On Truth, Again, and Magpies, Once More

I have responded to Lars Groot and, whilst I think it impolite to copy out a letter before it has received its intended correspondent, I am happy to inform you as to its general import.

I started by thanking him for his insightful missive, and confessed my amazement that there existed in this marvellous world a lexicographer with extensive experience of throwing books at birds. Such experience was, I hinted, invaluable, and was very gratefully recieved.

However, I continued, I did feel that his insistence on the impossibility of Speyer’s actions was put across a little too forcefully. Whilst it may be true that magpies have, over the course of history, been infrequently killed by flying lexicons, I do not see this as a reason to doubt my dear friend’s words. As Groot himself noted, perplexing things have a habit of happening; things which cannot be explained by experience, science, or commonsense. A bird being hit by a large book strikes me as but one of a series of bizarre occurences that have blighted humankind over the centuries. Who are we to say it couldn’t have happened, when it so clearly did?

In the final section of my letter I entered into shadier territory (indeed I am not wholly convinced that I should have gone down this particular path, but such is the way of long letters!) What I said was this: confident as I was in the truth of my tale, I nonetheless felt that truth, in this case, was not the most important thing. The title of my memoir, I reminded Groot, was Conversations with Speyer, not Absolutely Verifiable Anecdotes Relating to the Life of Johannes Speyer of Dreiseen. No, the point of my writing was to put down onto paper, to the best of my ability, things which Speyer had told me. Whether or not these things made sense to the mind of a modern lexicographer was neither here nor there. These were things which Speyer said, that was all. Take them as you will.

I closed my letter, not too soon, by thanking the man once again for his response, and wishing him well in his work. Though curious, I resisted the temptation to ask him why it was he had, over the course of his career, thrown so many books at birds. Some things, I thought, are better left unexplained.

On Throwing Lexicons at Magpies

A letter, recently arrived:


In my professional capacity as a lexicographer (a role I have held for some forty-seven years) I am obliged to inform you that your much-repeated tale concerning one Johannes Speyer and the murder of a largely innocent magpie [see here] bears the unfortunate mark of falseness. Far be it from me to confirm that you are hell bent on deception: mad things do happen in this world of ours, and maybe (just maybe) this was one of them. The chances, nevertheless, are slimmer than a Slovakian sausage. Let me tell you why.

First, I put to you a question: have you ever had recourse to fling, throw or toss a lexicon? If so, you will know that, of all books, they are not especially conducive to being projected. Pitch a paperback, by all means. Cast forth a work of classic fiction. Hurl and heave your average hard-back, should you please. It can be done. But a lexicon? To launch a lexicon is no easy feat. I have lobbed many a lexicon, in my time, and trust me: it takes all the guile and might that a literary man (or woman, for that matter) can muster.

Provided you have the requisite strength to send a lexicon flying, there remains the issue of direction. Is it really possible to sling a lexicon at something in particular? Say, a bird? This, now, is really testing the boundaries of one’s imagination. Magpies are, I think it is fair to say, quick on their feet. What’s more, they have wings. For these reasons, and more besides, it takes more than a good aim to hit a magpie, let alone to hit one with a lexicon. In the course of a long and mildly illustrious career I have impelled no less than fifty lexicons in the direction of a quick-footed bird – and I have never hit, let alone killed, a single winged creature. On several of these occasions I was, admittedly, somewhat intoxicated. On others, however, it is fair to say that I had will on my side. I sought to destroy those birds, and could not complete the task. I could not even come close.

And here you are claiming that Speyer, a mere lexicon owner, murdered a magpie with his first shot! The idea is a proposterous one. I sincerely doubt he got within three feet of the blessed bird. He’d have been lucky, I suggest, to have grazed a feather. Only a highly-skilled lexicon dislodger could have acheived such a feat, and I think it very unlikely that Speyer was one of that number. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that I think the whole story a fanciful concoction, dreamed up by a feather-brained professor with nothing better to do.

Yours in eternal doubt,

Lars Groot, (Chief Lexicographer, Babel Library)

I am, needless to say, considering my reply carefully.

Return of the Alarming Magpie

Chapter Four, Part Two of my ground-smashing, soul-warming and mind-meddling memoir, Conversations of Speyer, has just been posted over at Underneath the Bunker. This chapter is notable for many reasons, not least my re-telling of the infamous ‘magpie incident’, previously discussed here.

..To be reminded of one’s folly, by a bird! Such things must not be allowed to happen.

‘So you killed it?’

‘Not deliberately. My intention was to injure. But when you throw a large lexicon at a relatively small bird, well, the odds are probably against the little creature. This I discovered too late.’

‘What sort of injuries were sustained by the lexicon?’

‘Nothing of note. Bloodied feathers on the spine. Crushed beak and claw. Not enough to stop using it. And I daresay the adventure improved the book.’

‘As you’ve often said, you like a book that is up for a fight.’

‘Indeed,’ said Speyer, ‘indeed’.

The Melancholy of an Unbattered Book

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.

Yesterday’s post was, of course, very Speyeresque in tone – which is why today I feel inclined to direct you to this post, written back in August, which tells the entertaining tale of an altercation between Speyer and an aggravating magpie.

For a little more on books as artefacts and armaments, why not take yourself here.

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)