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