Monday, October 2, 2017


Here is a book, recommended by a reader and avid birder from New Zealand: Sold for a Farthing, by Clare Kipps (1953).

From a review by Alan Cleaver in Vulpes Libris:

[The book] 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’.

The book is out-of-print and hard to find--I secured it from interlibrary loan--and discovered a glorious hidden treasure.

"Feeling that if a new-born infant is left outside one's doorstep something should be done about it, I picked it up, wrapped it in warm flannel and, sitting over the kitchen fire, endeavored for several hours to revive it. After I had succeeded in opening its soft beak--an operation that required a delicate touch and immense patience to avoid injury--I propped it open with a spent match and dripped one drop of warm milk every minute down its little throat."

The bird has a deformed leg and one wing is set at an odd angle. She proceeds to nurse him back to health and the two live in a kind of strange conjugal bliss for 12 years.

The neighborhood children name the sparrow Clarence: Clare calls him only "Boy."

WWII is on and Clare leaves often for her job supporting Britain's war efforts.

"When left alone in the house he seemed quite content. I often watched through the window to satisfy my mind that he was not fretting in my absence, but apparently, as soon as he realised that I had gone, he settled down and amused himself with his food and toys. I had provided him with a great variety of playthings, but the only ones that ever appealed to him were hairpins, patience cards and matches which he would carry about in his cage by the hour."

The house gets bombed at one point--the two soldier on.

The sparrow sits by the hour as Clare practices the piano. He reaches his peak around age 5 or 6 and, astoundingly, begins to sing.

"The song itself was in two sections--quite distinct from each other and sometimes sung separately. Indded, people who listened to it from an adjoining room often remarked that more than one bird was singing. The first part, or introduction, was an expression of pleasure, good humour, and simple joie de vivre, but the second--the real song--was an outpouring of rapture. Both parts were usually in the key of F Major, although, unless my ear was at fault, the second part (when sung alone) varied in pitch by as much as a minor third, according to the intensity."

"I would give much to possess a photograph of him at that time with his fan-wing fluttering in sympathy with the throbbing of his little throat, but the opportunity was unfortunately lost forever."

"Yet my sparrow, like all our songsters, loved his quiet hours, and especially his noonday rest. It was no small part of our perfect companionship that we could enjoy long hours of peaceful contemplation together. I am not a lover of noise, nor yet of too much melody. I like a background of silence on which to hang my thoughts. Then if they are unworthy I can replace them by others that are greater than my own. Music can thrill, console, inspire and deepen the very roots of life, but it is in the silence that man's spirit grows."

"Married women, or perhaps it would be safer to say women of marriageable age, visited him continually in the Spring and Summer and declared their love [through the window] openly and without shame."

A little blue-tit is the most "moonstruck" of his many admirers. The sparrow will have none of it. "Manlike, for men hate a scene and have a very wise aversion to hysterical women, he ignored her utterly."

"But he made love to me from March to October, strutting up and down on my hand and arm spreading his wings and tail, looking up at me, with crest erect, bowing continually and going through all the familiar antics of courtship: and if I went near my bed, even to lay something down, when he was in his cage, he would dash round and round, pecking at the door in his anxiety to join me there and start housekeeping without further delay.

I fancy the afternoon siesta under the eiderdown began to acquire a new significance at this time, and changed in his little mind from the nest of his babyhood to the nest that he had made for himself. Not infrequently he would take a matchstick, or preferably a hairpin, into the retreat, approaching cautiously as in in fear of being seen or followed; and though these treasures, probably intended for foundations-stones, were always lost or discarded before he had finally settled in to his nesting-site, he would wriggle his small body into the place of his choice, pecking, pinching and pulling at the bedclothes and fussing with his beak until he had made it more rounded and comfortable. I had to close my eyes as he ran over my face en route with his hairpin, and was usually pecked, if he happened to drop it, as if he thought the fault were mine."

After a while, the sparrow matures. "In fact, he had grown up. He had become a man and, except in rare moment of intimacy, he must show me that he was master and that I must do as I was told. Above all, I must give up moving furniture and other landmarks from their accustomed places. He resented any change in his surroundings, and when the gardener cut down a tree outside his window he became almost demented!"

Anyway, it goes on like that in the most delightful and strange way. The sparrow cycles through life, ages, and on August 23, 1952, dies in Clare's "warm hand." "His remains--and what a tiny morsel of tattered feathers was all that was left of him--repose in a small Hoptonwod tomb sacred to the memory of Clarence, the Famous and Beloved Sparrow." She has "faith enough to believe that I shall see him again."

But before he dies: "There was a remarkable coincidence that I would like to mention in connection with the picture called "The Daily Reading" where he is shown gazing quietly, as if in thought, at the page of a small devotional classic known as "Daily Light." The book, chosen solely on account of its size, had been taken from a pile of others and opened at random on the spur of the moment. After the photograph had been developed I found that the words to which his little beak was pointing were these: "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing, yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father?"--a statement that embodies, perhaps, the most astounding revelation of the value to the Creator of the individual personality of the creature in the pages of Holy Writ. This, then, was the portrait of a sparrow, ignorant and insignificant, yet unconsciously a greater teacher than Karl Marx. This, it seemed, was to be his little sermon, his farewell message to doubting and perplexed humanity; and as such I pass it on. Fear not, therefore! Ye are of more value than many sparrows."

Next on my reading list: Len Howard's Birds as Individuals


  1. Well, THAT did my heart good. The priests of Monterey just finished a retreat with the most lovable Bishop Gordon Bennett, SJ. He told us more than once that God is constantly attempting to connect with us, here and now. When we realize it, we call it a miracle. Clarence's little beak pointing to the sparrows in the Gospel is a warm and wonderful example of this divine impinging. The only one more amazing than Clarence is the gentle and luminous Clare. Thank you, dear Heather.

  2. Hi Heather! There is so much to love about this story; it made my heart just overflow. I shared it with my godchild, and a few days later the little book, "Sold For a Farthing' appeared in my mailbox. She found it online and got it for me!! I was so overcome that I wept tears of joy. Thank you Heather. I love you.

  3. Thank you both--I am going to have to get my own copy of this sublime book, and maybe write about it for my Angelus column. Everyone should know about Clare Kipps and her Sparrow--whose spirits live on...

  4. I just finish reading this story of Clarence under the title "Clarence The Life Of A Sparrow copyright 1953, obtained by interlibrary loan. LOVED this book. I will never look at a House Sparrow in the same way again.

    1. Isn't it just one of the best books ever? I'm so glad you loved it, too, and I can't imagine why it's not better known. I hope to devote an arts and culture column to it in the coming year. Thanks for the feedback and long live Clarence!


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