One can't be angry when one looks at a Penguin

Basically: letters about birds

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s the one you’ve all been waiting for but presumed I’d never send. The big one. Today is the day. It’s the newsletter in which I gather letters about birds in an effort to cleanse your palate and take your mind off the endless misery that surrounds us. It was John Ruskin who wrote, in a letter, “One can’t be angry when one looks at a Penguin,” and he was absolutely right. By the same token, the following is also true but not nearly as catchy: one is rarely disappointed when one reads excerpts of letters in which birds are mentioned. Below is my evidence.

(Word of warning: I know I just said this was intended as a palate cleanser, but the Sylvia Plath excerpt—4th entry on the following list—is a bit dark. You may wish to skip it. Also, if you haven’t already done so, subscribe to this newsletter—for free or for a few pounds each month—and I’ll send these directly to your inbox. Ta.)


I have had a lifetime of experience with broody hens, and if there is any more unpredictable female, I don’t know what it is. Sometimes, moving a broody as much as fifteen feet from her accustomed location will cause her to become unstuck, and she will take one look at the clutch of eggs and scream, “What’s THAT?” Then she will take off into the sunset, scattering your dreams as she goes.

E. B. White | Letter to Reginald Allen, 5 Mar 1973 | Letters of E. B. White


The toucan is flourishing and has at last decided to take baths. I discovered he liked deep water, as deep as his beak, i.e. about 6 inches. He plunges in and out very fast several times with great splashes, as if he hated to do it but knew he should, and when he got wet he proved to have blue skin underneath, just the color of blueberries—or as if he had blue jeans on under the feathers.

Elizabeth Bishop | Letter to Dr. Anny Baumann, 28 Jul 1952 | One Art: Letters


Well, outside my window there are a couple of birds making a sound like that of dice rattling away in a leather cup and I don’t dig it; but maybe if I listen long enough I’ll understand they’re playing the dirty dozens or quoting the Empson of the birds—upon which feathers will sprout out from behind and I too will learn to fly; sans Pegasus, sans motor, sans rhythm, sans every dam thing.

Ralph Ellison | Letter to Albert Murray, 28 Jul 1957 | The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison


Ted and I are recovering from a sad and traumatic experience. We picked up a baby bird that looked in its last death throes, fallen from a tree, and brought it home. We had it for a week, feeding it raw ground steak, worms, milk (probably a very bad diet), and got enormously fond of the plucky little thing, which looked like a baby starling, with funny furry eyebrows. But when it ran, it fell, and looked to be badly injured. Its leg stiffened then (its pelvis must have been broken, or something), and it sickened, choking and pathetically chirping. We couldn’t sleep or write for days, nursing it and hunting vainly for worms, identifying with it until it became gruesome. Finally, we figured it would be [a] mercy to put it out of its misery, so we gassed it in a little box. It went to sleep very quietly. But it was a shattering experience. Such a plucky little bit of bird. I can’t forget it.

Sylvia Plath | Letter to Warren Plath, 9 Jul 1958 | Letters Home


Now let me tell you about a miracle, of the kind that happens here. Day before yesterday I was writing about a raven, quite a character and a friend of Morgan le Fay. Yesterday morning at eight I was at my desk and there was a great croaking outside my door. I thought it was a giant frog. It awakened Elaine sleeping upstairs. She looked out the window and there was a huge raven pecking at my door and croaking—a monster bird. The first we have seen. Now how do you account for that? I wouldn’t even tell it if Elaine the Truthful hadn’t seen it also.

John Steinbeck | Letter to Elizabeth Otis, Jul 1959 | A Life in Letters


But the strangest thing was the eagle owls. There was a fierce screeching while we were in the mews, coming from a shed next door. When he said he would show us an eagle owl too, and would we please stand back a little, and opened the door of a large shed, I expected to see the bird fly out. Not at all. It walked out, slowly, stumping, its feet spotted in beige feathers down to the talons, tall ears standing up on its head, enormous round fire-coloured eyes—and was exactly like a court dwarf in Velasquez: Just about as tall, as erect, as burly, as intimidating. But the stare glowed like a furnace.

Sylvia Townsend Warner | Letter to William Maxwell, 23 Nov 1965 | Letters


When I begin to think at all, I get into such states of disgust and fury at the way the mob is going on that I choke; and have to go to the British Museum and look at Penguins till I get cool. I find Penguins at present the only comfort in life. One feels everything in the world so sympathetically ridiculous, one can't be angry when one looks at a Penguin.

John Ruskin | Letter to C. E. Norton, 4 Nov 1860 | The Correspondence of John Ruskin and Charles Eliot Norton


Boats are tooting in the harbour again as I stand outside to paint, and one day the cranes came flying back, in their wide skeins. There’s something strange about those birds—whether they are coming or going, they ignite wild restlessness and yearning in me. And—I felt almost moved that they made the effort to come back—here.

Tove Jansson | Letter to Eva Konikoff, 29 Apr 1942 | Letters from Tove


I think you’d better get a female for your dove. He may seem happy, but as you well know, he doesn’t know what he’s missing. The Boyers have a young dove and as soon as it does something indicative like laying an egg or cleaning up the seedtray, I’ll write you and maybe you’ll like her. Our dove had big problems of adjustment when the female first went into the cage. He bowed and cooed for two days but she just looked sicker and sicker. Her eyes looked glassy, her feathers lost their gleam, and she wouldn’t eat or drink. Then—fwung—she dropped an egg. Then—fwung—she dropped another. Mary put them into the lining of an old hat and a few days later the dove waddled over and sat on them. At first the male scolded and walked up and down on her back but now he brings her things to eat and feeds her with his bill. They seem very happy.

John Cheever | Letter to Josie Herbst, Apr 1952 | The Letters of John Cheever


The birds, which I feed and who have begun to collect here already in large numbers, wake me up clamoring for their breakfast, and I dash out and place stale bread, etc. and watch the many colors and many behaviors of my feathered friends. Less than an hour ago, a male cardinal lit on the porch no more than five feet from me and complained that there was no more food outside, so I hurried to put some out. Then just as I opened up the machine, a great conclave of birds, led by two crows, screamed to me that some enemy was raiding a mocking-bird nest in a big oak tree, and I rushed over to find a lean and desperate cat climbing the tree, and chunked him clear off the place.

Zora Neale Hurston | Letter to Jean Waterbury, 9 Jul 1951 | A Life in Letters


[Our teacher] told us was how the Blackbird got black. Well he was sitting on the branch of a tree when he saw a magpie hopping about on the tree next to him, and he went over to see what he was doing, and he saw he was hiding some jewels in a hole of a tree. The Blackbird asked him where he got them, the magpie said, just over there, there is a cave, and in this cave . . . there are lots of precious jewels, and the prince of riches lives there, but you must not touch anything until you have asked him, and he will let you have as much as you can carry, so the Blackbird found the cave, and he went in and the first room he came to, was full of silver, but he would not touch it until he has asked the prince of riches, the second room he came to was full of gold, still nicer, the Blackbird could not stand it any longer, so he dug his beak in to the thing which looked so nice, and just then the prince of riches came flying through the door, and was spitting fire and smoke at the Blackbird. The Blackbird just escaped, and the smoke made the Blackbird black, and the gold made his beak yellow, but of course that is only a legend. And he showed us all the names the people use to call birds, the Irish used to think the wren was unlucky so they called it the devil Bird.

Roald Dahl (age 9) | Letter to his mother, 29 Nov 1925 | Love from Boy


This final letter is long, ridiculous, and very funny to someone of my maturity. It was written in 2018 by a gentleman named Nick Burchill, who in 2001 was banned from the Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia, for reasons that will soon become clear. This letter, 18 years later, was his successful plea for forgiveness.


28 March 2018

Dear Empress Hotel:

This may seem like and unusual request, but I write to you today, seeking a “pardon”. 18 years ago a string of unfortunate events led to my being banned from your hotel. I would like to explain the incident.

In 2001, I had recently joined my current employer and I was also in the Canadian Naval Reserve. This new employer was hosting a customer conference at the Empress and it was my first event with the company.

I told my Navy buddies that I was coming out West and I was asked to bring “Brother’s Pepperoni” from Halifax. It is a local delicacy. Because this was the Navy we were talking about, I brought enough for a ship. In a hurry, I had completely filled a suitcase with pepperoni for my friends. Some of it was wrapped in plastic, some in brown paper. I took whatever Brothers would sell me.

This is the bag that the airline misplaced.

The bag reappeared the next day. I knew that the pepperoni would still be “good”. It had only been at room temperature for a short time. It would, however, be quite some time before I could turn it over to my friends. Just to be safe, I decided that I should keep it cool.

My room was a nice, big, front-facing room on the fourth floor. It was well appointed, but it did not have a refrigerator. It was April, the air was chilly. An easy way to keep all of this food cool would be just to keep it next to an open window. I lifted one of the sashes and spread the packages of pepperoni out on the table and window sill. Then, I went for a walk…..for about 4 or 5 hours.

When I had covered enough ground, I returned to the hotel. I remember walking down the long hall and opening the door to my room to find an entire flock of seagulls in my room. I didn’t have time to count, but there must have been 40 of them and they had been in my room, eating pepperoni for a long time.

In case you were wondering, Brothers’ TNT Pepperoni does NASTY things to a seagull’s digestive system. As you would expect, the room was covered in seagull crap. What I did not realize until then was that Seagulls also drool. Especially when they eat pepperoni.

I’m sure you have an image in your head. Now remember that I have just walked into the room and startled all of these birds. They immediately started flying around and crashing into things as they desperately tried to leave the room through the small opening by which they had entered.

Less composed seagulls are attempting to leave through the other CLOSED windows. The result was a tornado of seagull excrement, feathers, pepperoni chunks and fairly large birds whipping around the room. The lamps were falling. The curtains were trashed. The coffee tray was just disgusting.

I waded through the birds and opened the remaining windows. Most of the gulls left immediately. One tried to re-enter the room to grab another piece of pepperoni and in my agitated state, I took off one of my shoes and threw it at him.

Both the gull and the shoe went out the window.

By this time, I was down to one gull left in the room, but it was a big one, and it didn’t want to leave. As I chased it, it ran around the room with a big hunk of pepperoni in its gob.

In a moment of clarity, I grabbed a bath-towel and jumped it. It started to freak-out so I wrapped it in the towel and threw it out of the window.

I had forgotten that Seagulls cannot fly when they are wrapped in a towel.

This is all happening fairly quickly and this is mid-afternoon. The Empress hosts a very famous and very popular “High Tea”. I suspect this is where the large group of tourists was heading when they were struck first by my shoe, then a bound-up seagull (the seagull was unharmed, by the way).

Let’s go back to my little housekeeping issue. The room was BAD. There was a lot of damage.

I was new to my company and I was really trying to make a good impression at this important event. I decided that I would carry on for now and handle this whole thing later. I then realized that I had only a few minutes before an important dinner and that I only had one shoe.

I made my way to one of the side doors and recovered both the shoe and the towel that were laying in some wet soil near the walking path. The shoe was a mess. I took it back to the room. By this time, I had close the windows and the air was becoming quite ripe with the smell of digested pepperoni and fish.

I went into the washroom and rinsed the mud off of my shoe. It cleaned-up nicely, but now I had one wet, dark shoe, and one dry, light coloured shoe.

In retrospect, I should have just wet the dry shoe. Instead, I choose to dry the wet shoe using the little hairdryer. It was actually doing quite well. I had the hair dryer jammed in there and the shoe was drying quite nicely. Then, the phone rang.

I walked into the next room to answer it and the power goes off. It turns out that the hairdryer had vibrated free of the shoe and fallen into the sink full of water and the GFI didn’t seem be 100% functional. I don’t know how much of the hotel’s power I knocked-out, but at that point I decided I needed help.

I called the front desk and asked for someone to come help me clean up a mess. I can still remember the look on the lady’s face when she opened the door. I had absolutely no idea what to tell her, so I just said “I’m sorry” and I went to dinner. When I came back, my things had been moved to a much smaller room.

I thought that was the end of it all until I was told that my company had received a letter banning me from the Empress. A ban that I have respected for almost 18 years. I have matured and I admit responsibility for my actions. I come to you, hat-in-hand, to apologise for the damage I had indirectly come to cause and to ask that you reconsider my lifetime ban from the property.

I hope that you will see fit to either grant me a pardon, or consider my 18 years away from the empress as “time served”.

Thank you very much for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Nick Burchill


If you haven’t already done so, subscribe to this newsletter so I can send it straight to your inbox, and please consider supporting it for a few pounds a month so I can spend even more time sending even more interesting emails to you. Paying subscribers will gain access to ‘members-only’ emails and my everlasting love. Hit the above button for options, and whichever you pick, thanks for signing up.


Visit the Letters of Note bookshop