A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
MY top ten books of all time include the predictable mix of the worthy (Plato’s The Last Days of Socrates), the classic (Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit) and the personal (The Green Stone by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman). But following a discovery a few days ago I can now include the unexpected: Sold For A Farthing by Clare Kipps.
It is only 72 pages long. It was written by a non-professional writer. And it tells the story of a sparrow.
Clare Kipps was an Air Raid Warden in London. In July 1940 she returned home to find on her doorstep a day-old sparrow which, miraculously, responded to her nursing. It had, however, a deformed wing which meant it stayed the rest of its life in Clare’s home. The sparrow – Clarence – became tame. So tame, in fact, that Clare was able to take it on her rounds in London’s East End. Children (and adults) sitting huddled together in fear of Hitler’s bombing campaigns immediately burst into smiles when they realised their Air Raid Warden brought with her a pet sparrow – a sparrow happy to perform a programme of ‘tricks’.
It is this backdrop of World War II which makes this story so poignant. While men were slaughtering each other by the millions, Clare and her friends do all they can to save, and care for, one sparrow. The title – Sold For A Farthing – is a Biblical reference: that if God cares for a sparrow that you can buy for a farthing, then how much more must he care for you. The irony isn’t lost on Clare.
On its most basic level, this is a simple touching tale of a woman caring for a sick sparrow. And the book can be enjoyed if read only as that (there are even photos of Clarence performing some of his tricks). Just as you can enjoy Jonathan Livingstone Seagull as a story about a seagull. But there are deeper questions here for those who care to ask them.
For example, there’s a quote at the start from CS Lewis about whether it is man’s duty to tame animals, rather than leave them in a ‘wild’ state. Clare (a widow) says Clarence was not a pet. Rather that they shared an intimate friendship (he often ‘nested’ in her bed with her). By the end of the book she is writing “This little person – for it becomes increasingly difficult to me to think of him as a mere bird…”. But does the sparrow become more human, or does she become more ‘mother hen’. What are we to make of this:
“After breakfast (if the siren allowed) came the morning scrap. The bed would be cleared for action and I would sit at one end and the sparrow, looking like a miniature eagle, at the other. Then he would rush at me, tail spread and wings outstretched, and hold down my hand with one tiny claw while he hammered it with his beak like a miner with a pickaxe. He would then retreat only to return in fury to the attack – pecking, pinching, tumbling and scolding as the wild sparrows do in the hedgerows. But when I said sternly ‘Now, now! That’s enough!” he would simmer down and flutter his fan until his fed.”
To protect her eyes during these mock fights she took to wearing goggles.
Clarence and Clare have their share of adventures on the way. The house is bombed (he survives), they are caught in a bomb raid while out at night and on one occasion a cat gets into Clarence’s room. Clare’s inexperience as a writer does mean she glosses over these. So, infuriatingly she says at the start of Chapter Five:
“There is little of interest to record in the life of my sparrow from the end of his sixth year until his serious illness and partial recovery in his twelfth.”!
But it is perhaps for the best that the publisher didn’t rush round a ghost-writer and Clare’s matter-of-fact style allows this story to be told simply and starkly. That said, you’ll no doubt be shedding a tear or two at Clarence’s death. He lived 12 years (most text books will tell you the life expectancy of a sparrow is three years) and the bird-lover/scientist will no doubt find much of interest in this diary.
The lover of mysticism or the supernatural may also find something in this book. Such as this throwaway line in the Prologue:
“When I was born, a magpie pecked three times on the window as the nurse announced that a puny and significant infant was a girl. My mother took it as an ill omen – for she had a strange horror of magpies – and she died within three days. But neither magpie nor raven has ever been to me a harbinger of sorrow. I have had friends among the wild songsters and have been on nodding terms with a nightingale, but no bird has ever been so constant and beloved a companion as my little house sparrow.”
And there’s a spine-chilling coincidence towards the end of the sparrow’s life when Clare asks a photographer to take some pictures of her feathered friend. She randomly pulls a book off the shelf and opens it for the sparrow to be pictured ‘reading’. Only when the photo is developed and printed does she realise that the book (of religious scripture) is open at a page that says:
“Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing, yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father knowing?”
Make of that what you will.
Clare was a friend of the poet and author Walter de la Mare and he encouraged her to write an account of Clarence. It was published in 1953 and became a minor sensation. The book appears to have been rarely out of print until the Seventies. And while it may be out of print now, second-hand copies are easily obtained. I urge you to get hold of one. Dickens it ain’t. But it is without doubt a most remarkable book.
Frederick Muller Ltd. 1953. ASIN: B0043FISIE. 72pp.
Alan Cleaver is a freelance writer living in Whitehaven, Cumbria. He also publishes a number of books on folklore.