A bird in the hand

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The Independent Online
A picture, a photograph of three people. On the left is a woman, just short of middle age, wearing a white cardigan, a knee-length pleated skirt. On her head, she is either wearing a bonnet, or else her beehive hairdo has partially collapsed.

On the right is a boy of about 13, in a checked jacket and open-necked shirt.The woman, who has very white teeth, is smiling at something. It is a large parrot being held on his outstretched arm by the boy. And behind the parrot is John Major. Tall, short-back-and-sides emphasising his high forehead, a 1960s suit, a shirt whose whiteness matches the woman's teeth, highly polished shoes and a small smile - a smirklet - on his lips, he looks out on us from over the years - and from over the parrot. The only other clue that the picture offers us is a poster, partially obscured by John's right shoulder, headed "Palace Pier. NEW LOOK".

If we did not already know so much about the central figure in this photograph, what might we make of it? Who is this trio? Where are they? What were they doing just before the picture was taken and what did they do after the shutter clicked? And above all - why the parrot?

There is a Palace Pier at Brighton, so let us plump for the south coast resort. The boy and the woman are similarly dark and their faces suggest a blood relationship. So she is likely to be his mother. But what about the John Major figure? He is far too young to be the boy's father and much too old to be the woman's son. So he must be something like, say, the boy's tutor (the mother and son perhaps coming from a rich Greek family), hired to instruct his young charge in English and remedial accountancy.

Our task now becomes much easier. Why are they in Brighton? The tutor has advised them that this pleasant town is a perfect place to listen to idiomatic English spoken recreationally, rather than the more formal language of the office, factory or school. Their dress is staid because their trip is for a semi-serious purpose. The camera, we must surmise, is being wielded by the woman's chauffeur and chaperone . When he has taken the picture, they will walk together to a "fish and chip" establishment, there to sample traditional British food - and to be instructed in the arcane arts of condiment deployment.

But we are still left with the parrot. Is it a family pet, brought over from Leros or Sidon despite draconian quarantine regulations, and taken everywhere by its devoted owners? Or does it belong to John Major himself, a useful prop for provoking discussion with his pupil ("Now Ahmed, tell Polly where you've been today - in English, please")?

Knowing what we do of Mr Major's subsequent career, we might guess that, in the mid-Sixties (before media training was invented), a parrot could come in handy for an aspirant politician to practice with. A competent parrot might cope quite easily with "I refer the honourable gentleman to the answer I gave earlier."

I believe, however, that the bird must be more symbolic than this. Almost certainly, it has a sexual significance. Held in front of our future Prime Minister, it signifies a cockiness, an upright feathery confidence. What, after all, do parrots do? They squawk - and they peck. So a parrot is, in a quite literal sense, a pecker. And a large parrot suggests (let us not beat about the bush) a large pecker. When we know - as we now do - that the woman, Jean Kierans (mother of 13-year-old Kevin), was in fact John Major's lover, then everything - their parrot, his smirk and her smile - becomes clear.

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