It’s a spring day as March comes to its “out like a lamb” ending. The sun is shining and I’m out on Warneford Meadow, treading through tufty grass, and along paths worn by commuters. It is our local Green and a valuable space, with a rich and (I suspect) growing biodiversity. I am one of a number of visitors, human and non-human – and as I trot down one of the paths I see a bunch of magpies. The Opies record the rhyme as:
One for sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a wedding
Four for a death.
Lots of other versions are on record, testimony to the respect people (maybe) had for these striking birds as messengers. The Boke of Saint Albans has, in its lists of the Compaynys of beestys and fowlys has a tiding of [mag]pies (but beware: I’m not sure I trust a list with Superfluyte of Nonnys or Noonpacience of Wyves)…
One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.
Eight for a wish
Nine for a kiss
Ten a surprise you must not to miss.
(It received a boost by being the theme tune for the Thames TV production of Magpie, ITV’s Blue Peter Rival, when perhaps other customs and rhymes have fallen by the wayside – but that began when I was the key audience: a long time ago, now.)
Back to Warneford Meadow as I slog over a possible Roman settlement and try not to think about the Quis Est Iste Qui Venit of such a run. Nine magpies, then as I approach it’s four then seven and then just one. What do we make of portents whose mobility makes the I Ching look solid? Well, of course, we don’t, in general; it’s a bit of mind play while I run.
I remember that as I qualified as a teacher, the National Curriculum was just coming in, and the course leader was ending his goodbye speech to the PGCE with “May you live in interesting times.” He did not foresee where we might be today: if we were only contending with conflicting views about curriculum that would be enough, but we have Schoolsweek announcing scandal upon scandal, Unionist bands and racists openly on the streets in London vying for publicity (and no, they don’t get links) with crowds and crowds of people with more politeness and less threatened violence, a Parliamentary struggle the likes of which I have never seen before… These are interesting times, but not in a good way. There are no signs or portents to match all of this rubbish.
And while I trundle my sixty-something way and wonder about what the list of magpie numbers might portend (I really did get the one above the other week), part of my mind is wondering: instead of nines and sevens am I just seeing magpie after magpie after magpie? Sorrow and sorrow and sorrow? I don’t think I have ever felt gloomier about the state of my country and my profession.
So instead of corvid fortune telling, I will end with part of my play list for running:
Nina Simone whose version of Billy Taylor’s anthem to Freedom has been a lifesaver this winter.
And while we’re at it, her singing of Randy Newman’s great hymn to compassion.
Sod the magpies, stuff the omens: this is what we need.