Terence Blacker: Woe to he who kills the sacred ibis

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The Independent Online

I was not fortunate enough to see the sacred ibis that somewhat unusually – its habitat is in the southern hemisphere – flew across a neighbouring field recently, but I was happy to take its appearance as an omen. The sacred ibis was revered in ancient Egypt as the earthly representative of Thoth, the god of writing and wisdom, both of which are highly valued in this part of East Anglia. "Sacred bird visits Diss," the local newspaper proudly reported.

So it was with a sense of personal affront, as well as of terrible foreboding, that I read of the latest blunder of the heir to the throne, Prince William. During a gap-year jaunt to Kenya, the prince rounded off a day spent looking at animals in the wild by shooting some.

Accompanied by a group of white farmer pals, William was making his way through the bush when the African guide pointed to a large, slow and graceful bird taking wing nearby and said "Ndege".

Prince William assumed that he was being invited to have a go at blasting the bird out of the sky, and so, like one of the pea-brained contestants from the Monty Python upper-class twit-of-the-year sketch, he let off both barrels of his shotgun and brought the bird down.

Embarrassed, one of the other guns pointed out to the trigger-happy oaf that the sacred ibis is not a game bird, indeed that shooting it was illegal in Kenya. Briefly abashed, the prince quickly recovered his good spirits. "I was told they were good enough to eat," he goofily remarked on his return.

It is possible to take this all too seriously. Although the sacred ibis is no longer to be found in Egypt, it is relatively common in southern Africa, and in Australia it is so well established that the usual Australian solution to such problems – a cull – has recently been proposed.

Yet the niggling suspicion remains that some terrible symbolic act has taken place. "He prayeth well who loveth well/ Both man and bird and beast," Coleridge wrote in The Ancient Mariner. Prince William's victim was, like the albatross, a sacred symbol. Is it possible that, in some profound metaphorical way, he has enacted his family's contempt of writing and wisdom, thereby bringing upon it the terrible curse of the sacred ibis?

For there is something mildly depressing about yet another generation of the British Royal Family behaving as if the best way to enjoy oneself is to shoot things. For George VI, it was tigers in India. Prince Philip shoots more or less anything. Prince Charles enjoyed stalking. Now William, starting with the relatively easy target of an ibis, is carrying on the tradition.

It is not the blood sport argument that is the problem here – I shot things during my teens which embarrass me still (snipe, teal, swallow, stag) – so much as the matter of family conventions. After all that has happened over the past two decades, the same numbskull traditions and practices are passed on mindlessly to, and accepted mindlessly by, the next generation.

Once again, the Windsor family is providing an example of how not to do things. On the whole, it is healthy for a father to encourage his children to follow different pursuits and enthusiasms than his own, for teenagers to show an independent spirit, even a spark of rebellion.

Without that, old mistakes are repeated. Right now it seems distinctly possible that, 20 or 30 years on, the Windsor princes will be only slightly different versions of their bemused, confused father and uncles. Just as the Duke of Edinburgh apparently sees nothing odd in a father publicly berating and humiliating his middle-aged sons, so that tradition, too, will also live on.

When that happens, Prince William may remember his terrible deed and, as haunted and hollow-eyed as Coleridge's mariner, will whisper: "With my twelve-bore, I shot the sacred ibis."

terblacker@aol.com

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