On Curlews

There I was, crumpled and decisive, standing between two trees on the edge of the Blister Lane Bypass. The trees were both yews, I think. I was looking for curlews. The first one I saw was made of plastic, it was a toy or perhaps a decorative figurine. It had been abandoned in the gutter. Then I saw a second curlew, swooping across the blue, blue sky. I did not know it then, but within hours there would be no blue to be seen, for dark and brooding thunderclouds would waft in from the east. A third curlew appeared in my mind’s eye. It was gigantic and ferocious and terrifying. I shuddered. I walked away from the yews, in the direction of Bodger’s Spinney, pulling my resplendent teal cardigan tight about my torso. There was a fourth curlew, an embroidered one, on my necktie. Why in the name of heaven was I wearing a necktie? All of a sudden this length of fabric wrapped around my neck felt like a hangman’s noose. I took it off, with violent jerks, and discarded it in a puddle, where it would remain until discovered later that day by a scavenging hobbledehoy from The Bashings, that gloomy cluster of huts which sane people shirk. Oh, as the tie dropped into the puddle I saw a fugitive reflection in the water of the embroidered curlew, so that made five. It was still only ten in the morning.

By five past ten I had seen another dozen curlews, or it may have been a single curlew seen twelve times, I cannot be altogether certain. I was standing on Sawdust Bridge at the time, feeling hopeless and disgruntled and cantankerous. The tunic I was wearing beneath my cardigan, which I had stolen from an ingrate, was playing havoc with my [invented skin disease], and rashes were appearing. My doctor had prescribed a daily dose of some sort of bean mashed up into a bowl of milk of magnesia, and I had forgotten to take my dose that morning, so keen was I to see curlews.

Later I took a mop and began to clean the floor of one of the corridors in an ugly building which shall remain nameless. I was indoors now, so unlikely to see any curlews. But lo!, little Maisie – a polka-dot-dressed orphan whose parents perished in the Tet Offensive – came rushing up to me clutching her stamp album and showed me her latest acquisitions, a set of twenty bird-related thematics issued by the Tantarabim Interim Authority. I could not help but note, as I shared my Brazil nuts with starving Maisie, that eight of the stamps depicted curlews.

On my way home, as the evening closed in and dark thoughts of skulduggery frolicked in my throbbing skull, I saw a dead curlew on the canal towpath. Bird detectives had already thrown a cordon around it, so I was unable to take a closer look.

That night, by candlelight, I took out my ledger and gave names to each of the twenty-six curlews I had seen. Alcibiades, Bim, Chumpot, Dromedary, Eidolon, Flaps, Gash, Heliogabalus, Inthod…. That is how I started my list. Then I recalled that I had set out to see forty-four curlews. I gnashed my teeth in misery and dejection. And I recalled that I had forgotten to wring out the mop.

You will recognise the above as an extract from Dobson’s pamphletto A Description Of And Reverie Upon Forty-Four Curlews (out of print). Note that I use the word “pamphletto” to distinguish this work from the general run of pamphlets spewed out by Dobson. Note, too, that at this time, and in this place, I am not going to explain the difference between the pamphlets and the pamphlettos. Let it gnaw away at your mental innards, if you will.

Our purpose today is to subject the text to analysis. I have been asked innumerable times – well, numerable, in that I can count the times I have been asked, on the fingers of one maimed hand – whether Dobson is telling the truth, or making the whole thing up. No matter how rigorous our analysis, irrespective of the analytical techniques employed, I am afraid to say this is an unanswerable question. One would need to delve deep into the biography of the pamphleteer, deeper than anyone with working wits in their head has ever seen fit to delve, to pronounce the passage true or false. It may even be a combination of the two, partly fact and partly fiction. Or Dobson may have sincerely believed it to be true, when it was actually an hallucination, or a series of hallucinations, brought on by exhaustion or the jangles or entrancement by a tiny sinister gnome-like fellow dressed all in green. It is unlikely we will ever know.

This is not to say that we cannot analyse the passage, using certain techniques developed by Blötzmann, to ascertain the more important question of whether Dobson would have known a curlew when he saw one. After all, he was a man of boundless ornithological ignorance, as is attested not only by his inamorata Marigold Chew and by several of his acquaintances, not all of them shady characters, but by the pamphleteer himself, in his own words, notably in the pamphlet My Boundless Ornithological Ignorance, Together With A Paean Of Praise To Googie Withers (out of print). And careful study of the present text reveals that, in spite of the promise in the title to describe forty-four curlews, Dobson barely has a word to say about their appearance. Let us tabulate, in an objective tabulating manner, what he does say.

Curlew Number One : plastic

Curlew Number Two : swooping

Curlew Number Three : gigantic, ferocious and terrifying, but also imaginary

Curlew Number Four : embroidered

Curlew Number Five : Curlew Number Four reflected in a puddle

It is with reluctance that I am going to abandon my exciting tabulation, or tabulature, so soon, but quite frankly Dobson has nothing whatsoever to say about the other twenty-one curlews he claims to have seen that day, at least nothing that persuades us they were actually curlews as opposed to, say, godwits or pratincoles or starlings. At no point does he describe what he is looking at in the kind of detail we would like if we were to be convinced that he knew what he was talking about.

This is the level of piercing insight one is able to gain by applying Blötzmannist analysis techniques to a piece of text, although of course it is only piercing when the text under scrutiny mentions birds. Absent birds, and you are left rudderless, disorientated and whirling ever more rapidly into a maelstrom of mental chaos. Or so I am told. By Blötzmann himself. Shouting his head off. On the blower.

NOTE : Many thanks to Vincent Byrne for “pamphletto”. (And “booklettes”, not yet deployed.)

2 thoughts on “On Curlews

  1. Several of my nearest and/or dearest suffer from an invented skin disease, so it would be incalculably helpful if we could be told something more about the curative beans Dobson was advised to mash into his milk.

  2. This reminds me.
    My ignorant ornithologist credentials took a bit of a battering the other day.
    I was watching ‘Eggheads’, a T.V. quiz programme in which a team of hopefuls are pitched against a team of top-quizzers* for cash.

    One of the top-quizzers was asked what a ‘Wheatear’ was, a mouse, a bird, or a cat.
    The top-quizzer didn’t know the answer.
    I’m ashamed to say I did.


    *a person you wouldn’t want to get trapped in a lift with.

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