As much as I try to avoid it, it’s the sudden flash of white against the dark green foliage of the trees that always catches my eye. I’m drawn to the sight of the large black and white bird hopping and swooping from branch to branch and instantly my eyes frantically search for another one. It’s a stupid superstition.
I’m talking of course, about Magpies. There’s a whole family which lives in the woodland where I walk Plottdog and this makes it hard not to see the individual members flitting around and foraging. On the whole I think they are rather beautiful birds, there’s something about the gaudiness of their plumage which attracts me, at first sight black and white but a closer inspection of that fantastic tail and wings reveal the presence of light catching metallic green, bronze and violet. I like their intelligence, I like their ‘ooh shiney‘ moments and I like the fact that they appear to be devoted to their mates.
Magpies are often the recipient of bad press for thievery and destruction; they have been associated with witchcraft. They are considered harbingers of doom and their presence near a window is alleged to foretell death. There’s a large amount of folklore attached to them including the tale of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth when all of the world’s birds wept and sang to comfort Him in His agony. The only exception was said to be the magpie, and for this, it is forever cursed. Theologically unsound as that story may be, it’s the kind of folk law associated with this bird.
My formative years were so regulated and constrained by my mother’s superstitions that even now, some 21 years after her death, I still catch myself observing strange little rituals with knives, salt, yellow flowers, passing people on stairways, gloves … the list is lengthy. I find the flowers the worst to deal with since pale yellow roses and bright yellow sunflowers are among my favourite flowers.
And yet, in all the time I was growing up I never remember my mother ever having a problem with Magpies. So why me? I don’t normally consider myself a particularly impressionable person; in fact cynicism runs through my veins like blood and yet here I am in the middle part of my life carrying around this irrational and frankly stupid superstition.
There was a TV programme which I watched avidly as a kid. I loved that programme; for one thing the presenters were to my mind rather hip, a little edgy and altogether different from their more staid counterparts on the BBC’s perennial kid’s early evening show. As a pre-teen shortly to reach the age of independence and loss of reason at13, that show was ever so slightly and deliciously rebellious (a feature of my teens which seems to have hung around for life) and it suited the disenfranchisement of my youth down to the ground. Its name: Magpie.
The show had a very flashy set of opening credits which at the time seemed infinitely more Marc Bolanesque than the Sailors’ Hornpipe the BBC were offering. It also had a catchy theme tune which I can still hear to this day:
One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret never to be told.
I don’t know how long it took to indoctrinate me with the idea that to see a single Magpie was to court extreme bad luck, but however long it took, it is rooted so firmly deep within my psyche that no amount of rationalising and application of common sense have ever been able to dislodge it or disabuse me of it.
So here’s the thing, it seems pretty clear to me that anyone who says children aren’t heavily influenced by the sort of stuff they see on TV and in popular culture; from their peers and the influences they find around themselves, quite frankly hasn’t thought about it enough.
For me the sight of a single Magpie invokes a Pavlovian response which can have a significant impact and often debilitating effect on my performance for the rest of the day. That’s one hell of a legacy to give a child.