Choose twelve short stories. How hard can it be?

It can be impossible.

What we need is some way of narrowing it down. All other paths lead to madness.


How am I to organise (curate, if you must) this list?

My “favourites”? A constantly changing category – daily, at least. Catch me in a certain mood and I would merely chuck a copy of PG Wodehouse’s Meet Mr Mulliner in your general direction with a curt “Here you go”. Or perhaps it would be Saki, if I were feeling, well, a bit sarky.

Easier, really, to pick a theme – however vague – and work from there. So, because I’m the kind of person who takes the first idea going; and because, as I was staring out of the window pondering how best to proceed, a dunnock popped out from under the lavender bush (where it was engaged in some championship-level fossicking) and gave me a look as if to say ‘Well? How about it?’; and because I’m just a bit obsessed with them, the stories on this list have one thing binding them together: birds. It could have been cricket or music or food or any number of other enthusiasms, but, well, blame the dunnock.

It is, I’m afraid, a narrow list. Books could be written about the swathes of the canon that have passed me by, partly because of my own fecklessness (for much of my life I have been, as Eddie Izzard put it, ‘thinly read’, and no amount of belated compensation will ever disguise that fact), and partly because of the simply enormous number of short stories out there. Could everyone please stop writing them? I need to catch up. Ta ever so.

‘Swift (Apus apus, 6 ¾ ins.)’

If you’re a birder, you have at least one field guide. More, probably. How else are you going to identify the blur of brown that’s just disappeared into the hedge?

A field guide description is a lesson in objectivity and observation. What does the bird look like? What distinguishes it from other birds? What features should you look out for? Field guide descriptions deal with phrases such as “prominent white supercilium”, “fine-tipped, distinctively upturned bill” and “powerful undulating flight”.

The Reader’s Digest Book of British Birds is a bit different. A handsome hardback, designed to adorn the low coffee tables of the early 1970s, its cover features a striking portrait of a tawny owl – all feathers, eyes and talons. Inside, there are essays about migration, birdsong, breeding habits, and other aspects of avian life. Fascinating stuff. But the hook for me has always been the single page devoted to each bird. Distribution maps, a single colour illustration, a short pen portrait. Here you get to know the bird – not just its appearance, but its habits, its lifestyle, its character.

I could pick any of them – the perpetually furious great black-backed gull, the craggy golden eagle, the minuscule goldcrest (with which I identified so strongly as a tiny child in a world of giants). But I choose the swift – the answer I most often give to the impossible question ‘what’s your favourite bird?’, and the bird whose arrival each May is the most eagerly anticipated event of the year.

(A nod here to New Zealand artist Ray Ching, responsible for all 230 illustrations. The publishers originally thought the painting of them would take six years. Ching said he could do them in a year. And he did, although it left him a physical wreck.)

From the illustration alone you learn about the bird. You see the long, strong wings and know it is a powerful flier; the short nub of a bill will be good for snapping up insects in flight; the dark plumage – brown all over with a white patch under the chin – suggests that extravagant display isn’t part of its mating ritual.

The bullet-point description of the bird (“long, scythe-shaped wings, forked tail, sexes alike”) is left to the footnotes. The short main text focuses instead on its remarkable life. “They feed on the wing, mate on the wing, sleep on the wing.”

You can never know a swift. Not really. They’re famously unknowable, and that’s part of their appeal. But this page tells you at least a bit of their story.

from The Reader’s Digest Book of British Birds, Drive Publications, 1969

Cockatoos by Quentin Blake

Find yourself a child of between, say, two and six years old. Sit and read Cockatoos with them. Experience glee.

It’s a counting book, and a looking-and-finding book – we’re all familiar with the genres. It is also, subtly, a primer – should you be interested in that kind of thing – in how to construct a simple story with words and pictures, the kind of story that gets repeated readings and eventually falls apart so you buy another copy just as the child decides it’s no longer interested in it. Never mind – you can always pass it on. I have yet to meet a child who is not reduced to giggles by this book. 

It concerns Professor DuPont (a silly man) and his ten cockatoos. Tiring of the lack of variety in his daily greeting (“Good morning, my fine feathered friends!” – an excellent opportunity for the theatrically inclined to air their hammiest French accent) they decide to play a trick on him, dispersing through the house into ever more inventive hiding places.

The glee comes from finding the birds on each page (easier than Where’s Wally, but just hard enough). It comes from the illustrations loosely but artfully drawn by a master of his craft. And it comes from the cockatoos themselves, effortlessly outwitting their easily befuddled master.

A joyful advertisement for the pleasures of reading, as well as the idea that birds are brilliant and humans rather stupid. 

Random House, 1994

‘Bs’ by Eley Williams

A short love story.

The bird here is anonymous, a “blackbird-slash-thrush-slash-starling-slash-finch”. It sings outside, “toccatas and scherzos and bugled blurts”. Inside, a bee is trapped under a glass, “dink-d’dink-dinking its head against a transparent wall”. It is early morning, the time of half-asleep thoughts “of a euphemism of a metaphor of a ghost”.

Williams takes a single moment and spins a thread of mini-thoughts, turning words – she loves words, comparing ‘larynx’ with ‘syrinx’ (syrinx wins) – and facts – “the bones of a pigeon weigh less than its feathers” – over in her head, indulging a charming, playful flight of fancy. “The bird and the bee could set up, I think, a lovely B&B and serve their guests toast with honey and eggs.” 

Collected in Attrib. and other stories, Influx Press, 2017

‘The Open Window’ by Saki

I first encountered Saki as a teenager, and something about his particular brand of wit appealed to me. Perhaps it was the chaos wrought on polite society by a succession of untameable animals. Perhaps it was the sharp one-liners (“the cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go, she went”, the most obvious example). Perhaps it was the celebration of imaginative lying.

Vera is 15, the niece of Mrs Sappleton, and a consummately imaginative liar. Framton Nuttel is her mark – a visitor in search of a rest cure. She sets him up and dispatches him with brutal and delicious efficiency. “Romance at short notice was her speciality”. 

The window of the title, Vera tells the nervy Nuttel, is open because the men of the house were consumed by a bog on a snipe-shooting expedition three years earlier, and her aunt (Saki’s world, like Wodehouse’s, is a hotbed of aunts) still lives under the delusion that they will be returning any minute. Or not, as the case may be.

The birds, it has to be admitted, are at best incidental here, but I’m grateful for their inclusion, as it enables me to shoehorn the story into this list. They are snipe, a bird I like to watch and some people like to shoot. Snipe, with their unpredictable flight path, have always been considered particularly challenging to shoot – in which case wouldn’t it probably be best just… not to?

First published in Beasts and Super-Beasts, 1914. Collected many times

‘The Birds’ by Daphne du Maurier

Well, how could I not?

I am, yes, a bird-lover. But there’s more to them than the Fotherington-Thomas “hello birds, hello sky” approach. There is room here for the uncanny, the twisted, the downright scary.

“On December the third the wind changed overnight and it was winter.” And it’s downhill from there, the birds overrunning humankind against a cold, bleak backdrop of frozen fields and churning seas. And serve us right, quite frankly, given what we’ve done to them over the years.

The genius of the story is the choice of birds as the vehicle of destruction. Familiar, not generally feared (unlike, say, insects), in du Maurier’s hands they are machines, possibly working at the behest of a greater power, united in their intent to do us in.

It starts with the garden birds – “robins, finches, sparrows, blue tits, larks and bramblings, birds that by nature’s law kept to their own flock and their own territory, and now, joining one with another in their urge for battle, had destroyed themselves against the bedroom walls, or in the strife had been destroyed by him” – and escalates from there. When the gulls get involved, you know there’s no way back. “Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands… They rose and fell in the trough of the seas, heads to the wind, like a mighty fleet at anchor, waiting on the tide. To eastward, and to the west, the gulls were there. They stretched as far as his eye could reach, in close formation, line upon line. Had the sea been still they would have covered the bay like a white cloud, head to head, body packed to body. Only the east wind, whipping the sea to breakers, hid them from the shore.”

You do not mess with gulls.

The hardships of the Second World War hang heavy over the story, leavened with a touch of Cold War paranoia (“They’re saying in town the Russians have done it. The Russians have poisoned the birds.”) The language offers little hope. “It was bitter cold, and the ground had all the hard black look of frost. Not white frost, to shine in the morning sun, but the black frost that the east wind brings.”

It is, let’s face it, unremittingly bleak. Why the hell did I choose it?

First published in The Apple Tree, Gollancz 1952. Collected in Murmurations, Two Ravens Press 2011

‘Unfollow’ by Nicholas Royle

When you know about something, you get picky. Mistakes niggle. It’s tedious, but you can’t stop yourself.

The A437 doesn’t go past that pub.
That plane didn’t enter production until 1957.
String quartets don’t have conductors. (An actual example from the opening pages of a bestselling book in the 1980s).

So when people write about birds, I find myself checking without thinking. It’s a tic.

Waxwings? In England? In July?

Tedious, as I say.

Good news: Nicholas Royle knows his birds.

Even better news: he knows his humans, too. And he has that ability to underpin the normal with a lurking sense of the uncanny, the knowledge that something will be along in a minute to disturb the hell out of you. Everyday life, twisted. 

Each of the stories in his collection Ornithology is centred round a species of bird. In this case, a juvenile sparrow brought in by the narrator’s cat. It escalates from there, shining a light not just on the dark behaviour of men in the social media age, but on the dark behaviour of cats in any age.

The kind of story to make you check the front door’s double locked.

First published in British Fantasy Society Yearbook 2009. Collected in Ornithology, Cōnfingō Publishing 2017

‘Heartbeats in the Night’ by Douglas Adams

A bit of a cheat, this one – it’s a chapter from a book, not a standalone story. But it does stand alone. And it’s Douglas Adams, so there.

The book is Last Chance to See, his 1989 expedition with zoologist Mark Carwardine to find animals on the brink of extinction. It is, incidentally, the book of which he was most proud.

There is Adams’ trademark turn of phrase (“If you took the whole of Norway, scrunched it up a bit, shook out all the moose and reindeer, hurled it ten thousand miles round the world and filled it with birds then you’d be wasting your time, because it looks very much as if someone has already done it”), there is a nice description of their guide, Don Merton (“a benign man with the air of a vicar apologising for something”), and there is, at the heart of it, a dumpy flightless parrot on the brink of extinction.

Evolving flightlessness on islands free of predators, the kākāpō got quite the shock when we turned up. We – along with the dogs, cats and rats we take with us wherever we go – very nearly did for it. Its pickiness in the areas of diet and mating haven’t helped, but mostly its problems have stemmed from its inability to recognise a predator as a predator.

Adams looks at the natural world with a sense of wonder, without descending either into wordy excess or over-reverent gushing. He acknowledges its ridiculousness as well as its beauty. “The kākāpō is a bird out of time. If you look one in its large, round, greeny-brown face, it has a look of serenely innocent incomprehension that makes you want to hug it and tell it that everything will be all right, though you know that it probably will not be.”

And he shines a light on human behaviour, especially the ravages we have wrought on the natural world, with a sense of resigned exasperation. “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.”

Adams has been a hero of mine for more than 40 years, a status not even remotely dented by his sheepish admission that he’s not that keen on birds (“I think I find other birds rather irritating for the cocky ease with which they flit through the air as if it was nothing.”) After all, nobody’s perfect. And while I have a deep and abiding love for all his work, it’s to this book that I find myself turning if I want a hit of DNA.

PS The kākāpō is doing better now. There were 40 when Adams wrote Last Chance To See; today there are 252. It’s taken an awful lot of sustained work, of course, and 252 is still distressingly few.

From Last Chance to See, William Heinemann 1990

‘Roast Chicken’ by Simon Hopkinson

Do I see any contradiction in being an enthusiastic birdwatcher as well as an enthusiastic birdeater? Not a bit of it. Our history of eating birds is far longer than our history of observing them as a pastime, after all. And we do love a chicken, to the extent that it is the planet’s commonest bird (about 26 billion of them, apparently).

Simon Hopkinson’s 1994 book, Roast Chicken and Other Stories, is based on a simple concept: 40 ingredients, each given its own chapter – an introductory essay and a handful of recipes. The title is, as Hopkinson says himself, “inviting and uncomplicated”. And so is the writing. Hopkinson’s writing and cooking are both forthright and pretension-free. He writes about cooking – ingredients, process and end result – with love, knowledge and skill. Pleasingly, he also brooks no nonsense: “A frightful word that often rears its ugly head in British menuspeak is the term ‘gratinated’. It is horrid and should be banned.”

On roast chicken: “Even the sound of it causes salivation, and the smell of it jolts the tummy into gear.” His recipe – lemon, garlic, thyme, a metric fucktonne of butter, and, crucially, permission and suggestions for variations on the basic theme – does exactly that. I have cooked it many times over the years. Hundreds, possibly. It never fails to please. And the book, like all the best food writing, makes you want to stop reading and head for the kitchen. 

From Roast Chicken and Other Stories, Ebury Press 1994

‘A Peregrine’s Eye’ by Richard Smyth

An essay now. (Yegods! Children’s books, recipes, field guide entries and now an essay! Has the man no respect for the sacred form of the short story? Probably not. Soz.)

It’s a celebration of birds, and in particular birdsong – a subject close to my own heart. But more than that, it’s a reflection on how we experience the world, on the nature of paying attention. As Derek Smalls observed as he stood alongside his fellow Spinal Tap members at the grave of Elvis: “it certainly puts perspective on things”.

The perspective here is the peregrine’s – “its vision is around eight times better than mine: easily good enough to make out the Eeyores on my daughter’s pyjamas”. What can it see from its perch 70 metres up on the nearby mill chimney? “A hundred different towns, a half-dozen different cities, all that sprawling human landscape … is drawn as if by a drawstring into the scope of one bird’s raking binocular vision.”

Too much fucking perspective, you might say.

From sight to sound, so much of it mere background noise to humans, if indeed we notice it at all. Smyth makes a case for noticing: “standing with your back against a forty-metre beech, you feel that you’re inside a cell of bird noise”. And he touches on the strange untouchability of birdsong: “As the birds’ noise yard-by-yard maps out the landscape, we’re not just here, we’re everywhere.”

I forgive him the shade he throws on the dunnock’s “pointless reeling” (we will never see eye to eye on this – I love a dunnock’s scattery babble) for this delightful description of the back yard blackbird – “that familiar rustic hurdygurdy burble”.

Most of all this is a welcome placing of nature observation in the context of real lives. Not for Smyth the worn idea of Lone Man Communing With The Nature. “I don’t know who has the time for transcendence.”

Damn right. 

First published in Songs of Place and Time: Birdsong And The Dawn Chorus In Natural History And The Arts, edited by Mike Collier, Gaia Project 2020. You can read it on Richard’s website here

‘Crex-crex’ by Kathleen Jamie

Another essay.

Crex is both the sound and the name. ‘Corncrake’ in English – Crex crex in scientific, a representation of its call: “two joined notes, like a rasping telephone.”

Like Adams, Jamie goes on a journey to find a rare bird. It takes her not to New Zealand, but closer to home, the Hebridean Isle of Coll – where people are scarce and corncrakes, sadly, scarcer.

The extent of this bird’s eradication at our hands (in the UK, at least) is unthinkable. From ubiquity to near extinction in less than a century.

The corncrake is “a brown bird, a kind of rail, not ten inches tall, which prefers to remain unseen in tall damp grass”, the problem being that mechanised mowing has almost completely done away with that habitat. It is also, delightfully, “the kind of bird who’d want to be excused games”.

Jamie’s writing oozes attention. She has the gift of bringing you to the place – not with overwrought descriptions, but with a quiet vigour that seeps into you. “The sea and its surf is never far away, a constant Atlantic soughing, a sense that the land is an interruption in a long conversation between water and sky”.

Lovely stuff.

Like Adams, she doesn’t claim expertise. “Knowing birds is like being fluent in a foreign language, or adept with a musical instrument”. But her ability to notice is more than enough.

“I want to see a corncrake”.

And so, having read this several times, do I. 

From Findings, Sort Of Books 2005

‘Jeeves and the Impending Doom’ by P G Wodehouse

Any excuse, frankly, to include some Wodehouse. The only problem being that he wasn’t much of a bird person. Pigs, yes. Cats and dogs, certainly. The odd newt from time to time. But birds featured seldom.

Praise be, then, for ‘Jeeves and the Impending Doom’, from his 1930 collection Very Good, Jeeves. And praise be for its menacing swan.

There’s no shortage of the Wodehousian wit. You know the kind of thing, I’m sure. “Bingo uttered a stricken woofle like a bulldog that has been refused cake.” “When it is a question of a pal being in the soup, we Woosters no longer think of self; and that poor old Bingo was knee-deep in the bisque was made plain by his mere appearance – which was that of a cat which has just been struck by a half-brick and is expecting another shortly.”

There is also a welcome appearance of the word ‘oojah-cum-spiff’.

And there is that swan.

Bertie finds himself, as you do, trying to rescue a cabinet minister from an island in the pouring rain, a project fraught with problems even if it weren’t for “one of the largest and shortest-tempered swans I had ever seen.”

The swan, of course, had reckoned without Jeeves.

“As swans go, he may have been well up in the ranks of the intelligentsia; but, when it came to pitting his brains against Jeeves, he was simply wasting his time. He might just as well have gone home at once.

Every young man starting life ought to know how to cope with an angry swan, so I will briefly relate the proper procedure. You begin by picking up the raincoat which somebody has dropped; and then, judging the distance to a nicety, you simply shove the raincoat over the bird’s head; and, taking the boat-hook which you have prudently brought with you, you insert it underneath the swan and heave. The swan goes into a bush and starts trying to unscramble itself; and you saunter back to your boat, taking with you any friends who may happen at the moment to be sitting on roofs in the vicinity. That was Jeeves’s method, and I cannot see how it could have been improved upon.

First published in The Strand Magazine 1926. Collected in Very Good, Jeeves, Doubleday 1930

‘Eeyore Has A Birthday’ by A A Milne

The wisdom of owls is often overstated. They are magnificent hunters, yes, using a combination of acute vision, asymmetrically aligned ears, and special ‘stealth’ flight feathers to give them an advantage over their hapless prey. But wise they are not.

The wisdom of wols, on the other hand, is well known. Especially when compared with a bear of little brain. Mind you, all it really takes to seem an intellectual giant in such company is the ability to write “A Very Happy Birthday with love from Pooh”.


From Winnie-the-Pooh, Methuen 1926