* 200 articles. Two years. Whelk. The best of Upsideclown. Might be reprinted.

The Starling Variable

21 August 2003
Matt has expectances.

By rights I shouldn't be giving you this story, as I'm dead and my feathery, brown chest is stone cold. Don't tell!

"Mr L---?" An elderly gentleman, par for the course in this part of Oxford, opened the door. He nodded, "And you?"

I introduced myself, usual stuff. Physicist just finished my Finals, trying to make a bit of cash to tide me over by freelancing for the papers, chasing up on something that could have a bit of local interest.

I'd found a postcard tucked into a book in the RSL stacks, right down in the basement. Postmarked 1956, addressed to L---, with what looked like a pirate's treasure map drawn on it. Labelled, in copperplate, "The Starling Variable". An illustration of a starling on the front, pen and ink.

Who knows, forgotten student prank probably, and I would've forgotten it too except I'd run across a book of that title a month or two before, misplaced amongst the old Optics textbooks. I'd left it under a pile of paper during revision, to read later -- and now it came to mind.

The book itself was pretty weird. Rev someone or other, late 1800s, a rantish tract on the perfection of Creation. Reading between the lines it seemed the Reverend had, in his confused way, been onto something. The same themes were echoed by modern day pseudo scientists. Crackpots, mainly, I didn't have much time for Bohm or Lovelock or their followers, especially not when it came to leaflets called "Challenge Your Perceptions!!" and the like, but I'd read my fair share before dismissing it like a sensible undergraduate.

Our Rev argued (well, declared without support, really) that God's plan was visible in all things. He pointed out - repetitively - the way animals were perfectly in sync with the seasons, squirrels keeping food back, birds flying south for the winter and so on. Dogs, on the other hand, did not bury nuts because they were looked after by people. In fact, he said, it was all so interlocked that you could deduce from dogs not burying food that their preferred diet would be available even when all plantlife was blanketed in snow.

Ironic, of course, that there is no escape from the cold for us birds now.

From the habits of cattle coming to be milked every morning, he said, one could postulate the farmer, the milkers, milk markets and the railways, children drinking it and so on and so forth. From the wings and muscles of one of Darwin's finches, wind and lift. And all of this such a well-balanced machine, proof of God and His wisdom: Darwin was wrong because the first winter a squirrel faced would kill them all, even before they somehow learned what to do.

It was all a bit Gaia for me, but the Rev's premise intrigued me. We could trace back the mechanics of the machine and learn the mind of God. By a series of deductions we could know the Starling Variable, the number of extant starlings on the European continent. This would determine the number of insects, the lengths of winters, the directions of the winds and how long they blew.

I'd read similar comments on the Web and in less wacky publications. Popper talked about genetic expectations, the idea of "winter" built in to the changing coats of mammals, into the instincts of birds, into the genes. Maybe there was something in this.

But this postcard seemed to imply a location for this number, which was all a bit strange.

Still, local interest, a bit of backstory and a pirate's treasure. Should be good for a few quid. So off to L---'s I went, and gave him the low-down.

Well what happened next is the second oddest thing that ever happened to me, and what happened almost a year after that the oddest bar nothing, as well as being the penultimate thing that ever happened to any of us.

Apart from me telling you this story that is -- which isn't happening, because, as I've hinted, we're all dead, and all floating in space in the orbit of the Earth. But letting that stop us wouldn't be any fun, would it?

We went into the old man's garden, counted the requisite number of paces, dug down a little over a foot (feeling pretty silly, I must admit) and found buried there a solid, roughly hewn stone block with a rectangular brass face on the top. If we'd brushed and picked the soil out, a small slider would be able to move from one end to the other. It was labelled, with another brass plate:

The Starling Variable.


More than a bit taken aback I fiddled with the knob a bit, quizzed L--- for the remainder of the afternoon, but he skirted any direct answers and clammed up when I asked him directly. He seemed to know of the book, but it's difficult to tell with old men, especially old men who don't get much company. When I brought out the card he shut up completely and wouldn't talk about anything but the weather. Cutting my losses, I left and didn't give it a moment's serious thought. Although my pub anecdotes were particularly good for a while...

...and it was during one of them, the aforementioned almost-a-year-later, that a biologist friend mentioned an article she'd read in New Scientist: that the European starling population had taken a sudden plunge, and they had no idea what'd caused it.

The Reverend's book came flooding back to me. L---'s quiet smile now seemed less senile and more secretive. What had he been hiding?

Oxford, the next weekend, was a crisp blue day, but the quads of yellow stone held none of their usual feeling of homecoming. The buses were nose-to-tail in the Saturday traffic so I half walked, half jogged up the Banbury Road.

L--- had died that morning. I turned up at his house out of breath and sweating, full of questions. Fully geared up to refuse to leave the old man's house until he told me what was going on, it was a shock to find an ambulance outside and his carer beginning to sort through papers. More frustrating, actually.

And there, on his desk - I went in to talk - was a well looked-after copy of The Starling Variable, a photocopy of the very same New Scientist article, and my name from a year before! Astounded, I almost dropped my tea. Even the nurse - their type usually a model of calm whatever the surprise - raised her eyebrows.

We went outside.

The soil over the rock and brass plate was still a little loose. I picked gravel and mud from the slider with my fingernails, seeing the discolouration of the metal where we'd managed to budge the knob a little a year before. I had to put it back. I pulled, it was well stuck. My nails ached, soil pushed up underneath them, and the tips of my fingers rubbed raw before I got the thing to move. Annoyed I gave the knob a real shove, must've dislodged whatever grain was sticking and it slammed right down the groove before I could stop it, right to the end.

In a second, the air filled with birdsong, the number of birds doubling and redoubling, blocking out the sun. As it darkened I saw a clod of mud burst wings, and the tips of a hundred blades of grass opened into squawking mouths. Then there was a tickle that spread all down my throat as it, my body, turned to feathers, and I transformed into a hundred more.

Then the loudest sound you can possibly imagine, as every last grain of matter of the earth, every house, every kidney, every lump of coal, every drop of molten magma burst into life, became beaked and bright eyed, and each new starling simultaneously beat its wings, a boom:

Once. And then the cold of space flooded in, the feathers froze, and we all died all at once. A trillion, trillion starling hearts stilled seconds after their birth, a single icy swarm, together for ever, where the world used to be.


This is the fucking archive

Current clown:

18 December 2003. George writes: This List

Most recent ten:

15 December 2003. Jamie writes: Seven Songs
11 December 2003. Dan writes: Spinning Jenny
8 December 2003. Victor writes: Rock Opera
4 December 2003. Matt writes: The Mirrored Spheres of Patagonia
1 December 2003. George writes: Charm
27 November 2003. James writes: On Boxing
24 November 2003. Jamie writes: El Matador del Amor; Or, the Man who Killed Love
20 November 2003. Dan writes: Rights Management
17 November 2003. Victor writes: Walking on Yellow
13 November 2003. Matt writes: Disintermediation
(And alas we lost Neil, who last wrote Cockfosters)

Also by this clown:

4 December 2003. Matt writes: The Mirrored Spheres of Patagonia
13 November 2003. Matt writes: Disintermediation
23 October 2003. Matt writes: Topology
2 October 2003. Matt writes: Haunted
8 September 2003. Matt writes: The Gardener's Diary
21 August 2003. Matt writes: The Starling Variable
31 July 2003. Matt writes: Two stories
14 July 2003. Matt writes: What is real?
23 June 2003. Matt writes: Mapping and journeys
29 May 2003. Matt writes: Extelligence
5 May 2003. Matt writes: Religious experiences
17 April 2003. Matt writes: Seeing the Light
27 March 2003. Matt writes: Flowering
10 March 2003. Matt writes: Climax state
10 February 2003. Matt writes: The Role of Cooperation in Human Interaction
20 January 2003. Matt writes: The same old subroutine
2 January 2003. Matt writes: New beginnings
9 December 2002. Matt writes: Packet Loss
18 November 2002. Matt writes: Wonderland
31 October 2002. Matt writes: Having and losing
10 October 2002. Matt writes: Trees of Knowledge
19 September 2002. Matt writes: The online life of bigplaty47
29 August 2002. Matt writes: Divorce
8 August 2002. Matt writes: How to get exactly what you want
18 July 2002. Matt writes: Eleven Graceland endings
27 June 2002. Matt writes: Listopad, Prague 1989
3 June 2002. Matt writes: Engram bullets
6 May 2002. Matt writes: Sound advice
15 April 2002. Matt writes: How it all works: Cars
21 March 2002. Matt writes: Proceeding to the next stage
25 February 2002. Matt writes: Spam quartet
31 January 2002. Matt writes: Person to person
7 January 2002. Matt writes: All for the best
13 December 2001. Matt writes: Life
19 November 2001. Matt writes: Giving is better than receiving
25 October 2001. Matt writes: Ludo
1 October 2001. Matt writes: Gifts, contracts, and whispers
6 September 2001. Matt writes: The world is ending
13 August 2001. Matt writes: The Church of Mrs Bins
16 July 2001. Matt writes: Things I Don't Have
25 June 2001. Matt writes: Fighting the Good Fight
31 May 2001. Matt writes: Code dependency
7 May 2001. Matt writes: Up The Arse, Or Not At All
5 April 2001. Matt writes: The increasing nonlinearity of time
19 March 2001. Matt writes: Hit Me Baby, One More Time
22 February 2001. Matt writes: Space, Matter, Cities, Sausages
29 January 2001. Matt writes: Truth in Advertising
1 January 2001. Matt writes: Six predictions for tomorrow
7 December 2000. Matt writes: You must reach this line to ride
16 November 2000. Matt writes: The truth about the leopard
23 October 2000. Matt writes: Shopping mauls
28 September 2000. Matt writes: Heavy traffic on the road to Utopia
4 September 2000. Matt writes: Sixty worlds a minute
17 July 2000. Matt writes: You, Me, and Face-space

Let meeeeeee entertain you

We are all Upsideclown: Dan, George, James, Jamie, Matt, Neil, Victor.

Material is (c) respective authors. For everything else, there's

Never come here again

And weeeeeee can entertain you by email too. Get fresh steaming Upsideclown in your inbox Mondays and Thursdays, and you'll never need to visit this website again. To subscribe, send the word subscribe in the body of your mail to (To unsubscribe, send the word unsubscribe instead.)


... On this page: ... Archive ... About ... Subscribe ... ... Upsideclone