As I was walking all alone
I heard twa corbies makin’ a moan
That ane unto that ither said
Where sall we gan tae dine the day?
With apologies to that prolific author, Anon, my recollection is inaccurate as is my spelling. This is from a Border Ballad learnt in school. The Border Ballads tell of a time of constant and brutal warfare in the transitional territories between England and Scotland. The dilemma still perplexes fashionable diners. Where shall we go to dine today? The second crow had a good suggestion.
In behind yon oul fail dyke
I wot there lies a new-slain knight
And naebody kens that he lies there,
But his hawk and his hound
And his lady fair.
There follows a justification and an invoice, a bill of fare. The hound has gone to the hunting; the hawk to fetch the wildfowl home and the lady has taken another mate….’so we can mak our dinner swate.’ That’s life. We move on. Get over it. Adapt. Recycle. ‘You sit on his white breast bane and I’ll pick out his bonny blue e’en.’ The crows are the great recyclers; the raven, bird of ill omen; the rook, master of the gale, in his swaying, tree-top dwelling; the jackdaw, that snapper-up of unconsidered trifles; the cliff-dwelling chough and the sinister scaul crow, connoisseur of carrion, who has lately begun to visit our garden. Easy pickings among sparrows and starlings. I remember how we believed that there was a bounty on scaul crows, five shillings. They had a reputation for attacking lambs. They steal the wool and the eyes. They are probably a protected species nowadays. We make our dinner sweet from the poor lambs. Its a harsh world, as Anon would say.
‘All to one side,’ said Brother Arnold, ‘like the town of Fermoy.’ I worked there in later years. The town of Fermoy has a mighty bridge, spanning the spectacular River Blackwater.
Brother Arnold was talking about fractions, integers, decimal points, LCDs HCFs and always, mental arithmetic. Coal cost £3-6s-8d per ton. How much for 1cwt? A man runs 440 yards in 1 minute. How long would it take him to run 1 mile? It should take him 4 minutes, but in reality, he will be knackered at that pace, by the time he reaches 1320 yards. I did that calculation in my head. ‘You’d do it while you were puttin’ on your boots.’ No big deal. He divided the sheep from the goats on the basis of mental arithmetic. He had a portable blackboard with numbered squares. Last thing in the afternoon, he gave each one of us a work-out, pointing rapidly to one square after another. You would be knackered too, after four minutes.
I could never see anything one sided about the town of Fermoy, but in fairness, I was no mathematician. I swam in the Blackwater, opposite what is now Michael Flatley’s house. I swam underwater and heard the river rushing by and the millions upon millions of pebbles rolling in the shallows. I heard the constant thunder of the weir, by day and by night and marvelled at the countless salmon leaping up the weir. (Rainman was standing beside me. ‘47,362,’ he said, a true mathematician.) There is a documented account of the unique war between the crows in the trees on the Pyke Road and those downriver near Carrigabrick Viaduct.. The war went on for weeks, with spectacular aerial combat over the river. Perhaps they were auditioning for The Blue Max, filmed in 1966 in the same skies. It was not a one sided war. The Blackwater looks beautiful in the film. The biplanes dived under the viaduct, again and again and even clipped the little castle on the cliff. It was magnificent, but it was not war. The combatants were rival German air aces—a bit one sided. They were vying for the favours of Ursula Andress, the general’s generous wife, she of the prehensile bath towel. (It was 1966 after all). It’s an old story. Like the lady in the Border Ballad, she found another mate. Get over it.
This is, apparently, Anton Fokker, builder of wonderful and beautiful flying machines. He is flying Santos Dumont’s monoplane, in 1909. Would you fight a war in one of these? ‘That lonely impulse of delight…. drove to this tumult in the clouds?’ The crows would do better. They had the last word on war.
‘Wi’ a lock of his gowden hair
We”ll theek our nest, when it grows bare.’
A crow’s-eye view of the whole business.