Horse Sense

Despite the elephant in the room
The ostrich has the best policy
Letting sleeping dogs lie
Rather than disturbing a hornets’ nest
Or opening a can of worms.
So don’t let the cat out of the bag
Or put her among the pigeons.
A wise monkey knows better than
A bull in a china shop.
Instead of telling it straight from the horse’s mouth
Just let the cat have your tongue.

May Day Traditions

“Do you remember the May Day horses and ponies?” asked our neighbour, Stan, who likes to reminisce about the old days. I did, vaguely, but not as clearly as Stan, who is a few years older than me. As a boy, he lived within view of the canal which was still used in those days by bargees to transport goods all around the country. Big strong horses plodded along the towpath pulling the barges, where entire families lived in very cramped conditions. On 1 May these horses would be decked out in their horse brasses and bright gaudy ribbons, a feast for the eyes. In the towns, where many tradesmen had horses and carts, there was often a parade with the wagons cleaned and repainted, the horses scrubbed and brushed with their hoofs oiled, and once again wearing coloured ribbons. Sometimes a silver cup was awarded to the best horse and wagon.

By the mid nineteen-fifties, freight was transported by road and rail rather than canal so the barges were abandoned. In towns, with petrol no longer rationed, most tradesmen swapped their horse and cart for a van or lorry, so those parades also stopped. In just a few areas, May Day parades and fairs continued as a kind of carnival but the flavour had changed.

Happily, we found this local TV report from 1 May 1974, featuring a typical Black Country ‘oss mon’ speaking his native tongue. Perhaps it should have subtitles. (Sorry, this doesn’t seem to work by clicking – but well worth cutting and pasting.)

And then I found this, which is a Bavarian flashmob singing about May day fun in yet another delightful dialect!  


Some impressive photos by Tonya at Fourth Generation Farmgirl struck a chord with me, and I remembered a short poem I wrote many years ago.
So with Tonya’s permission, here are two of her pictures and my sheep poem.

cloudsThe sky is a blue meadow overhead
Where the wind rounds up his flock of clouds.
Below, fat fluffy cushions scattered on the green hillside,
The sheep graze
While the shepherd watches and smokes his pipe.
The dog at his master’s feet waits for a word.

The rain falls.
The shepherd, under his umbrella, smokes his pipe.
Man and dog wait and watch
Wooden figures from a carved nativity.

Jesus’ Little Donkey

That little donkey on Palm Sunday bothered me for a long time.

I first heard the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem when I was little, in an illustrated book of Bible Stories for children. These aren’t always a good idea, as I know from my own experience that they can be misleading owing to their oversimplification. I have no problems with all the symbolic stuff, fulfilment of prophecies and the religious significance of Jesus’ mount that day. My concerns were very prosaic, those of a child.

It was an ass’s colt that had never been ridden before, and I’d seen enough donkeys and their foals to know that for one thing, a baby donkey wouldn’t bear a man’s weight, and secondly if you try to mount an animal that hasn’t been broken in, it’s going to kick up its heels and try to throw you off. I couldn’t see Jesus as a rodeo cowboy on a bucking bronco.

My childish objections were soothed by the explanation that the little donkey was probably about two years old, so though technically still a foal it was nearly an adult, and strong enough to carry a man. Plus it would instinctively recognise Jesus as the Messiah and so would behave itself and not try to throw him off.

When I read the story for myself in the Gospel of Matthew, I noticed it said that there were two donkeys – the colt and its mother – and Jesus rode on “them”. Again, my literal mind tried to envisage him astride the two, though I couldn’t see how he could sit on them both at the same time. Did he stand with a foot on each one, like a circus performer? Then someone pointed out that the other gospels only mention one donkey, and Matthew had got it wrong. That didn’t seem right: what about “gospel truth”?

Credit: - proof that someone else wondered about this!

Credit: – proof that someone else wondered about this!

Well, probably the other 3 Evangelists had concentrated on the young one, and simply ignored its mother. Eventually, I concluded that probably there had been two, because Mama would have spontaneously trotted along with her little one. And it doesn’t actually say that Jesus rode both at the same time: it’s a two-mile journey so quite feasible that he rode the older one first and saved the colt for his actual entry into Jerusalem.

And why didn’t it kick and buck? Well, I suppose Jesus must have been the ultimate horse whisperer – or in this case, donkey whisperer. Or perhaps they had already met, and the little donkey knew and trusted him?

That leads me to my final question: how did Jesus know where the disciples would find these two donkeys? It’s always been presented to me as evidence of his omniscience, but there is a very plausible explanation.

This is only a suggestion, and doesn’t in any way diminish the omniscience of Jesus. But I have noticed that he didn’t go around performing magic tricks to impress people. He kept miracles for special occasions, and where “normal” laws of nature apply, he followed them. He usually took the boat, for instance, and didn’t always walk across the lake.

Thousands of people congregated at Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover, and it would have been as difficult to find a room there as it was at Christmas. But this time, Jesus wouldn’t need to go knocking on inn doors or looking for a stable to sleep in, because he had good friends in Bethany, within walking distance of the city: Lazarus, Mary and Martha.

Apparently he stayed overnight during Holy Week in Bethphage, just outside Jerusalem. The donkeys were tied up outside a particular house “in the next village”, which quite possibly could have been Bethany, and the house that of Lazarus. When the disciples were asked why they were untying the animals, the reply “The Lord has need of them” would make perfect sense to anyone of Lazarus’ household, and they certainly wouldn’t argue. So maybe Jesus had already arranged with his friends for the donkeys to be there, ready and waiting?

It was a relief to me to find these explanations. I can now focus on the truly miraculous aspects of Palm Sunday!

Magpie Mayhem

Between our back garden and the neighbours’, we have a tall fence covered in densely growing winter jasmine. Hearing a loud jabberwockery the other day, I looked out and saw a mighty magpie viciously attacking something in the twiggy mass. It was joined by a second (oh good, two for joy!) and the two of them savagely thrust beaks and claws into the jasmine, vigorously pulling out lengths of stems and snapping them off.

Were they collecting nesting material? But if so, why not just take the dead shoots instead of breaking off living ones? Was their thousand-volt attack aimed at some poor quivering creature hiding in the foliage? I shuddered at the thought of the power behind those vorpal beaks, and certainly would not want to be a mouse or small bird on the receiving end. After some time the second one flew away, and the original bird followed.

I went out to see what had caused this outburst of apparent yobbery. The fence is 6 feet high on the neighbour’s side, but our land is lower so the top is 7 feet up on our side, and I had to reach as high as I could to look into the bush. Yes, there was something there: a dark shape, something hard, not – thank God! – a creature, either alive or dead. I reached in and with a bit of effort pulled it out.

It was the remains of a computer keyboard minus most of the keycaps, what I believe is called the keyswitch membrane. How it got there is a mystery. We’ve had some very strong winds lately, so probably it was blown there from someone’s rubbish. Why were the magpies so incensed by it?

IMG_0525 It’s basically black on the side where the keycaps go but the underside is lined with silver-coloured foil. Did the black side look like some threatening animal with myriad eyes?IMG_0526

We all know that magpies are attracted by shiny things although latest research suggests that they are frightened of them.

Whether it was fear or desire firing our pair, I don’t know. Magpies, like all corvidae, are highly intelligent birds, but who can tell what was going on in their birdy heads? Were they trying to kill it? Or is a computer keyboard the latest status symbol for the yuppy magpie nest, preparing the nestlings for life in the age of social media from the moment they are hatched? Pick and peck system of typing, of course; you couldn’t expect them to learn to touch type and they don’t have thumbs. It might also have made a good rainproof roof for the nest: shiny side outside, naturally, to impress less affluent birds.

Magpies get a bad press, and they are blessed with a very raucous voice, but I have to confess to my admiration for these extremely clever and beautiful creatures, with their proud tail and iridescent green-blue-purple feathers. They are truly gorgeous to look at close up. But I was also shocked at the vigour and violence of their attack.

I was tempted to leave the keyboard out in the garden for them and watch what they did with it, but my ecological instincts prevailed and I regretfully put it in the recycling bin instead. After all, I wouldn’t want to be responsible for the first computer-literate clutch of pica pica.

A Funny Old Woman In The Park

I’ve just posted a Black Country dialect version of this on my Black Country page, but I can’t help chuckling at the memory and decided to put a standard English version out, too. A murmuration of starlings is a wonderful sight, and there are some stunning photographs on this site.

Those starlings!
Making a racket and clatter
While they’re settling in for the night.
When we were kids we’d make them scatter
Clapping our hands suddenly
And in fright
They’d rise up like a cloud and fly
In a big whirly swirly pattern,
A million dots filling the sky.

I’d forgotten all that.
You don’t see them so much today.
But just now I heard them chatter
As I was coming through the park.
There was nobody in sight
So I clapped my hands and made them scatter,
Just for devilment.
Then I saw I wasn’t alone after all:

There was a little kid on a swing, staring at me –
Wondering what was the matter!

The Early Bird With A Frog In His Throat

I heard a blackbird yesterday morning: a strange, half-strangled song, as if he was gargling. I remember my father telling me as a child that blackbirds lose their voices in the winter, and it’s rare to hear one before mid-February. Then they have to practise until they can sing properly. My father is no longer around to enlighten me, but I googled this piece of information and discovered that urban birds start singing before rural ones, so that could explain why this bird is so early. Studies show that the first birds to sing are the young cocks that hatched the previous year. Aha, I thought, little songster, then I know who you are.

I have quasi-maternal feelings towards this particular young male bird, if he is indeed the one I believe him to be, as he hatched in our garden. I don’t know if he was the only one of his clutch to survive, or if he was simply the last to leave the nest, but I first became aware of him last summer when I was working in the garden. I noticed that each time I moved any part of a very large fuchsia plant entangled in the winter jasmine near the French window, there came a squeaky noise. I thought at first it was a twig rubbing against the glass, but soon realised that it had to be a creature living in the dense foliage. I looked out for parent birds, but saw none. They had presumably abandoned him or been caught by cats. Image1406

A little later, our juvenile emerged, stumbling about among the leafy roots and stems of the herbaceous border next to the fuchsia. Soon he ventured further out onto the grass, where he stood stock still looking bewildered at the big wide world around him. In spite of appearing to be totally gormless – naïve is the correct term, I believe, but this fledgling looked beyond naïve – he managed to survive visits from various neighbouring felines, retreating hurriedly to the protection of the fuchsia and jasmine whenever he sensed danger. Not so green as cabbage-looking, then!


After about a week, I saw him actually spread his wings and fly a little way, up onto the garage roof. He stood there, as if amazed at what he’d accomplished and wondering what comes next. It must have occurred to him that if he could fly up, he might also be able to fly down, and that’s what he did. And back to his nest.

Adult male blackbirds are beautiful sleek, black-feathered fellows with a bright yellow bill. Juveniles are a muddy dark brown all over, which is excellent camouflage against the soil here, and if they are all as clumsy as our little lad, they need it.

Over the months he became more adept at bird skills, and left his safe place in the fuchsia, obviously opting to roost in one of the neighbouring trees. He has remained a regular visitor to our garden, and appears here as if following a schedule between 9 and 10 am and again between 1 and 2 pm, sometimes with a robin or two. At present, the robins are winning The Voice competition, but I’m pretty certain it won’t be long before Billy Blackbird gets the edge. And then we’ll hear him celebrating the end of each April shower and announcing his yellow-billed presence to the world.