Metro 92

Richard Herring: The magpie reward system will only bring you sorrow

Friday 29 Nov 2013

I saw a magpie this week. One for sorrow, as you may remember from the theme tune of the children’s TV show Magpie. It’s basically a magpie reward system. ‘One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl and four for a boy. Five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never to be told. Ma-aa-aa-aag-pie.’

But the magpie reward system is deeply flawed. Because, I’d say, about 95 per cent of the time, you will only see one magpie at a time. And what’s the reward for that? Oh, it’s sorrow. How convenient.
The magpie reward system promises a lot but delivers very little. You might think: ‘Ooooh, I’m going to go out looking for magpies. Maybe I’ll get a secret never to be told…’ No, it’s sorrow again, as usual. Thanks to the magpie reward system, 95 per cent of human existence is lived in abject misery.

And that’s the first line of the song, so it doesn’t even have to rhyme with anything. They could have tried something a bit more positive than sorrow. Not anything amazing, though, as seeing one magpie is easy. Something like ‘one for some Tupperware containers’ or ‘one for a 2-for-1 voucher exchangeable at any Harvester restaurant (Monday through Thursday)’.

Even ‘one for nothing’ would have been better – if you see one magpie, then nothing happens, your emotional mood doesn’t alter, you go on living your life, ostensibly, as if you hadn’t seen any magpies at all. At least then we wouldn’t all be living in fear of a single magpie drifting into our field of vision.

How many people are killed each year because they’re walking around with their eyes closed for fear of seeing a magpie? I’ve looked into this. There are no government statistics on that subject. I suspect a cover-up.

For two magpies you get joy. Which seems a bit of an extreme leap in rewards for just one more magpie. From the worst human emotion to the best human emotion!

You’d think the magpies could have some kind of sliding scale: one for sorrow, two for mild depression, three for a nagging sense of ennui, four for slight digestive discomfort, five for being a bit perked up like you’ve had a Berocca, six for smugly self-satisfied, seven for joy.

But there’s nowhere for them to go, so the song veers away from causing or curing mental illness.

Three is for a girl and four is for a boy. I guess it’s aimed at expectant mothers. But what if you’d been waiting until the birth to find out the child’s sex only for the magpies to blurt it out and ruin everything?

Five is for silver, which seems proportionate. Six is for gold. The magpies have got the idea. That’s better than silver. You should get gold, because the chances of seeing six magpies is 14million to one. Coincidentally, the same odds as winning the National Lottery.

Maybe we should have a magpie-based lottery. You pay in your pound, then at the end of the week you write to Camelot and tell them the maximum number of magpies you’ve seen that week. It’s based on honesty. Six magpies is the jackpot, three a guaranteed tenner, two joy and one sorrow.

Seven is ‘a secret never to be told’. Which is not as good as gold! If you see seven magpies, you get sent an envelope with a secret inside it but if you open it, it spontaneously combusts. So six magpies is gold, seven you get a parcel bomb.

The magpie reward system must be overhauled.