MH900430684Beneath the window of the room in which I write there is an elderberry bush. Yesterday was 30th September.
I mention these two apparently disconnected facts for this one very good reason. They are not at all disconnected.
For the bush, 30th September was a very special day. Within those tangled roots somewhere it probably conceals a little diary all of its own, with 30th September underlined: ‘Prime fruit day’.
And it turns out that same diary entry is shared by others. I know this because at precisely 3:00pm the sun was blotted by a mass of starlings, a hundred or more strong, as they flocked to keep their appointment with the bush. By the time I had reached the window the bush was a heaving mass of sleek feathers and sharp beaks, stripping fruit on an industrial scale. Seconds later they were gone, off, doubtless, to their next appointment. Busy day!
We could leave it there; place the whole subject to one side. Starlings – bush – OK. But if we dig a little deeper…..
As I move through my own routines, I notice not one, but several similar appointments being kept. Buddleias bejewelled with butterflies, Red Admiral and Tortoiseshell, Corvids in black clouds following the plough, hedgerows thick with fruit-plucking seniors – yes, we do it too!
It is easy to dismiss such behaviour in other species as simply the drive for food and yes, that would carry the argument were it not for the following: football and Harrods.
If we did not seem to follow the same patterns ourselves.
Why do we go to football matches? It is easier, more comfortable, and heaven knows how much cheaper to watch it on TV. The sole excuse for the mortgage it cost us to get that season ticket lies in one word – atmosphere. Why do so many queue in the cold of Christmas night outside a department store? Is it really to be sure to get first pitch at that white calf leather furniture suite, or is it something much deeper and more sinister?
Do we still swarm or flock for protection? Safety in numbers? I don’t think so. Anonymity? Ah, now wait a minute….
Where else can we spend an afternoon shouting our heads off and insulting the world at large, or if you are a yob and take it to extremes go on a rampage, damaging property and assaulting policemen? Where else is it acceptable to shoulder-charge the very people with whom you have passed an uncomfortable night in conversation, just because they stand between you and that furniture suite?
We know, of course, that atmosphere changes human behaviour; that we revert to our tribal past, that we become energised, hysterical, even violent. But watching the starlings I believe it is also a circular argument: I believe we enjoy it, maybe celebrate it. In the crowd there is constant social interaction: “Nice berry, this one, Chas!”
“Oh, yeah! This is the best branch, certain!”
But there is no hierarchy, no enforceable sense of order:
“Let go of that sweater! I am wealthier than you!”
“You let go – I can pay and you’d look like a scarecrow in it anyway!”
What we do in the crowd is disguised by the crowd, rendered acceptable by the label: ‘Game’ or ‘Sale’. Actions unforgivable when we are on our own are overlooked or excused by the situation. We relish the tensions it induces, in fact we revel in them – they are the source of our enjoyment. We can fight nails bared over a particularly tempting crop of blackberries, or peck injuriously at the hand on those jeans we know will be just our size, without the burden of guilt.
There is a perverse pleasure in tension. We need it. By which token it is not Christmas day, but the fight to buy presents and the frustrations of the journey home, that makes the occasion. The skirmishes at the turnstile, the infantry charge at the doors, the plunge through painful nettles to the crown of thorns – these are highlights we remember. The fights, the scars, the personalities, are forgotten.
Do you doubt me? Do you recollect how you were so far back in the crowd you had to ask the guy next to you which team was which, and how every time anyone got near a goal your view was blotted out entirely by the man in front of you with the banner? Do you recall that blackberry pie you were served at Auntie Meg’s when you went to tea, and how you glorified the wonderful taste of the fresh fruit? Come on, now, how good was it really? Blackberries are not exactly the most flavoursome of nature’s bounties, are they? Admit it, the pastry was the tastiest thing about it, wasn’t it? I admire you, by the way, for persevering with that sweater and those jeans, neither of which fit and are so very definitely not your colour.
What happened to the white leather suite after you discovered it wouldn’t go through your sitting room door? Is it still on the pavement outside?
“Chas, old son, move over, will you? This perch is narrow enough as it is.”
“Sorry Bert. Touch of the Delhi tummies, see? Maybe I shouldn’t have had that last elderberry…..”