Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Swift !

          Swift – the very name is so smooth, so positive and so absolutely right for those darting swooping masters of the air. I won’t get all ornithological on you here since I’ll leave that to those who are better informed but one of the things that has stuck with me from the sojourn on ‘the field’ is the swifts. Birds, who I’m reliably informed are not that closely related to swallows at all but rather to the humming-bird ! Now how cool is that, to have a very close relative of one of the most exotic of species in a wet field in England ?

          Whilst much of the natural world seems to have taken a battering from this overly wet summer, there seemed to be few caterpillars, butterflies, bees and crickets about, the swifts were definitely taking to the skies with a wild abandon that was simply breathtaking. It was an absolute privilege to be amongst them, on what was presumably their home (or at least summer) turf. They flew relentlessly throughout the day and on into dusk, swooping and swerving, making dramatic last minute changes of direction that seemed to verge on impossibility and were totally unperturbed by human presence. If anything they seemed to treat our itinerant invasion as a chance to show off, to delight in their skills and to generally take the piss out of us lumbering, gravity constrained, clumsy and graceless beings. They spent a lot of time flying about six inches off the ground – no doubt a rich source of food – but they frequently flew within inches of our clumpy legs and on one occasion straight through mine, there can be no reason for them nutmegging me other than to just make a point – the point being that they just can.

          They also used the verdant high-hedged single-track lanes around the field as their own personal highways. Why they do this I don’t know but they did seem very fond of following man-made routeways, perhaps we attract insects, I don’t know. What I do know is that they would often approach the car at speed, from the opposite direction, aim their streamlined bodies at front grill level and leave it until the very last millisecond to swoop upwards leaving maybe an inch or so between themselves and the windscreen as they cleared the roof of the car.

          There’s something about their style that makes them appear like daytime bats, although sleeker, cooler and more self assured than bats who I always think of as rather lacking in confidence. Perhaps it’s because they remind me of the sort of Goth who hangs about on war memorial steps drinking cider. Swifts on the other hand are sharply dressed, confident, slightly edgy birds – if they were human (and forgive me for lapsing into anthropomorphism) then they would be well heeled hustlers, working hard at making the rest of us look like fools.

          Colin MacInnes knew this I’m sure – I don’t think for a second that in Absolute Beginners his naming the sharp cocky ‘modern jazz creation’ with a flair for duplicity and a sideline in ‘modelling’  Dean Swift, was just an homage to the writer of Gulliver’s Travels. At least, I still picture him as sleek as his feathered namesakes.
          Finally, perhaps you can help me out on this one, is this some new urban slang that I haven’t caught up on ? Earlier in the year I was in a supermarket late at night, one of those ‘metro’ type ones, on my way back from a work trip. I was wearing what I can only describe as my moddest of suits, pointed patents and a long pointed collar white shirt ensemble. Standing at the checkout these two girls who were maybe 25 years younger than me and who would have been out of my league even twenty-five years ago stopped, looked me up and down and just pronounced one word – yes, that one – ‘Swift’ said  one, in what certainly seemed to be a complimentary tone….  Ah, how to make me happy ! For one night I was an absolute beginner again and having spent my summer with the real things I’m even happier to have the association.

          Precious few songs about swifts out there so you'll have to make do with Richard Swift and Damien Jurado instead - Hello Sunshine is rather addictive after a while and could easily accompany you as you drift along in a summery haze watching the skies until dusk falls and the sun slips away.

          As an added bonus you can download the album  Other Peoples Songs volume one free by following the link.


  1. OHHHHHH....(huge smile). Beautiful, beautiful swifts.

    (And if I can just don my amateur ornithologist titfer for a mo, re. their proximity to the cars and lanes, I think they're feasting on the multitude of tiny insects that you're inadvertently hitting and dispersing - nice easy food for them. Pied wagtails are known to hang around roadsides for the same reason. Birds are such amazingly quick and opportunistic learners, aren't they? - it must be like an all-you-can-eat buffet in summertime!)

    1. I'm still convinced that they do it just because they can - it must be such a buzz ! Although I'll bow to your superior knowledge. Now you've reminded me I was once a wagtail - a Warner's Wagtail at one of their holiday camps...somehow never stuck in the popular consciousness like Butlins and Pontins. perhaps that's for a later time tho...

  2. I attempted to compose a post on Swifts several times over the summer, but couldn't find the right words to adequately express my feelings. You, however, have managed to encapsulate all I would like to have said about these amazing birds...and more. They've been gone for two or three weeks now and I find myself really missing them. It truly was a privilege to be amongst them.

    Also, I'd class myself as a fairly big Richard Swift fan, but was unaware of this download album, so thank-you for alerting me to it.

    1. Thanks The Swede - I've now signed up to be reincarnated as a swift just in case Buddhists and Hindus have it right.... And glad you liked the Richard Swift tracks, there's supposed to be a second covers set for free download at some point but I haven't seen it yet. I'll keep my eyes peeled.