Ashley Davies: Bow down to our feathery overlords

Uptown gull: they won't stop till they've beaten us all. Picture: Toby Williams
Uptown gull: they won't stop till they've beaten us all. Picture: Toby Williams
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COMING, as I do, from a landlocked region, I’ve long associated the sight and sound of seagulls with holidays, fresh, salty air and breezy romantic freedom.

From a distance, their plaintive calls are reminiscent of longing, loss and hope, and watching them effortlessly riding the sky’s invisible currents so makes me wish I could fly that I’d sacrifice a family member in a heartbeat if a credible witch told me that would seal the deal.

If what you’re reading was being broadcast, this would be the point at which you’d hear the “zzzip” of a needle being yanked off a record because seagulls are only magical from a distance. Up close and in reality they are – and forgive the anthropomorphism – utter bastards. OK, not all seagulls [#notallseagulls]. The small ones are tolerable because they’re not as menacing, but herring gulls, those enormous, sharp-beaked (their gobs even look blood-stained, for pity’s sake), yellow-eyed seaside warriors – they won’t stop until they’ve pecked at all our pets, looted all our lollies and scared the bejesus out of all the mild-mannered waterfowl.

You don’t get to be such a winner in the natural selection stakes by being languid and adorable – just ask those lazy, bamboo-munching losers in Edinburgh Zoo. Like vigilant street villains, gulls are always on the look-out for the next prize.

Roo, a tiny Yorkshire terrier, was put down a couple of days ago after being pecked half to death by gulls in Newquay. “It was like a murder scene,” said his owner. “He was on his side in a pool of blood.” Poor little Roo. Also in Cornwall, gulls reportedly targeted a tortoise called Stig, which died two days later from his injuries. His owner was quoted as saying: “They turned him over and were pecking at him. We were devastated.”

Sounds more like torture for laughs than hunting for food, doesn’t it?

Although gull numbers are supposedly declining, they’re certainly making their presence felt in urban environments – especially when they’re screechily jostling for position on the roof for hours when I’m trying to sleep during these light summer nights. Not long ago I nearly got hit in the head by a gull flying past carrying the dripping carcass of a pigeon – probably not what Richard Bach had in mind while wistfully sucking on his pencil and dreaming up Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Herring gulls’ boldness peaks in direct proportion to people’s lack of respect for their environment. A fisherman in Oban told me recently gull poop was corroding the paint on his boat because of all the greasy fast food they’re eating.

They’re clever, co-operative (when you see them stamping their feet in groups they’re trying to imitate rainfall in order to trick earthworms to come to the surface), and resilient (they can drink fresh and salt water). The easier we make it for them to see us as a source of food, the greater the chance that one day we’ll all be working for them. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Gained in translation

BURIED in a dense and unsettling book that’s just been published – Elleke Boehmer’s The Shouting in the Dark, about a deeply troubled family from the Netherlands living in South Africa – is an expression that reminded me of how delicious it can be to come across the literal translation of expressions from another language.

Thanks to Boehmer, I learned that the Dutch word for “ventriloquist” (buikspreker) translates directly as “stomach talker” – in case you thought ventriloquism couldn’t get any more creepy. While I imagine there are plenty of other crackers in Dutch, German, the language of love – if love to you means being shouted at, and hey, for a lot of people it does – is a rich source of imaginative compound words. While most people know that Schadenfreude literally means “damage pleasure”, they may not be aware that the exact translation of Brustwarz (nipples) is “breast worts”. (You have to wonder if they used that particular translation in Geheimes Verlangen).

Entzündeter Fußballen (bunions – yup, they’re all sexy today) translates as “football inflammation”, and Nacktschnecke, or slug, means “naked snail”.

But my favourite German composite word of all time describes a smartypants who takes pleasure in correcting other people’s mistakes and showing off about their knowledge. The word is Klugscheisser – “wisdom sh***er”.

The hen party holiday – welcome to my idea of hell

YOU know how, in scary films, when a killer is in the house and the potential victim hides behind a door or in a wardrobe trying not to breathe lest they be heard or spotted? That’s how I feel when there’s a risk I’ll be invited to a hen party (a term I despise, by the way). I’m happy to go along for a few hours but I’d rather floss the teeth of every Ukip sympathiser in the UK than spend a whole weekend having enforced, expensive fun. As wedding season is in full swing, next time you see a totter of “hens”, spare a thought for the one who wishes she wasn’t there, especially if she’s the bride-to-be. «