A crash course in parenting and the Curse o’ Crummel.

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The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Our early morning alarm call is  chuck chuck chuck chuck. That means there’s a cat on the prowl, or worse still,  a magpie. Cats I understand. They are hunters, just like lions and tigers. They do an essential job in keeping down vermin. But magpies! diddly-ah dum dum diddly-ah-dum dum  With all due respects to Signor Rossini, they are conniving, thieving bastards. They spread alarm and despondency. They hunt in pairs. They wield old-style football rattles ratchet ratchet ratchet.  Even football hooligans are forbidden to carry those old wooden rattles. It was said of the Stuka dive-bomber that the worst thing about it was the sound. Similarly, bank robbers use swearing and shouting to un-nerve their victims. Swathes of parks and gardens in suburban areas and cities are devoid of songbirds. I have seen magpies take ducklings in the zoo. They soar. They spy. They strike.

Magpies arrived in Ireland in 1650, the year after Cromwell, as if the poor, heart-scalded country hadn’t had enough trouble. They were carried by an easterly gale, to Carnsore Point, in Wexford, Hieron Akron, as Ptolemy called it…the Headland of the Priests. An ill wind. It’s Wind Turbine Akron now.  My Auntie Peg, a Wexford woman, took my brother to see Cromwell’s grave—–and walk on it. I don’t imagine that she spat on it. She was not the spitting type. He told me that they tramped across it with pleasure. De mortuis nil nisi bonum Nah!  Cromwell too,  had the knack of bringing the silence of devastation to whole swathes of the country. I doubt if that bleak man took much pleasure in songbirds warbling in the branches overhead. Trees were for hanging men. Strangely, he is a hero to some people. I have never trodden on his grave but I have to admit to a certain satisfaction when I see a flattened magpie on the road, a rare occurrence. The bird was so engrossed in attending to a squished hedgehog or rat, that he failed to see his nemesis approaching. The black and white smudge can sometimes raise a wing to flap in the wind, a forlorn farewell or possibly, a final two fingers to the world.  The curse o’ Crummel on them anyway. You might suspect that I am not fond of magpies.

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The nest is at the top of that clematis. It took us by surprise. It imposed a duty of care on us. Meals have been interrupted by visits from the magpies and occasionally, the cats. Profanity helps, as any bank robber will tell you. Wildlife documentary makers assert that you do not intervene. We learned that lesson fifty years ago, when we rescued an abandoned blackbird chick. We fed and sheltered it until it fledged and flew around our sitting room spattering the furniture with Stuka precision. It came to our whistle and perched on a shoulder. We released it into the garden but, sadly, there were feathers on the lawn in the morning. It hadn’t learned the fear necessary for survival.

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This little fellow was the first to venture from the nest. He crash-landed. I put him back again, against all the rules. ‘Feck that,’ he said and dived out again. He took refuge in shrubbery , where his parents found him. They have fed him constantly for days but now they have become somewhat impatient. It’s a steep learning curve for a chick. He has made it to the top of a fuschia bush. He flies like Buzz Lightyear… falling with style, but he is getting the hang of it.

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Wildlife photographers wouldn’t approve of my photography either. The lighting and focus are all wrong. He looks decidedly disgruntled but he has achieved something great. We think that we hear his sibling in a neighbouring garden. A third chick became a dusting of feathers on the lawn on a dewy morning. It’s a harsh world out there. We thought that our parenting years were behind us, that our chicks had all flown the nest, but this little fellow brought some of that parental anxiety back again. Good luck to him and to his brave and exemplary parents.

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Who is this however? Where did he come from? A baby sparrow, apparently abandoned. There are no parents in evidence. Here we go again.

Dressed to kill. Karl Lagerfeld, Russell Brand and the Nazis. Sir Hartley.

I love an apocryphal story. You don’t have to be sure of any facts. ‘It’s apocryphal’, you say. Your listener says ‘Ah,’ and nods wisely. I have to rely on the apocryphal because I know nothing about either of the two gentlemen except what I saw in a newspaper recently. I see that Karl is a natty dresser, while Russell is not. It seems that Russell said that Karl designed uniforms for the Nazis. He then went on to say that they were brilliant uniforms, using some colourful language in saying so. This gave great offence to his audience. The report piqued my interest. I did some in-depth research. Okay, I Googled Karl. His date of birth is sort of apocryphal but if he did as Russell claimed, he must have gone out of business by the age of nine–or ten –or twelve, depending on which version you chose. Yet, today he an arbiter of fashion, another subject, about which I also know nothing.

There is no doubt that Hitler was a master showman. His Nuremberg rallies still give a chill of fear. Humanity looked into the abyss. A beast arose in Europe, out of the mud and carnage of the First World War. It was dressed in grey, black and red. Flags and uniforms compelled obedience without question. They still exercise a fascination. Somewhere on your television right now, men in field-grey are pointing at maps, diving in Stukas, tearing across country in Panzer tanks. The SS made black the new black. The generals wore sinister black leather coats. They look like winners. But don’t blame Karl.

I had some fashion dilemmas in the years immediately following the war. My older brother was brought to Mr. Boylan, the tailor in Quay Street to get a new jacket. Mr. Boylan was a real tailor, a man’s tailor. He actually sat cross-legged on a table as he worked. My brother got a jacket with flaps on the pockets to retain valuables, odd keys, sweets, chestnuts, a penknife, bits of string and the rubber out of old golf balls, maybe tuppence or thrippence, if he was lucky. I must mention pockets to Karl if I ever meet him. Fashionistas are not too good on functioning pockets. The schweinhund even got an inside pocket!

What can I say? My mother brought me to Miss Murphy, the dress-maker in The Square to have a coat cut down for me. I still find it difficult to talk about it. I specified flaps and an inside pocket. I have no recollection of the colour or whether it was an overcoat or a jacket, but she put the flaps on the outside edges of the pockets, like a lady’s coat! Maybe it had been a lady’s coat. It was a time of rationing after all. I asked about my inside pocket. ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that,’ she replied. ‘They would put me in gaol if I gave you an inside pocket.’ Sadly, I knew none of Russell’s colourful language at the time. My mother was a collaborator in all this. She pinched my arm, feeling the quality of the material, not the matchstick, ration era, arm. I later learned what happened to collaborators after the war. I learned some colourful language. I also learned that pockets were indeed rationed at the time. Did they have fashion police in the Forties? It was a long time ago. I have learned to forgive.

I’m sure I inherited the jacket from my brother. By that time it probably had no elbows in the sleeves. There was a button missing. The inside pocket was irrevocably sealed by a melted Honey-bee bar. There was a blue-black stain of Haughton’s ink from a malfunctioning fountain pen. The early biros were worse. Deep down I blamed Hitler for all the trouble he caused.

How did they lose the war? Picture Montgomery in his baggy shorts (So last year!) and skinny legs. Put him beside Rommel in his leather overcoat and celluloid sand goggles. Picture Churchill in a boiler suit and Goering in a white field-marshall uniform with a prairie of medals on his chest. No contest. Those celluloid goggles became a fashion must-have with kids after the war. James Mason made Rommel glamorous, even one of the good guys. Clothes make a man. So how did they lose?

Which brings me to Sir Hartley Shawcross, a man of undeniable brilliance. Perhaps the story is apocryphal but it is a good insight into the legal mind and the importance of dress. A senior British general was disturbed by noise and laughter one night in his hotel in Cairo. (See above, war in the desert, Rommel, Monty, baggy shorts etc.) It was a time of the gravest danger, before Alamein and the end of the beginning of the end and Stalingrad. German armies were sweeping south towards the Caucasus, threatening the oilfields of the Middle east. Hitler’s forces were poised to sweep through India and link up with the Japanese. The Americans were preparing to make their last stand at the Mississippi. Everyone buckled down to the task of holding the enemy back. Everyone except a naked man pursuing a naked woman around the corridors of a hotel in Cairo. The general recognised him as one of his own staff. The general was outraged and immediately put the miscreant on a charge. The officer was court-martialled for conduct unbecoming, for being out of uniform, for failing to stand to attention or maybe for standing too obviously to attention in the presence of his commanding officer. Down with that sort of thing , we say. Shoot the blighter at dawn. Break him to the ranks. Drum him out of the service. Leave a pistol beside his cutlery in the mess.

The officer was fortunate to have Hartley Shawcross as his defence. It looked hopeless until Shawcross found a way out: King’s Regulations. Paragraph such and such, subsection so and so. (I said it was apocryphal) “An officer must be properly attired for the sport in which he is participating.” Laughter in court. Case dismissed. A close-run thing all the same. So, who won the war, then?

I knew a German lady whose grandfather had been a Nazi. In his heart he was still a Nazi. He hated to see young people with long hair and hippy clothes, (a bit like Russell actually). He used to mutter audibly at bus-stops and in other public places, as grandfathers do, about the shortcomings of the younger generation. ‘Look at them,’ he would say. ‘Look at them. No use for war.’

The smirking Nazis returned to Nuremberg after the war. Shawcross was there. His closing statement left those criminals in tatters.

I have a pair of Jack Murphy trousers with pockets inside pockets and secret zipped pockets. Maybe I shouldn’t divulge this information. There are spies everywhere. If I had tuppence or thrippence to hide in them I would be doing okay.