Ahead of me, Poppy, enthusiastically rummaging through the long grass and heather flushed out a pair of Jays. The birds rose, with a glint of blue plumage, into the gentle breeze and flew into the Spring sky jolting a memory. A long forgotten childhood memory, of my school friend Rob. Rob the Jay Spotter.
A reluctant schoolboy in the early 1960s, the only subject I really enjoyed was art. I had a natural gift, I was not brilliant at art, but I had a gift none the less. Whereas, a gift for mathematics, science and languages was notably absent. The head of the art department, on the cusp of retirement, was Tubby Russell, and the only other art teacher I remember was Baxter Cooper. The other, Fanny Black, was, perhaps fortunately, before my time.
Tubby was an excellent watercolour painter and some of his works were displayed in frames on the art classroom wall. If we were doing life drawing he would stand at my shoulder and with a slightly lecherous tone in his voice he would described the form of the female breast lying beneath the folds of the model’s blouse. The model, a schoolgirl borrowed from another class, would squirm with unease, her cheeks glowing, as her intimate hidden charms were discussed. But Mr Cooper was the teacher we spent most of the time with.
Coop, as we called him behind his back, was my favourite teacher. I doubt it would have troubled him if he knew his nickname. Coop was popular and the name was spoken with affection and respect. I can see him now, sitting at his desk, drawing an ink illustration of a hawk or kestrel, for the Scottish Field, magazine, occasionally looking up, his eyes, above a shaggy beard, swivelling to check that we were hard at work too.
One morning he brought an injured owl into the class. He had found it by the side of the road. Like any good teacher, Coop abandoned his lesson plan and used the opportunity to discuss the life of owls, pointing out the struggling bird’s features; the claws, beak and eyes. We were encouraged to hold the bird to feel the texture of the feathers. Coop was, you see, an enthusiastic ornithologist. Driven by this enthusiasm he started an after school club. My friend Rob and I were two of the first members of the Lasswade High School Ornithology Club.
The ornithology club met weekly and we learned about British birds, their habits and their habitats. In addition to these meetings Coop would organise weekend field trips to sunlit nature reserves on the edge of the Firth of Forth, and to dark woods and frosty fields around Bonnyrigg and Lasswade, bird spotting and counting the numbers of the various species. These Saturday bird watching field trips were an excellent excuse to avoid the weekend horrors of the rugby field and the psychotic PE teacher. My dad, keen to fuel to my new enthusiasm, took me to a secondhand shop in a back street of Edinburgh to buy me a pair of binoculars. We stood at the counter discussing the various magnifications and went out into the street to try them out. Armed with my second hand binoculars I would watch lapwings, kestrels, buzzards and the fine pair of tits belonging to the girl across the road, who would, at 9.30 every Sunday morning, with a theatrical flourish, open her curtains and provocatively dress in front of her bedroom window. Her house was some distance away and my newly acquired binoculars brought everything into sharper focus than the naked eye.
During the school holidays Coop would arrange trips to the Highlands where we would stay in Youth Hostels at Kingussie and Blair Atholl. I remember experiencing a slight apprehension; I still occasionally wet the bed, and had fairly blood curdling nightmares. Nightmares that I would share with everybody within earshot. Once, on a family jaunt with my father and brother in a Youth Hostel I had woken everyone in the building. The hostel manager, thinking a vile murder was being committed on his watch had fallen down the stairs in his panic. The next morning he had waved us goodbye with his left hand, his right resting in a sling. He was pleased to see us go.
But, I sense that the field trips were happy times. I can recall Coop coming out of a forest of Douglas Firs holding an Adder by the tail, waving it about to our, and the adder’s, alarm. On another occasion we gathered round Coop on a hillside as he poked his forefinger into a pile of deer dung to predict, by the warmth of the shit, how far ahead the herd we were following was. Predictably, we were disgusted.
One night during a trip Coop caught Rob, in the hostel dormitory, reading, or in reality staring mesmerised a copy of Titbits, a magazine, that as the name suggests, contained pictures of lascivious bare chested women. Snatching the magazine from Rob’s grasp he had berated him. “You infantile minded, boy. You will go blind!” Said Coop trying to sound annoyed.
The next day Rob redeemed himself by spotting a Jay as it flew across a path we were tramping along. Coop was impressed that Rob had not only spotted the bird, but actually knew the species. Like an Apache Chief naming a brave, he immediately honoured Rob with the name ‘Jay Spotter’, the Titbits incident forgiven.
Coop’s sense of pleasure at Rob’s twitching skills was soon to plummet, like a Sparrow Hawk descending on a hapless rodent. A few days later, on the same trip, after a break to scoff our sandwiches we were walking down a rough track that ran along the bottom of a small glen. After a while, Rob and I striding along, had pulled away from the straggling group. We were chatting away, probably about the charms of my neighbour’s daughter or something along these lines, when suddenly with a screeching sound and a thudding sound like a carpet being rhythmically beaten, a Golden Eagle rose from the heather covered hillside. It was barely twenty feet from us. If a double decker bus had launched itself into the air, we would have been no less astonished. It was an awesome sight.
Coop, leading the main body of the party round a bend, two hundred yards behind us, just had time to see the Golden Eagle disappear into the distance languidly flapping its enormous wings. We waited excitedly for everyone to catch us up. But of course Coop didn’t share our excitement. We had, by walking so far ahead, spooked a magnificent and rare bird, denying everyone else the experience of a lifetime.
“You, you….you.. fu..complete idiots!” He spluttered trying to desperately to keep a professional grip on his temper and his language.