Monday, September 20, 2010

Black Swan Theory

A family affair by Pants

Most people, when they buy a house, have a list of essential and desirable criteria to aid them in the decision-making process. They will want a certain number of bedrooms, bathrooms, recreation rooms and car parking spaces. Adequate shoe accommodation and a home theatre will be on some people's lists. Others will want to know how many walking and/or driving minutes are involved in trips to the shops, medical centre and schools. Almost everyone will want a house with street appeal.

Although I do get a bit thingy about natural light and have been known to thoroughly test hot water systems and water pressure because I use my morning shower as a CPR substitute, there are really only two essential requirements for me in a living space. I must be able to see the water and there must be swans.

That's right. I said there must be swans. Swans are on my essential list. It has not always been this way. When I bought the flat in London where I lived for eleven years, I did so because it was beside a tranquil canal full of great big fish that I could see from my top-floor windows and the flat's east/west aspect maximised light capture. The water pressure wasn't bad either. I knew there were swans on the canal because for the previous twelve years, I'd lived in a council flat nearby. What I didn't realise is that when you see swans all the time, it becomes impossible to survive in the modern world without them.

The swans on my canal in London were Mute Swans. They are the most beautiful. Their ability to luminesce by moonlight gives them the edge. I get where Tchaikovsky was coming from. And Julius Reisinger, choreographer of the first Swan Lake. And Matthew Bourne. I have seen many performances of this scrumptious ballet including one at the Kirov in St Petersburg - although it was called Leningrad when I went there. The last one I saw was Matthew Bourne's, which I adored. Swans are strong and muscular and not a little ill-tempered. The all-male swanery clobbered the characterisation in the most delightful way.

The Mute Swan, despite its almost unfeasibly compact elegance on the water, is a huge and ungainly creature out of it. Like all its less glamorous anatid relatives, it waddles. When you see one lope awkwardly across the water on takeoff or skid drunkenly on landing, you realise with glee that there is a delinquent side to this bird. The sight of one dive-bombing the annoying rowers who'd shatter the Sunday morning peace would have me chuckling for days. I used to wish they'd attack the trainers who followed on their bicycles and tormented their charges, and anyone else within a ten-mile radius, through deafening megaphones in preposterous, home-counties lisps.

In London, the Mute Swans nearest me annually built an enormous nest on the water, anchoring it to some long-redundant towing apparatus. My flat was along an old towpath. My building replaced the derelict Matchbox Toys factory. There was a time when factories lined the whole waterway and horses hauled their produce down the canal to warehouses, or out to The Thames. Now it's a haven for waterbirds and people who like to watch their dogs chase them.

You would never see the Mute Swan cygnets until they were near enough fully grown. They still had their 'ugly duckling' brown feathers. It would always seem to me that the first outing would be by full moonlight on a beautiful summer evening. I would look out the window and there they'd be, a parent leading, the cygnets following in a disciplined line and the other parent bringing up the rear. They were like a maritime Von Trapp family.

The year I first moved into that flat, there were six pairs of Mute Swans hanging around and they'd often glide by my windows as if they were auditioning for Busby Berkeley. I never saw that many again. A single Black Swan sometimes appeared with them. It was only about three-quarters of the size of a Mute Swan. The first time I saw it, I phoned the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I very excitedly told them that I had discovered Australia and disproved Juvenal.

They weren't the least impressed. Exotic birds are not at all uncommon in London. They escape from zoos and private aviaries all the time. Being able to fly is a big advantage if escape is your agenda and the temperate climate provides a fair chance of survival. This Black Swan was tolerated, if not exactly overwhelmed with affection by the group, even though it had no hope of finding a partner. It was a remarkable thing to witness, literally a Black Swan event. The symbolism is a thesis in itself. I have some photos somewhere. One day I'll scan them.

Here in Larrikin's End, the swans build their nests on the shores of Lake Larrikin, trusting souls that they are. The council comes along and erects great fences of orange plastic around them. They know the local youth better than the swans do and they also like to make Lake Larrikin look as unattractive as possible. The Black Swans' faith in humanity extends to promenading their gorgeous cygnets when they're very young.

Will you just look at those gorgeous little fluffies! Pants categorically disproves Hans Christian Andersen. Presumably my doctorate is in the post.

I may have chosen my house on the most flaky criteria that ever existed but a day doesn't go by when I'm not thrilled to be here in this big yellow box which is the ugliest of ducklings in real estate terms. It's beautiful on the inside and, luckily, that's the bit where I actually live.

I may not have swans passing by below now but they pass by above often enough, and there are pelicans as well. If you start me on pelicans, I won't ever stop, so don't even think about it. Every day I take an elderly jog along Lake Larrikin. This morning, while I dodged delusional swooping birds for whom I personify either an egg snatcher or David Attenborough, I took a moment to reflect on swans and how we might think of them as a metaphor for multiculturalism. And then I remembered the South American Black-necked Swan. It's got a black neck and a white body. At that point it all got just a bit too complicated. Perhaps that doctorate should go back in the freezer, for now...