In Enid Blyton’s Adventure series, Jack Trent was a bird watcher. A twitcher. As a kid, for all that I identified with Jack, ornithology struck me as an odd preoccupation. I hadn’t the least interest. Not even in shooting them. Sometimes my gun-obsessed cousins would take pot shots with an air-gun at sparrows on chimney pots. But I never got involved. I had read The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. The birds fluttered about my head and I never noticed them nor did they, as far as I know, pay much attention to me. Hitchcock had just made a movie based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier about birds attacking human beings, and while I sensed there was a rich vein of horror to be mined there, I didn’t feel much threatened. I lacked the avian phobia. I was indifferent. So I crawled about the face of the earth and the fowl of the air swanned around above and, like the white man in a town like Alice and the black fella down on the dry Todd river bed, we led disconnected lives in parallel universes. Descendants of the dinosaurs, they’d been around up there for a lot longer than us. You couldn’t miss the obvious truth that they were so much better adapted to the environment than we were. They probably looked down their beaks at Homo sapiens, looked down at our absurd trafficking and thought, “Flash in the pan. Evolutionary cul-de-sac. Bad tempered Parliaments always doing one another in, and look at the bloody mess they’re making of the planet. They’ll soon be gone in a great mushroom puff of smoke and good riddance!”
It was odd how little we had to do with birds. Almost every other species on the planet we exploited in one way or another, hunting them to extinction, polluting and destroying their habitat, eating their flesh and wearing their pelts, making violin strings out of their guts and piano keys out of their tusks. We didn’t give much consideration to our fishy cousins. Look at the crap we poured into the seas. We had unilaterally declared the oceans to be our rubbish tip. Out of sight out of mind.
Yet somehow the birds escaped our clutches. Maybe the explanation was quite simple. They were out of reach. And indeed, the ones who had foresworn their birthright, shrivelled their wings and become earthbound, became poultry for Christmas. The big fat ones for whom flight had become a major hassle, the pheasants and the grouse, were similarly endangered. It wasn’t my idea of sport, to have a beater frighten a rotund partridge out of the heather, rising laboriously to ten feet with much beating of unexercised wings, only to be blasted at point blank range by a shot gun. The outcome seemed as inevitable and as cruel as a bullfight. Worse. At least the matador ran some personal risk. But I despised the shooting party. Wouldn’t it be great if the game birds could form a flight, a squadron, a veritable Luftwaffe and dive-bomb these chinless tweeded twits in their heathery lairs? But they lacked the gimlet eye, and the vice-like grip of the talon. Not the Falconidae, and only that power to clutch, of the weasel-coot, merganser, and smew.
I was never entirely convinced by Blyton’s Kiki, the parrot on Jack Trent’s shoulder with the unbelievably wide vocabulary. Sure, you could train a dog to do amazing things. Look at Shadow the Sheepdog. But a bird? The human-bird interaction seemed a bit far-fetched. Sure, homing pigeons were used in espionage. But weren’t we merely taking advantage of some hard-wired migratory instinct? Did the carrier pigeon have any clue about the content of that little aluminium canister attached to its hind claw? I think not. A dog might creditably be awarded a gong for bravery. Any St Bernard who finds me on the hill with a bottle of brandy round its neck will get a pat from me! But giving a Dicken to a pigeon? Absurd. As James Thurber said, there is nothing Alas about a pigeon on the grass. I had an instinct that, when I would soon outgrow Blyton’s Adventure Octology, the first signal of my disillusionment would be a mounting sense of irritation at Kiki’s impersonation of an express train going through a tunnel. That which first seemed hilarious would become frankly unbearable. It would be like falling out of love. The very quirks and foibles that first attracted you would be the self-same tics and mannerisms that finally drove you to distraction. My attitude would be precisely that of Blyton’s villains. ”I’ll wring that bird’s neck.”
I put it to my friend George that I didn’t much care for birds. We were sitting in the Windsor Café on Clarence Drive. I was gorging myself on an American Cream Soda iced drink and a double nugget. He, always ahead, was drinking a black coffee and smoking a tipped single. He was more at home at the corner of Ashton Road and University Avenue, at the Papingo, Coffee and Jazz. He had put 3d in the juke box and Livin’ Doll: was playing. George looked at me incredulously. Then realisation dawned, and an apparent sense of relief. “Oh! The feathered variety.”
Birds, chicks. Maybe girls had avian qualities. Maybe that was why the slang stuck. I didn’t like to think of them as being so unobtainable, so above our heads, so despising of us, and so much belonging to a parallel universe, and yet still able to send droppings down upon is. On the whole I didn’t think they were like that. Maybe the Notre Dame girls. Their school was only five minutes away. Go out of the Windsor and up to the top of Clarence and do a left-right on to Prince Albert Road and in few minutes the substantial sandstone building will be on your left. A lot of the girls walked that route, in their Caramac-brown uniforms. I would as soon have started a conversation with one of them as address a Martian. That was part of the tragedy of this most factionalised of cities, rift by more than the Clyde.
It was a terrible affront to cage a bird. And we incarcerated the most colourful of them. Fancy having that phenomenal power within your make-up, the power of flight, and being shut up. The mysterious thing was that, after a while, the bird in the gilded cage didn’t seem to mind. You opened the cage door and it never budged from its perch, stayed within coo-wee of its birdie trapeze and a pathetic little bauble round which its life now centred, like a television set. God help it if you set it free in the wild. A few street-wise pigeons would get stuck in and all that would be left would be few yellow feathers in the sodden, littered Glasgow gutter.
Some guys incarcerated their birds like that, and they were often the most beautiful ones too. Cliff was crooning about one of them on the juke box. Something about confinement in a trunk, to prevent her abduction by some big hunk. Sure enough some of them, when the cage was opened, stayed put, shrank back, cowed, clipped, and flightless.
But not all. They sat there demure enough for a while, swinging idly on the trapeze, lulling their keeper into a false sense of security. He got slack. Turned his back one day on the open cage door.
And the bird had flown.