Afternoon Play: The 40 Year Twitch by Daniel Thurman

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    The producer of The 40 Year Twitch Toby Swift writes: "Daniel Thurman is a talented young writer whose work often 'finds rich humour in the seemingly mundane' (Radio Times). And it is a 'seemingly mundane' relationship that Daniel explores to great effect in his new comic play. And to make it even harder to get the idea commissioned in the first place, he decided that said relationship should revolve around birdwatching - 'birding' to the initiated. For some, the mere mention of a play about birdwatching is the end of the conversation but I'd urge them to put aside their doubts. I asked Daniel to explain how his own relationship with the world of birds feeds into his sense of life beyond beaks and feathers."

    At about the age of nine or ten I was bought a book called 'Animal Tracks and Traces'. This contained detailed illustrations of, among other things, paw prints and pellets. Pellets are the undigested food parts regurgitated by some bird species and, playing in the fields close to our house, I would sometimes come across those deposited by barn owls - a small lozenge-shaped mass of insect exoskeletons, rodent bones and fur. Sounds gruesome but I found them fascinating.

    The barn owl being something I only rarely glimpsed, these pellets were an insight into their lives and made me feel closer to the bird. I could identify what animals it had eaten which then allowed me to paint a more vivid mental picture of the barn owl's nocturnal hunting trips. It may have fed while I was sleeping but this way I could join it in flight and in the pursuit of its prey. I think there lies the origins of my radio play The Forty Year Twitch.

    The biggest influence was the concept of bird enthusiasts living vicariously though the objects of their interest. This is surely a notion we can all appreciate to some degree? After all, flight must rank pretty highly among us humans as a desired 'super power'.

    I imagine we have all dreamt of possessing the ability to take off for a destination of our choosing; to ride the thermals and perhaps crap on certain individuals from a great height? This makes me wonder if there's such a thing as 'flight envy'? It wouldn't surprise me if the condition existed. Just think how the gift of flight would benefit our lives. Certainly we could all drastically reduce our carbon footprints.

    Anyway, my own relationship with our feathered friends has been a complicated one. For example, this childhood appreciation of wild birds sits awkwardly with the fact that I also kept a caged budgerigar. Shamefully, the only time I can remember feeling unsettled by its presence was when it was allowed out to 'stretch its wings'.

    In preparation, my Mum would close the lounge curtains and switch on the electric light for fear that, upon seeing the outside world, my pet would beat itself unconscious against the window. Apart from its initial flight from the cage door, I remember it spending most of its 'freedom' perched nervously on the pelmet.

    Poor thing.

    Clearly at that time my sympathies lay more with its wild counterparts, the barn owls, the sparrows which flitted seemingly carefree in and out of our hedge, the pair of blackbirds which foraged together across our freshly mown lawn, the house martins which, after wintering in warmer climes, reappeared each spring to build their nests under the eaves of our local pub. One might covet their lives as much as the budgie would.

    It seems strange that we go about our daily business surrounded by birds yet, for the majority of us, they remain very much on the periphery.

    As a child growing up in the countryside, I didn't really consider birds to be 'an interest'. They were numerous and varied and it would have been ignorant not to take notice. But at some point my attention was diverted.

    In recent years, as an adult living in the city, the odd near-miss with a low-flying pigeon was about the closest I came to a connection. Writing 'The Forty Year Twitch' has brought birds back into focus and once again their lives seem pertinent to me. It is from my desk that I first noticed a pair of jays had taken up residence in a neighbour's garden. I wrote parts of the play in Spain, sitting in a park opposite a large fir tree occupied by a flock of screeching parakeets. And certain scenes were written at my parent's house, in the garden of which dozens of goldfinch wait for their turn at the bird feeder.

    In fact, as I write this, I notice a crow is picking a hole in a bin bag left out for collection. He has just fished out a rotten morsel and eaten it. I can't say I envy him that.

    Daniel Thurman wrote The 40 Year Twitch

    • Afternoon Play: The 40 Year Twitch is on Wednesday 8th June on Radio 4 at 2.15pm and on the Radio 4 website for seven days after that.
    • Find more drama on Radio 4.

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