Sutton, Surrey 1974
Something wasn’t right. The everyday appearance of the back garden had been disturbed by an alien infusion of colour, wrecking the familiar greens and browns. This visual violation was a confection of salmon-pink, dusty grey, brilliant white, jet black and, at its centrepiece, a fizzing vibrancy of shocking blue. My mind tried to process what was before me, brain and eyes guilty of a malfunctioning synchronisation, senses that had been thrown into chaos by this sudden manifestation on the lawn. The recognition of feathers within this riot of colour was quickly followed by the understanding of what it was I was looking at. A bird. It was a bird that I could put a name to. And that name was Jay.
Jay. I could scarcely believe it.
Name became mantra, inwardly repeated as the bird stood motionless on the lawn. My breathing became shallow, my body still, so as not to spook the bird with any movement. It was a struggle to understand what was happening, why a bird – yes, a bird - was having this effect on me. Several seconds passed. The Jay had not moved, frozen on the grass, imperial and confident, sending out a clear message - “Look at me, see how wonderous I am!”
My attention was owned by the bird. Then, with a sideways cock of the head, as if digesting some usefully gleaned information, it hopped across the grass and took flight. The exit was as sudden as the entry. My audience with this colourful crow had lasted barely ten seconds. I still did not move, my thoughts a mixture of surprise, of wonder and of pleasure. What on earth had just happened? I started to piece together that which had fleetingly appeared before me. The bird’s dusty pink body had been set against pied wings, but most stunning of all was a vivid blue section of feathering, of which I could not tell of where it belonged, that appeared to be on a different plane from the rest of the plumage - dancing out in front, hypnotic and other-worldly. Had I ever seen anything so dazzling? I waited for it to return, but after half-an-hour admitted to myself that it was a no-show. The image of the bird, despite the celestial fanfare of its sudden and shocking entrance, had already started to fade, my recollection becoming just a series of colourful blurs, smudges of a dandified plumage now smeared across my memory banks. I ached to see the bird again.
The only reason that I had been able to give this wonderful apparition a name was down to my fellow Sutton Manor High School pupil, Mark Greenway. Only a week before, we had both taken part in an art lesson in which we were asked to create a picture titled ‘Conflict’. Most pupils interpreted this as an excuse to let their 14 and 15-year old minds loose and depict images of battle, blood and weaponry. The poster paint and charcoal in their hands was soon being used to manufacture imagined violence. I joined in with this mass orgy of machismo, creating a work that has long since been consigned to a waste-bin and utterly forgotten. But one pupil had expressed a different take on the subject matter, and one that was to have a lasting effect on me.
I stood over this ‘alternative’ painting – that of a cat, leaping into the air with paw outstretched, a claw-tipped swipe narrowly missing a fleeing bird. The latter appeared exotic, and my curiosity was aroused. “Is the bird a parrot?” I asked. Mark slowly shook his head, accompanied by a chuckle that suggested I had made a foolish mistake. “No, it’s called a Jay. You’d see them in your garden.” This, I could not believe. I had never before observed a bird that was so colourful, at least not outside of a zoo or the inside of a glass case in a museum. I doubted him. In fact, I just didn’t believe him. Despite the curiosity, a bird escaping a cat could not hold my attention for very long and I soon wandered away from the painting to look at those that the other students had fashioned. The Jay was not given a moment’s further thought.
The very same bird depicted in that classroom painting had now come to three-dimensional life. It had been a larger bird than I thought it would be (not that I had given any thought about the bird’s size until the very moment that I saw one in the back garden). There were two overriding thoughts - firstly, I had been able to identify the bird and give it a name. This was a new experience. Secondly, I wanted – no, I needed – to see it again. This had been a revelation, a hidden world revealed. And although I was not suggesting to myself that the appearance of the Jay, so shortly after seeing the painting was an omen, at the very least it was surely a sign. A sign of what, I did not know, but I was convinced that pure chance was not behind it.
The next couple of days found me looking out over the garden, waiting for the Jay – any Jay - to come and visit. That did not happen. But in its place other birds that did enter the garden were given a modest once-over. This was a practice that was utterly new to me. That birds came into the garden was something that I was aware happened, but of no more a consequence or revelation than that it sometimes rained, the sun might shine and that the grass was green. Some of these birds that arrived I could give a vague name to – sparrow, tit, robin, thrush, pigeon - but I could not be any more specific than that. I didn’t need to, had never wanted to. There were also several that I didn’t know at all. My interest in these garden birds did not, as I thought might happen, fade away after a couple more weeks. If anything, it grew into a fascination. Observing these birds with the naked eye was, up to a point, all well and good, but plumage details were sometimes hard to make out and, I was surprised to realise, I was starting to demand a closer look.