Chris Schuler: btw

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The Independent Online

Swooosh! We were in our friends' garden in deepest south London. The sun was shining, the wine flowing and the barbecue smoking, when a vivid streak of yellow and green swooped from one tree to another. "A parakeet!" someone exclaimed. One urban myth has it that Britain's feral parakeets are descended from a pair released by Jimi Hendrix, while another claims they escaped from aviaries damaged in the 1987 storm. In fact, several different species now survive in ever-greater numbers, thanks to our milder winters.

In Croydon, not far from our al fresco gathering, St John's church has acquired a colony of 250, which has pecked its way through the 170-year-old spire, causing £5,000 worth of damage. "The birds turned up a couple of years ago," said Bernard Day, the parish secretary. "At first, they were a joy to watch." Since then, however, the 95-year-old's attitude has hardened: "In my opinion, the only solution would be to shoot the birds. Unfortunately, we're not allowed to."

* Nipping out from Independent House to the newsagent the other day, I spotted another exotic-looking bird in Millwall Dock. Its elegance – slender, S-shaped neck, long sharp bill, black crest on its head – was in stark contrast to its floating nest of Styrofoam, drinks cartons and other rubbish.

Back in the office, I ran into our environment editor, who pronounced triumphantly: "Great crested grebe!" In the 19th century, great crested grebes were hunted almost to extinction for their distinctive plumage, which was used to decorate ladies' hats. Now, with nearly 10,000 breeding pairs, they are off the endangered list.

* It was good to see a line by Alexander Pope gracefully deployed on the editorial page of Thursday's paper, if only because it got me to re-read the marvellous "An Epistle to Arbuthnot". "Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike" was the phrase wielded in judgement on David Miliband, and the same poem has furnished us with many other apt expressions, including to "damn with faint praise". It is curious that the satirists of the 17th and 18th centuries do not enjoy as great a following today as the Metaphysicals who preceded them or the Romantics who came after. Maybe that says something about how we like to think of ourselves. But what could be more in keeping with our age than the epic satire of Dryden, the savage indignation of Swift, the cool irony of Pope and the august pessimism of Johnson?

* Like satire, jokes never seem to age. Newly published research by Wolverhampton University reveals that for the past 4,000 years, people have been laughing at the same things: sex, cuckoldry and the human excretory functions. The oldest on record, from 1,900 BC, is a Sumerian fart joke (don't ask – something has clearly been lost in translation). Britain's hoariest gag is an Anglo-Saxon riddle found in a 10th-century manuscript from Exeter: "What hangs at a man's thigh and wants to poke the hole it has often poked before? Answer: A key."

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