• The day the waxwing came

    (Photo by Patrice Bouchard)

    The icy North Wind blew us a mysterious guest this January. It arrived on our balcony unseen, caught us aware, touched our hearts, and left a poo. 

    I looked up, and there it was, sitting plump and still, staring in through the kitchen window. Soft, fluffy brindle feathers, darker wings with flashes of red, white and yellow and a tail with a yellow bar along the tip. 

    Livin’ in a twitcher’s paradise

    It didn’t fly away. It just sat there, staring at me. I called my son. He said it looked unusual. I hadn’t really considered it. But now he said so, I couldn’t say what it was. 

    We googled. We found a match. My five-year-old was right. It was unusual. The bird on our balcony was a waxwing. That meant nothing to me. The RSPB told us that it liked to winter on the eastern fringes of Britain. 

    Costa del Malmö

    Clearly, it also liked to winter on the southern tip of Sweden. Not the Costa del Sol, but preferable to its summer home above the Arctic Circle. Maybe it had flown all the way down to us that very day? 

    Was it dying, I wondered ominously? It wasn’t moving. The night was dropping to minus 7. Would it survive? Would I have to sneak out without my son noticing next morning and dispose of a frozen corpse? 

    Berry, berry hungry

    The RSPB said that the waxwing’s favourite food is the rowan berry. Just beyond our balcony were two rowans, stripped of their leaves, but still hung with red berries. If this waxwing still had use of its wings, surely it would find them?

    By morning, it still sat on our balcony. But it had turned around in the night, a movement that felt like progress. It had pooed too, so the bodily functions were working. Still more hope.

    Then hope turned to abundance. By mid-morning, some 50 of its mates converged on our rowan trees. Our waxwing joined them. By lunch, there wasn’t a berry left. 

    A day later they were gone, but while they were here, they were a bloody miracle. 

    On the subject of Swedish wildlife, I saw a hare… where?

  • Let’s all move to the Med

    (Photo by Portuguese Gravity)

    When pandemics and waning prosperity finally loosen the Northern European grip on travel, will we look back on our years in the sun and wonder why we didn’t colonise the Mediterranean more thoroughly?

    The most permanent migration has been made by the middling sort. That is because, for the truly affluent, the Damp North was never so uncomfortable nor so permanent. Meanwhile, for the poor there was no option.

    Croydon or the Costa?

    But for the middling sort, the Med has held the promise of swapping a middling suburban home in the Damp North for a middling suburban home in the Warm South. 

    For the rich, the bite of a northern winter was always tamed by their comfortable country houses and their skiing holiday in the crisp sunshine of the Alps, plus at least one other trip, in the high summer, often to the Med – though far away from the middling suburban homes of the colonies of the middling sort. 

    The middling sort, in their turn, make sure their middling surburban homes are at a comfortable distance from the strip hotels that offer sun, sex and sangria to the poor for a week or two each summer. 


    That is how the Northern European has half-colonised the Med. But will we one day live to rue the fact that we never moved – lock, stock and barrel – to the sun-blessed shores of the Mediterranean, heart of civilisation and ease, when we had the chance? Will we, I wonder?

    When we are eking out another waterlogged grain harvest outside hovels in the swampy ground of old Surrey and Somerset, will we wonder why Northern Europeans didn’t simply turn Italian when they had the chance, so that generations to come could have popped grapes and bottles of Prosecco under the shadows of cypress and olive trees forever…

    How about you? You live in the right place, right?

  • Is it your right to migrate?

    Close-up of ocean water with ripples and a setting sun against a blue sky

    Is migration a moral right? Not for birds or whales, but for people. It’s a given that non-humans can migrate, but can people? The knee-jerk response is usually two-fold:

    1. Are we talking about rich, educated people or poor, uneducated ones?
    2. I am a liberal or a conservative?

    Imagine you were this kind of migrant…

    You’re born in the wrong place

    You enter the world within the political borders of a state that’s not America, western European, Australia, New Zealand or a few others places. You don’t even have parents or grandparents from places like that. 

    Your parents are dirt poor

    Welcome to the majority! Dirt poor in the countries people like to get out of means no education worth mentioning. It means no college, no degree and sure as hell no semester away at an American or European institution. 

    Make something of yourself!

    Wherever you are in the world, so the free market aspiration goes, you can make something of yourself. What? Are there no entrepreneurs in Eritrea? Of course there are! But social mobility outside well-run functioning states is seriously stalled by small corrupt elites controlling most routes to wealth. 

    Can people globalise, too?

    If that were you, would you grant yourself the moral right to migrate? Or would it just be hard cheese? Make the most of Malawi, mate. 

  • 10 reasons to hug a Riace migrant

    two men hugging
    Let’s hug it out (Photo by Thiago Barletta)

    If you haven’t read this story about the Italian government’s latest “war on the immigration business”, it’s got the full tragi-comedic spectrum.

    1 People for terra nullius [just baiting ya, Matteo. But seriously, Italy has a major shortfall in human beings, and the ones it has got aren’t living in places like Riace]

    2 Southern Italy is now the Migration Innovation hub of Europe [how refreshing does that sound?]

    3 A Tourist Spectacle [look kids, Africans in Italy not selling handbags!]

    4 The Gene Pool just got all shook up

    5 The possibility of an Eros Ramazzotti-Naija hip-hop mashup a la La Haine

    6 Another middle-aged European just got Married [Ed – just how many marriages are of inconvenience?]

    7 More Tax Revenue [seriously, look it up]

    8 Young Workers [not retirees from Ruislip with dodgy hips]

    9 More on the Menu than ham & cheese baguettes at lunchtime [OK, it’s a cheap jab, but Italians can take it, we all know their cuisine is the best in the world!]

    10 They lured Matteo Salvini into looking even more preposterous than he already did


  • Unrestricted avian migration

    robin in a holly bush
    Photo by Biel Morro on Unsplash

    In my son’s new book, Robins, Wrens and other British Birds, it reads:

    “In springtime, many of the birds you see will have come from far away. Each year, some birds, like swifts, make an amazing journey to find food and nesting places. This is called ‘migration’.”

    The word struck me at once. This was unrestricted migration.

    Swifts travel to the UK from sub-Saharan Africa, some as much as 3,000 miles in five days. The RSPB reckons the global swift population at 25 million. Thats just one type of bird. The problem is, official figures on the numbers of birds migrating into the UK are extremely hard to come by, since there are no border checks in place. This is not migration to escape persecution, but to obtain food and nesting places.

    Without control of UK borders, how can the country hope to control the numbers of migratory birds? It is acceptable, in fact beneficial, to welcome birds into the UK who can demonstrate that they will fill a need and not be a drain on resources, but at present, any bird can gain entry to the UK, entering and departing as they please.

    It seems only right that systems should be put in place to protect honest, hardworking British birds. A points-based system – similar to the one used in Australia to manage human migration – would seem to be a perfectly reasonable way of managing the flow of migratory birds into the UK from sub-Saharan Africa.

    Through the implementation of a points-based immigration system, birds wishing to migrate to the UK from abroad would first have to establish, in their country of origin, that they had agreed access to a specific food source or nesting place within a UK garden or green space, and the owner of that garden or green space would have to satisfy the UK government that in doing so, they would not be depriving a British bird.