Home to roost: the robin was recently voted the national bird but the house martin is our true human familiar. Photo: John Short / Design Pics
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House martins, the little dolphins that love to slide on your roof

Martins are in steep decline now, but once their mud-cup nests, slung under eaves, were a familiar sight across Britain.

So the robin has been voted the UK’s “national bird” by more than 224,000 people, beating the barn owl by three to one. Springwatch insisted that it wanted votes for a species that “represented” the nation, not just personal favourites. So commentators have had fun suggesting the image of the UK reflected by the back-garden worm-digger: something chipper, plucky, punching above its size, a feathery echo of the Spitfire. Or the descendant of William Blake’s “redbreast in a cage”, which stood for all tyrannical imprisonments. I’m sceptical about whether viewers were quite so politically calculated in their choices, and suspect most simply voted for a bird loved for its bright eyes, winter song and sheer companionability.

The native robin’s legendary fork-perching is an intimacy not seen in Continental robins, which lurk in woods and, inconveniently for myth-makers, often migrate to Britain at just the season the species becomes a national emblem of Christmas, too.

The idea of a “national bird” is odd, when you think about it, suggesting that nationhood confers similar characters on human being and bird alike. North Americans are proud of the magisterial symbolism of their bald eagle and ignore the fact that the real bird lives on fish and scavenged carrion and is far from unique to the land of the free.

But there are birds that are true human familiars, and live so close to us that they transcend metaphor and become real neighbours. I bet that 30 years ago one of these, the house martin, would have been high in Springwatch’s top ten. Martins are in steep decline now, but in those days their mud-cup nests, slung under eaves, were a familiar sight across Britain. A famous colony nested in the rose windows of the French embassy in Knightsbridge, another in the public conveniences on the chic promenade at Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Their Latin name is Delichon urbica. They are colonial, sociable, as playful as the miniature dolphins they resemble. To have them nesting on your house is to have engaging guests for the duration of summer. The intricate building of the nests, the diligent feeding, the games of the young (I have seen them tobogganing down tiled roofs) are an insight into a parallel civic society. One particularly hot summer, ours built a verandah for their first brood to roost in. They would, I think, be the co-op movement’s national bird.

In 1774, the godfather of nature writing, Gilbert White, presented a mould-breaking essay on martins to the Royal Society. Nothing remotely like it had been written about birds before. Virginia Woolf thought it had narrative structures worthy of a novelist. White’s observations and empathy transcend 18th-century science as surely as they do crude anthropomorphism. He respects the birds as fellow citizens, “industrious artificers”, and details how they construct their nests, observing “that this work may not, whilst it is soft and green, pull itself down by its own weight, the provident architect [builds] only in the morning and . . . gives it sufficient time to dry and harden”. Turning conventional human-centredness upside down, he suggests that human wall-builders may have been “informed at first” by the bird.

Now, modern builders and the owners of their constructions are partly to blame for the house martin being on the skids. Mud won’t stick to plastic roof seals. Householders illegally poke down nests to stop droppings soiling the Dulux. Across much of Europe, by contrast, nesting birds are regarded as a blessing on a house. I once saw some nests in Crete – still occupied – included in the repainting of a house’s exterior. Back home, I miss such human whimsy and avian communal spirit, and find our summers lonelier without them.

Richard Mabey will appear at Latitude Festival in July

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.