When we are in Norfolk we often see swifts flitting about in the twilight. The swifts are in Norfolk for the summer as we are, but the similarity between our journeys is negligible. Swifts spend their winters in South Africa before making the epic passage up the globe to East Anglia. This is a non-stop trip; they do not touch down once, not even for duty-free in Dubai. The swifts live their life on the wing during this time. They eat, sleep and mate in the air.
It can take a swift a year to reach its destination, although when I heard this the churlish part of me did think: hurry up, you’re supposed to be a swift. With a fair wind it can take us about three hours to arrive on the North Norfolk coast but where a swift can cross hemispheres without the need to stop, our family doesn’t share the same powers of endurance.
The Major’s bowels have evolved so they whirr into action as soon as the keys are turned in the ignition. Because we can have been on the road for minute before he expresses an urgent need for a poo. For this eventuality we are always equipped with a Potette, which is essentially a toilet seat with a plastic grocery bag attached to it. Or a pooper-scooper for humans. We’ve had issues in past disposing of the waste because no-one wants to carry a bag of shit around on a long journey. A scarcity of bins in rural Suffolk meant that I recently lobbed a shit-bag into a bottle bank. Of course I am ashamed to admit this but on the flipside I was vaguely exhilarated by the tiny rebellion of the act. It’s a way to feel alive. A shit-bag in a bottle bank.
On another occasion we were in Thurrock services within half an hour of departure. We attempted to leave on three occasions, having to return each time to the services on various errands. At one point I thought we were going to have to holiday there: eating out at KFC, dipping our toes by the industrial banks of the Thames estuary and finding entertainment at the local speedway track.
Like the swift we are able to eat en route. However sleeping while driving is inadvisable and mating is in contravention of the Highway Code. Unlike the swift we require a satellite navigation system to guide us. Scholars have debated how the swift knows its way. My thought is that they probably go in convoy with another swift who’s already been to the UK. But there are various schools suggesting that swifts use the constellations to plot their route, with an innate sense of direction. Not entirely sure what they do during the day to be honest.
My dad believes he has a similar inbuilt sense of direction which he calls his ‘old trapper’s instinct. On various family holidays, the old trapper’s instinct has taken us left when we needed to go right, north when we should have headed south and once to the peak of a mountain in Scotland when we should have been flying down the motorway.
The bird-boffins have now mainly agreed that the swift has evolved so that the migratory map forms a physical part of its brain, it’s embedded into the actual cortex. So the next time you hear something described as “bird-brained” it actually means “completely fucking amazing”. It set me to wondering if anything was woven so magically into my own sons’ brains. So far I’ve come up with the ability to need a poo whilst in a moving vehicle.