John Gohorry has been talking to a budgie called Pipsqueak. A parakeet ‘fresh out of Paradise’, Pipsqueak is a popinjay, a polyglot and a polymath. And somebody has definitely been rattling his cage. Following in the tradition of John Skelton’s sixteenth century satire, Speak, Parrot! Pipsqueak offers an irreverent commentary on the follies and failures of our age – from bird-brains on twitter and tabloids parroting lies to Brexiteers talking cuckoo. Alternating between Rime Royal and satirical songs with medieval Latin choruses, Pipsqueak gets his beak into Brexit, Trump, the refugee crisis, the rise of neo-Fascism, international crises, a royal wedding, a World Cup, the Chequers agreement, cabinet resignations, the Windrush scandal and the implosion of the Tory party, before he receives a letter from the Home Office threatening him with deportation. This is one sick parrot.
The Inns in which Pipsqueak studied were not Inns of Court, neither Lincoln’s nor Gray’s Inn, nor the Court of Chancery, but The Magpie, The Plume of Feathers, The Blackbird, and inns of that sort where a bird with a problem to solve might find the answer he searched elsewhere in vain for, Lady Controversy bringing him long after closing time to acknowledge what truth is, with the clear, unambiguous certainty of a score in the pub quiz. Controversy this month has raged over pints of cider quaffed in The Bird in Hand, The Ostrich, The Golden Eagle, concerning the least worst and most certain way to provide a way out of Europe that’s timely, cost-effective, and legal; Pipsqueak has looked in his mirror, and seen in that Spiegel not one but two sovereignties, House of Commons and Plebiscite, the snug of The Phoenix at fisticuffs over which one has the right. Who’ll pull our perches from Europe? For the past forty years we’ve been part of a market that shares services, millet, grains, a union of advantage in which all European birds are our peers, until Discontent, scenting power, opens his beak and complains British Birds are born free but everywhere they are in chains. Nothing for malcontents then to don but the threadbare robes of right-thinking, bureaucracy-hating, patriots, xenophobes. The Brexiteers by and large look to the referendum and its resultant majority voting in favour of leave; they’ll brook no impediment, codicil, corrigendum, and warn Mrs May that it would be grossly naive to suppose that delay might gain government a reprieve from the imperative to withdraw – manifest, urgent, compelling, the will of the people, against which there can be no rebelling. The Remainers, who lost, though, consider the referendum advisory; a litmus test of opinion, but ill-formed, and in no way binding; it would be folly to leave on a mandate they label derisory, and seek perches elsewhere there’s at best only small hope of finding. The will of the people, the government needs reminding, despite patriot clamour and notwithstanding the argumentatives, is expressed through the votes of their elected representatives. The High Court has met to adjudicate in the quarrel disuniting the kingdom, and last month reached its decision; three judges agreed there was no basis, legal or moral, for a reluctant Prime Minister not to propound her vision. Her strategy for withdrawal, purged of all imprecision, subjected to scrutiny, challenge, and argument must, said their Lordships, be placed before Parliament. Now, Pipsqueak’s a peaceful bird, a bird that abides by the law, a bird valuing few things more than a quiet life; but after the High Court judgement, if it was not war that had broken out, at the very least it was strife. Though Brexit was said to mean Brexit, mistrust was rife; true patriots, always suspecting some hidden agenda, cried Now Britannia is hamstrung, who if not we should defend her? Pro-Brexit newspapers howled their dissent and their outrage; at the Express and the Telegraph, indignation ran off the scale; Who do EU think you are? shouted The Sun from its front page; Enemies of the People thundered The Daily Mail. The will of the people, it blustered, is what should prevail not that of three Brexit-block Judges comprising, we sense, a known Europhile, an adviser to Blair, an openly gay ex-Olympic fencer. With their Lordships’ integrity, such things have nothing to do, substantia being one thing, accidens quite another; in this post-truth, post-plebiscite age, Pipsqueak has come to the view that sleight-of-hand dealing is everyone’s elder brother. But no-one’s above the law – not the papers, not goverment’s Mother Theresa herself, who, as a last resort, has appealed from the High, to the highest, the Supreme Court. Mistress Miller, at whose instigation the High Court had met, came to the Supreme Court flanked by her bodyguards; racial, misogynistic abuse and a death threat could not dent her courage, beforehand or afterwards. May the bigots who threatened her duly reap their rewards! May exposure, shame, and imprisonment be the fate that befalls each cowardly Twitternet threatmonger, all her internet trolls! The redtops resumed their established sordid diversion, the game known as Bring the Judiciary into Discredit. To play, take a Law Lord, and then cast an aspersion on his ethnicity, gender, age, education, and embed it with all your persuasive rhetoric in the mindset of a readership rightly mistrustful and ill at ease with the monopoly Privilege holds over Legal Expertise. But their Lordships (one Lady among them) are far too well-grounded in precedent, statute and case law to be shouldered aside; mistrust of such eminent minds, Pipsqueak knows, is ill-founded, for none more discerning, impartial, experienced, qualified, sit in the judgement seat, empowered to decide on the basis of law alone what our laws should import than the eleven distinguished Judges of the UK Supreme Court. For four days their Lordships listened to representations, gave arguments pro and contra a courteous grilling, heard submissions from all four of the UK’s constituent nations, from pressure groups, citizens’ representatives, the reluctant, the willing, an outpouring of argument Pipsqueak found strangely thrilling; which position supporters had urged with such cogent abandon would their Lordships decide in the end hadn’t a leg to stand on? On the fifth day, they adjourned, scheduled to reconvene and deliver their judgement a few weeks into the New Year; Pipsqueak does not underestimate what that judgement will mean as he tucks into his Christmas cake, walnuts and ginger beer, wondering what he can do but hold on tight and persevere. (The question is partly rhetorical, since at this season of marvels Pipsqueak wraps verses as presents, and sings you his carols.) The Brexit Breakfast How would you like your Brexit Egg? (Quomodo Ovum Brexitus mavultis, Britannici?) Shall it be poached or fried? (Coctillatum vel frictum ovum?) One thing is sure – rich, coping, poor, (Certus est – quomodocumque iudicabit populus...) the people will decide. (...illo modo factum erit.) A searching question presses hard; (Dure flagitat quaestio abstrusissima) it’s Pipsqueak’s turn to ask it; (Mel. Stridulus occasionem investigationis captat;) which Nincompoop placed all our eggs (Quis Stultissimus omnes ova in corbiculae) in the referendum basket? (suffragii collocavit? Quis erat? Quis erat?) What was the breakfast feast on which (Quomodo a patribus nostris de ientaculo) our politicians gambled? (luditur alea pernox? Quomodo?) Did they want everyone on toast? (An omnes super panem tostum volunt? Dicite!) And would they have us scrambled? (An nos celeriter circumgitatos malunt? Dicite!) Draw a blond crown on Johnson’s egg (Super putaminem ovi iohnsonii meta straminis pingitur) and make him run the gauntlet (percurrito ille in medio verberatorum) from frying pan to naked flame (donec de fumo in flammam fugiet) become our Brexit omelette. (ientaculum Brexitum nostrum fieri. Amen.) Not hard, not soft, our Brexit egg (Nec nimis nec parveelixum, Ovum Brexitus) prepared with such ado, (multi laboris paratum) were better, Galatea says, (melior erit apud Galateam) served red and white and blue. (rubeum, candidum, caeruleumque pictum esse.) On thin-sliced sheets of wholemeal bread (Scindete panem sanum in offulis tenuis) spread butter, lard or marge, (Si butyrum deest, licet super panem) and cut out into little strips (laridum substitutum spargere. Differentiam non gustatis.) Gove, Cameron, Farage. (Scindete cultello acrissimitres milites ingloriosos.) Such eggs as never were before (Nunquam ancilla eiusmodi ova) dished up without a fault (ad mensam portavit.) season with pepper, mayonnaise, (Mel. Stridulus ante prandiculum ova piperocum condit) and add a pinch of salt. (nunquam partier edere cum grano sali oblitus est. Amen!) 3–24 December 2016
A great flock of geese has appeared above Pipsqueak’s cage, a quarrelsome, swarming host of stentorian birds; the air’s loud with their wing-beats, thick with aggressive language, and Pipsqueak’s domain is disfigured with green goose-turds. This morning he’s holding his breath, lost (almost) for words to encipher the brouhaha goose-blather, the tumult, the stink of ubiquitous ordure so strong he can scarcely think. These are delegate geese, cohorts of representative fowl for British Bird Species the length and breadth of the land – chough, sparrow and gannet, dove, heron, kestrel and owl, the birds in the bush as well as the bird in the hand; thrush, magpie and chaffinch, lark, duck, woodpecker, sandpiper, the bird in the cage, on the branch, on the loose, every five years have chosen their joint representative goose. Pipsqueak witnessed a Goose Pledge to deliver avian prosperity; the Privileged Geese painted pictures of long-term bliss on condition he put up with painful short-term austerity and entrusted his cage to their treacherous cackle and hiss. He didn’t believe them – and something indeed was amiss; the Privileged Geese fell to infighting when the need came to divert opposition, keep control, and find others to blame. Some blamed the banks, some the markets, many the Working Geese who decades before had enjoyed a ruling majority; but the mischief each made had been handed on piece by piece, and they’d all played their part in engendering nationwide poverty. The search for a scapegoat became a PG priority; certain Privileged Geese found a target for hostile words – the UK had suffered an influx of Alien Birds. It was, they maintained, due to membership of a club to which the UK for the past forty years had belonged; the Avian Congress of Europe, they said, was the nub of a process of stealth by which all our rights had been wronged; Head Privileged Goose, rather than stomach prolonged dissent in his cohort did what he claimed was right and gave UK birds a stay-or-go plebiscite. There were numerous benefits the Avian Congress conferred on its constituent states – the free movement of avian labour, no tariffs on sandpaper, cuttlefish, millet, and every bird able to serve, and Europe-wide serving, the needs of his neighbour. The Pan-European Community of Birds had long since learned to savour joint nest-building projects, bird safety, research into avian health, the accumulation of nest-eggs, the slow growth of avian wealth. Posh Gander no doubt thought the outcome a foregone conclusion; aware of the benefits, most birds would opt to remain; the result when it came threw politics into confusion, rocked the tops of the trees and set spinning the weathervane. In the teeth of the gale what could Pipsqueak do but complain? Forty-eight percent voted to stay, fifty-two opted to leave; from folly and error Pipsqueak knew there was no reprieve. Posh Gander resigned, his place taken by Mother Goose, her position confirmed in a subsequent all-bird election; (Pipsqueak claw-marked a Worker, while wondering what was the use when the roundabout nests always looked in another direction;) Mother Goose, a remainer, gave the Verdict to Leave her protection, spending month after month casting about and about amid all the grain in the farmyard to find a way out. She made upbeat announcements, did endless to-ing and fro-ing to Congress headquarters in Brussels, where under the banner of Avian Freedom she’d triggered the date of our going. The date was determined, but when the time came to plan a mode of departure, more factions disputed the manner than there were months left for argument, days for debate in the week; every goose in the farmyard had a How-we-should leave in its beak. Nothing silenced the cackle and honk of the quarrelsome flock – some said we should leave come what may on the settled date; some listened aghast to the furious tick of the clock that robbed Mother Goose of time left to negotiate; some geese found departure too awful to contemplate and ransacked the deeds of the farmyard in search of a way to knock Go on the head, thwart the Will of the Birds, and stay. The deal Mother Goose struck she claimed was the best we would manage; the flock didn’t like it, and said so; she came back for more; she came at them hard, using argument, scaremongering, gavage; some swallowed, some choked, some gagged, and some cast their craw. But a two-to-one verdict against was the final score; it was time for Head Working Goose to come down off the fence and table the motion This flock has no confidence. The Privileged Geese survived, largely thanks to the backing of their loyalist partners, the Protestant Ulstergoose Group, ten grit-grinding birds who, however much they were lacking in good will and good humour, nonetheless governed the coop. Their power over Mother Goose had them all cock-a-hoop; with the government challenged, not many cared to gainsay the Ulstergoose proverb, Where there’s a quill there’s a way. So now is the time latent anger has come to the boil – more debate, more dissension, the farmyard in disarray; Pipsqueak’s panic-proof cage is pitched about in the moil of pan-anserine clamour, goose mayhem, unbridled affray. The tyrannical clock counts the hours down to Reckoning Day when UK Bird Species – chough, sparrow, kestrel and owl – must resume once again the mantle of Insular Fowl. The purlieus of Pipsqueak’s cage see the furious hackles of angry geese raised in an orgy of mutual pecking; he recoils on his perch from their strident, cacophonous cackles, and the excrement stench that wafts hour by hour from his decking. His delegate geese are turned delegate Experts in Wrecking, unable, so late, to do more than deny the Goose Mother the deal she still wants, and then quarrel with one another. But it needn’t be so. Pipsqueak asks every constituent goose to set difference aside, take a step towards moderation; set an example to others by declaring an interim truce and as they once did, respect the whole population. Should we stay? Should we go? The issue still vexes the nation; only it can decide, as the implications of each become plain, in the interests of all, whether we leave or remain. Here’s a song to conclude; an exchange between two hungry crows Pipsqueak heard while exploring the gridlocked approaches to Dover; the lyrics were plaintive, leading Pipsqueak at once to suppose the two hungry corvids some distance from living in clover. Stacked lorries belched fumes; drivers cursed long delays and moreover layby portaloos leaked, but Pipsqueak’s nerves remained strong; the two corbies chattered, and here’s what he made of their song. A song As Pipsqueak walked out all alone Dum M. Stridulus solus he heard two corbies making moan, ambulavit duo corvos audivit. the one unto the other say, Rogavit unus ‘amice, ‘Where shall we two dine today? ubi nos duo prandebimus?’ ‘At the foot of yonder cliff Responsit amicus ‘Ut Britannia there lies Britannia cold and stiff sub radice rupis mortua est and no-one knows that she lies there nemine scitur praeter but Rag, and Tag, and Bobtail fair. sentinam civitatis. ‘Rag’s gone from home and fled abroad ‘Sentina vel peregre Tag’s locked in Wormwood Scrubs for fraud fugitiva vel sine domo and Bobtail’s homeless on the street in vinculis vel so we may make our dinner sweet. plateatim vivat. ‘You’ll dine upon her slate-grey eye, ‘Tu oculos suos quasi my feast shall be her milk-white thigh; cinereas scandulas edes; we’ll take locks of her coal-black hair ego coxendicam lacteam to thatch our nest when it grows bare. edam; anthracinum crinis capiemus ut nidulum nudum tegemus. ‘All mourn the beauty that has been, ‘Omnes puchritudinem none find her on the farther shore; perditam suam defleunt; o’er her white bones, when they’re picked clean, nemo cadaverem the wind shall blow for evermore.’ in campis elysiis inveniebit. Ventus super ossa candida per saecula saeculorum aspirabit.’ As Pipsqueak walked out all alone Dum M. Stridulus solus he heard two corbies making moan, ambulavit duos corvos audivit. the one unto the other say, Dixit quidam‘sub radice rupis ‘By yonder cliff we’ll dine today.’ hodie prandebimus.’ 19-22 January 2019
‘Following Pipsqueak is better than watching Peston or Andrew Marr… a relief to have such a clear sighted commentary – one that engages with the political at a sophisticated level yet leavens its message with humanity and self-mockery. A courageous and timely book. Buy it. Read it. Share it. Send it to your MP. Before it’s too late.’
Stuart Henson, London Grip
‘reminds me how far the great English tradition of verse-satire has lost its central place in our culture. Skelton, I feel, would have approved of this book.’
Glyn Pursglove, Acumen