"Uffington. Retired early. Do my own thing."

So did we, we told him, without explaining further, believing that it might embarrass him to get too close on so short an acquaintance. In any case Lizzie would probably find out later. He seemed OK, a bit hesitant, not too sure of us. But he warmed gradually, and after we got Oriole out of the way he confessed he was hopeless at spelling and always got his researcher to do it.

Peter 'The Bird' Uffington, and Sir Jasper

Peter 'The Bird' Uffington, and Sir Jasper

OK, an academic of some sort. Tall, thin, wispy brown-grey hair. Into birds.

"Well known for my - erm - bird stuff. You must meet Shirley."

"I can spell liaison if I think about it. Lizzie is my word person."

"Shirley does it for me. Erm - there's a pair of pratincoles up by the fenced reservoir."

"Love to. When?"

"Some time after breakfast - about nine?"


Hardly an 'in depth' conversation, but enough to establish a 'men only' liaison. But I don't kid myself, it wasn't me but Lizzie who presented our credentials. A nod and he left us and went to his car parked on Mas e Menos forecourt. Somebody was waiting to speak to him, another birder perhaps. Birders with binoculars assemble here on the rough wasteland between Avenida Maritima and the sea, something to do with migration maybe, the shearwaters come in at nightfall, we hear them calling - ker-wak ker-wak. Another man came up, definitely a birder with binoculars. Clearly Peter belongs here, people waylay him.

"How long before people stop us on the street, Mouse?"

"Let's not make a point of it, Sweetness. We have Maeve and Peter and Shirley on the side. It's a start. What I want to know is - what on earth is a pratincole?"

"Buggered if I know. It's a bird of some sort."

With me Peter was different. The amiable social face vanished. Talking became a challenge, a joust, disconcerting at first, then rather enjoyable. Schoolmasterish, yes, for he reminded me of a particular schoolmaster, one I warmed to in those distant tragic days of Dunkirk, Mr Thompson who had a border collie and told us tales about his country walks, about how Bob started a hare and, taken by surprise, the hare ran one way, Bob ran the other; about geography and English with historic interludes about who lived where and who owned the land, and where this school - Beeston Fields Higher Council School - now stands was once a farm with a well and a fortified ditch and how it was that no person could own land outright except by right of conquest which means effectively that the Crown owns all of it and you are merely permitted to dig a well and fortify the land you have purchased or won, and later, as fortunes diminish, this land is purchased by the Nottinghamshire County Council and this school for Infant, Junior and Senior Boys is built on it. Mr Thompson in his plus fours chatting to us in Lower Three A, all the boys sitting with rapt attention, hands shooting up Sir! Sir! The man and his conversational method of teaching has stuck with me all through. Sometimes I forgot myself and called him Dad - odd feelings that stress the minds of juveniles allowed me to forget that he was Mr Thompson and not my father - "Give me an answer, boy!"

And why have I remembered Mr Thompson and Mr Roberts the headmaster when all other eminences in my childhood have faded into limbo?

"Sorry, Peter. Miles away" - because you look like him, Peter - "I missed army service as my age group were permanently deferred. In 1946 the war was over and the armed services were cutting down on personnel. Eventually I joined local government because I thought it better than working for a living. Did you see much action, Peter?"

"Built a couple of bridges. Got shot at a few times, a bit hairy when the other side of the river hasn't been secured."

His conversation never descended to the trivial, most of it was ground bait to see how I responded. I admitted no knowledge of birds. OK, they are incredible creatures. They have feathers, they fly, amazing in their variety. He accepted this confession with a nod. So why my interest?

"To draw and paint, to put them into a two-dimensional landscape and mimic a third. Nothing to do with ornithology. Military aircraft have a similar fascination. I love to put the squadron badge in the top right hand corner."

"There's a lot of illustrations in Birds mag. People like Tunnicliffe."
"Never seen it."
"Well, you won't. Not for general public sale. I had a brother in the RAF."

"Does he do your sort of stuff?"

"He didn't make it."


Many of his walks in the wilds of El Teide he described as 'hairy'. The Barranco del Infierno, for example, is not to be attempted without water and a sensible hat and proper shoes, neither is the desert between Los Cristianos and Playa de las Americas where the salt pans are. "Yet they go there, these tourists. I met this couple entering the Barranco just as I was leaving. She had sandals and an apple and no hat. You'll never make it, I told them. And they go on these safari tours up to Las Canadas where it's bloody cold - in beach gear, would you believe! - and fall over like dead parrots. But the birding is good. Trouble is when other birders get to hear of a rare visitor they descend like bloody vultures. So we keep shtum, we don't write to the papers, especially not the Island Gazette or you get all these silly buggers coming over from the north side in jeeps.

"It was better when Franco was in charge. Tourists had to behave or they were thrown into Granadilla prison. And you weren't allowed off the beach without trousers. It was mainly families then, not crowds of kids. Now you get all these maddening juvenile voices everywhere and they chuck coca-cola cans around and kick balls about on the beach. You weren't allowed to do that in the old days when there were families and young children around.

"Look at this flutter of females!" He nodded towards a group none of whom could possibly be more than eighteen. "Where are their parents?"

"Peter, do I have to remind you that a young person becomes an adult at age eighteen!"


He was just the same with boys, and buoyant enough to remain afloat despite their cheerful bantering. It was part of his fun crossing swords with young people. "The trouble with kids these days is they're not tested. We had to work hard to get even within sight of higher education. And we didn't interrupt adults when they were talking. Not like this lot. Juveniles shouldn't be drinking."

His assessment of A. Mann Esq met my assessment of P. Uffington: a retired teacher at first guess. His handling of streetwise interruptions put him beyond basic teaching of children and into a higher more instructive brio.

So I tried a higher platform. "I think better during interruptions, whether it's clearer thinking or merely imagination I don't know. Maybe I imagine I'm thinking better but it's really an illusion. I shut out everything else in case I lose my grip and I don't talk to people. Lizzie thinks I'm very rude."

He took the point with a vigorous nod. "Yes, I agree. A strong line of thought can provide its own seclusion, a sort of visionary interlude. Shirley calls it my stonewall act."

"Sometimes, oddly enough, an interruption sharpens recall and the words re-assemble themselves in better form."

"A rare phenomenon."

Satisfied that this big bloke in sweat shirt, shorts and sandals was not a bank robber on holiday, he came out with it straight, "You were in local government, right?"

"Yep. Got out of it while I still had life to live. Now I'm trying my hand at journalism. Not much luck has befallen me, alas."

"'Alas' is a term I use frequently. Whatever, I'm what's known as an earth scientist. Next week I've got this study group coming over from Salamanca working on seismic pollution."

"What on earth is seismic pollution?"

We stopped at the Black and White for a drink. He was talking about Franco wanting to re-establish those primary links with the past that a decadent Spain had forgotten. "Right idea. Wrong approach. Franco banned Carnaval, the only bit of pleasure left to the people of Spain. Carnaval ends on the day before the beginning of Lent with a procession and the symbolic Burial of the Sardine. It mocks the rich and the church, for the rich can afford to pay the church and are allowed to continue eating meat during Lent. Poor people caught eating meat are punished. Maybe they still are in the really rural areas. If, like me, Franco went to a good school, he probably never heard of human rights!"

The seed planted in 1948 has taken this long to become a blossoming concept. Even with the full declaration of human rights before my eyes I find it difficult to swallow. In this year of 1985 human rights has become a ritual formulae trotted out when contentious argument is brewing. I tend to the long view that Mother Nature knows nothing about human rights and would not understand the concept even if it were put to her. So I put it to Peter and found agreement. "Erm, yes. An ideal concept, but the world isn't one country you know and we're not all at the same starting gate."

Seismic pollution didn't get a look-in. Instead he talked about birds. Frankly I'm surprised he ever sees any, most birds would scarper if they got wind of his smelly old pipe. Maybe that's why we missed the pratincoles. But we have guests arriving tomorrow and I must go get the cleaning bag and a clutch of toilet rolls and hunt for cockroaches, otherwise Peter will talk about birds till the cows come home.

There are bird people in the environment department of the Tenerife government in Santa Cruz and the chief bird person is an Englishman, says Maeve Catchpole.

Lizzie refuses to entertain the notion that he is into smuggling. It is well known and much bandied about that people with cars carry the stuff over the mountain roads. "But Peter wouldn't peddle the stuff. He's too... - She makes a rounded embracing gesture - "He's too - well, too academic."

"I would think that even smugglers have a modicum of intellect, but why not ask Shirley what he does?"

"Why don't you ask Shirley what he does?

"I know what he does. He's an earth scientist but I don't know what else."

We decide the subject is beyond the limits of male chumminess. Time would tell. Girls can do this stuff better. Female camaraderie is usually much more subtle.

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