In this series of blogs we will be publishing some of the best loved articles from our back issues. This story by James Parker was first printed in Issue Three of the Idler Magazine, in 1994
I do not often pimp my insight – it has been one of the privileges of my practice that patients generally come to me, there is little necessity to seek them out. Once in a while, however, a subject of such interest presents itself that I am moved to approach someone in the street, unbidden and unrecognised, and hand them my card. Such a case was Paul the Pigeon Boy, whose tale I shall now relate.
It was a dank bedroom of a London afternoon, and I was disliking a cup of tea in Battista’s, Charing Cross Road, when a breeze of alertness stole over me. My spinal cord snapped tight as a guitar string and hummed with the thrill of prophecy – something of moment was about to take place. Eyes bright, I turned my gaze through the polluted window-glass and on to the street – within seconds I saw a young boy wring his arm free of his mother’s grasp, run a few steps and throw himself on to the pavement, where with ravenous motions he began to maul a section of face-down pizza.
As a younger man I was much troubled by Entropic Thought – spasms from the reptilian brain which disrupt the current of our inner life with aberrant suggestion, demanding that we (for example) punch an old woman in her fragile overbite, lick phlegm from a bathroom tile or – most commonly – jump into the blunt nose of an oncoming tube train. I eventually made my peace with this strange force but regarding it not as a stream of abominable commands or promptings to horror, but as a simple, reflexive cackle of energy, wrinkles of wind across an empty sky, out of space and into space.
At first sight the scene outside Battista’s seemed a simple enough case of a child “acting out” (as the jargon has it) an Entropic Thought, obeying a sudden lowering urge with the barbarous alacrity of childhood. But something in the boy’s manner – a certain jabbing purpose, a metallic will, a finicky pick-picking at the ragged pizza slice – made me look again. It took mere seconds to realise that I was looking at Pigeon Boy. Speedily I presented myself to his mother, offered my credentials and an appointment was made.
Within a week I had reduced Paul’s problem to the following proposition: under certain conditions, he behaved like a pigeon. This behaviour, according to his mother, had two phases. In the first phase he would crouch immobile on a bench or wall and regard her steadily from the side of his eye, unmoved by her protests. In the second he would move through crowds with a strange singularity, strutting nervily, darting his head this way and that, and occasionally giving a violent purgative shudder, as if to shake some accretion from his skin. Such an episode would generally end in him scuffling for some cast-off food item, as I myself had witnessed.
The conditions under which he suffered his fits of pigeonness revealed themselves, with bewildering exactitude, to be the geographical parameters of London’s West End, where he accompanied his mother on dizzying shopping trips. Anywhere in sight of Centrepoint produced bird behaviour, the inhuman tics and pauses, the degraded appetites of the pigeon. Wreathed in exhaust fumes, lost in sound, shocked by light as i started off the shop-panes, Paul would assume his pigeonhood.
Pigeon Boy was fortunate that I happened across him before conventional psychiatry had a chance to derange him with medication. After a brief period of re-orientation I discharged him, with no more severe prescription than this: that the next time he entered the West End, he should take a bag of breadcrumbs. To be sure, his mother complained viciously, and after a sinister campaign in a leading psychological journal I was suspended from practice, but I never doubted my own hand.
Guided by almost insensible hints – a pressure here, a lapse there – from the dowsing rod of my poetical acumen, I had come to see Paul’s pigoeonness not as a symptom of a mental deformity, but as an appropriate and creative response to the conditions of our city. The heart of London is a sandstorm of unreality, it blasts glittering around us, and its truest citizen is the pigeon. Shaggy with cinders, his ignorant response to the rush of life around him. His bright blank stare, his abstracted busyness, his cretinous insouciance towards total strangers, are the paradigm of our own empty street-manners. Sensitive only to immediate threat, we are quite capable of stepping over bodies to get to the next slice of pizza, as blanketed in our bustling false purpose as the street people are in their urinated sleeping bags. Forever dull, forever hungry, we scurry towards brightness and a longed for satiety. Tied to our quest, we pass by each other in button-eyed pigeon awareness. Pizza! PIZZA! – fill of its own damp heat, gory, opulent with cheese, collapsing in delicious pliancy as the hand lifts it… can we stop the soul’s mouth with hot bright food?