Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Bill Drummond

Bill Drummond | 8th December 2019

It’s time once again for the annual series of postings we like to call Shadows and Reflections, in which our contributors and friends look back on the past twelve months. From Bill Drummond:


How many birds are in your daily life?
And when I mean daily life – birds that you see and hear and acknowledge almost every day if not actually everyday.

Some years ago there seemed like there were hundreds in my daily life.
And every one of them, I would recognise their songs, their dances, their jizz. 
Know all their comings and goings. 
Their dates of arrival and possible departures.
And when I was younger, much younger, I collected their eggs.
The life and death of birds were part of my life if not my death.
But that was a different time.
A different landscape.
Long gone are those blue forgotten hills.

And now there are hardly more than five types of birds in my daily life.

A few months ago I got an invitation to curate and present a couple of weeks of Tweet of the Day on BBC Radio 4. 

I was so blown away with this invitation that I did not read it properly.
This to me seemed like the ultimate accolade.
Sod the honorary doctorate for…
That Desert Island with its Discs could be drowned by the rising sea levels…And all those that had accepted medals with the word Empire in it can go and work as a slave on a sugar plantation for the rest of their lives.


As far as I am concerned there could be no higher honour in the land than being asked to present and curate Tweet of the Day for one week, let alone two.

I knew exactly which birds I wanted to choose and why.
They were those birds that are there in this, my very daily life.
They were the birds that are there now as I look out from my window while typing these words on a grim, arse end of the year, day.
Those birds that are still hanging on in there.
Well actually there are only two types right now.
So I will start with them.

Across the road from my flat is the bus shelter.
Behind the bus shelter is a small three-sided public garden.
In the public garden is a cherry tree and a hawthorn tree.
My life is measured by those trees coming into blossom.
And then the last of their blossom being blown away.
And of course there is a buddleia bush that no one asked to be there.
There are also three benches.
On these benches sit the local street drinkers and heroin users.
And then there is the flock of Feral Pigeons.
They are there now.
The Feral Pigeons not the street drinkers and heroin users – right now it’s pissing down with rain, so even they have somewhere else better to be.
But the Feral Pigeons are there – whatever the weather.
And if you don’t know Feral Pigeons are the pigeons that you get in cities all over the world. They used to be Rock Doves, but that was several hundred years ago. Now they are the rats of the air. The ones that you are not supposed to feed. But we do. Every day there are folk out there feeding this flock of Feral Pigeons, with their left over and stale bread.
And every day I hear them cooing and the males of the species puffing themselves up and prancing about in an attempt to impress the ladies of the flock – they never seem impressed. 

Then there is the flock of Starlings that have just landed on the aerial on the top of the block of council flats that is just beyond the public garden. I often wonder, as I am now, how long these now long redundant aerials will be there. Like those also even longer redundant chimney pots that are still so much part of our urban landscape. But as I have been writing this last paragraph, the flock of Starlings have lifted into the air and moved on.

But the Lone Crow has returned to his favourite spot. And that is at the top corner of the block of council flats. He sits there looking down at the gang of Feral Pigeons, he is wondering if there are any pickings down there for him. He is more interested in last night’s discarded takeaway kebab. As his ‘real’ name suggests – Carrion Crow – he is far more interested in dead and rotting flesh than stale bread. I can hear him craw.

Then it is the turn for an Urban Gull to swoop down, scattering the flock of Feral Pigeons. It is neither the stale bread nor the flung away kebabs that she is after. For her it is the scattered and soggy chips that take her fancy. She is joined by her cousins. Together they kick up a celebratory din with their screeches and cries. The Feral Pigeons temporarily take to the air as a flock. They swirl overhead. Then land in a line on the fence around the top of the block of council flats. They wait their time for the Urban Gulls to have taken their fill and moved on. Then those Feral Pigeons head back down to reclaim their patch in the garden.

These Gulls only arrived into our cities in the past few decades. Before then they were out there on the cliffs around our coasts feeding on the shoals of Herring. But those shoals of Herring have long gone. 

The rain is quitting or at least abating.
The first of the street drinkers has turned up to claim their place on one of the three benches. Their can of Ace safely hidden in a black plastic bag.
One of the cock Feral Pigeons puffs up his feathers and does his little dance.
A bus pulls up at the bus stop.
A second street drinker alights and joins his comrade.

Then just as the Lone Crow returns to his spot at the corner at the top of the council flats, that cry can be heard. If not louder, certainly more penetrating, than the others. The cry of the Green Parakeet.
Five of them are leaping across the sky.
Where did they come from?
Why are they here?
Will they go back to where they came from when we leave Europe?
What do they eat?
Not the stale bread, or last night’s kebab or the discarded soggy chips.
They never seem to land on this small triangular public garden.
But they are here with the rest of us that don’t really belong.

When I first moved into this flat a dozen or so years ago, there was always a squabble of Cockney Sparrows in the Hawthorn Tree. They would squabble away all day minding their own business. But like their cockney cousins of yore, they seemed to have disappeared. Maybe they too, have headed out to Essex, with their brexiteering namesakes.

And that is about it – except for the memory and the longing for the return of that most inspiring of city birds The Swift. Each year I yearn for their return in early May. There sense of freedom and adventure always fills me with hope, that there is more to life than…

But this past May, there were hardly any returning to tear across our skies with their celebratory screeches. Where had they gone? A better city? One with more hope? Bigger skies? Right now as this year is almost at its darkest and most dismal, I am holding on for their return.

As for Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day – they were not interested in me choosing from these birds and those street drinkers and the heroin users that define the landscape of my days. They had already selected the bird songs that I was to choose. I was to be merely a mouthpiece. A vague name that some of the listeners might have heard of.

Time moves on.
Time to put the kettle on.