Monday, September 17, 2007
When A Pigeon Is Not A Pigeon
"Pigeons on the grass alas" wrote Gertrude Stein.
James Thurber wrote a retort to this in his little piece "There's An Owl In My Room". Here's a couple of extracts:
"It is neither just nor accurate to connect the word alas with pigeons. Pigeons are definitely not alas. They have nothing to do with alas and they have nothing to do with hooray (not even when you tie red, white, and blue ribbons on them and let them loose at band concerts); they have nothing to do with mercy me or isn't that fine, either. White rabbits, yes, and Scotch terriers, and blue-jays, and even hippopotamuses, but not pigeons. I happen to have studied pigeons very closely and carefully, and I have studied the effect, or rather the lack of effect, of pigeons very carefully. A number of pigeons alight from time to time on the sill of my hotel window when I am eating breakfast and staring out the window. They never alas me, they never make me feel alas; they never make me feel anything."
He goes on:
"From where I am sitting now I can look out the window and see a pigeon being a pigeon on the roof of the Harvard Club. No other thing can be less what it is not than a pigeon can, and Miss Stein, of all people, should understand that simple fact. Behind the pigeon I am looking at, a blank wall of tired gray bricks is stolidly trying to sleep off oblivion; underneath the pigeon the cloistered windows of the Harvard Club are staring in horrified bewilderment at something they have seen across the street. The pigeon is just there on the roof being a pigeon, having been, and being, a pigeon and, what is more, always going to be, too. Nothing could be simpler than that. If you read that sentence aloud you will instantly see what I mean. It is a simple description of a pigeon on a roof. It is only with an effort that I am conscious of the pigeon, but I am acutely aware of a great sulky red iron pipe that is creeping up the side of the building intent on sneaking up on a slightly tipsy chimney which is shouting its head off."
I empathise with Thurber, and I am of a like mind where pigeons are concerned, but I cannot agree with him (alas). I've come to realise that all things, pigeons included, are as alas as one finds them. I don't find much alas in pigeons, but a woman I worked with did; she hated them with all the spine-tingling horror most people reserve for hairy-jumpy spiders, bats and rats. She hated the arrogant way they assumed ownership of the streets and pavements, only lifting off at the last possible moment; the way their unclean wings whizzed past her ear. She told me how once she had had to hail a cab in a pigeon-infested area (Leicester Square, I think, where they used to be Legion). When a cab stopped she proceeded by waving her umbrella like a sword, shouting "Shoo! Shoo!" to clear the way. The smartass cabbie leaned out of his window and said: "Shoe? Sorry love, but that looks more like a brolly to me."