As a kid, I think it was always accepted that when we saw gulls circling our little Midlands enclave, it was because there must have been a storm out at sea. It might even have been a sentiment accompanied by a wave of the hand and a chilly glance toward where we thought Skegness or Filey might be.
I’ve hung on to that idea for years, even though I know it must be mostly fanciful. It seemed particularly romantic to me that these storm-tossed creatures, shaken and buffeted by some distant and unknown tempest, should fetch up in our manor seeking respite.
Oh, but it’s a simple misunderstanding, and I was young then. Culturally, they’ve always been storm indicators, and often misrepresented.
The Welsh have the story of St Kenneth, or Cenydd, who was born to a minor nobleman from Arthur’s court, but was the result of an incestuous liaison and deformed. Horrified, the parents decided to cast the child into the River Loughor, but beforehand a priest baptised him and placed him in a basket. A storm arose and the cradle was carried into the estuary and out to sea. It was seen by a colony of gulls which lifted the basket to the top of a rock, where they stripped their breasts of feathers to make a bed while watching over the baby.
It is a rare positive reference. Normally, gulls are pests, scavengers; destructive and noisy. Even their name is assumed to be attached to the pejorative, from which we might attribute ‘gullible’ or to be ‘gulled’, as in a character who will swallow anything. The etymology is a little hazy at best, and may refer to the gullet, any gullet, rather than this genus of bird in particular. Don’t let the irony of all that peck you on the arse as it flies off now, will you?
It all depends on how you conjugate it. Gulls are globally successful. They split from their Middle Eastern progenitor group, and broke across the Atlantic, the best part of three hundred thousand years ago. At about the same time, we, our own species, spilled from the cradle of civilisation and filtered out from that same area. We have lived in each others’ footprints and shadows eternally.
They are not seagulls, or, at least, they are never just that. That’s too lazy. Their family name, the taxonomy, is too simple. They are Laridae, which comes from the Ancient Greek λάῥος, or ‘sea bird’. But gulls are everywhere, they are birds of cities and fields and landfills and motorway service stations and waste ground and high rises and every place where we might be. And yet, you can see the attraction of the pull of the sea. That romantic feeling coming back again. John Masefield called it the “vagrant gypsy life” and longed for “the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife”.
Or maybe it’s just because it’s easier and we know we can peripheralise these shrieking, insolent marauders. You catch sight of one of these pallid intruders and immediately you’ll fancy the breeze is a little keener, and the sky a little darker.