On An Alphabet Of Beasts

I have been thinking for some time now that it would be a very good idea to publish a bestiary. The Hooting Yard Book o’ Beasts would be an ornament to any library. Of course, before publishing it I would have to write the thing, but it may be that I could compile an anthology based on extant texts. (A similar approach, taking selected extracts from my work to illuminate particular subject matter, is currently being pursued by the artist James Beckett. His lavish book of “Works”, subtitled “With constant interjections by Frank Key”, is currently in preparation, due out early next year. I will keep you informed.)

The best format for my bestiary, I think, would be to follow an alphabetic scheme, thus A is for Anaconda, B is for Bird, C is for Cow, etc. Let us consider, for a moment, just those three. It strikes me that I may not have mentioned, anywhere in my teeming morass of verbiage, the anaconda. So I might have to make up something new and snakey. With birds, however, I am on firmer ground. Indeed, I have to admit that one of the compelling motives for compiling a bestiary in the first place is the opportunity it would give me to show off my quite startling – and starling – ornithological knowledge. I know for a fact that I have several readers who only come here, daily, for what they call the “birdy stuff”, and who grow quite impatient if I neglect to make mention of birds for any period of time. They tend to write intemperate letters, packed with invective, making known their disapproval. Often I find, within the envelopes, vestiges of feather, and the occasional regurgitated owl pellet.

Somebody less conscientious would crumple these letters and toss them into a wastepaper basket unread. Not me. I read and reread them, several times, making annotations in the margins with a propelling pencil, and then I file them away in a large and imposing padlocked filing cabinet. Let me give you an example of one such letter. I have redacted the whingey whiny complaining bit where my correspondent moans that I haven’t mentioned birds for a few days, leaving the part I wish to advert to, which demonstrates how valuable a resource Hooting Yard can prove to be for the otherwise bird-ignorant.

Dear Mr Key, [dozens of pages redacted]. Before I read Hooting Yard, I used to be mystified by the sight of things with wings and beaks and feathers and talons flying around in the air, sometimes swooping, sometimes gliding. I had no idea what they were. Occasionally one of these things would come to rest on the branch of a tree or on a fencepost, and then I would try to take a closer look, but at my approach, panting and snorting and stamping towards it in my big heavy boots, it would invariably take to the air again and fly away, to the point of invisibility. As the years went by I became increasingly fretful and flummoxed, and I consulted both opticians, in case there was something wrong with my eyesight, and brain doctors, in case there was something wrong with my brain. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I had a curious dream in which the words “Hooting” and “Yard” were repeatedly shouted into my ear by a dwarf named Crepusco. I am exceedingly tall, but Crepusco was standing on a stool. When I woke up, the words were still echoing inside my head, so I looked them up in a large and imposing leather-bound reference book. Individually, they did not appear to signal anything significant. I determined to forget about the dream and to concern myself with more pressing matters, such as eating my breakfast and paying my gas bill. But I could not shake the words out of my bonce. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I eventually discovered your website and proceeded to read everything you have written over the past nine years. Then I read it all again, making annotations in a jotting pad with a propelling pencil. I have been amazed to learn so much, so so much!, about those things with wings and beaks and feathers and talons flying around in the air, sometimes swooping, sometimes gliding, sometimes perched on tree branches or fenceposts, which I now realise are birds. For that I am eternally grateful to you, Mr Key, and I just wish you would stop wasting your time, and mine, by prattling on about other, non-avian, subject matter.

That is fairly typical of the sort of letters birdy enthusiasts send me, including the reference to dreams of the dwarf Crepusco, which turns up with a frequency I am beginning to worry about. In spite of these pleas, however, I am not persuaded to ditch all non-avian subject matter from the broad magnificent sweep of what we might call Hooting Yard praxis. It is tempting to do so, and to become a sort of one stop shop for encyclopaedic ornithological wisdom, but it is a temptation I resist.

Clearly, however, in my planned alphabetic bestiary, B is for Bird is going to be a very lengthy section, so lengthy that it might well unbalance the book. If I worked on the basis of a volume of 260 pages, it would be sensible, and neat and tidy, to allot ten pages to each beast from A to Z. Ten pages might well exhaust my ability to say anything enlightening about the anaconda, and indeed the cow, but the bird? The bird? How could I hope to cram into a mere ten pages the full fruit of my birdy learning? Even if I used so tiny a typeface that you would ruin your eyesight trying to read it, still, it is a well nigh impossible task, a fool’s errand.

This present postage is in itself evidence of the difficulties I would face. Having set out to consider the anaconda, the bird, and the cow, I find I have babbled on about our feathered friends to the point where there is no space left to say anything remotely informative about the cow. Perhaps the bestiary is not such a good idea after all. The Hooting Yard Book o’ Birds, though, now that is a different matter . . .

1 Responses to “On An Alphabet Of Beasts”


  • Bird-watching books are too general; I’ve never seen a collection of biographies of individual birds.

    (That was a demand in the form of an observation.)

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