Monday, May 10, 2010

No sadder sight

I’ve been finding out about pigeons.

Did you know that the feral pigeon is in fact the descendant of domesticated rock doves?
Or that they have 37 taste buds (as opposed to our 10000)?
Or that they cannot take a continuous drink from a pool of water, but must instead take small sips and tilt their heads back to swallow?

Actually, the urban pigeon has always struck me as the saddest thing in the world. Now, tragedy is presumably in the eye of the beholder. Things that seem tragic and sad to me may be hilarious to you - indeed, if you work for BBC Light Entertainment it’s virtually a dead cert.
But there is a case to be made for the proposition that, correctly understood, the pigeon shuffling its way through life is a sadder sight than almost anything: sadder even than the sight of Ronnie Corbett appearing on Little Britain. The lot of the pigeon is, I think, the ultimate symbol of the essential futility of existence, which is not a compliment I throw about lightly.

For some reason, the aesthetic joy almost everybody takes in birds stops short at the pigeon. True, they do not sing, though their cooing is far from unendearing. Neither are they beautifully marked, though their dappled grey giving way to green around the necks and piercing orange eyes are far from ugly. They waddle rather appealingly like ducks, their heads in constant absurd motion like chickens. Yet we seem to loathe them.

At least until a few years ago, and probably still, London’s Victoria Coach Station (which lines its every level surface with spikes in the hope that lost souls waiting in vain for the arrival of a coach that runs for longer than fifteen minutes without falling over might be diverted by the sight of birds impaling themselves) ran an endlessly looped tape message, warning that pigeons are “a potentially fatal health hazard”.
You could try writing to them to ask for the exact number of pigeon-related fatalities in England and Wales over the last century or so. Or you can just take my word that the answer is none and they won’t bother to reply anyway.

Somewhere in the middle of this commotion is a polystyrene tray containing three chips and half a kebab

“They’re rats with wings!” people say, a comment which isn’t true, wasn’t funny even the first few hundred times you heard it, and presupposes a shared low opinion of rats that finds no echo in my soul, I’m afraid. Rats are sensitive and charming mammals, as intelligent as dogs, and if they were kept solely as pets while dogs were allowed to breed freely in sewers and rubbish tips people would call pigeons ‘dogs with wings’ and it would be, if anything, an even stupider thing to say.
What pigeons and rats do have in common is that they more than any other animals have done the seemingly impossible: successfully carved a niche for themselves in the howling grey concrete and steel wilderness of human cities. Both profit from human wastefulness and are then blamed for their success. Their eat-anything policy pays off in all realms other than the aesthetic.
But the rat is secretive, flees from human contact and tries to avoid drawing conspicuous attention to itself. Pigeons by contrast are everywhere all the time, and their strategy for avoiding danger, according to one authoritative website I have consulted, is “keeping still and trying not to be noticed”.
Despite the manifest failure of this plan, they persist in stumbling about the streets, pecking at discarded cigarette ends, their feet often deformed, or missing, or trailing lengths of nylon wire, their lifespan a three to five-year cycle of being born, causing others to be born, eating crap off the pavement and dying – with never a second’s rest, peace or pleasure.
Yet in captivity they can live anything between fifteen and thirty-five years. So I just want to get hold of one of them and say: What are you DOING? You could live ANYWHERE! According to this website here you are excellent fliers and can reach speeds of 50 mph – so what’s with all this walking? If you can outmanoeuvre almost any bird of prey in the air, as once again the internet assures me is the case, why hang around on the ground where you can't even get out of the way when there's a truck coming? Why not fly to the woods, or the seaside, and rediscover the taste of wholesome insects and berries? You’ve got wings! USE THEM!
But do they? No they do not.

See - you can do it!

Far from inviting our derision and contempt, the lives of the pigeons should speak to us as deeply and profoundly as the lives of the poets. (More so, actually: when was the last time you saw a poet crushed under the wheels of a bus? As opposed to merely wanting to, I mean.)

I think we hate pigeons because we look at them and see ourselves.
They have freedom all around them, yet they choose enslavement. They could have beauty, and they choose ugliness. Theirs is the skies, but they choose the pavement. They have access to a world without limits, and they choose confinement. All for the sole and dubious advantage of comparatively easy pickings. And when those pickings take the form of human vomit that’s about as dubious as advantages get, I don't care how few taste buds they've got.
And yet that’s the point, isn’t it? They don’t choose. They don’t know they live lives of uniquely unnatural horror. They don’t know that if you don’t like your life you can change it. (H G Wells, to them, was just one more moving target.) They think the world they have is all there is.
That is their small tragedy: how much greater the tragedy, then, to know exactly what we are forfeiting, as we do, and still opt for the narrow, the easy, and the tenth-rate. Willingly eating vomit pales beside this insanity.

I’d hate for you to think that all I’ve been doing is finding out about pigeons. Here’s some of the other great stuff I’ve discovered this morning:

The copyright on the song “Happy Birthday To You” expired last year.

A man called Ernest Vincent Wright wrote a novel called Gadsby in 1939 that does not feature a single use of the letter e, and he died on the day it was published.

Pot Noodles have been around since 1977 and are made in the Welsh town of Crumlin to the tune of 155 million pots a year.