I haven’t blogged in a while now. Depression, which has dogged my life since my early forties, has been having a go at me in recent weeks. So much so that with the three hours every morning that I dedicate to writing, I’ve been too tired mentally to write anything beyond that. But today – life feels about right; I feel almost normal. I know only too well I might have to retract what I’m about to say, but the clouds seem to have broken. I don’t imagine for one moment that they’ve broken never to obscure the sun again – but now is now and that’s enough. I’ve done my three hours on the book today and it feels good to still have the energy to want to turn my attention now to the blog.
I‘ve written elsewhere in this blog that I live in a flat – or apartment – that overlooks a very pretty park in South London. I get up any time between six and seven in the morning, and first thing I do – or almost the first – is look out of the kitchen window. The overnight long haul flights are turning into their final approach to Heathrow – British Airways, Qantas, Cathay Pacific, Qatar, Emirates, Virgin etc., etc. And I often think back to my time in the film industry and that awful feeling after a twelve or more hour flight from somewhere in the world and you haven’t really slept (I never could) and maybe you had a glass too many of something or other the night before and you’re unwashed and unshaven and feeling pretty inhuman. And when you get down on the ground you’re going to have to stand and watch those interminable baggage carousels going round and back, and round and back while anticipating the business of getting home through a London whose morning rush hour is just winding itself up. I wouldn’t want to be doing it again. Even so, when I was doing it on a regular basis, I sort of revelled in it – I was part of the ‘in’ crowd. At least, that’s how it appeared – and it seemed important then.
However – that’s not really what I was going to say. What I was going to say was, that as I look out of the kitchen window first thing in the morning, that which has delighted me almost every day now since the 7th of May when they first appeared, is a group of up to about twenty swifts which have obviously nested close by, and whose aerobatics over the park have been wonderful to watch.
They are amazing birds. Just over six and a half inches or 16.5 centimetres, they are basically dark brown all over, but looking black against the sky – which is the only way most of us are ever going to see them. For they spend 99% of their lives on the wing, sleeping and even copulating in the air. They’re often mistaken for swallows, but in fact they’re not even of the same family. They have long, swept back wings, and their silhouette against the sky is like a sickle. They fly at enormous speeds, with periods of steady flight alternating with sudden very fast flickerings of the wings and almost instantaneous changes of direction. They’ve been encountered at altitudes of at least 10,000 feet. They are consummate acrobats. They’ll dive, sweeping from a hundred feet or more above the ground, right down sometimes to not much above head height. They can often be seen flying at colossal speed – up to seventy miles an hour – low around the housetops, in and out, skimming the chimney pots in screaming, screeching bands of a dozen or more – just for the very joy, it seems, of being alive. In their search for food for their young and for themselves, they are reputed to fly up to 500 miles in a day – that’s right, every day. Like – London to Inverness! As I watch them from my window, every few minutes, in the background will be a gargantuan Airbus 380 or Boeing Dreamliner coming in – and however technically impressive those mechanical flying machines are, they are still, by comparison with the swift, little more than befuddled, lumbering dinosaurs.
The swifts come to northern Europe from Southern Africa every year. Whereas most summer migrants to our shores stay here about six months, swifts are away a lot earlier, usually in August, having arrived only in late April or May. Although there are reckoned to be around 85,000 pairs nesting in the UK, sadly and like so many birds on the British list, they appear to be declining.
They’ve entertained me – and hopefully a lot of others in their extraordinary airborne treks – since early May, and I guess they’ll be on their way back in the next few weeks to southern Africa. How do they do that? How does any migrant bird do it? No-one really knows – either how they know the route or how they survive the journey. And how, when they come back the following year, so very many of them return to exactly the same street or farm building – even nest – where they spent the previous summer. No-one knows. And I’m glad they don’t.
I dread the scientific know-all who pops up on TV and with a smile of triumph on his or her face, breezily announces that another ‘mystery of nature’ has been solved. If we’re not careful, before long we’ll have ‘solved’ life itself. And if we think we’re in trouble now – which we are – it’s nothing to what that’ll be like.