15 JUNE 2002, Page 28

In the chatter of the magpie there is a moral tale of our times


Many attempts have been made to encapsulate our times — the Age of Anxiety, the Mendacious Age, and so on. I call it the Age of the Magpie. These birds are everywhere. I have been studying them in my Somerset garden, and noting that they are now as plenteous as the sparrow, ubiquitous bird of my boyhood, is rare. That is a huge change from a century ago. My 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1910) describes the magpie as 'a bird once common throughout Great Britain, though now nearly everywhere scarce'. It adds, 'Its pilfering habits have led to this result [and] since the persecution to which the pie has been subjected . . . it is no longer the merry, saucy hanger-on of the homestead but is become the suspicious thief, shunning the gaze of man, and knowing that danger may lurk in every bush.'

None of that now. The pair who dominate my garden, whom I call Tony and Cherie, have taken over exactly like New Labour. The bird table is theirs whenever they are hungry. They are full of tactics, strategy, spin and rodomontade. They drive away the tits and the house martins, even the starlings, with ease. Last week I saw them expel a large crow. With their stunning black-andwhite colouring and long tails glittering with dark-green and blue tints, they are riveting to watch as they conduct spectacular acrobatic displays of skimming, zooming and zig-zagging, which do not seem to have any positive purpose but certainly impress credulous amateurs like me. They know I am watching them too, and in that sense are strongly media-conscious. They play up. They perform. They do not exactly hold press conferences but they talk all the time, on-message. If there were avian mobiles, they would have them in constant use. They certainly communicate with their magpie cronies: honour, or rather exchange of valuable information, among thieves.

They even have a Dome. Their home is one of the most impressive structures built by any living creature, like a beehive or ants' nest, but much more comfortable and secure. In high trees or sometimes in low bushes, it has a foundation of thick branches, earth, clay and turf, moulded into a neat bowl lined with soft fibres. This is covered with a woven outwork of twigs, with a single entrance, easy to guard and hard to enter. The top of this forms an elegant, broad and shallow dome, a kind of steel helmet to prevent dive-bombing of the eggs by big birds. Unlike the Millenni um Dome, then, it has a clear purpose, is a work of stern realism and costs nothing. In this respect, and when it comes to stealth taxes in the neighbourhood, magpies could teach New Labour a thing or two.

wish someone — Derwent May, for instance — would write a history of the magpie, for the materials exist, since the bird (its name is a contraction of Margaret the Pied) has so fascinated writers that they have often recorded its habits and numbers. All agree it is immensely clever, cunning, totally unscrupulous, verbose, tuneful, criminal and, seen singly, unlucky. A gathering of up to 40 pies in a rookery is an ill omen for other birds, as well as for humans. They smash nests, steal and eat eggs and young chicks, and carry off glittering objects. The Irish say that pies, like snakes, were banned from Ireland or didn't exist there. This was certainly true in 1617 when Fynes Morison wrote his Irish Itinerary. But Swift mentions the doings of magpies in his Journal to Stella, 9 July 1711, and it is, or was, a rooted native Irish belief that the English deliberately introduced the magpie in the 17th century in order to annoy the Catholics. I don't believe this any more than I believe the Scotch assertion that Edward I brought the detested hooded crow to Scotland.

Certainly the magpie, like the hoodie, has been identified with atrocities and, from time to time, persecuted with ferocity. It does steal, especially silver cutlery and jewellery. At the end of the Napoleonic period in France, there was a famous case in which a maidservant was convicted of stealing from her employer and very nearly guillotined; a magpie was at last identified as the thief when the missing spoons were found in its nest. The case was turned into a play, La Pie Voleuse, in 1815, with a tragic ending. The young Rossini got his librettist, Gherardini. to turn it into a melodrama, La Gazza Ladra, for which he wrote the music and which was produced with great success at La Scala in 1817, and thereafter all over the world. It was Rossini's finest work in the

semi-serious style, for he added a happy ending. Indeed, it was a cultural harbinger. More than ten years before Victor Hugo's Hemani wiped the floor with the classicists, La Gazza came to represent the new, ascendant forces of Romanticism. From one end of Europe to the other, writers like Stendhal and Pushkin took sides. A conservative student announced that he was going to assassinate Rossini for using too many drums. Unlike Salmonella Rushdie in our day, Rossini insisted on a confrontation with his would-be murderer and talked him out of it.

The Thieving Magpie helped to legitimise the anti-magpie cult which, like anti-Semitism, swept over parts of the Continent in the 19th century. Housewives, who had once encouraged pies to flit about their kitchens and taught them to speak, now joined hands with farmers to demonise the bird; 'No omen so black,' wrote John Clare. By the time Darwin published his Origin of Species, he was forced to note that while the magpie was still tame in Norway, it was 'wary in England'. Hence an uninterrupted decline in numbers for nearly 150 years. With decline, however, anti-magpie truth and myth were forgotten. Rather like the Labour party, the pie was able to stage a new birth, multiply and flourish. But, of course, cheeky and full of chutzpah it is beginning to overplay its hand, or rather its wing, claw and formidable beak. People are beginning to say, 'New Magpie is but Old Magpie writ large', to adapt Milton. The countryside hums with anti-magpie atrocity stories and a new era of persecution threatens.

I like magpies but I would not go to the stake for them. They are not movers and shakers, more pushers and shovers. The avian aristocracy — golden eagles, kingfishers and the like — may well despise them. They are, rather, New Labour life peers, always on the make, and inclined to divide the bird world into VIPs (themselves) and 'ordinary people', to use the immortal taxonomy that Tony's crony, Lord Falconer, invented. That is certainly the way they fly about my garden, always holding forth. I was reminded of the magpie world of New Labour by an arresting phrase spoken by Brian May, guitarist of the rock group Queen, when the celebrities who gathered at Buckingham Palace were 'herded out' into the garden by the fire: 'There is an enormous crowd of extremely famous people here, sitting on the lawn and chattering into their mobile phones.' Magpies!