blank background to faceThe seeming fragmentation and accidental quality of living which I bang on about so frequently may be an illusion. I tend to treat isolated incidents as just that – separate, unrelated events with no causal links and no significance. But a chaffinch, two robins and a piece of wood suggest that I may be wrong.

Let’s start with the piece of wood. Some of you may have heard this from me before but it’s the story of the photo I use as my avatar. I started woodcarving classes when I was researching my novel The Figurehead  because I wanted to know what it felt like to carve an actual figurehead. I enjoyed it so much that I still go to classes. The avatar was based on a gargoyle that’s on one of the Oxford colleges and I hung it over my garage door. One weekend when I was away, someone came in, ripped it free from its bolts and took it away. That was a while ago but I still sort of hope that maybe someone will see the object itself somewhere and tell me on Facebook where it is. If it’s found, I’ll be petitioning to restore deportation for anyone who steals a sheep, a car or anything made of wood.

The second incident is linked to this theft because I liked the first carving so much that I tried to reproduce it. The second version wasn’t as good but it was OK enough to hang on a garden wall out of sight of thieves and marauders. So there’s a causal link between the two.

Incident number three, though, is (or seemed) self-contained. It occurred in May, 2010, when a chaffinch decided to throw himself against my window. In my old blog I described it thus:

I hear a small bang and there he is, still flying but bashing his beak against the glass. And he does it again and again. I’ve just been outside to take a photo of what he must see when he makes his assault. I took it from ground level because he always flies up from there for his attack, bashing against the pane at the very top. OK, I’m not a chaffinch, but I saw nothing there that would fool me into thinking it was a good place to nest, so what’s he doing it for?

Maybe the soul of a critic has transmigrated into his body and he hates writers. Maybe he’s practising some arcane act for the next Simon Cowell show – ‘Nature’s Got Talent’ or something. Maybe he’s a chaffinch philosopher and he’s just proving that life is an illusion and ultimate satisfaction is unattainable. Whatever it is, after all his clattering against the glass, he must go home every night and say to his wife ‘My beak’s killing me’.

In June the following year, he was back and, in another attempt to penetrate the mystery, my speculations went even further.

g1 001But now, two years on, all has become clear. The chaffinch was an avian estate agent. I don’t know whether the nest-market has gone the way of the human housing market in the past few years but, if it has (and it seems likely that our Chancellor’s fiscal brutalities will have left no corner of British life intact), the chaffinch’s irrational and near-suicidal frustrations are easier to comprehend.

So how did I reach this conclusion? Well, from one angle, the window in question reflects the carving and, this year, two robins have taken up residence in a small hole in the wall behind its head. As I type, they’re busily coming and going, presumably with small items from IKEA, to turn the hole into a home. The chaffinch’s tireless search for desirable locations has obviously paid off. He himself has not returned but two of his clients have.

And so, on the evidence of these curious but now explicable contingencies, over these years, my hubristic assumptions about life’s absurdities have proved to be baseless. There is a holistic flow, drawing creatures and inanimate objects together, creating a unity of purpose, weaving from a multitude of infinitesimally tiny threads a single fabric of cosmic proportions. In short, there is meaning.

Aye, right.







  1. O. Henry lives. And, though I am affronted by the theft, I have to say the carving is very desirable.

    1. I wouldn’t have minded if you’d nicked it, Ron. Thieves with aesthetic motives are acceptable; these guys were probably just pissed.

  2. Bill, you have barely skimmed the metaphysical surface with your blog. It seems self-evident that the (female) chaffinch had ‘Jonathan Livingstone Seagull’ syndrome and she aspired to be a woodpecker. Alas, despite all her efforts, she failed to break the glass ceiling, which was a real pane.

  3. Ah, if only I’d had you as my guru in those perplexed days, Guillaume. I’d have been spared so much Dyno-Rodding of the soul. As it is, I shall content myself with my Estate-Agent-As-Creator analysis.

  4. I like the new one better.
    And on the other point, we regularly have birds attacking a pane of glass, of which we have very many. They all seem to be fighting that bird on the other side of the glass. This also happens with rear view mirrors on cars, resulting in layers of… er… guano splattered round about. But back to the glass. Quite a few birds have ended up with a bad headache because they think they can swoop through the glass to the garden beyond, and some have actually died (broken neck). But your post suggests this was not, in fact, the case. I’d love to know what was going through its mind.

    1. Has it occurred to you, Greta, that the flocks of kamikaze birds that peck your panes and guano your glass may have seen some of the bird photos you take and are simply auditioning for a career in modelling?

  5. Shouldn’t have read that reply to Greta while eating my oatabix! Glad life and avaian behaviour are proving to be more connected than you allowed, Bill. Love that carving – a good door keeper for the robins.

    1. Thanks, Rosemary. Your comment about the robins makes me think that I can maybe squeeze another blog out of this… And, as I was writing that, a movement outside caught my eye and there was one of them sitting on the head of an eagle I’d carved, which is obviously acting as a sort of stepping stone for them on their way home, so they’re clearly robins with a predilection for high art.

  6. The only birds we have in the garden at the moment are gigantic magpies who’ve had the cheek to build a nest of enormous proportions in one of our trees directly in front of the window.

    1. Ah, but just you wait, Myra. Some obscure holistic reason for their choice of location will be revealed. It’ll be written in the stars – or perhaps the Daily Record.

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