There is a light frost in the bedraggled grass and scrappy brambles. For the first time, it feels like winter has arrived, very gently, and is drifting in wisps of mist above the brown stillness of the canal.
As I crouch to listen, my breath steams, and my dog pants, cloud upon cloud.
To my right, through the trees, a weak sun rises. The light is milky and the shadows are long.
As early as this there are no dog walkers, or young women with children in pushchairs, no cyclists on the towpath, and no distant sound of traffic. All I can hear is a squabbling magpie and a screeching jay, confronting each other on the other side of the canal, in the hawthorns that border on the dead heather.
I can’t see either of them, of course, but I can crouch down and listen to their attempts to lay claim to the day and the year’s dwindling supply of food.
The jay is welcome, for its habit of burying acorns is partly responsible for the spread of the oak trees. The magpie has had a poor press, particularly as it seems to have become more numerous in suburbia, but it is really beautiful. What people think of as its black feathers are, in fact, iridescent green, and the birds will eat absolutely anything.
It doesn’t make the most beautiful noise, but what I like about it, apart from its plumage, is its gutsiness and arrogant cheek. It always seems to be saying, “You might not like me, but you liked the skylark, didn’t you? And look where that got the skylark. Nearly extinct, that’s where it got it. You won’t get rid of me that easily!”
Shelley wrote, in Ode to a Skylark,“Hail to thee, blithe spirit!” I write, in Ode to a Magpie, “Hail to thee, Jack of All Trades!”