You had to admire the pluck – tangential pun entirely intended – of the man on the radio sticking up for the anti-pigeon spikes that, a mere three years after being installed in some Bristol trees, hit the news. It happened in the way that these things now happen; courtesy of wildlife enthusiast Jennifer Garrett and a photograph taken by Anna Francis, an image of said spikes, vicious-looking things firmly attached along whole branches, began to circulate on Twitter. Cue – to my mind – justified outrage. If modifying nature in order to inflict harm on animals going about their ordinary animal business is not bad karma, I don’t know what is.
Before too long, the creator of the spikes, David Jones, was on Radio 4, defending the Defenders®, as they are called. His line of argument was ingeniously counterintuitive – they are, he said, “the humane solution”. But how could this be so? Well, he pointed out, better than being shot (not by him, I should add, but by notional pest control services). He knew, he added, of a manor house with a tree in which had been counted no fewer than 32 pigeons. 32! (Is that a lot? If you need four and twenty blackbirds simply to make a pie, and if blackbirds are roughly the size of pigeons, it doesn’t sound like a full-on avian invasion.)
Being poked with a spike is undoubtedly better than being shot. But it does indicate somewhat stunted aspirations. Could there be a third way? I propose not one solution but a trio for the residents whose cars are being protected from pigeon excrement: they could purchase a waterproof car cover (there’s one for £26.99 at Argos, and if you get a wiggle on, it could probably still end up under a loved one’s tree tomorrow); they could fill a bucket with soapy water and look for a scout on a bob-a-job week; or they could chill out. After all, what manner of person drifts off to sleep thinking: “I may have contributed, quite literally, to driving the birds from the trees, but at least my BMW 4 Series Coupé will be spotless for my weekend drive to Chipping Campden?”
However, good though it might be that these bird-botherers have come to public attention – indeed, a petition is now on the go demanding their removal – there is the awkward fact of their having been in situ for a considerable time. What was happening in the leafy suburb of Clifton that rendered its inhabitants, not all, presumably, car-fetishisers unable to cope with the basic universal truth of animal digestion, silent on the matter?
Perhaps they weren’t; perhaps there have been all manner of protests only now being transmitted to a wider audience. But as we look around us – from spikes in doorways and armrests on benches to prevent anyone reclining on them to campaigners and charities gathering more stories of distress and disorientation on the streets and appealing more desperately for our help, we might examine more closely our concept of hospitality.
It is not, clearly, only a matter of the food, drink and company we offer to visitors, nor even the conviction with which we support measures to improve the circumstances of, for example, displaced people or those living in poverty. It is also about noticing; about seeing, one day, that a tree has sprouted sharp, uncomfortable prongs and wondering why; about registering, as you make your final Christmas preparations, that more than a year after the government agreed to open our borders to nearly 500 unaccompanied child refugees, the first two have just arrived.
It is also about realising what a broader idea of hospitality might be; whether, for instance, it accepts that a man who makes spikes to keep birds off trees would indeed prefer that to them being shot and is carrying out the work that he has been asked to, for reasons that make sense to those with a different view of the matter. Not just hospitality, in other words, but generosity – a trust in others’ good faith and a belief that they are doing their best. The Greeks, as the phrase goes, have a word for it: xenia, the courtesy and friendship you extend to those you don’t know and that is returned to you by them.
We could look at almost any part of our lives and wish that there were evidence of more – even any – xenia. I think of it every time I walk past a nearby block of flats sporting a notice that reads “Private property: no loitering”. The pavement isn’t private property, I reason, and what counts as loitering? Then I remember that I’m not the one being kept awake at night by loiterers who surely can’t be entirely imaginary.
It is easier to quarrel over the colour of passports than it is to hold the Home Office to account over its policies towards immigrants and asylum seekers. It is easier to direct your anger at Nigel Farage, or to Momentum, or even to the impotent, frothing headline writers of the Daily Mail, so obsessed with rooting out traitors and malcontents, than it is to think about what will move us away from this painful, zero sum game of mistrust and accusation.
The culture of denunciation rather than disagreement is a dangerous one. There are situations – of abuses of power, of corruption, of violence, many of which we have seen this year – that require denunciation, in which anger is a proper response and anything less is a form of appeasement to oppressors. But there is also, surely, a way that we might adopt the basic principles of xenia – offering support, showing friendship, expecting it in return – that might free us from thinking the worst, narrowing our options, cutting off those who might help us to see the world from a different perspective.
This is immensely pious and we fear piety – or virtue-signalling, as we now call it. I’ll take the risk and hope it will save me from shouting at a screen, terminally furious and frustrated, unable to change a damn thing.