Who’d be a duck?

February 2023

I had already started cobbling together something for this month inspired by a very good article about ChatGPT (my favourite bit being a funny story about photocopier software) which has been in the mainstream news, hasn’t it? Everyone seems to be asking if, from now on, teachers will ever know if their students have really written the assignments they hand in. (Strangely, no one appears to be asking why students who would get a chatbot to do their homework for them think they are actually studying, but I guess that’s a different issue.)

Then, following a meeting with a ‘commission’ to which our residents’ association delegates certain responsibilities, I was struck by the thought that, even when chatbots get things wrong, they are not trying to impress; they don’t have an axe to grind, and they don’t combine pride and ignorance in the way that we do. Especially in meetings. Especially – sorry, guys – men. Sometimes I think we often forget why we originally supported a particular argument and only care about winning – or not losing, at least!

But I don’t think I can face having to think about my leaking roof again, so I’m going to shoot off in another direction. I’m on holiday! I need a break! And it may still be February, but the almond trees are blossoming, and the birds are getting frisky. I saw three mallard ducks on a pond today and it reminded me of two separate incidents and the idea of how a story can change depending on where you pick it up.

The first incident occurred on a walk around some reed-covered marshland just outside Santander (Northern Spain), the kind of place that ornithologists rave about even though most of the birds are either bobbing on the water about a kilometre away or are tweeting tantalisingly in the reeds where they know you can’t see them. Anyway, a pair of mallards were waddling along the path next to us, female leading the way, when another male suddenly nipped out from behind a bush and jumped straight on top of the female. And then it scuttled away, wagging its tail as the official partner squawked in outrage. I have to say I was also shocked. The implications were numerous and complicated, and no one even asked how the female mallard duck felt about the whole thing.

Some time later, during the COVID lockdown, when I was trying to keep myself amused by filming the magpies and blackbirds nesting in the hedges and the black redstarts in the garage, all from inside our flat on the second floor, I spotted a pair of mallards on the swimming pool in a neighbouring property. They started to come every day, swimming a little and sleeping on the tiles around the pool. One day, a bigger male turned up. It stayed on the other side of the fence around the pool, and the male left his partner to harangue it from inside the fenced-off area. The big male started strutting round the pool, and the other quacked nervously and followed it. Round and round the pool they went. The performance went on for several days until, one bright morning, I looked down to see the big male on the inside of the enclosure, while the little guy wandered around outside on his own. After that, I always wondered if a similar thing had happened to the male who jumped out from behind the bush.

What’s my point? I suppose I’m trying to explain why Roland, when he reaches Mars and then flies out to distant Europa, isn’t quite the same person who visited the Moon for the first time from good old London. And by the start of book five he may hardly be recognisable. Let’s hope he isn’t just relying on his natural pride and stubbornness to see him through.

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