I’ll always remember it, I think. Time was when I used to ride my bike along the Grand Union canal as far as Camden Lock, and sometimes a bit further, for a spot of R&R. Enjoying the bohemian atmosphere at the Lock, I would sit and sip from a can or two, smoke a couple of fags and just watch the people doing what they do. For a variety of reasons, I don’t do this anymore, but it did used to be a regular event for me.
Anyway, on this particular day, I had stopped as usual at the Lock just behind the market and lowered my bike to the ground. I stood up and looked over the edge at the murky water turning into a shimmering curtain as it gushed through the old teeth and black painted blocks of the mechanism. I noticed a flurry of activity from some small birds (tits, I think, though I can’t be sure) who had made their nest in the sheer bank of the cut. There was a pair of them and they were fluttering their wings madly to stay in a hover and chirruping with all their might. I looked closer and noticed that a chick had fallen into the water, which was now boiling around it as the lock contents emptied themselves. It soon became clear that – whether because it had fledged too soon, or because its feathers were not waterproof enough – the chick was struggling to free itself from the grip of the canal. The parents were desperately trying to encourage their offspring up and out of the clutches of death, but could do no more than twitter loudly and repeatedly fly as close to the youngster as possible. It was a futile endeavour, I could see that, and the chick was clearly doomed.
This terrible tragedy was playing itself out in front of me, and I was as helpless as the adult birds. The nest (and no doubt this was ironically the reason why they had chosen to build it there) was set in such a place that it was very difficult to reach if you didn’t have wings and a body no more than 5 inches long. I looked around, and the usual crew of Goths and punks, rockers and Dutch tourists, were all oblivious to the life-and-death struggle going on so close to their stacked leather boots. Haltingly, a little embarrassed, I tried to draw the attention of those nearest to me, but I was simply ignored. I considered (but only for a moment) getting into the water to help the little bird; I looked around for a stick, but there were none long enough.
Then, in a matter of seconds, the chick was gone for good, buffeted away by the rushing deluge relentlessly cascading towards it, pushed under the water one too many times, finally and cruelly breaking its so recently developed spirit. A great sadness came over me at that point. I had witnessed the frantic efforts of two creatures, animals not credited with any of the so called higher qualities, trying with all their might to save their child; had seen new life struggle to resist the reaper’s scythe – and fail. Perhaps foolishly, I considered the life of the parent bids now that they had lost their chick. Would they (metaphorically) shrug philosophically and carry on, perhaps going through their mating rituals again and laying a new clutch in their precarious home, or would they be thrown into despair, perhaps splitting up and never seeing each other again?