An Essay Concerning A Bird Perched On A Promontory

Recently discovered shoved into a potato sack in an outbuilding on a dismal farmyard, the manuscript entitled An Essay Concerning A Bird Perched On A Promontory has been authenticated as the work of Dobson. Why it was never published as a pamphlet is anybody’s guess. Still, it would be out of print by now, so it hardly matters. We are very pleased to have been granted permission, in the form of a grubby piece of paper pinned to an equally grubby piece of cardboard, to reprint an extract from the essay here. So without further ado:

Correct praxis in the matter of the observation of a bird perched upon a promontory is a matter of the utmost importance. When I told people I was going to make this the subject of a pamphlet, I was startled by the vituperation of their reactions. I had, it seemed, touched a nerve.

“For crying out loud, Dobson!” said one acquaintance, “Whatever other qualities you may possess, in terms of ornithological knowledge you are a profoundly ignorant man. Why, I doubt you even know the difference between a coot and a moorhen, let alone more exotic birds such as fork-tailed storm petrels, anhingas, blue-crowned motmots, godwits, loons, noddies, bobolinks and buff-collared nightjars. To save yourself from humiliation at the hands of the avian establishment you should abandon this project and instead write an essay on something you know about, such as the construction of yurts.”

This was fairly typical of the hostility I met with, but I laugh off such ill-informed abuse. I laugh it off melodramatically, as if I were a villain in a nineteenth century Italian operetta, Count Guido perhaps in Boffo’s La Scrappizziettante, my waxed moustachios twitching as I cackle and plunge a stiletto into the breast of the Cardinal in Act II, Scene 4. Such invective from those who doubt my ornithological expertise sways me not one jot from my path. It is worth mentioning at the outset of my essay, however, for reasons of both vanity and revenge. Well do I know the sound of the clanking chains of vengeance, for I have heard them often and anon. As for vanity, well, that is a dish I have gobbled up with gusto, like a particularly toothsome soup enriched with gourmet croutons. I regret to say that my pamphlet The First In A Series Of Twenty-Six Bagatelles Devoted To A Celebration Of The Humble Crouton is now out of print. I have not yet written the subsequent twenty-five pamphlets, for it seems more urgent to address praxis in the matter of bird-stroke-promontory observation.

Why should this be so? The plain fact is that, as I wander about the coastline of my bailiwick, I am often struck by the incompetent manner in which this activity is carried out. I dare say if we were dealing with a more trivial matter, such as, say, the buffing with a rag of a bobsleigh championship medal, or the invocation of an Aztec god, I would not bother my ugly large head about it. But what could be more important than observing birds perched upon promontories? Friddle your brain for as long as you wish, but I suggest you will, in the end, be forced to accept that the answer to that question is “Nothing”, or, better, “Nothing, Dobson, you are of course correct as always”.

So let us start from first principles. I am talking about trousers. If you are going to set out to look at a gull or a coot or a bufflehead by the edge of the vast and inexplicable sea, wear corduroys. It matters not if they are ill-fitting, baggy, big in the bottom, or even stained with stains of immoral besmirchment. You can’t go wrong in corduroys. While we are on the subject, it is widely believed that the textile is so named from the French “corde du roi”, that is, the cloth of the king. Utter twaddle. This and many other myths about fabrics are comprehensively exploded in my pamphlet A Disquisition Upon The Various Types Of Cloth From Which Trousers May Be Woven, Together With Some Pictures Of Hume Cronyn (out of print), where the corduroy question is addressed in a footnote on page 44, and again in the Envoi, where I quote liberally from the catalogues of textile manufacturing concerns from over sixteen different countries, so prodigious was my research when I buckled down to it after years of procrastination. I cannot count the number of ways I found to keep putting off doing the work I knew I was born to do. I took up hamster husbandry. I took needle and thread and darned things which did not need darning. I studied maps, my brow furrowed, with no intention of ever visiting the places so mapped. I trampled through gorse. I worked my way through the canon of traditional nursery rhymes and baked each pie mentioned therein. But eventually I saw sense and got down to work and went to the library and obtained a key to the basement where were kept all the textile manufacturing catalogues from many lands, and I read each and every one, making notes in my little notepad with my little note-making pencil, soon worn to a stub, alas, but not before I had garnered a mass of facts, and not just facts but unassailable facts, as if there is a difference when one considers the strict definition of a fact, as I did, and do, usually, unless I have not eaten enough breakfast and thus am prey to becoming a tad light-headed, as can happen on a Wednesday, for reasons I shall not go into here.

Thus tucked comfortably into a pair of corduroy trousers, the keen observer of birds perched upon promontories is ready to take the next step in the praxis. This involves combing one’s hair. It will be argued that there is little point combing one’s hair if one is to stride, hatless, out to the coast, where howling sea winds and squalls of spray will dishevel even the most carefully preened hairstyle. Such arguments hold no water with me, for I confess that in this area of personal grooming I am fanatical. It is true that I have not combed my own hair since I was ten years old, but that does not mean I cannot hand down absolute rules to the seething mass of humanity from aloft my Dobsonian perch, much like a Tsar issuing a ukase, and as mercilessly. For the purpose of moulding your mop into a neat and tidy state before going off to the promontory in hope of spotting a peewit or a swift or a Temminck’s lark, I recommend the use of a tortoiseshell comb with a decorative handle of filigree and bippety bip. I suppose, in extremis, a cheap plastic comb, one given away as a free gift with a cheap pair of socks, will do, if you are the sort of person who wears cheap socks. I know I am.

Earlier I said that I have heard the chains of vengeance clank. I repeat that here, for emphasis.

Stage three is, it has to be said, critical, and not for those faint of heart. With your ornithological kit stowed in your ornithological kitbag, you need to propel yourself from the homely comforts of your hearth out into the wilds, continuing on until you reach a suitably bird-haunted promontory. This may involve passing through fearsome and spooky forest, or across mist-enshrouded moors riddled with wolf-packs, or negotiating a big and busy motorway the underpasses of which have been flooded by recent tempests, or avoiding roadside bandits armed with staves and blunderbusses, or other such ordeals of the journeying soul. For all your patina of modernity, you might as well be a grunting savage toiling through the wastes ten thousand years ago, preparing to cast your uncomprehending eyes upon an elemental sight. For what could be more suggestive of the primitive, the pre-human, than a raven on a rock, or a bittern on a boulder, or an osprey on an outcrop, at the edge of the land, at the rim of the world, battered by the winds and staring out to sea?

I do not want you to answer that question, for it may be you have up your sleeve competing images, possibly involving oozing slime and pterodactyls, which render my own less than fab. That would never do. Remember who is the pamphleteer here, and who the reader.

I will assume you have reached a promontory, and that there is a bird perched upon it. Some swivel-eyed members of what we might call the bird-obsessed community will insist that you be able to identify what sort of bird you are looking at. They will want you to take in at a glance such features as the beak or bill and colouration and thickness of feathers and size and shape of head and wingy bits and arrive at a snap, if informed, judgement regarding bird type. God knows there are thousands upon thousands of specific bird types for your puny brain to compute, in that at-a-glance moment, and I suppose we can admire to some extent the person with impeccably-combed hair and corduroy trousers who announces “That is a cassowary” or “Oh look! Yonder upon the promontory perches a sandpiper”, but at the same time we should be aware that they are showing off, and are very likely the kind of bumptious birdy know-alls who would cut us dead at a cocktail party in an elegant drawing room. I hasten to add that I am not speaking from personal experience here, as I have never been treated with contempt by an ornithologist at any kind of party, cocktail or otherwise.

The only important thing, once you are standing near the promontory looking at a perching bird, is that you are clear it is a bird and not, say, a squirrel, or a lugworm, or a pebble. I have known many who, through incorrect praxis, have made such errors, and I cannot really blame the authorities for displaying giant photographs of them, with their names and addresses printed in big block capitals, on billboards and hoardings throughout the capital city, as part of the five year plan dubbed We Must Ridicule Citizens Lacking Knowledge Of Birds. This has been one of the most successful campaigns so far devised by the regime, and though its long term benefits, and indeed its short term benefits, are unfathomable, I for one would rather live on a diet of prunes than see it reversed.

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