From today’s Daily Telegraph. Thanks to Gareth Williams for bringing it to my attention.
Archive for the 'Prose' Category
My old man’s a dustman. He wears a dustman’s hat. Unless you are a dustman yourself – or a milliner – you may be unfamiliar with the dustman’s hat. I am neither a dustman nor a milliner, but I am wearing my old man’s hat as I write, so I know exactly what I am talking about.
Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili, the pockmarled, moustachioed Georgian, famously renamed himself Stalin, the Man of Steel. At the height of the Solidarity protests in Poland in the early 1980s, Lech Walesa was conflated with the Man of Iron of Andrej Wajda’s film of that title. Neither steel nor iron, my old man is a Man of Dust.
I said that he wears a dustman’s hat, but then contradicted myself by saying that I am wearing it. I ought to have said he wore a dustman’s hat, before I stole it from him and plopped it, at a decidedly non-rakish angle, on my own head. Just as I stole from him his cardigan and his tobacco pouch and his Italian-made and unexpectedly stylish Armando Del Foppo boots.
I hasten to add that the old man is not my father. I call him “my” old man because he is the latest in a series of old men I have abducted off the streets and chained up in my attic. I help myself to whatever they have about their person that takes my fancy, be it hat, cardigan, pouch and boots or, say, wig, dentures, walking stick and ear trumpet, and I commission Old Ma Popsicle to take up to them a bowl of gruel or milk slops once a day. But being old, my old men invariably die within a few days. I haul the corpses downstairs and into the garden and bury them in the flowerbeds under the Pointy Town moonlight. Old Ma Popsicle is sworn to silence. I know far too much about her past for her to blab to the coppers.
Meet me at midday at Wellbeloved Gutters, and we can swap dogs and consider the drainage.
Did I want to exchange Rags for Scamp? It did not seem as if I had a choice in the matter. It was not that I had any affection for Rags, he was flea-ridden and sick and dishevelled, but he was my Rags. Lord knows I had little else to call my own, certainly nothing else living and wheezing.
I used to have my own cart, on wheels, but it toppled down a slope and fell to bits at the bottom. I was distracted for a mere moment, by a bittern, or was it a plover?, but a mere moment was enough for me to let go of the handle of the cart and for its subsequent ruination. Then I was a man without a cart. Shortly afterwards, I obtained Rags, by accident, outside a milk bar. The dog attached itself to me. It followed me home, if you can call the wooden pallet in the shelter of the viaduct home.
I called it home, for a month or two, before fate swept me up and plopped me in a hotel. Rags had to stay outside, on a patch of ground near the car park. I fashioned a kennel for him out of bits of hardboard and nails. The patch was in the lee of one of the hotel’s huge forbidding windowless back walls. I know nothing of architecture, but it struck me as an unusually designed building. The innards were somewhere between palatial and gaudy. What a trick fate played to plop me there!
I tried to imagine Scamp – big, bounding, brisk, panting Scamp – sitting half-in, half-out of the kennel, eating from Rags’s bowl, in the shadow of the hotel. I tried and failed. So I went down to the lobby and asked for some notepaper and scribbled a reply.
I will meet you at midday at Wellbeloved Gutters. I am happy to consider the drainage. But a dog-swap is out of the question, for the time being.
I pressed a coin into the mitt of an urchin and sent him off to deliver my message. Then I obtained some bones and jelly and went out the back to feed Rags. His chain had been smashed to pieces, as if by a maniac’s axe. Untethered, Rags had fled. I returned to the lobby, slumped in an armchair next to a palm tree, and bunched my fists.
Later, torrential rain fell on Wellbeloved Gutters. The rain drained away as rapidly as it fell, for they are highly efficient gutters, probably the most efficient gutters in Pointy Town.
The importance of Scroggins lies in its custody. Not one cupboard, but two, are necessary, each fitted with a heavy padlock. The keys should differ from each other in minute yet decisive particulars and be kept secreted at the bottom of the garden, hanging from the branches of a pugton tree, disguised with tinsel or birdlime so that they appear to be organic growths upon the tree. The tree itself ought to be fenced off with railings, railings with spikes, spikes!, sharpened spikes. Only then can Scroggins be said to be held securely. If you wish to allow visiting times, make them at dead of night, in mist or fog, with full documentation. Have a dog, too, one that howls. Ignore the distant beating of drums. Drums are the playthings of toddlers.
This piece first appeared on Thursday 19 March 2009.
Dixon went to Dock Green. It was a small patch of grass, hardly a lawn, at the edge of the dock. The dock itself was one where huge steamers came into port from faraway lands, carrying all sorts of exotic cargo. The cargo was mostly packed into wooden crates, which were winched from ship to dock by dockhands. When it was lunchtime, the dockhands sprawled on the green, the small patch of grass, and prised the lids off their Tupperwares and unscrewed the lids from their flasks. They ate their bloater paste sandwiches and drank their tea and while they chewed and swilled they talked to each other about the cargo they had winched ashore that morning. The wooden crates usually had lettering stencilled on their sides and tops describing what the crates contained. One might read FRUIT GUMS, another GIRAFFE BRAINS.
Leaning on a fence, smoking his pipe, Dixon listened carefully to the chitchat of the dockhands. He used to be a policeman. Now he was a spy. His mission was to find out what cargo had been winched ashore that morning and report back to his spymasters. His spymasters were shadowy figures who sat behind a big desk in an unlit room in a skyscraper in town. The room was unlit so that Dixon was unable to see them with any clarity and thus recognise them and thus be able to identify them at a later date if ever questioned.
Dixon could have just blundered around the dock and read the stencilled lettering on all the crates but he preferred to listen to the chitchat of the dockhands because he could not read. He used to be able to, when he was a policeman, but he had lost the ability. One day, one September day to be precise, he had been chasing a miscreant and lost his footing in a gutter and banged his head, and after banging his head he forgot everything he had ever known, even his own name, and where he lived, and how old he was, and what he did for a living, and how to read. In short, he was an amnesiac.
One of the spymasters came to the clinic where Dixon had been put. To disguise his identity, the spymaster wore a mask and modified his voice with an electronic device. He offered Dixon a job at Dock Green. This day I am telling you about was Dixon’s first day. While he was leaning against the fence smoking his pipe and listening to the dockhands, he forgot all about the unlit room in the skyscraper and the shadowy spymasters who had sent him on his mission. He became very interested in the fruit gums and giraffe brains and the winching mechanism and he walked on to the ship to take a closer look.
Dixon was still on the ship when it steamed out of port on its way to a far distant land to collect more cargo. One day, out in the middle of one of those big oceans that make up so much of the planet’s surface, he received a bash on the head from a violent sailor. Then Dixon remembered everything. He remembered he was a policeman, so he tried to arrest the violent sailor for bashing him on the head. But the law of the land holds no sway at sea, and the ship’s captain locked him up in a cabin until they made landfall.
The first land they came to was a tiny rock. The captain and the violent sailor took Dixon by the arms and legs and shoved him off the ship on to the rock. It was almost barren, encrusted with barnacles and other shelly denizens of the sea and rocks, but there was a small patch of grass. Dixon dubbed it Dock Green and fashioned a flag from his cravat and found a stick for a flagpole and planted his flag in the grass. And he devised a fishing rod and a bow and arrows and a desalination unit, for he was a resourceful policeman, and he ruled over his little kingdom, where there was never a whiff of crime, for many, many years.
NOTE : Younger readers, and those unfamiliar with British television of decades past, may like to know that an inaccurate adaptation of this story was the basis for a long running television series.
In 1927 Sylvia Townsend Warner attended a party at Edith Sitwell’s house. She did not enjoy it. “The room [was] full of young male poets and old female rastas”, she noted. I suppose rasta must have had a different meaning for Sylvia, and she was not surrounded by elderly female rastafarians, though I prefer to think this is what she did mean. The vision of Sylvia Townsend Warner, Edith Sitwell, and several aged dreadlocked rastafarian women calling on Jah to deliver them from their sufferation in Babylon is too splendid to be scuppered by foolish matters such as historical truth.
On this day, exactly ten years ago, on 14 May 2004, I posted this on Hooting Yard:
BASHFUL COCTLOSH TRAUMA SURGEON
Being the title of a novel by Maisie Pew, due to be published in September. It is a book of ten chapters, their titles being:
I. The Gelignite Zombie Person From Didcot
II. Pudding Time
III. Paste, Then Gruel
IV. Our Hero, Dr Slab, Goes Haywire
V. Being A Chapter In Which Lovecraftian Shudders Are Experienced By A Barnyard Person And A Ferocious Bat-Being
VI. Tord Grip
VII. The Other Gelignite Zombie Person From Didcot
VIII. That Sinuous L’Oreal Toss Of The Hair Performed By A Pirate Gang
IX. Shoes? Boots? String?
XII. Mild Peril Fop Dilemma
Long-term readers, and those with their wits about them, will know that, contrary to my claim, no such book was ever published. This is because (a) I made it up, and (b) “Maisie Pew” did not then, and does not now, exist. I made her up too. Of course, I could have written Bashful Coctlosh Trauma Surgeon myself, and I may even have planned to, but I never did. I still could. I rather fancy it would be a pulpy potboiler. If I followed the practice of certain eminent pulp writers, I might be able to bash it out in a week or so. The thing to do would be to start typing and not fret too much about felicities of style and wotnot.
Incidentally, for those who care about such matters, “Coctlosh” was a sort of proto-Hooting Yard, or proto-Pointy Town. It was a fictional location which was the setting for a few stories I wrote as long ago as the late 1970s, each of which featured Josef Bong. Mr Bong was stolen from The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek, where he is mentioned, just once, in passing, in – I recall – a newspaper cutting, where he is described as a “Brave Driver” (of a train). My Josef Bong rode a horse, mounted upon which he arrived in Coctlosh in the first of the stories, on a blistering hot day. I do not remember much else about these ancient texts, which are – alas – lost. Burned, I think, in a frenzy, long ago.
You are a very sinister servant, Baines, said Lord Boggis, addressing, as he thought, his manservant, Baines, By which I mean that, having brought me my muffin and tap water at eleven o’ clock on the dot, as instructed, you have been dismissed, with a lordly gesture of my lordly arm, to return to the pantry or to wherever it is you hold sway, in the bowels of this my mansion, there to go about your duties, whatever they might be when you are outwith my presence, running a tight ship, awaiting the sound of the bell which calls you back upstairs next time I require your services. Yet, having been dismissed, you have not gone, but are to be found lurking in the corner of the room, in shadow, barely visible, betraying your presence by the faint outline of your frame and by the almost imperceptible sound of your breathing which, if I deploy my ear-trumpet, I can hear, indubitably. This behaviour is most untoward, and is quite likely to send me into a flap. When you are dismissed, you should go. When you are summoned, you should come. I cannot countenance this intermediate state, where you loiter, neither going nor coming, hovering as it were, in an uncertain realm between tidy absolutes. Look, I have not touched my muffin nor glugged my tap water, and it is ten past the hour. That is evidence of my discombobulation. I cannot rest while you are standing there, sinister in shadow. You have been in service in this my mansion for several decades, Baines, and never before have I known you to fracture my peace in so unprecedented a fashion. Even when you had that mishap with an icing sugar siphon pump attachment and had to have a metal plate inserted in your skull, even then, and afterwards, you carried out your duties with aplomb, and I had no complaints to make. Thus I am baffled, baffled!, by your frankly bewildering conduct, or rather misconduct. It may be that you have taken a loopy turn and will need to be carted off and replaced by a brand new manservant, though how in heaven I am ever to find one as reliable as you have been, until now, is quite beyond my wits to discover.
Lord Boggis prattled on, not realising that the sinister figure lurking in the shadows was not his trusted servant Baines. It was the Grunty Man! and he was merely biding his time before laying waste to the mansion and every person in it..
In mufti on Houndsditch my foe lay in wait. Foes are often described as implacable, but I could not say that about my foe. In spite of our vendetta persisting through several generations, my foe for the most part let me be. He did not dog my every footstep, brandishing a stiletto and waiting the opportunity to eviscerate me. Years might go by without my catching even a whiff of his existence. Yet I knew he was somewhere out there, that our enmity was scorching to the soul, and that one day he would strike. So I was prepared.
I did not carry a stiletto myself. I took the precaution of wearing much padding under my outward apparel, so were my foe to stab at me with his stiletto, in broad daylight, on Houndsditch, with a cry of vengeance, the blade would meet not flesh but soft cushioning material, straw and hay and impacted wool all blended together. Though I am thin, even rakishly thin, the padding gave me the appearance of a proper fatso, and I waddled and galumphed along the streets.
One such street was Houndsditch, where I had an appointment to meet a man about a dog. I was under the impression it was a whippet, so I was none too pleased to learn it was another type of dog entirely. I berated the dog person, using intemperate language. As I flailed my arms, he revealed himself as my foe, in mufti, and took from his pocket his stiletto. With a cry of vengeance, he stabbed at me, twice, thrice, but of course I came to no harm, by dint of my padding. I gave him a clean decent sock on the jaw, and he crumpled upon the paving.
I unbuttoned my coat, and my shirt, and I deposited the padding, the straw and hay and impacted wool, upon my foe. I hoped it might suffocate him., in Houndsditch. And I sashayed off, thin and sprightly, to a snackbar for a snack. Before I reached the snackbar, however, the heavens opened, rain fell in sudden torrents, there were several booming thunderclaps, and I was struck by lightning.
As I lay sprawled, my bouffant frazzled and sticking out in all sorts of directions, the dog, which had followed me, a tiny white petulant Japanese dog, yapped in my face. There was no mistaking the meaning of that yap, I swore vengeance upon my foe.
Chapter Seven of Mr Key’s Bumper Book Of Birds, a work in progress.
The cow is a type of bird. It is also known as the misprint bird, because by rights there should be an r between the c and the o to make crow, an indubitable bird. What has happened is that certain slapdash ornithological writers, who skimp on proofreading, have given cow where they mean crow. The error is more common in written than in verbal ornithology. In the latter, the varying pronunciations of the letter o tend to alert even the most misty-brained bird expert to the difference.
In cow, the o is pronounced as in ow!, the exclamation you make when, for example, a crow alights on your head and pecks at your scalp with its sharp fearsome beak in order to gobble up the various little beetles and creepy-crawlies and breadcrumbs scattered in your bouffant because you have not bothered to wash your hair for several weeks.
In crow, on the other hand, the o is pronounced as in the surname of Sebastian Coe, the high speed Olympic champion better known for his wrestling bouts with William Hague MP in the gymnasium of the Houses of Parliament. Interestingly, if we substitute the wrestler’s initial C for a K, thus Koe, we arrive at the Flemish word for cow. In that case, however, it is well to bear in mind that the o in the Flemish koe is pronounced like the o in coo, which is the sound made by doves and pigeons and various other birds.
You can see how this all hangs together.
Only a nitwit would think a cow was actually a bird, as opposed to being a misprint bird. Cows have neither beaks nor feathers nor wings nor talons. Nor are they capable of flight. It is true that there is a nursery rhyme in which a cow jumps over the moon, and that high leaping can in some circumstances be mistaken for flying. It is possible that the rhyme was originally transcribed by a slapdash ornithologist who skimped on proofreading, and what was meant was “the crow flew over the moon”. Visually, you might see a crow flying “over” the moon depending on your angle of view, from your position in a muddy field on earth in relation to both the cow – oops!, the crow – and the moon. Though it is not often one sees a crow flying around the sky at night, a time when most crows are fast asleep in their nests. Cows, on the other hand, do not make nests. They sleep in byres.
Chapter Six of Mr Key’s Book Of Birds, a work in progress.
The roc is a type of bird. Actually, it is a fabulous bird, meaning it does not actually exist. So it is not entirely true to say it is a type of bird. We might say instead that the roc is a type of bird imagined in the heads of persons long ago. Or possibly just one person, whose phantasm was adopted by others, yea down the generations unto our own days.
“Fabulous” is the root of the slang word “fab”, popular in the 1960s, and surely overdue for a revival. The pop group The Beatles were commonly known as the Fab Four, but that is not to suggest that, like the roc, they did not actually exist. Or is it? Could the loveable moptops be nothing more than a hallucination shared by millions? Could The Beatles be a stupendously complex work concocted by the avant garde Japanese conceptual artist Yoko Ono (b. 1933)?
I am not going to argue the case, or provide evidence for my theory, in part because it is, to use Ambrose Bierce’s favourite word, bosh. But it is something well worth thinking about, next time you find yourself at a loose end, as for example when a few days go by without any new postages at Hooting Yard. I know only too well that in those lamentable circumstances my readers are reduced to quivering jellies, sobbing their hearts out and biting great chunks out of their hearth-rugs, if they have hearth-rugs to bite chunks out of, or indeed hearths, for a hearth is present only where there is a fireplace and with the advent of central heating many homes are designed and built now without fireplaces. As George Harrison (1943 – 2001) once asked, “isn’t it a pity?”.
Harrison was a member of the Beatles – either real or imagined by Ono – but he asked his question in a song composed and recorded after the group’s demise. Whether he ever existed or not, what we can say with certainty about Harrison is that he was fab. He was as fab as a roc.
Which brings us back to the subject of our enquiry, the fabulous bird. What can be said, usefully, about a non-existent bird? Not much, really. I mean, what on earth is the point of babbling on about something that does not exist, and never has existed, except as an idea inside people’s heads? One cannot even say of the roc, as one can say of so many other types of birds, oh! so many, that it has a beak and feathers. Its beak and its feathers are as imaginary as the roc itself. It is merely a spectral thing. Upon close examination, it disappears from view. Like the Snark, it softly and suddenly vanishes away.
There is possibly a scholarly essay to be written on whether the roc, like the Snark, was in fact a Boojum all along. We might ask the same question about George Harrison and the other three Beatles. Having allowed that they were indubitably fab, but possibly fabulous, we might consider whether any or all of them were Boojums. Some have identified their manager Brian Epstein (1934 – 1967) as the Boojum, indeed as the Boojum of Boojums.
Again, I am not going to give chapter and verse, for the simple reason that my reference source is as fabulous as the roc. I just made up that Epstein – Boojum comparison, because I could. But now I have made it, and posted it on Het Internet, it has become an idea, a concept, not unlike an Ono concept. Anybody typing “Epstein – Boojum Comparison” into a search engine will find it, and read it, and thus it may spread, like wildfire, through the heads of millions, just as Ono’s Beatles did, just as, over longer centuries, the roc did, or the idea of the roc, that fabulous bird which never really existed at all.
Chapter Five of Mr Key’s Book Of Birds, a work in progress.
The pratincole is a type of bird. Beak, feathers, power of flight etcetera etcetera. It is something of a neglected bird. In a poll, when asked to list, with a minimum of thought, the first five birds that came into their heads, nought percent of respondents named the pratincole. And there were a lot of respondents. A lot. It was one of the biggest polls ever conducted by the Pratincolophilia Society, and the results caused its members severe disappointment.
Pratincolophilia is the technical term given to the psychological state of attraction to pratincoles. This can vary from a casual regard and appreciation of the bird, as when a person clomping about in the sort of environment where one might see a pratincole (meadows and marshes in southern Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia) spots one and smiles and says, “Gosh! What a delightful little pratincole!”, to full-blown crazed adoration of the bird. Pratincolophiles at the far end of the spectrum have been known to erect shrines and altars on which they place simulacra of the object of their obsession, made from plaster of Paris or plasticine or wax or marzipan. Occasionally they might obtain a stuffed pratincole from a friendly taxidermist. These people are doolally but harmless, and you might be acquainted with one for years without suspecting the nature of their inner mania, or even that they are maniacs at all. Commonly, the first hint you will be given is when the pratincolophile, speaking in a strangely heightened and excited tone of voice, invites you into the sanctum wherein stands the shrine or altar to their bird. In these circumstances, the best thing to do, having prostrated yourself upon the floor and jabbered a rum litany of nonsense, as bidden, is to pretend you have an urgent appointment, preferably on the other side of town, and to scarper without looking back. Next time you bump into your acquaintance, you would be advised to steer the conversation away from any bird-related topics whatsoever.
It is a curious fact, however, that high spectrum pratincolophiles often display absolutely no interest in any other types of birds. If anything, they seem blitheringly ignorant about birds in general. Boffins have yet to identify the “danger points” which propel the casual or low spectrum pratincolophile, the one clomping about with a pair of binoculars and a healthy interest in other types of birds, to the bonkers level. It may have something to do with brain chemistry, or exposure to airborne toxins, or trauma, though it is difficult to imagine what possible trauma could be occasioned by a little pratincole. Still, the Lord moves in mysterious ways, as we know, and it would not be beyond His wit to think up some horror involving a maddened flock of pratincoles and visit it upon a poor benighted sod.
I am often asked – well, no, I am not often asked, in fact now I think about it, nobody has ever asked me – “Mr Key, if there is such a condition as pratincolophilia, is there a concomitant condition of pratincolophobia?” Should that question ever be put to me, and I hope it will be, one day, before I die, I will have an answer ready.
Chapter Four of Mr Key’s Book Of Birds, a work in progress.
The chiffchaff is a type of bird. It could be said to be a difficult little bird, for reasons which I shall explain. The chiffchaff is almost exactly the same type of bird as the willow warbler, and the difficulty arises because I have already written about the willow warbler. I am not trying to claim that these two birds are identical in all particulars, as that would be foolish, but quite honestly they are so alike that only the most acutely observant among you would be able to tell the difference. It would not surprise me to learn that even a chiffchaff might mistake a willow warbler for a chiffchaff, and vice versa, so what hope can there be for us humans?
Some might argue that birds’ organs of perception act in ways wholly alien to us, and that their apprehension of the world around them is, as a consequence, so vastly different to ours that a chiffchaff will always recognise the chiffchaffness of another chiffchaff, and the willow warblerness of a willow warbler. It would be fruitless to argue the case. All I am trying to say is that as far as we humans are concerned there is precious little difference between the two birds.
So, having devoted a chapter to the willow warbler, I do not want to risk repeating myself by chuntering on about the chiffchaff. Christ knows, the repetitions involved in writing about birds are numerous enough. Beaks, feathers, wings, talons … you are already more than familiar with them, and we have not yet started to consider such things as slashed and savaged semi-digested fieldmice and voles, and other gruesome dishes from the birdy recipe book.
Yet while some repetitiveness is unavoidable in a work such as this, if the reader is to gain a clear understanding of all the different birds, I do not want to type out the same old baloney over and over again. Things would be much easier if similar or in some cases identical types of birds had not been given several different names. Don’t get me started on the green plover, for example. But we must deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be in our wildest dreams. This earthbound realism is particularly – and paradoxically – necessary in the case of birds, which, in the main, tend not to be earthbound at all. One of the first things the amateur will notice about birds is that God has granted them the power of flight. There are of course exceptions, such as the ostrich, a huge and very stupid bird which is tethered by gravity to the earth as decisively as you and me. But the chiffchaff, like the majority of birds, can fly.
Anything else that might usefully be said about the chiffchaff I have already covered in the chapter on the willow warbler. You can trust me on this. It goes without saying that I know more about birds than you do. After all, I am the writer and you – whoever you are – are the reader, and it seems plain as the peas on my fork that if you already knew much about birds you would not feel the need to read this book. You would be out tramping the countryside, a pair of binoculars dangling around your neck, pointing at our feathered friends and showing off by exclaiming, to your companion, “Oh look, Constance, a chiffchaff!”, suspecting that poor Constance thought she was peering at a willow warbler.
Chapter Three of Mr Key’s Book Of Birds, a work in progress.
The corncrake is a type of bird. Its call is raucous and alarming. To gain an idea of how raucous, how alarming, imagine you are fast asleep in bed. Because you are obsessed with the rigours of polar exploration, you sleep, like Roald Amundsen, with your bedroom window wide open in all seasons of the year. Through this open window flies a corncrake, and it comes into land upon your head. Ordinarily, the sensation of its talons digging into your bouffant to steady its perching would awaken you. But you are wearing your thickly-woven woolly swaddling sleep helmet, as recommended by Von Straubenzee. Having suffered from debilitating insomnia for many years, you studied Von Straubenzee’s exciting new discipline of snoozetics. Now, before retiring, you drink a pint of lukewarm milk of magnesia, picture yourself tossing the contents of your brain into a wooden crate and hammering shut the lid of the crate with ten thousand nails, the same number of nails Cornelius Cardew thought sufficient to seal the coffin of imperialism, and you don the sleep helmet before hopping – never climbing, but hopping – into bed. You have found that ever since following Von Straubenzee’s procedures religiously, your sleep is deep and untroubled and not unlike a coma. Thus when the corncrake alights upon your head, and digs its talons into the thick wool of your sleep helmet to steady itself in its perching, you do not feel a thing. You remain fast asleep, content and snug in la-la land.
From its perch, the corncrake surveys its surroundings. If you asked it why it had flown in through the window, and if it was somehow capable of responding in an approximation of human speech so that you understood its reply, it is likely that the corncrake would have absolutely no idea what impelled it. Who knows why birds do what they do? Not even the birds themselves know, for their brains are tiny. Rather than using reason, birds follow the dictates of instinct, what you or I would call “gut feelings”. All we are able to say is that, on this occasion, the corncrake saw the open window and took the opportunity to fly into your bedroom, probably in the hope of finding something to eat. Fortunately, densely-woven wool does not feature as part of a corncrake’s regular diet.
So while the bird rests from the exertions of its flight, perched on your head, it trains its two black fathomless savage inhuman eyes upon your bedroom. It takes in the frieze of martyred saints above the dado rail, the wainscot, the wardrobe, the chest of drawers, the rug and the unseemly stains. It takes in the clutter atop the bedside cabinet, the glass of water, the folded spectacles, the scrunched tissue, the anglepoise lamp, the stray button, the biro, the pins, the bowl, the dust, the cardboard carton of pills, the alarm clock, the other button, the little jars, the littler bottles, the nameless thingummy, the biscuit crumbs, the snuffbox, the coinage, the pipe-cleaners, the mud idol, the cotton wool, the toffee apple wrapper, the handkerchief, the string, the puppet, the putty, the duster, the rag, the bus ticket, the scrap of paper, the pocket Bible, the rosary beads, the taffy tin, the bonbon, the monkey snapshot in its frame, the atomiser, the shopping list, the rubber band, the drawing pin, the plaster Madonna and Child statuette, the sophisticated cocktail party invitation, the chewing gum, the gloves, the telephone. Were it a magpie or a jackdaw, rather than a corncrake, it might swoop and snatch up in its beak one of the smaller items on the top of the cabinet and fly out through the window and away, to deposit the stolen gewgaw in its nest. In folk tales and legends, magpies and jackdaws often appear as thieves, the bird equivalents of opportunistic pickpockets, and this characterisation has some basis in brute avian fact. Not so the corncrake, which is not thought of as a pillaging bird. So while it gazes upon the clutter, it remains still, perched upon your sleeping head, and swoops not to snatch booty in its beak.
Stille Nacht. It would be hard to imagine a night more still, more silent than this one. The Von Straubenzee method ensures you make no stentorian snoring noise. The sound of your breathing is almost imperceptible, muffled by the sleep helmet. The corncrake’s breathing is equally quiet. Nothing stirs in your bedroom, and from outside, through the open window, there is not even a breath of wind. It is as if the planet has fallen asleep with you.
I have said that we can have no idea what prompts a bird to do what it does. So I can offer no logical, reasoned explanation for the sudden loud jarring raucous cry of the corncrake on your head. It makes its harsh caw twice, then lifts off, and flies away out of the window. The effect on you is instantaneous and awful. You waken, alarmed, indeed panic-stricken, as if prodded with a burning hot pointy stick. You do not see the corncrake fly away, so you cannot account for the horror by which you are convulsed. Trembling, you clamber out of bed and shuffle to your toilet to piddle, a piddle occasioned by fear. Such is the raucous and alarming call of the corncrake.
The willow warbler is a type of bird. As its name suggests, it hangs around in the vicinity of willow trees and it warbles. In the notebook you keep in a waterproof pochette on a lanyard around your neck, there is probably a page headed Birds Beginning With “W” I Have Seen, on which you have written a list of birds beginning with “W”. When you see one of these birds, you either make a tick next to the name, or cross it out, decisively, with your propelling pencil. In order to achieve this result for the willow warbler, then, you need to be near willow trees, or possibly just one willow tree. And you also need to listen out for warbling.
If there are no willow trees in sight, and you cannot hear anything resembling a warble, you are very unlikely to spot a willow warbler. The first thing to do, then, is to get yourself close to some willows. Do not forget to take your binoculars with you, unless you are blessed with uncommonly piercing vision, in which case you probably have not bothered to buy, or rent, a pair of binoculars.
It may be that you live far, oh! so far, from any willows, and congenital infirmity forbids you from lengthy travel. In such circumstances, you need not give up all hope of spotting a willow warbler. The thing to do is to obtain, and plant in the ground in your garden, some willow saplings. If you do not have a garden, choose a patch of commons as close to your domain as possible, and plant the saplings there. You will, of course, have to wait some years for the saplings to grow into the kind of lush verdant willow trees likely to attract a willow warbler, but while you wait you can spend profitable time reading up on the bird, so you can be all the more certain you know one when you see one. And of course, reading books about birds can be done in the comfort of your armchair, if you have one, and you need not strain your feeble and debilitated limbs. If you do not have an armchair, you can simply sprawl on the floor.
Several other types of birds are known to hang around in the vicinity of willows. This is where your ability to recognise the warbling of a willow warbler becomes critical. Bear in mind, however, that not only do several other types of birds lurk in the willows, but several other types of birds also warble. I am not going to give you a complete, or even a partial, list of such birds, so do not ask. What you need to do is learn the distinctive warbling sound made by the willow warbler, which differentiates it from other warbling birds. There might be some tape recordings in your local lending library, or you can interrogate an ornithologist.
After much diligent study, you should be able to recognise the willow warbler with both your eyes and your ears. What you then have to do is drag yourself towards the patch of willows, peer intently and prick up your ears, and wait for a bird to appear that matches both the sight and sound of the willow warbler insofar as you have rammed those concepts into your head. You can then take your notebook out of its pochette, flip to the required page, and either tick or cross out the name of the bird.
As we have seen, depending on your physical robustness, or lack thereof, this may take many years to accomplish. But, boy oh boy, it will be worth it, with icing on top!
This is a second extract from Mr Key’s Book Of Birds, a work in progress.