As long as I remember I've had a fear of birds - my mum (God rest her soul) was no stranger to this phobia either. She once told me that my dad had taken her to the cinema to see Alfred Hitchcock's, The Birds, and she'd spent most of the film hiding under her seat. I often wondered if this is where I'd been conceived, and in some macabre twist of fate I'd adopted my own fear whilst still in the womb. I remember watching the film myself late one wintery Friday night, on my 14 inch black and white portable TV. Well I say I watched it, what I really mean is that I peeped at the screen from beneath the covers every now and again. Each time I emerged from my safe haven it would seem that somebody was getting their eyes pecked out. For months after I'd watched it I was too afraid to go to the toilet during the night for fear of having my toes pecked off by the murder of crows that had somehow wound up under my bed.
The real origins of my fear lay in an equally gruesome tale which I'm about to fill you in on now...
For the first 6 years of my life my family lived in a quaint little cottage (Sykes Cottage), in a picturesque little village called Osbaldeston. Sykes cottage was located next to Sykes Farm, which was a working farm run by the farmer John Walmsley and his wife Doris. The rent for the cottage (£6) was wavered because my mum did the milk round on a daily basis. The cottage may have been quaint and all, but luxurious it was not. The only bathtub was located under the sink in the kitchen downstairs, and the only toilet was in the back yard, next to the coal shed which housed as many cats and kittens as it did coal. The only form of heating was a coal fire in the small living room, which would have been fine if the windows were not single glazed. However, for all it's faults we loved Sykes cottage, and if the truth be known it's the only house that I've ever really considered to be a home. It oozed personality from its every damp pore, and believe me there were lots of them.
Our family had to be the poorest in the village. Sykes cottage was surrounded by enormous houses, where people with unimaginable wealth dwelled. For example Jack Walker, the steel magnate, and future owner of Blackburn Rovers football club lived just down the lane. Well, I say he lived just down the lane, his house and grounds practically occupied the whole of it. We'd go for family walks down Higher Common's Lane, and gawp at the wealth as we passed by in our hand-me-down clothes, or go for cycle rides and gawp, as we rode past on our hand-me-down bikes. It was on one of these walks that I truly became gripped in the clutches of ornithophobia.
To a toddler Higher Common's Lane seemed to go on for ever, although in reality it was only about a mile long. As we walked its length there were many landmarks, the most sinister of which was a cottage which had been vacated and left exactly as it was before the owner's daughter had been killed in a fall from her horse. Of course, I was compelled to look through the window, I mean what 5 year old wouldn't be? At the the bottom of the lane stood Oxendale Hall, and beyond that Oxendale Woods. On very special occasions, usually long summer's nights, my mum and dad would treat us to a walk in Oxendale woods, and it was in these very woods where my fear of birds truly began.
As we crossed the small brook, no doubt searching for eels, my mum was stopped dead in her tracks. Her face was drained of all colour, her body became rigid, and a loud shriek exited her lips. We all turned to face the object of her displeasure, and were confronted by a large black crow which was not long dead. Just like my own fear is now, my mum's fear of dead birds was even stronger than her fear of live ones. Seeing my mum petrified was not an emotion I was used to. My response was to grab her hand, and to run as fast as we could to get away from the dormant creature. My dad's response was of an entirely different nature. Rather than doing the gallant thing and ridding us of this hideous beast, or at least covering it up so that we no longer had to witness it, he picked the stricken bird up, and charged after us with it in his hands as if he was a child, and it was a paper aeroplane. My sister meanwhile stood there and watched the whole scene unfurl.
As my mum and I headed deeper into the woods, my dad was closing in. If you've ever seen the film Deliverance you'll be aware of the fear that we felt. My dad's manic laughter echoed through the trees, as the wind resistance opened up the crow's wings, and it appeared to come back to life. The bird's neck (obviously broken) flopped from side to side, its dark beady eyes seemingly targeting our every effort to escape our fears.
As dad launched the crow, its wings totally spread out, and it flew as majestically as an eagle circling the foothills of the Himalaya. Mum and I dived to the floor just in time, the rush of wind the crow created ruffling our hair as it whistled over our heads. I looked up to see the beak of the crow stuck in the ground only inches from my face. Its eyes burrowing into my soul creating a fear that lives with me till this day.
I may have found the explanation for my fear of birds, but this doesn't mean that I've found a cure. In fact I'd say my fear has intensified over the years. And I'm pretty sure that birds prey on to this. On 2 occasions over the past 26 years I've even been attacked by creatures of the feathery variety. The first of these occasions came when I was walking the Rossendale Way in 1991. My friend Chris and I had almost completed this 18 mile hike, and our legs were feeling a lot worse for wear, when we entered a farmer's field somewhere in Haslingden. We were halfway across the field when we were spotted by a wayward turkey, who seemed intent on attacking me (not Chris). I pegged it across the field as fast as my legs would take me, but this was not fast enough. This ugliest of beasts was in hot pursuit, and about to peck the back of my legs, before I took evasive action and leapt headfirst over a drystone wall. I lay there for the best part of a minute trying to regain my breath and my composure. When I felt ready I pressed the palms of my hands against the floor and was about to push myself up when guess what I saw mere inches from my face? That's right a dead crow! Once again staring into my soul. It was as if 16 years of my life had never happened.
The second occasion I was attacked by an avian creature was only a few years ago in 2014. At the time I was on a trip around South America, travelling with my Australian friend Annie. We'd just spent a horrible night on a bus between the Bolivian towns of Sucre and Uyuni. Uyuni is the start/end of the Bolivian salt flats route that has become a right of passage for any travellers travelling around South America. You've probably seen the photos that people take with people seemingly sitting on outstretched hands, popping out of arses, or with their contorted bodies spelling out rude words. Despite the excitement of our forthcoming trip Annie and I had literally frozen our bollocks off on what has to be the coldest bus journey I've ever undertaken. The cold was so bad that it even penetrated 3 layers of clothing, including the gloves that we wore on our hands and our feet. By the time we arrived in Uyuni we looked like we'd just escaped from a cryogenics laboratory. It was only a few hours until the trip was due to begin, but despite our desire to budget we decided to book into a hostel just to get a few hours warmth and sleep.
Suitably defrosted, although still tired to the core, Annie and I headed into the market square at 9 am to get some supplies for our forthcoming trip. The sun had risen to a nice level by this time so I chose to close my eyes and bask in the heat it was radiating, whilst Annie went into a store to complete her shopping list. To me these moments are what travelling is all about, sat in a Bolivian market square, surrounded by people going about their everyday business, whilst finding great pleasure in the sun's rays. What could be better? So you can imagine my shock when I felt an almighty smack on my head. At first I thought it was kids kicking a football at me and I spun around with the aim of challenging them. But guess what I saw? A freshly dead pigeon that must have spotted my bald head glistening in the Bolivian sunshine, and decided to dive bomb it (and it fucking hurt). More than a little stunned, and in too much shock to move I took a moment to observe the stricken bird. My observation complete, my fear kicked in. I was about to run away when a scruffy street dog casually sauntered over to form a triangle between me, the bird and himself. The subservient hound stared me in the eyes with a pathetic expression upon its face, before turning to look at the bird. Once more the dog turned to me, as if asking for acceptance, before digging its teeth into the carcass, and devouring it with the vigour of, well a starving dog. By the time Annie emerged form the shop the market square was a mass of blood and feathers, and my head was smarting from the blow that the creature had dealt me. My fears had once again come back to haunt me.