Syntagma Digital
Editor, John Evans

Saturday Ramble: When I was given the bird in no uncertain terms

Seagull

It’s hot and it’s the Silly Season, which means the news is dominated by a minor spat on Twitter and a reversal of fortunes for England in the Ashes.

Not enough to make compelling copy for the Beano, let alone a national newspaper. However, a little improvisation is the art of writing for all seasons, so I’ve dug out a true story I wrote during my first period of living in Devon when we were right out in the sticks. It’s about a seagull.

Day One
For my pains I’ve become a surrogate parent to an orphan seagull. The youthfully-fledged youngster landed in our ancient high-walled kitchen garden yesterday. As I’m temporarily here alone, the burden has fallen entirely on me.

The female chick (you can tell by the shape of the head), which is as big as an adult bird, can’t yet fly, so probably fell off a rooftop and glided down into our patch. She keeps trying to fly up over the wall but can only manage a foot or two off the ground.

My first response was to leave the garden gate open in the hope she would find her way out. Alas, she viewed the opening with dark suspicion and eventually I closed it. It was time for Plan B.

The fact is, she’s never going to survive out there in her present state of infancy. Her mother has clearly abandoned her as a lost cause and doesn’t even come to feed her. A vet would say, leaving her to die might be the most “humane” course of action.

However, it occurred to me that if I could keep her alive for a few days, she might become strong enough to fly out under her own steam and find other gulls to protect her.

Yesterday, she had half my breakfast — a bacon sandwich — which she seemed to enjoy enormously. Hunger is a great leveller for a dainty palate. A tin of tuna fish went down well for lunch. I also discovered that if I leave the garden tap on slightly she will drink directly from the pipe.

She has also found a nest in a large pot with just a few seedlings growing in it. I’m afraid the white mess splattered around the garden is not going to win me any friends, but I figure it can’t be helped in the circumstances. She’ll soon be gone and rain will wash it all away. This is England, after all.

She trusts me implicitly now, as I’m the one who delivers her food and obviously means her no harm. I’m hoping she doesn’t imprint on me and imagine she’s a human being. The good news is that every time birds land in the garden she imitates their flying action. I won’t have to follow that chap in Ring of Bright Water and run around flapping my arms like a madman.

The poor thing has now injured her foot and is limping around the place like an invalid. The foot doesn’t seem to be broken, just strained in some way. She won’t let me touch it, though, and her razor-sharp beak is not something to treat lightly.

I’ve called her Rita. She doesn’t yet answer to it though.

Day Two
Well, what drama there’s been here in rural Devon over the saga of Rita, the seagull chick. We’re not used to such excitement out here in the wild.

Last night, while it was still light, I heard a terrific commotion from the garden where she has been trapped for two days. Imagining a prowling tomcat dragging her away in his jaws, I rushed to her rescue. She was sitting as usual in the large pot she now calls “nest”, and shrieking gull-like at the high-end of her vocal range. Her cosy position didn’t suggest danger.

On the wall, about three yards away, stood a large, handsome, female herring gull, who was also giving vent to a torrent of gull-speak. Gulls never whisper. They always shout. They’re like old Shakespearean actors, trying to make themselves heard at the rear of the stalls. Before this incident, I’d never heard a peep from Rita. That must be a good sign.

The obvious psychic bond between them suggested that this was Rita’s mother. As soon as mum spotted me she majestically spread her surprisingly long wingspan and flew low and slow over the garden and away on the other side.

Now, the fleeting glimpse I’d got of her eyes told me that she had noted the bowl of food, and the obvious good condition of her chick, and was satisfied that she was safe for the moment. After all, not many gulls get waiter service and bread fried in green olive oil. We are the swanky end of the village.

It was clear that, in the conversation, something had passed between them. As soon as mum had gone, Rita popped out of her pot and started running up and down the garden, despite her injured foot, with her wings spread impressively wide. This was new behaviour and obviously came from the older bird.

Don’t tell me birds are stupid. Within the limits of their behaviour they’re as intelligent as humans, sometimes more so. You’d never send a gull to Oxford, but we would never dive into the sea and come up with a fish between our teeth. On their own patch, birds are as bright as Albert Einstein.

There was still a problem though. Rita was now charging full pelt, wings outstretched, up and down the garden. But in the middle sits a large, ungainly contraption which, paradoxically would make a good bird scarer.

Not for our Rita though, she shot past it at speed time and time again. I was afraid she might hit the thing and break a wing. Now that would be a disaster. So out I went and shifted it to a corner where it wouldn’t do any harm. Rita continued her frantic promenade until I left her for the night. And that was the conclusion of the evening’s drama.

Day Three
I was up bright and early this morning — her third day in “captivity” — armed with my new digital camera. As she has now become a Syntagma celebrity — and they don’t come any bigger than that — a tasteful portfolio of photographs was a necessity.

Imagine my consternation on discovering she was nowhere in sight. I looked everywhere, under every tree and bush, in every slot and slit, fearing to find a bunch of feathers and the paw-prints of a cat. But there was no sign of a struggle and nothing in the lane either. The bird had flown.

The canny older bird had probably returned in the early morning and guided her prodigal offspring up, up, and away, back to herring-gull land, where the fish are fresher and the water dirtier than the stuff that comes out of my tap.

I have long known I would never make a press photographer. I always arrive too late.

The pity was I had missed my little chum’s first flight, her flight to freedom and the bosom of her family. Do seagulls have bosoms? Never mind. Rita had triumphed over adversity, and I had played a small part in the drama by keeping her alive for two days.

When my own wanderer returns next week and she asks me the inevitable question: “How did you get on for a whole week without me?” I shall reply, as nonchalantly as I can: “Very well, actually, Rita kept me company.”

John Evans

Coming soon: Mystology: A different way of looking at the world

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DIARY: Stormy weather, Apostolic Succession, Local rags, Poppycock Watch: Penguins, Profundity of the Week

Flood
The River Exe in flood

As I write this, the wind is screaming past my office window, rain slashing into the glass. Our major river, just 200 yards away, is brown and angry and lapping at the top of the flood defences. It doesn’t bode well.

There was catastrophic flooding here in the late 1960s which prompted the building of substantial preventative barriers along the river banks. The problem is, they were built to defend against a one-in-40 year emergency. By my reckoning they are well past their timeout.

The Council is reported to be trying to raise money to finance new works aimed at a one-in-100 year episode. Given the nature of official response times, that will not be soon. It will take another disaster to get things moving fast. Not much breath is being held around here.

If David Cameron needs any incentive to slice away at the grotesque European Union budget, let him consider how much we need that money here in Devon.

Keep it in the family, Dave!

* * * * *

I have never believed in the concept of Apostolic Succession — that someone appointed by their predecessor carries a special mark or mission to succeed them.

Most religions do this. Leading Buddhists are said to be able to trace their spiritual lineage all the way back to Gautama Buddha 2500 years ago, despite the many holes in the early lists of enlightened teachers.

One can see that a reputed connection with the Founder, however tenuous, might add a little glitz and authenticity to a sitting leader, but in practice it has never guaranteed success, either in religion or in politics.

Thus the rejection of the appointment of women bishops by the Church of England Synod on roughly those grounds — women can never be part of an Apostolic lineage because they weren’t there at the beginning — leaves me uneasy about the future of a great institution that is failing to adapt to the present moment.

Ministry in the Church is mainly about empathy, not intellectual jousting; dealing with people in trouble and distress, not putting an elegant case before one’s peers.

The difference is profound and women are much better at it than men, which probably accounts for the fact that half of priests are thought to be homosexual.

In any case, the tale has little truth in it. We know that Rome excised women out of the early Jesus story, especially the enigmatic Mary Magdalene (almost certainly Mary of Bethany, not a woman of the night), who has her own gospel in the Gnostic tradition and was said to be the best, even the highest, of the apostles.

We’ll never know the true story, but we can take the broadest and most generous view. Why would the Almighty object to that?

Time for a change, surely?

* * * * *

Daily Mail, has sold its local and regional newspapers to a consortium led by ex-Mirror man, David Montgomery. Thus the illustrious name of Northcliffe has been lost and “Local World” arises like a phoenix.

Northcliffe’s list of titles was valued at £1.2 billion just months ago, but were sold for a paltry £110 million, showing how their profitability has tumbled off a precipice in the online age.

Indeed, the daily local papers are to be replaced with weekly ones, something that has already happened in the West Country. A few, such as the 150-year old Western Morning News remain, but for how long?

Montgomery has been speaking of a string of quality websites, reminiscent of the big dailies, gradually taking over from the printed page.

Although I’m a website man myself, I do appreciate a real newspaper, hot off the press, for more comfortable reading at the weekends. That’s when monstrous property supplements dominate the news and features sections. In the Sundays a dozen other bits and pieces are added too.

There’s no ideal solution, but the bottom line is that they must all be profitable. Syntagma wishes David Montgomery well, but wonders if he’s more romantic than visionary.

* * * * *

Poppycock Watch
Pearson, publisher of the Financial Times and various academic strands, has issued a trading statement confirming that it has reached agreement to combine Penguin Books with American Publisher, Random House. In other words, to sell it to the German media giant, Bertelsmann.

So passes one of the last great British publishing houses, thrown into the global melting pot where bottom line counts for more than quality.

Like local papers, national publishers are becoming treasures of the past. So long as Penguin maintains its immense backlist, we can just about endure it, I suppose.

* * * * *

Profundity of the week
“An atheist is a man with no invisible means of support.”
John Buchan, author of The Thirty-nine Steps and later Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor General of Canada. He was also editor of The Spectator, around 1900 — bet you didn’t know that!

John Evans

… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

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Spring is here — it’s official

There are many ways of measuring the arrival of Spring in England. The Times traditionally monitors the first call of the cuckoo in its letter pages. The Met Office rather prosaically fixes it on the first day of March. Those of us who command the appliance of science know better.

Spring

An allegy to birch pollen — always the first to hit the breezes — confers on a rare few an early signal of the precise moment when the year turns, and cold, drear winter gives way to merry, jubilant Spring.

Down here on the Devon/Cornwall peninsula the morning has been warm and sunny. As I marched along the river bank, sweltering in a padded Barbour jacket, I noticed a characteristic prickly itch in both eyes. It couldn’t be, could it? It’s so early in the season. But there was no mistaking the message that the silvery birches were proclaiming.

Yes! I nodded to the sprightly moorhens, Spring is here. I’m sure they nodded back.

It didn’t matter that on my return home a warning email from the Met Office was lying in wait. On Monday, it says, the Westcountry will be prey to widespread icy roads … all day. Don’t they have eyes?

Not deterred, Syntagma declares Spring arrived in the South West of England on the 11th of February, 2011.

And that’s official! The eyes have it.

John Evans

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Syntagma returns next Saturday

We will be picking up where we left off next Saturday the 4th of September.

In the meantime, I’m still writing in Devon & Cornwall Online.

For a taster, just click on the logo above.

John Evans

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Saturday Ramble: Is there a perfect place to live?

Rose Tinted Spectacles I’ve been totting up all the places in Britain I’ve resided in. The list does not include holidays or short stays, only genuine residency. I’m staggered.

Here they are: London, Edinburgh, Farnham (Surrey), Oxford, Melton Mowbray (Leics), Bournemouth, Poole (Dorset), Exeter, Cambridge, Canterbury, Cardiff, Swansea, Borth (Mid-Wales), Penzance and Cheltenham. I may well have missed out one or two.

This does not include foreign climes: Spain (Benalmadena and Estepona), Paris, Perth (Australia), Kaiserslautern (Germany) and a myriad of short stays here and there. I could claim to be an expert in answering the question in the title of this piece.

What makes someone extend their gap year for the rest of their life? Restlessness, perhaps? Inability to settle in one spot? That’s not true, since I’ve been over a decade in my current city in Devon.

It’s a mystery, especially as I’ve known for a long time that most locations have their faults and are much the same once you are familiar with them. Your own viewpoint is always present wherever you go. If you allow it, it will flatten all differences and enhance dullness.

One spot will always stand out though.

For me, Devon is the pitch-perfect place to be, across a wide range of variables. It has everything. Solitude, crowds if you want them, sensible cities, intriguing towns and chocolate box villages, beaches to north and south, and the greatest moor of them all — Dartmoor. Not to mention cream teas and great fish. It never fails to amaze or surprise.

It’s also relatively peaceful by today’s standards, and is thankfully insulated from most of the big political questions of the day. Even union leaders are more benign in Devon than elsewhere.

The big society is a reality here. Take a look at Northlew on Dartmoor, the tiny village that set up its own wireless broadband service, undercutting BT and all other providers feeding off the internet backbone. Devonians are nothing if not enterprising. They have to be. Big Society writ large.

While Cornwall can at times seem like the Wild West, Devon is for ever civilized and tidy. It’s the perfect county for a writer, even better for a contemplative, superb for a conservationist.

This is not a hagiography, nor a billet-doux to a patch of red soil. It is nothing but the unadulterated truth.

The Royal Mail, it is said, intends to abolish counties for delivery purposes. Those upcountry folk just don’t get it, do they?

John Evans

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