-standing feud between the crows and the larger birds of prey, most obviously in Britain the buzzard; not (as in America) a vulture, but a large hawk, or Buteo buteo as it is know to the scientific community. The roots of this dispute are lost in the mists of time, but should a buzzard appear in the sky you can guarantee that a squadron of crows will scramble and count coup on its feathers and generally take the piss, until the predator shrugs them off and circles its way to another neck of the woods.

So, looking out of our Bristol flat's window this morning – which offers a magnificent view over the Avon Gorge and Leigh Woods as the sun rises and catches the tree tops – I found myself practically eye-to-eye with a pair of buzzards circling very close. They were a magnificent sight in the bright morning sun, but I was waiting for the true fun to begin. Raptors at 11 o'clock, black leader: scramble, scramble! However, there was not a crow, rook, or even a jackdaw in sight, just a pair of magpies sitting in an oak tree, apparently enjoying the sun. It was a very cold morning, true, but the absence of corvid harassment seemed unnatural, a dereliction of duty.

Then, as if out of nowhere, a brown shape buzzed the buzzards at great speed. Then, another. Vroom! Vroom! As the two aggressors pulled out of their dive, it became apparent that the astonished buzzards were under attack from a pair of sparrowhawks. Now, it's one thing to be mocked by crows, quite another to be assaulted by serious if smaller predators, so the buzzards cleared off pretty smartly, with the sparrowhawks pursuing them all the way. I had never seen anything quite like it. And there were still no crows in sight, just those two basking magpies, casually adjusting their shades.

At which point, the penny dropped. Now, crows are clever, but magpies are wicked smart. They're the streetwise entrepreneurs, the wide boys, the sharp-suited wheeler-dealers of the crow world. Check the classy fevvers, bird! Lookin' f'summink shiny, eh, bruv? Looking at that smug pair on their sunny branch, I realised what was going on: the magpies had cut a two-way deal, and sub-contracted buzzard-harassment to the sparrowhawks. Clever! But what grisly price the sparrowhawks had demanded in return I shudder to think.