Not Quite a Thieving Magpie

Last night I wandered over to The Crippled Bee, where (amongst other things) I poured around a pint of dark amber liquid through the opening of my mouth, down my throat and into my stomach – as is the fashion in this part of the world.

Earlier in the day, as it happens, I had cast my dark green eyes over this post (courtesy of ‘Fed by Birds’), which put into my mind an anecdote regarding the late Johannes Speyer, which I proceeded to declaim to the assembled company. It was, I think, well received. Here, for your edification, is a shortened version of the fascinating tale.

One afternoon in nineteen seventy something, Professor Johannes Speyer was burgled. They didn’t take much, but what they did take was of great sentimental value. An un-read copy of Tristram Shandy, bound in silver and encrusted with pearls. His grandmother’s pocket watch, which went from five to six – and back again. A golf-ball paperweight, given to him by a girl whose name he could never remember (though she was, he told me once, the ‘love of his life’). Lastly a pair of cufflinks, on which someone had inscribed Coleridge’s Kubla Khan in miniature. All these were taken.

Much more might have been lost, however, had Speyer not installed – at great personal expense – a complex security system, supported by a shrieking siren, loud enough to alert all of his close neighbours (of which he had none). Still, the noise did at least put off the thieves, who luckily did not linger long enough to discover Speyer’s collection of late nineteenth century Polish first editions (from Pawel Plinsk to Jan Konoczeska).

Nevertheless, Speyer took the burglary badly. Milk-starved kittens have moped and mourned less than he. He tried to forget – but it was hard to get the whole thing out of his head. Whenever he found himself on the cusp of willing it all away, he was brought back to the source again. Something kept bringing it back to him. And that something was a magpie.

The magpie had, it turned out, been present at the scene of the crime. I am not, of course, suggesting that it was a thieving magpie; nor I am blaming the bird for failing to contact the relevant authorities. I will, as it happens, forgive any bird for standing idly by. This was not, however, an especially idle magpie. On the contrary, this magpie seems to have found plently to do during the robbery – not least picking up and memorising the sound of the burglar alarm, which it proceeded to sing it back to Speyer every morning for the next nine months. Every morning. On the dot.

That was it. He had had enough. The security siren magpie was driving him mad. It was hard to get away from the idea that the bird was, to coin a colloquialism, ‘rubbing it in’. Something had to be done.

I don’t know how precious you are about books as objects, but Speyer was one of those critics by no means averse to ‘a bit of mud on the spine’. So long as they found their way back to the shelf eventually, he liked the idea of his books ‘going on journeys’.  An unbattered book was to him a sad thing; like old men or women who have never really lived. It was therefore with little reluctance (and, perhaps, sense) that he chose as his magpie-murdering-weapon-of-choice a English-German lexicon.

The most extraordinary thing about all this is, of course, that it worked. Who would have thought a magpie could be defeated by an elderly academic tossing a lexicon? You probably underestimate the size of the lexicon – and the doziness of the magpie (who was probably ‘getting on a bit’ itself). Nevertheless, one must still hand it to Speyer. Good shot professor!

(n.b. this blog does not support the killing of magpies with lexicons)


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