Friday, 24 April 2015


The blackbird leaps from the sill and pecks and scratches at the window pane, wings beating hard, until it falls back to the ledge exhausted. The bird gathers its breath for few moments, sucking air through its yellow beak, then leaps again attacking the window pane with all its might. I approach the window from inside and it flies off into a bush at the rear of my house. I know it will be back.

These attacks on the window pane began yesterday at dawn, and continued throughout the day. At first I was curious, then amused and finally very exasperated. ‘Stop, you stupid bird,’ I roared, but I might as well have been telling the waves to cease and desist. My irritation on the other side of the pane only served to scare it away temporarily. And from dawn today the pugilistic bird has returned.

I imagine the blackbird has a mate and a nest in the bush and is convinced its own reflection is a rival that must be humbled. Earlier this week, I read that visitors to a country house in Devon had complained that their car doors had been badly scratched. CCTV revealed the culprits: the peacocks that graced the gardens with their long, flowing tails were attacking their own reflections in the paintwork. It is of course the mating season for birds and many other animals.

I recall standing in Kings Square, Gloucester on Saturday afternoons with hordes of other teenagers to witness ritual fights between lads. These always started with jostling, then shouting, and in a flurry of fists and feet two lads would fly at each other. The girls on the steps of Debenhams howled to these jousting beaus in the square below: waving, shrieking and swearing their encouragement.

The fights were always over quickly; one rival choosing to trot away from the arena, wiping a trickle of blood from his nose or lip. The victor would raise his arms and receive accolades from the girls and his pals spectating from the steps. The teenagers would then reassemble, sitting back down on the steps of Debenhams to banter, jostle and laugh with each other again. Shortly after, the vanquished would return somewhat sheepishly to the edge of the throng.

I was fifteen, in Levis, Ben Sherman shirt and an army surplus parka, just like all the others. There was a pecking order; the lads on the steps were older or bolder. I watched the display from the sidelines, desperately wanting to join the throng on the steps but also afraid of doing so. I was a Saturday boy at Woolworths and saving up for a scooter. Next year, I told myself, I’ll join in.

Monday, 13 April 2015


The Easter trip to Dubrovnik worked out extremely well. We were upgraded to a four star hotel and given a room with a balcony. I stepped out to a panorama of the glinting Adriatic with a scattering of tree-covered islands and steep mountainsides along the coast. Then we stuffed ourselves at the breakfast buffet: fresh fruit salad and yoghourt, cold cuts or eggs and bacon, followed by fresh bread or croissants dipped in honey. Replete, we headed out for the day.

The old town, rebuilt after the 1667 earthquake, was just a ten minute bus ride. Despite the warm sunshine, Easter was early and the old town had an out-of-season feel. Small groups of tourists wandered the narrow streets, touts for restaurants and shops waved brochures and called lazily, cats slunk through shadows and St Blaise stared down at the throng with his mad flowing beard. We walked the walls, a roof-top circuit of the old town, bounded by the jade sea on two sides; a jumbled patchwork of terracotta tiles with the towers of monasteries and the dome of the cathedral spearing the blue sky. In places you were looking into gardens and back yards filled with washing, children’s toys and cats. Plenty of roofs had bright tiles, replaced after the shelling of the city when it was under siege during the Yugoslav war.

At the old port all sorts of small boats, some with glass bottoms, were offered for hire; one, a strange red submarine that we later saw wallowing through the waves beyond the breakwater. We took the hourly ferry to the island of Lokrum, formerly a holiday escape for the Hapsburgs and now a botanic garden and nature reserve with many peacocks. We also made an all-day boat trip to the Elaphite Islands and wandered steep rocky paths around old olive groves and ate grilled hake with salad and fresh bread.

Back at the hotel after a day out, we would unwind in the sauna and then head to dinner. Again this was a buffet, with the delight of many new foods to try: lots of Mediterranean fish dishes, of course, the most interesting of many was black squid risotto (flavoured by its ink). There were also plenty of meat dishes to choose from, but nothing very unusual. We really liked the local white wine, Grasevina, which was akin to Sauvignon Blanc. The desserts were very good too: strudels made with apple, cherry and poppy seed, as well as excellent ice-cream.

We made several long day-trips: into Montenegro (the, well named, country of the Black Mountains) to visit Kotor, another walled city on the sea (formerly part of the Venetian empire) but this time with Eastern Orthodox churches and contemporary Russian influences. And into Bosnia to visit Mostar, a town divided between Catholics and Muslims that had seen much ethnic violence during the recent war, culminating in the destruction of the old bridge that spanned the river between the two communities. Despite the tourist influx to visit the rebuilt bridge, Mostar had an air of decline with a number of building still bullet and shell scarred. Our guide asked each of us where we came from, when I said NI he grimaced a little and shook his head, to him our wee conflict seemed incomprehensible.