A Mischief Of Magpies

If the Sun were the size of a beach ball then Jupiter would be the size of a golf ball and a Mischief of Magpies would be as small as a pea.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Coffee and Cigarettes


...by Jim Jarmusch commits all the basic crimes of lazy but intelligent cinema.
  • It's in black & white
  • It takes forever for anything to happen
  • When something does happen it has little significance
  • It refers to itself
  • No one totally understands anyone else
Which is probably why I hated it so much the first time I watched it. Yet, strangely, when forced to watch it recently again, I found it powerfully moving.

In fact it seems completely relevant in a world in which the space between individuals seems to be widening.

capital city

The streets were crowded as always, St. Mary's Street closed in readiness for the evenings revellers.
In short, Cardiff piss-artists get so spannered that we have to close the roads to prevent them from being mown down by traffic. The Green Cross Code disappears in a haze of Aftershocks and Vodka Jelly.

I was doing a nightshift, 8am to 8pm, crewing an ambulance, mopping up the blood, vomit and sobbing girls out on a hen-night, soaked in piss and taken something dodgy. Why won't my legs work? Why can't I breathe? That'll be the cement dust mixed in with your Ecstacy, darling.

I love it. It's like a whole load of mini-soap operas, rolled into a few hours. Who needs telly? Just hang out for a while in the town centre, listen to a few arguments. Run like hell when the bottles start coming, exploding around you, blokes too drunk to work out that you're not the police.

There was something happening in the Cardiff International Arena. Stereophonics or the Sugar Babes or something. Someone famous, anyway. A few extra thousand punters pushing out of the bars, getting tanked up before the gig. Quick! Down a few more vodkas before we get to the CIA.
Screeching gangs of girls, caught a train down from Sheffield, excited. Blokes in gangs, following them, shouting abuse, trying to see up their skirts. Police swarming everywhere.

I drove back into town after delivering some bloke with a fractured skull up to A&E.
Narrowly missed a guy staggering across the road. Tosser. He knocked on the drivers window and I wound it down a couple of inches, just enough so that I could hear him but not enough so that he could gob on me.

"CIA?", he yelled.

"No, ambulance!" we shouted back, and ramming my foot on the accelerator, we disappeared in a cloud of exhaust fumes.

magpies is it?


Let's face it, the collective term 'a mischief of magpies' may trip easily off the tongue but it's a bit like talking about a 'petulance of piranhas' or 'a naughtiness of Nazis'. Make no mistake, magpies are among the meanest birds on the planet; they are total tyrants - unfeeling, mercenary, piratical bullies with a hideous rasping call that sounds like a recording of one of these old football rattles cranked up to full volume on a trashy transistor radio. Yes, at first glance they look quite swashbuckling in their fancy black and white pirate gear with their long shiny tails and swaggering walk, but they are not. They are evil personified. Intelligent, yes, but evil to the core. There is only one bird that can scare a magpie shitless and that's a crow - and for that reason alone I quite like crows. I believe a raven would see off a magpie too, but ravens and magpies rarely, if ever, meet. And I suppose an eagle or a falcon or a buzzard, and probably a swan or a goose, would put them in their place, but these are noble birds and I doubt if any of them would stoop so low as to have any truck with magpies. However, just about every other bird lives in terror of magpies, because magpies are the most ruthless and efficient nest-robbers on the face of the earth.

I live in the leafy suburbs of Edinburgh, and when we moved here over ten years ago there was scarcely a magpie to be seen. A few pairs lived in the trees along a nearby disused railway track - now a cycle path - but they rarely ventured beyond its confines. Then they gradually began to appear in the gardens around where we live, arriving in raiding parties as soon as the songbirds had laid their first clutch of eggs in spring. The magpies would watch beady-eyed from vantage points like tv aerials on the top of the nearby tenement blocks, studying the lie of the land, and noting where the birds were nesting, then they would come screaming in and all hell would break loose. They would arrive, cackling and shrieking like a bunch of maenads on mescalin, and destroy the nests, wolfing down eggs or nestlings in the blink of an eye before moving on to the next garden. Of course the parent birds would try to put up some kind of resistance, but it was futile in the face of such an onslaught. Often one magpie would distract them while another would raid the nest. Sometimes they arrived in gangs of four or five, probably young adolescents not yet of breeding age, with nothing better to do with themselves in the absence of youth clubs and similar facilities down the cycle path. If they could find Burberry caps to fit I'm certain they would wear them.

So the other birds are gradually disappearing from our neighbourhood - blackbirds, robins, swifts, starlings, song thrushes, blue tits, great tits, coal tits, chaffinches, bullfinches, wood pigeons, wrens ... loads of lovely birds that gladdened the eye and sang their hearts out as dawn broke every summer morning. Now we have silence. With very few exceptions they've gone, and I don't blame them. The didn't stand a chance. There are magpies everywhere now. A couple of years ago I watched the blackbirds build no less than five different nests in our back garden. The magpies got every one of them. The poor bloody blackbirds were exhausted by the end of the year. The only birds that survive are the blue tits, and that's only because they nest deep in a crevice in the wall of the tenement opposite. The entrance is too small for the magpies to get into. Not so the starlings which had a similar nesting arrangement but haven't been seen since the year I watched a magpie clinging doggedly to the stone face of the building and ripping the nest and fledgling starlings out with its bare beak.

I mean, the cats are a big enough threat to the birds around here, but they've got nothing on magpies when it comes to pure unbridled bloodlust. Even big aggressive cats don't scare magpies. I know, because this summer a pair of mapies actually built a nest in the top of the very tall conifer in the corner of our garden and woe betide any cat that came anywhere near that tree. The parent birds came down and tormented the poor creatures at close range - actually pecking their tails at times - till they were forced to flee. I managed to dislodge the first magpie nest with a contraption cobbled together from 3 clothes poles, but they rebuilt it within days and went on to raise a brood. Naturally, this lowered the tone of the garden considerably and even the last remaining pair of blackbirds moved away.

Over the past few years the numbers of these monstrous birds have risen rapidly and they all have their own territories. Everwhere you look you see them, strutting along walls, squawking angrily from the chimney tops (are magpies never contented with their lot?), or patrolling the skies. Outwith the breeding season they congregate in vast numbers along the cycle path. I've counted over 30 of them in a single tree at twilight. And Edinburgh isn't the only place that's suffering. Just about every city is being over-run by them. If you phone up the RSPB and ask what to do about magpies killing songbirds they go all coy, and claim that magpies don't really decimate songbird numbers at all. That something else is responsible. Global bloody warming, probably. Bullshit. The RSPB is either totally blind or working to some hidden agenda.

They will tell you, however, that you can legally kill magpies if they're being mischievous by getting a Larsen Trap, and I once read about a little old lady in Glasgow who was so fed up seeing her garden birds winding up as horses doofers or omelettes for magpies that she started trapping and killing them herself. Within a couple of years she had personally massacred well over a hundred of them and before long she had a vigilante network of like-minded old biddies stretching right across the posher parts of Glasgow. Larsen traps were selling like Larsson strips in the days of Henrik's reign at Celtic, but the trap requires a live decoy magpie, and how the little old lady procured her first one I've no idea. However, in the immortal words of George Galloway, I salute her indefatigabilabulidility.

OK, I promised Clairwil I was going to write about jackdaws, but as you see I got sidetracked. I'll discuss them next time. Unlike magpies, jackdaws are my very favourite member of the crow family, and I'll tell you why. Bet you can't wait.

The human brain is so easily deceived

First Blair manages it in three elections, then Bush in two, and now this very cool optical illusion deceives our poor weak idle human brains.

Can anyone explain to me why this works? I can't fathom it out - I didn't do Biology even to GCSE at school, so have no understanding of the brain. But I've just spent about fifteen minutes trying to see quite how it manages it. Hey, it's a more profitable use of my working time than work would ever be...