One rain-lashed November morning in the latter half of the 1950s, Dobson awoke from uneasy dreams and succumbed to a fit of ornithomania. At the breakfast table, after fletcherising his steamed dough ‘n’ gooseflesh flan, he announced to Marigold Chew “O inamorata o’ mine! What the world needs is a pamphlet, decisively written, on the flight patterns of the common shrike.”
Marigold Chew let this intelligence sink in while she munched her kedgeree. This was the period, it ought to be noted, when the out of print pamphleteer and his belle kept to differing breakfast menus, later to be chronicled in the pamphlet-cum-recipe book A Thousand Breakfasts In Five Hundred Days (out of print).
Munching done, Marigold Chew asked pointedly, “Are you intending to pen this pamphlet yourself, Dobson?” to which the pamphleteer replied, after a long pause while he masticated a mouthful of flan thirty-two times, “Yes, of course!”
Marigold Chew sighed. “Dobson,” she said, not unkindly, “You know nothing of the shrike. I doubt you could tell one apart from a robin or a starling or a pratincole or even a vulture. How the hell are you going to write, decisively or otherwise, about the flight patterns of a bird of which your ignorance is limitless?”
“I have a one word answer to that,” replied Dobson, “Research!”
So it was that, when his breakfast was fully digested, Dobson clambered into his Galician Zookeeper’s boots, donned a threadbare waterproof, and stalked out into the rain. He made for the top of Pilgarlic Tor and stared at the sky for hours. When he returned home, he was drenched, and dusk was descending.
“Well?” asked Marigold Chew, “What have you learned?”
“The sky is a vast expanse,” said Dobson, “Across which clouds scud, and from these clouds falls rain, now as drizzle, now in sheets, hence the puddle forming at my feet which I shall mop up with a mop on the end of a stick when I have done enlightening you, my darling dear. From time to time, below the scudding clouds, birds soar and swoop across the sky. Some go flitting until they can no longer be perceived by the human eye, some come into land on the branches of trees or in nests built high or low in trees or even in hedgerows. There are many different types of birds, many more than the ones you catalogued over breakfast this morning. Each has a distinctive manner of keeping itself airborne. Through keen and judicious observation, one can learn to differentiate one type of bird from another, purely from its method of flight, without needing to get close up to it, for example while it is resting in its nest or on a tree-branch. As my pamphlet will be devoted exclusively to the common shrike’s flight patterns, that closer observation in the nest will not be necessary. That is fortunate, for I much prefer to stand windswept and rain-lashed upon the top of the tor than to be hunkered in shrubbery for hours on end, where I would be subject to biting by insects and other things that crawl upon the earth, and in shrubs.”
“There are goos one can smear upon the skin to repel such creatures,” said Marigold Chew, waving her hand towards a wall-mounted cabinet wherein such goos were stored.
“That may be so,” said Dobson, “But if you are listening attentively you will grasp that for present purposes I need no such repellant.”
“So will you be standing atop Pilgarlic Tor again tomorrow, staring at the sky?” asked Marigold Chew.
“I will not,” said Dobson, “For tomorrow I will be consulting works of ornithological reference in the library.”
And lo! it came to pass. The following morning, after a breakfast of eggy buns (Dobson) and lightly grilled hen-head with tomatoes (Marigold Chew), the pamphleteer was to be found poring over an enormous ornithological reference work in the ornithological reference library reading room. In those days, libraries were havens of quiet in what Pratt dubbed “the hurly burly of the urban conurbation”, and the only sounds to be heard were the frantic scraping of Dobson’s very very sharp pencil as he scribbled upon his jotter, and the strangulated choking of a fellow bird researcher with a predilection for high tar cigarettes. Dobson was making notes from his study of The Boys’ And Girls’ Bumper Book Of Shrikes. He copied out one passage in its entirety:
Now, tinies, let me tell you why the shrike is known as the “butcher bird”. You see, it is a rapacious and violent little birdie, and it likes to entrap in its talons insects, small birds and even teeny weeny mammals like fieldmice and shrews. Once caught, it impales its victim upon sharp thorns. This helps it to tear the flesh into smaller, more conveniently-sized fragments, and serves as a sort of pantry or larder so the shrike can return to the uneaten portions at a later time. Its call is strident. You will probably have nightmares about it now, but it is well to learn that nature is a realm of blood and gore.
“How did you get on at the library?” asked Marigold Chew when Dobson returned. He had trudged home in a downpour, and a puddle was forming around his feet, which today were clad in a pair of Paraguayan Mining Inspector’s boots.
“It looks as though I will have more mopping up to do, o light of my life,” said Dobson. “You will no doubt be pleased to hear that I have formed a plan of campaign for the accomplishment of what I suspect will be one of my most important pamphlets.”
“I am glad to hear it,” said Marigold Chew, who was knocking back a beaker of some fluid she had strained through a sieve earlier that day. Its colour was indescribable, and it was pip free.
Dobson took his jotter from an inside pocket of his raincoat.
“Listen to this!”, he said, in an excitable voice, “The shrike is a rapacious and violent little birdie, and it likes to entrap in its talons insects, small birds and even teeny weeny mammals like fieldmice and shrews. Once caught, it impales its victim upon sharp thorns. This helps it to tear the flesh into smaller, more conveniently-sized fragments, and serves as a sort of pantry or larder so the shrike can return to the uneaten portions at a later time. Its call is strident. And that’s not all, but you get the gist.”
“I do,” said Marigold Chew, “But what is your plan of campaign and when are you due to set it in motion?”
“Using keen and judicious observation, from atop Pilgarlic Tor, I will wait to spot a bird impaling an insect or a smaller bird or a fieldmouse or a shrew or some other tiny mammal upon a thorn. ‘That,’ I will say to myself, possibly out loud, ‘is a shrike!’ It will then be a simple matter of watching it fly away from the thorn and to trace, with my pencil, in my jotter, the patterns it forms in the sky. This diagram will then form the basis for an accompanying text, which will describe the patterns, in decisive prose.”
The next morning, Dobson ate lobster for breakfast while Marigold Chew had mashed up cake ‘n’ crumpets ‘n’ cornflakes. Then the pamphleteer headed out for Pilgarlic Tor in the torrential rain. He stationed himself in the vicinity of a thorn bush, near the summit, and watched, keenly and judiciously, all day. That was Thursday. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were identical in all particulars except, of course, for the breakfasts. By the time dusk descended on the second Thursday, Dobson was soaked to the skin and had yet to spot a shrike. He returned home crushed and despondent. Marigold Chew could tell from the misery etched upon his countenance that his plan of campaign was yet to bear fruit, but as the pamphleteer stood in a puddle in his Latvian Ice Rink Attendant’s boots, contemplating the mopping he would shortly be engaged in, she asked, “Did you spot a shrike today, Dobson?”
“I did not,” he moaned, in a voice ancient and sepulchral.
“I did,” said Marigold Chew, “Just after you left this morning I went out into the garden to cast my gaze admiringly upon the hollyhocks, and gosh, all of a sudden a bird swooped into view, a newborn hamster struggling in the vicious grip of its talons, and I was jolted by a wave of nausea as I watched the bird impale the poor tiny thing upon a thorn in the thorn bush next to the hollyhock patch beside the shed. Somehow I managed not to vomit all over the lawn, and I realised the bird was a shrike, so I ran indoors for my sketchpad and propelling pencil and rushed back out in time to see the shrike fly away, thereupon executing a highly accurate rendering of the patterns it formed in the sky until, some minutes later, it was lost to view in the overcast grey immensity of the rain-raddled empyrean.”
“And you’re sure it wasn’t a pratincole?” asked Dobson.
“As sure as eggs is eggs,” said Marigold Chew, brandishing the relevant page of her sketchpad in the pamphleteer’s face, now transformed by joy.
“This is fantastic news!” cried Dobson, and he sprang forward and clutched Marigold Chew in an embrace of boundless love. And that is why the pamphlet Flight-Patterns Of The Common Shrike by Dobson (out of print) has the subtitle With A Tremendously Accurate Diagram by Marigold Chew.
In closing, it is worth noting that Dobson’s text, far from being decisive, is incoherent, jumbled, and in places quite potty, probably because in the bliss of their wild embrace, Marigold Chew’s sketchpad was dropped into the puddle of rainwater, and became smudged. The diagram as published was newly drawn, from memory, a few days later, and was by no means as tremendously accurate as claimed. In fact, a reputed ornithologist has said that the flight patterns represented are typical, not of the shrike, but of the pratincole.
What a superb rom-com. Richard Curtis would kill for this story arc.
Brit : Better, surely, to kill Richard Curtis.