Feed the birds, tuppence a bag…

…except that it costs a lot more than tuppence a bag nowadays.

Does everybody know what tuppence is, or has it faded out of the English language like farthing and ha’penny? Tuppence (two-pence) was two old pre-decimal pence. For tuppence you could have bought eight of those little pink-and-orange farthing chews. For a ha’penny (half-penny) you could have bought two farthing chews. For a farthing, of course, you could only have bought one farthing chew, which wouldn’t have gone far towards filling the yawning, gurgling gap between breakfast and dinner. But I loved farthings, because of the little wren on the back.


Wasn’t keen on the threepence (pron: throopence for some reason) because of the irritating edges and the portcullis on the back, which put me in mind of prisons.


Another forgettable but mildly interesting fact – old pence were abbreviated not to ‘p’ as new pence are, but ‘d’. So those eight farthing chews would have been 2d. Something to do with Roman coins being called ‘denarii’. The daily wage for a common soldier or unskilled labourer was one denarius. Not much, in other words.

(I can’t stand Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, by the way. For some reason I seem to be compelled to study accents, analyse them, work out whether they are genuine or fake, one accent or several accents layered, one over the other. Inside my head, I imitate them, trying to get them right. Inside my head, note. I don’t go round doing impressions. Dick Van Dyke’s was by far the worst cockney accent ever perpetrated by an American. Nowadays they are much better. Meryl Streep is pretty good at it, in spite of what a certain farthing-chew coloured gentleman tweeted about her. Will he ever stop tweeting? The only fake English accent that completely fooled me was Renée Zellweger. I sat and watched Bridget Jones’ Diary all the way through never guessing she was American. I thought she sounded a trifle odd, but only in the way that real English people sound when they are trying to sound genteel.)

Anyway, so I bought some mealworms for the birdies, and in particular for my robin. You’re honoured if you get a robin. They’re not like other birds. Robin appears first, and always alone, just as the overnight frost is beginning to steam in the newly-risen sun. Robins are partial to mealworms. My God, mealworms are expensive but it’s either that or breed them – a difficult and disgusting process. Mealworms, I have learned, are the larvae of beetles. When I first saw them on the web I thought no, I can’t cope with whatever that is – I’m a squeamish vegetarian – but I sent a message – a perfectly sensible message, I thought:

They are dead aren’t they? They don’t wriggle?

And after a few seconds a lady replied to me, from somewhere in the ether.

Your question made me smile. No, they don’t wriggle, they are freeze dried. They sometimes look as if they are wriggling when they slither down the side of the jug (eugh, slithering…). Chickens go mad for them.

And suddenly I felt I had made a friend, one of those instant, transient amigos/amigas you stumble across on the internet. I imagined her, wherever she was, scattering the disgusting freeze-dried little brown critters to her hens, and the hens all running and clucking and so forth, bursting with feathery excitement at the prospect. Was she a farmer’s wife, I wondered, somewhere up in Yorkshire. Maybe she was on the other side of the world, feeding her hens in some South African coop or Australian back yard. I would never know, but it didn’t matter. Another person had been added to my universe.

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)