Magpie Mind

I’ve always liked magpies – you know how you sometimes feel a particular colour is your colour; a particular object is your lucky object, a particular animal may be your totem? I’ve always felt magpies were my bird. I don’t mind them in ones, twos or threes, even though the sight of one is supposed to presage Sorrow, two Joy etc. I even named a house Magpie Corner once, because the garden and the trees around it always seemed be full of black and white birds.

However, let’s start off with butterflies and get back to the magpies.

My father was always telling my mother she had a butterfly mind. This was the sort of thing men said to women back in the fifties and sixties, when women were assumed to have butterfly minds – it was more or less a compliment. In those days it was also all right to refer to one’s wife as The Little Woman, and make amused comments about women drivers and the obvious dangers their clumsy handling of any machine bigger than a blender must pose to rightful, masculine, users of the road. Heaven forefend that you should be or even look clever, or be able to concentrate on anything for more than a few seconds. I remember being told, repeatedly, that men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.

Fortunately the need for glasses did not arise until – more by accident than design, on his part or mine – I had bagged myself a husband, although I doubt if this particular husband would have noticed whether I was wearing glasses or not. He didn’t look at people – could paint in oils the perfect steam engine, traction-engine or Spitfire; the perfect landscape of stark winter trees, silent lakes, lowering storm-clouds – and yet could not draw a recognisable charcoal sketch of me or produce anything more than a blurred and distant human figure.

But I digress. In fact I digress (butterflies) then I digress again (sixties sexism) then again (spectacles) then again (ex-husbands). I’m always doing that. My father would say, of course, that I have a butterfly mind, inherited from my mother.

My father did have a point, though he might have resisted making it so frequently. My mother did flit from one ‘hobby’ to the next, from jigsaw puzzles to painting cherries on jam-jars, to weaving wicker baskets to mowing careful patterns in the lawn, to machine-knitting (hell on earth, that was, for all of us) to reading the whole of Dickens. And she didn’t listen much.

In latter years we used to meet in garden centres for lunch. I never managed to get more than half a sentence out without her eyes drifting away and focussing on something just over my shoulder – some cyclists passing by in the road, maybe – or wondering aloud why the service was so slow, or whether the man behind the counter was married to the lady behind the counter or just a distant cousin. In my own conversations I feel compelled to repeat everything, sometimes two or three times over. I can’t believe the other person will have been paying attention beyond the first few words. I can hear myself doing it, I wish I didn’t do it but I can’t seem to stop. It’s engrained.

I can’t really criticise, of course. Even a childhood blighted by a butterfly mind does not prevent you from having to make do with the exact same mind yourself. Nowadays I understand it a little more. I see what she, and I, and Ex all had in common. None of us can be blamed, although we were blamed, not to mention ridiculed. Other people blamed us, we blamed ourselves and we blamed each other.

Nowadays I tend to put a more positive spin on it. I call it Magpie Mind. All three of us were creative. Like magpies we collected bright, shiny impressions, odd bits of information other people missed. I collected words, the assonances and dissonances of words, the vapour trail left by words, their echoes. I collected sudden washes of sadness, subtle changes in the light, the patterns made by everything, the poetry that’s in the pity. What you get is a mind that makes odd connections between things, a mind that can spark at random and in any direction, bringing disparate ideas and pieces of information together and making something unexpected out of them.

Ex took it for granted that everyone ‘saw’ the world as he saw it. He once told me that anyone was capable of painting like he did – they just needed to be taught. He could remember the colour of a piece of fabric throughout a lengthy shopping expedition and then select an exactly matching reel of cotton in the sewing shop. He wasn’t even trying to remember.

He told me once that when I looked in a puddle I should analyse the colours that were actually there, the blues and the greens, the pinks and purples, even. He said people assumed puddles were grey because that was the colour they thought of them as. Most people didn’t bother to look properly. After that I tried to look properly but it didn’t help. Puddles still appeared mostly grey.

Mum collected crafts, and colours, and fleeting, subconscious impressions. She put all her creativity and long days of work into her garden. She told me once not to worry about plants in a border ‘clashing’ because in nature everything was designed to go with everything else. And sometimes, even though she has not been listening to a word I say, she seems to know what I’m feeling. Visiting her at the Home on Sunday, she spoke in gibberish for half an hour or so, fighting with no-words and wrong-words before sinking back and closing her eyes, exhausted. I was realising that we would never, now, have that long-awaited ‘proper conversation’.

And just as I was realising it she reached up and touched my cheek. You girls, she said. You girls.

All things which live below the sky

I never really thought about light pollution until I started to think about ghosts. It just occurred to me: if all the unnecessary light we generate nowadays hinders astronomers in their exploration of the heavens, might it not also hinder ghosts in their…manifestations? I mean, maybe they’re all around us but we can no longer see them because the shadows have gone, there are no dark corners.

Just out of interest I looked up photo pollution. It had never occurred to me that our man-made high light levels may be affecting things like our health, ecosystems and the life-cycles of animals, and may also be having subtler and as yet unknown effects. Spooky.

Digression/connection/synchronous occurrence:

A magpie has just landed on a telegraph wire right outside my window. There it sits – gosh, it’s huge – you never get to see magpies that close up normally – waggling about like a high-wire walker trying to keep its balance. Do you think birds could be coming closer? Yesterday I stepped out into my garden to collect the washing; perched on the clothes-airer, atop my washing but not as yet polluting it, was a huge pigeon and it didn’t fly away. I walked right up to it and asked it if it was OK. It continued to sit there for a moment or two, eye to eye, before flapping away in slow motion. Do you think this could mean something? I just keep thinking of birds being harbingers of death. All those folk-tales about birds coming to carry off the soul of the about-to-be-departed. Bear with me and I’ll look that up in Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. Oooh…yes:

Many old highland families had particular death omens that came to them in the shape of a bird of unidentifiable species; at the moment of death, it was alleged to scream horribly. The bird was called an t-eun bàis. A similar bird, the tamhusg, appeared to people in parts of the Island of Skye. On Barra there is still a tradition of a huge, white-speckled bird whose nightly screeching is a sure sign of approaching evil or bad luck.

But then, the birds I saw weren’t unidentifiable. I mean, clearly they were a pigeon and a magpie. But there’s something else – something from a long way back, connected with The Garden by Andrew Marvell…

  • Here at the fountain’s sliding foot,
  • Or at some fruit tree’s mossy root,
  • Casting the body’s vest aside,
  • My soul into the boughs does glide;
  • There like a bird it sits and sings,
  • Then whets, and combs its silver wings;
  • And, till prepar’d for longer flight,
  • Waves in its plumes the various light.

So the soul, releasing itself from the poet’s body, perches in the trees like a bird.

But there’s a superstition, earlier than that…robins!

The robin was said to have tried to remove the thorns from Christ’s head during the crucifixion, injuring itself in the process. A drop of Christ’s blood fell on the bird and that was how it got its red breast. The red breast was also said to have come from robin having flown water into Hell for the burning sinners. The hand that kills a robin will shake thereafter. If you own a cow, the milk will become blood-coloured. If you break robin’s eggs something valuable of your own will be broken. Whatever harm you do to a robin, some equivalent harm is bound to happen to you. A robin flying in through an open window or tapping on the window is a sign of death being present. Strangely enough, I remember Ex rescuing a robin. He passed the house of a woman who didn’t much care for animals. She was sitting in her window-seat, talking on the telephone. Inside her house a robin was trapped, flying around in a panic, banging against the window pane right in front of her in its attempts to escape, while she ignored it. Ex being Ex – uninterested in humans but valiant in defence of the meanest of sparrows* – he marched into her house via the open front door and slammed open the sash window, while she was still talking, to let the bird out. And a year or so later she was dead, I can’t remember what of.

  • A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
  • Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
  • Auguries of Innocence: William Blake

He also told me once that in his family a bird singing insistently outside a sick person’s window was taken for a sign that they were not long for this world.

How far we are wandering from ghosts and yet…not.

I wrote a couple of posts about doppelgangers (or doppelgänger) a while back, but I just learned something new, and that is why it is so bad to catch sight of your double. It seems the doppelganger, like the poltergeist, is another example of the ghost-that-is-not-a-ghost. Whereas the poltergeist is thought to be some kind of energy released by adolescents, the doppelganger is a form of fetch or wraith. It appears only once to its twin (you) before engulfing them (you) in the final embrace of death.

But what of classical ghosts – apparitions, real or imaginary, that are in some way connected with the souls of the departed? More to follow, dragons’ teeth permitting.

  • *Beneath his heaven there’s room for all;
  • he gives to all their meat;
  • he sees the meanest sparrow fall
  • unnoticed in the street.
  • All Things Which Live Below The Sky: Edward John Brailsford (1841-1921)