37 thoughts on “ORNITHOLOGY – Sixteen Short Stories by Nicholas Royle


    310281_651521371529746_221790309_nThis picture came up this morning on a Four Year Facebook Memory, which I re-shared, because I felt it was appropriate to this story, this RedRum of Crows. Strange the way I have read and re-read this story piecemeal in the last few days, not my wont at all, because I usually read a story then straightaway report on its effects as a first reading. But, equally unusually, I have been away while reading it, in Hull or Hole or Hell; my Facebook friends will know about this as it has been trending on my timeline. A foursome with my wife’s sister and husband. A short break for my wife and me, and them – and the story took on the rhythm of my reading of it, as I joined the story’s own foursome, a foursome of academic couples on a holiday in the wilds of Ireland, or was it a sixsome of couples? A conversation, if not a murder, of books and old-trendy films – and I vaguely recall a mountainous black pit, and a glimpse of a bird’s smile. Highly effective and haunting for me. A black circle seems the perfect image of a bird with a spinning blackness of wings. One with a fleeting scarlet smile?


    “It was a railway line in the first place.”

    I read and reviewed this story when it first came out in 2010 and, a few weeks ago, I copy-and-pasted that original review here for another rare ornithology of stories. I have now taken the unusual action of re-reading a story for a real-time review, it now being the bird’s third time I have encountered it. A coughed-up pellet or just another tweet? The nature of the pyjamas shocked me – and with railtrack stripes?
    I had not remembered the ending. Or I never fully understood ‘The Obscure Bird’ the first time I read it? But now I have.

  3. JIZZ

    “He put the bird book back and switched the lamp off.”

    A deadpan ‘Report on Probability A’ as if written by Aickman not Aldiss, but essentially as if written by an independent sat nav in the sky, as we are eased into watching three guests and their dog approach a hotel in France, and we learn more and more about them, and the other guests, and why, for example, the next day might involve a self-made barbecue rather than a hotel meal. The main protagonist gathering on holiday of three involves two sisters, and it was with two sisters I just holidayed in Hull. So the easing came with some recognitions. And a bird book about their ‘jizz’, that rings with something dirty, in my mind, as well as with what the bird book says it means, stationed near a book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as it is. I say easing, but this is a story that is very disturbing, as the patterns evolve gradually, even from the point of view of the dog. One such pattern aligned, for me, with what was previously in this book’s railtrack-striped babygro or was it pyjamas? Or tram tracks? Patterns of points of view, disparate and discrete, even discreet. Packed with a power that is none of these things.


    “I take the Angela Carter, Robyn Davidson’s Tracks and Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Slow Fade and shelve them with the Picadors.”

    I had a dream recently that I saw a Facebook photo of this author’s huge shelved collection of Picador books. This work seems to me to be stuffed with what that same dream was made on, but now it is in a real book, not a dream, and with Penguins, too, and other paperbacks making up a paperback library he has been collecting over many years. And a tutelary JAY, a wife or girl friend called JEN who buys him an OWL ornament, but this ornament later reminds me of coming alive with the ‘twisted neck’ revolution of the man’s head in THE OBSCURE BIRD, and arguably of a sort of ‘counterparts’ reciprocation portrayed in this author’s LONDON and DISPOSSESSION works…as if a bird’s two eyes are mirror images of each other across the street… except an OWL’s eyes are flat frontward?
    This story, meanwhile, is so beautifully deadPAN.

  5. PINK

    “The jay twitched, flicked its tail. Still Geoff watched it.”

    IMG_3272This hauntingly paranoiac tale of a maritally-estranged twitcher with an obsessive search for a certain bird, a bird, I guess, with a pinking sound, was further accentuated by the fact I could see, through my lounge window, where I am reading this book, the peacock that has been haunting this area for the last week or two, now perched on a neighbour’s roof, silhouetted like a vulture, tail trailing down the slope of tiles. It’s still there. Its cry similar.


    “You get dressed up, made up. Turquoise bracelet, abalone pendant, peacock shimmer.”

    This is a truly affecting story for me, as it not only deals with the pelleting and naming of birds and a know-it-all neighbour called JON, but also my own PSA anxieties and endemic nocturia. Those anxieties actually did bear fruit in recent years….with beautifully coloured plumage, as I sort of imagined it….
    And we once had to get the pest-controller in for a plague of mining-bees in our back garden.


    “They’ll appear very close to each other, but of course are millions of miles apart.”

    Two planets, like the side-eyes of a bird, counterparts…?
    This is another telling story, this one of marital or lovers’ loyalty, observations in astronomy as the most selfish of hobbies when you need to share a telescope in turn, rather than half a couple’s eyes, his the left, hers the right, simultaneously pressed like mirror images of each other to the eyepieces of binoculars? Cf the earlier jay and owl.
    Foreshortening, and the wilds of Ireland again, and that earlier black circle deep in the sight?
    On the brink of a gannet’s greed or selfishness, but pulling back at the last moment….
    Fruit on a wire.


    “Where do those doors lead?”

    A photo that I took in Beverley (near Hull) a few days ago –

    Another insidious journey by a male narrator as part of a mating couple, intermittently so in her flat, and the bookmark in the book he’d given her entitled ‘The Observer’s Book of Birds’…
    Just for the record, I more often than not listen, over the years, to ‘Tweet of the Day’ on Radio 4 at 6 a.m. just before ‘Today’ starts each weekday morning. This morning was no exception. It was the ptarmigan’s turn. Not the shrike’s. Synchronicity does not always work.
    I hope to read the next ‘story of the day’ from this observer’s ornithology book tomorrow.


    “I’m crossing the tram tracks… […] …travelling all over her scalp like railway tracks.”

    Tumours as stalkers overseen by collectives of various birds, until the final twitch of the nub bird (the gold at the foot-inch end of the rainbow plumage?)… Tumours, too, as classroom aids for children to visit…. Or the tumour as the doppelgänger self returned from a wishful earlier more accidental-palliative death to be your real non-accidental and painful death today…. The bad penny always returns, as in the stated Bartók syndrome here, even with a twitch as click or pecking on your favourite recording of the fourth string quartet: a sort of Pinkie’s ‘jacket jacket jacket…’ sound calling you back…
    A grim and endlessly interpretable work.

    “People change,’ she said.
    ‘Oh, no they don’t. Look at me. I’ve never changed. It’s like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down,….”
    ― Graham Greene, Brighton Rock

  10. It was there again first thing when I got up, silently peering up at the letterbox in my front door… but it is currently absent as I read the next story in Ornithology –


    “On the other side I walk up into the dunes barefoot, avoiding the thistles that sprout among the marran grass and sea spurge.”

    I mentioned ‘spurge’ in a concurrent review yesterday.
    A strikingly depicted island overflown by jets, often populated by tourists at the cafes, and we later watch through the narrator’s telescope the pilots boarding – including Prince William in training for jets or helicopters?
    A memorable pen picture of a waitress, too, with grey eyes like the story’s eponymous birds.
    Deliciously pointless. Delicious because I simply know it does have a point. The point of being read by myself today. Or a point I have missed. Or a point that will only develop in the final gestalt of this book, once clinched by hindsight.
    Assuming hindsight ever ends?

  11. THE LURE

    “….similar to a sleep mask but with eyes painted on to it.”

    This substantive story is its own reader’s lure, a spinning of clues and leitmotifs until you snatch at its meaning as if it is prey needing destruction, as the implications otherwise will continue circling around ready to grab YOU as prey instead. Not so much this book’s earlier black circle, but a new circle line in Paris, a Metro whereby you follow meticulously the direction of its flow, counterflow, byways, and junctions, without the help of the Harry Beck map. Always meeting the same man with his dog on a train. Strange they call dogs who help the blind blind dogs.
    An English English teacher in Paris whom a married French woman English teacher in the same school befriends, more than just suggestively. She drops her English aitches. Freud, the Male Gaze, Falconry, the Oedipus Complex, and there ensues a right Royle scenario of a wallpapered-over ‘counterpartism’ (my word) between rental digs, one that sends your head spinning with this story and the context provided by other works from this author. And the busty ladies at the top of stairways.
    Are all sleep masks perforated at the eyes, I ask? Another context, perhaps another author, mentioned in this book’s context elsewhere? The short-arse ‘bath’, notwithstanding. And the Paris cinema screening of ‘Clockwork Orange’ focussing this as being within the pre-mobile phone era of time. But when there was also a radio station playing jazz all the time?
    I’d suggest, meanwhile, that this could be the Royle classic among classics.

    “Its flexible neck allowed it to turn its head almost all the way around while its body remained still.”

    And two destinations, one you know is worse than the other, but which is which? And you don’t really know how to reach EITHER of them, map or not!


    “It’s funny how you can think that two birds, just because they happen to be flying at the same speed and altitude for a brief moment in time, always have done and always will. How quickly they dart away from one another and fly in alarmingly different ways.”

    …like these stories as flighted birds into your brain, all different, all with their own eye-opening faces, yet a singular originality spreading through: an evolving gestalt. I can safely say each story is a unique experience in reading, each to be savoured separately before thinking about them with some central soul, later infecting each other, like the counterpartism in this particular story (female counterpartism this time), via a remarkable vision of “computer rape”, “hacked out”, a central screen saver, external drives (external in ways I will not divulge here), all within a story originally published BEFORE all these things were possible or arguably even predictable, before even mobile phones were as common as they are now. A scenario that treats of chick lit relationships in an age of our erstwhile youth, when Tessa was an Asset.


    “I returned the blue notebook and looked at the walls of my own library, but it was like staring down the wrong end of a telescope.”

    A telescope thus potentially has two eye-sights.
    This work contains a Cornucopia of Birds, a Cornucopia, too, of their Collective Nouns.
    Blended with Borgesianisms and Borgesian libraries. The sky-soaring of a writer, but with ambitions never clinched by that hindsight?
    We all have our personal syndromes of mental and physical health, I guess.
    But who did it? Who wrote it? The eventual ephemeral victim’s shape is in chalk or birdlime? Or a shadow cast by eternal wings?


    “…his own neck, a rippling craquelure caught by the camera’s indifferent gaze.”

    A lure, nevertheless.
    This is a strong overt horror story cast by dystopic SF warming. A warning, too. Yet, I sense self-harm turned into collective cornucopic harm, even with the vampire finches, gold at the end of the rainbow plumage, with these words trying to inveigle themselves towards my own comfort stop, my own compartment of life. Here is a gif for Facebook Friends of the peacock trying to entice itself into my domain. Its screeching squawks, if not Trumpish tweets, continued to echo in my area this very early morning as I lay awake in bed, not awoken by it, but already awake. Which the self, which the vampire counterpart?

  15. The final story I reviewed here in 2010, repeated from back then as follows….


    The Children by Nicholas Royle

    “There was no thunder or lightning, but the fat summer rain fell like a torrent of ball bearings.”

    Having just empathised – from my own experience – with a stay in hospital, I now empathise – through literary osmosis – with a holiday abroad: sun-loungers, cocktail bars, kids’ rooms, swimming pools, hearty men high-fiving after a game of volleyball, rules and regulations packaged for increased ‘enjoyment’ and so on. It is even more frightful than the hospital stay! A Horror story simply from describing something people do for pleasure.

    There is an element of Robert Aickman fiction here, too, and there can be no greater compliment if I say it matches up with some of his best stories. And I do.  But it is also original with lumpiness set in contrast with sharp ambient electricity. Things about crows and parents with surrogate adoptees. An inscrutable ending that makes you believe you know exactly what has happened that only nightmares usually make you believe till you wake up. If you wake up.

    There’s a ‘Spinalonga’ about this story, too. And a swordfish that is perhaps the key to pick the lock of inscrutability? Beautifully written, including one remarkable long sentence about sparrows whose acrobatic display is like the language used to describe it. (9 Apr 10 – another 2 hours later)


    IF you wake up, sleep mask or not. Or back from the dead, by thus spinning the lure or black circle or gestalt retrocausally?
    This book is a cōnfingō of avianisms. It is utterly utterly unmissable, whether you like it or not.


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