Sparrows are the loose change of the birding world. Unremarked and undervalued they gather in the neglected pockets of our townscape where their busy lives attract little notice. Yet this spring they have given me more pleasure than almost any other bird.

The yard outside my kitchen window is part of the well between two rows of terraced houses. Beyond the fence is a confusion of alleyways, lean-tos and flat roofed sheds. From upstairs you can see the Ivy that has swallowed the asbestos roof of a neighbouring  outbuilding; Elder has found purchase in a crack in the concrete by some bins next door and produced a stunted tree that in May and June puts out a creamy froth of flowers. A Hop has scrambled from an abandoned garden further down and run riot over the expanse of a corrugated bin store. Gulls stare down into this urban valley from the rooftops. From first light the joyous chirruping of Sparrows fills the space. 

House Sparrows are red-listed birds. According to the BTO their numbers have declined by over 70% since the 1970s.  Much of this can be put down to loss of habitat. Today – like typhoid, unemployment, and drug-dealing – they tend to thrive in areas of social deprivation. They love unkempt gardens that are strangers to pesticides. Undulating clay pan-tiles that offer access to roof spaces. Cracked concrete where rainwater gathers and weeds and invertebrates thrive. Unmodernised run-down buildings are prime sparrow real-estate. Redevelopment is all too often their nemesis. Building regulations usher in plastic mesh to keep them out of the eaves. Roofs are dressed with modern interlocking tiles, which offer no access. Weed filled gardens become sterile patios. The inevitable result is that gentrification deprives them of their traditional nesting sites just as surely as neglect offered them a home.

Sparrows are never still. More than any other bird they seem to bustle. The females are slim and agile. The males, despite their diminutive size, have an almost matronly heft. They shoulder their way in and out of the guttering with all the purpose of Hattie Jaques arriving on the ward. They are the comic turns of lockdown, wheeled on to keep the audience happy before the main event.

My own sparrows share the yard with a pair of Dunnock, who were sparrows once – Hedge Sparrows – but after a name change are sparrows no longer. Dunnock are promiscuous birds. They lower the tone like a couple of swingers at a family barbecue. What passes for Dunnock foreplay involves the male pecking at the female’s cloacal opening trying to encourage her to eject any sperm left by a previous amorous male. When he’s satisfied at last his leap onto her is so ungainly that it sometimes leaves him flat on his back. A moment of pure carry-on comedy to follow the sordid preparation.

Inevitably the birding world tends to favour the rare and the exotic, the vagrants from distant lands, the megas. Sparrows don’t really cut it in this company. But the Sparrows don’t give a toss. They’ve got things to do. Nests to build, young to rear, seeds to find. They are the cheery, round-shouldered ambassadors of Here. Sparrows are a reminder that you don’t have to dash up to Fair Isle to see a doomed Desert Wheatear to feel your world enlarged.  Instead you could just pull up a chair near the open back door, pour yourself a glass of wine, and soak up their joyful celebration of the everyday.

Lockdown. Day 31

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By 9.30 the sun has levered itself above the school next door but it is still cool in the garden. A blackbird is singing somewhere out of sight. It sounds relaxed and conversational with none of the urgency of it’s 4.30 wake-up call. The euphorbia, backlit by the sun, looks as if it’s been gilded. 

There’s a peacock butterfly on the coiled hose on the lawn. It probably overwintered in the tool shed along with the mower and the rusting spade. Goldfinches are chipping away in the flowering plum. We have bluetits in the nest box on the silver birch. Honey fungus is killing the tree from its extremities. The top is bare of leaves. There are dead branches in the emerging green outlined against the creamy backdrop of the whitebeam. This too is under threat and leans precariously over the lawn. Later we will sling the hammock between their compromised trunks.

K is busy tying straw into a mini bale to drop into the cloudy pond. Her industry is a reproach to my idleness.

But I’m busy too. I am waiting for the swifts.

News v Writing. Daily life in a changed world

In the middle of January, I embarked on an experimental news diet.  In the early days of the new decade it seemed a perfectly reasonable thing to do.  Back then, it seemed possible to step back from the 24 hour news cycle and the promptings of Twitter in an attempt to avoid the time-sink – not to mention the probable rewiring of the brain – that following it seemed to involve. The arrival of Covid-19 has changed everything. We have entered a world of lock-down where knowing what is happening in the world beyond our front door can be for some a matter of life and death.  The emerging pandemic promptly  ushered in a bewildering round of briefings, comparative charts, and mortality figures that are a daily and even hourly reminder of the urgency of the situation we find ourselves in.  The calls on our attention are even more clamorous than before and there is the nagging feeling that following the daily twists and turns of the corona narrative is somehow our civic duty. So has the central argument about following the news changed? Or is the attempt to wrest our lives back from the damaging effects of monitoring the constant stream of new information as relevant as ever?

I can divide my time since early January into pre- and post-Corona.  In the pre-Corona period, or The World As We Used To Know It, the effects of the news diet were  almost entirely beneficial. My periods at the desk, particularly in the morning, were immediately more productive. I got there earlier, and I got there with a clear head. Finding the space where the writing happens is a constant battle. To simply begin can be the hardest thing in the world. And without the constant information upload it had become easier.  The experience  was akin to putting on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones to cut out distracting sounds. The only difference was that the noise suppression seemed to have happened internally.

I had been on the point of starting a new play. What surprised me was that I started two. When the first slowed , I turned to the second.  I was reading more. In the extra time that had appeared in my day I was actively listening to much more music. My screen time – at least on the phone and the ipad – dropped from an hour or more to minutes. My time with my partner was more rewarding. My world might have contracted but it was richer and I felt more a part of it. I was sure as I could be that whatever happened I would be unlikely to go back to my old habits.

And then Corona arrived.

First slowly, then abruptly, life changed. I found myself in a world where something as mundane as going to the shops needed a carefully executed plan.  The virus was proving so contagious that even the government’s team assembled to deal with the pandemic came down with it. Within days the Prime Minister was in intensive care.  Contacts with friends moved online. Zoom and Facetime replaced real life contact as the infection spread through the community. In the empty streets joggers gave each other a wide berth. Nor are the changes happening on a local scale. The pandemic is wreaking havoc world wide. The death toll could reach a million. And  bizarrely, in the street outside, a man is pollarding limes in a front garden.

This is not normal.  Or rather this state of affairs has become the new normal.

So – inevitably – the news diet was an early casualty. Once again The Guardian live feed was open on my desktop, so too was my Twitter feed. The daily 4.30 briefing found me in front of the tv. Life became noisy again. For a few days work at the desk carried on. It was a little less satisfying and my grip on the project I was working on slipped. It was harder to hold things together on the page. And then, also inevitably, it all got away from me. Writing stopped.

I dug a pond. I made mesh covers for the raised beds. I planted lettuces. I baked bread. I photographed a buzzard in the empty sky over the house. But on the play – nothing.

So as the lock-down drags on the obvious question becomes: can I take the lessons learned from the pre-corona days into the changed world of today and start writing again?

Of course the idea of a news diet never did mean closing my eyes to what’s going on in the outside world. It was the constant moment by moment distraction of the feeds that I was trying to cut out. So to make life more productive again I know what I have to do. I have to close the news channels and Twitter on my desktop. I have to let them do the 4.30 briefing without me. By limiting my exposure to the current crisis to a once a day catch-up I ought to be able to both stay abreast of developments and get back to work. Or at least that’s the theory.

Ok. Let’s try that.