Once upon a time, there was a guard-parrot.
A builder was finishing up some work at the house of a hard-working career woman. She had two pets who had both proved the bane of the builder’s existence during the building of the extension: a vicious mutt called Spike with crooked teeth which the dog clearly wouldn’t mind sinking into any available tradesman’s buttocks; and a guard-parrot, who is never graced with a name in this tale of woe.
The woman was called away: and left the builder with some sound advice: “Whatever you do,” she warned the builder, “don’t talk to the parrot.”
The builder vowed he would not breathe a word.
But the parrot was good. Too good, some say. His taunts were expertly aimed at the builder’s insecurities; his mimicking of the tradesman’s accent and mannerisms uncannily accurate. It was as if the parrot had a mind of his own. It was not just wittering away parrot-fashion; there was method to its malice.
Until at last the builder could take it no longer. “Shut up, you ugly old bird,” he retorted. “And shove that beak where the sun don’t shine.”
Whereupon the parrot, quick as a flash, spoke in its mistress’s voice: “Get him, Spike!”
Parrot fashion has, since the early seventeenth century, meant the repetition of words without thought. It is this ‘parroting’ quality which led to the most extraordinary use of parrot symbolism I think I have ever seen.
Allow me to draw you back to the Hospital of St Cross: a community of brothers who live together in almshouses around a cathedral-like church just outside the old English capital of Winchester. The community was set up by Henri De Blois, William the Conqueror’s grandson and Bishop of Winchester.
It is entirely secular. And that brings a very lateral perspective to the place.
In many great churches – including St Cross’s big brother across the meadows, Winchester Cathedral – the great old bibles are held on a lectern in the shape of an eagle.
The figure is heavy with symbolism, though opinions as to its meanings are varied. Some say it is a hangover from Roman times when the eagle was a symbol of the empire’s authority; some that the eagle is the bird which can fly closest to the light; some that the bird was the symbol of John The Evangelist.
Anyhow, the churches and cathedrals are peppered with these worthy creatures in wood or brass. But the Hospital of St Cross, now: its great Normal church has a beautifully carved English oak lectern, dating from the early 15th century. It has a cut-mark half way down where it is said someone lopped it in half to hide it from Cromwell’s zealous grasping destroyer’s fingers.
And it is not an eagle: but a parrot.
It was all I could do not to laugh out loud in that hallowed place: indeed I think I may have chuckled a little noisily.
The parrot has a heart, though. And local folklore has it that this incongruous creature counsels us to read from the heart, and not recite like a parrot.
And if this is its meaning, then let us have parrot bookstands everywhere: for our newspapers, our great works of literature ancient and modern: let is have parrots to remind us that what we hear on the news is not gospel, and what our politicians tell us cannot always be taken and consumed whole, for relaying to anyone who will listen.
The parrot is a potent symbol indeed.
As I turned to leave the church I glanced down in one of the brothers’ pews. And what should I see on the floor, dropped by one of the secular brethren, but a small, stuffed toy: a parrot.
Amen, brother. Amen.