Ting-a-ling! Ting-a-ling! What is that sound, as of fairy bells, from the room next door? Why, it is Diogenes, the budgerigar. Tweet! Chirrup! Ting-a-ling!
Let me rewind. This must be a bit confusing for you, my jumping in at the deep end like this. The story begins over two years ago, when I receive a slim volume of poems by one Bethany W Pope, called Silage. It is extraordinarily good, and, because in those days I had a weekly column for a well-known newspaper called “Nicholas Lezard’s Choice” (the column, not the paper) in which I could write about any book I pleased, as long as it has been recently published and in paperback, I decided to review it. (The newspaper in question asked me not to, on the grounds of the book’s obscurity, but I referred them to the title of my column.)
Afterwards, coincidentally or not, Pope’s life changed, and she could finally give up her soul-destroying job as a cinema attendant in Swindon, and became instead a teacher of English in China.
I became a friend of hers on a social medium before her job changed, and learned that she had a budgie called Diogenes. By all accounts, this was a bird of character and distinction. However, the paperwork involved in bringing a budgie to China is fearsome, and Diogenes was obliged to stay with another lady poet, our mutual friend Katy, who lives in the delightful if somewhat sleepy Kentish town of Faversham.
And then it came to pass that Katy, who is American, had to go to a family reunion in Virginia, and the cry went out: who will look after Diogenes the budgerigar? And a small, still voice piped up: “I’ll do it.” To my astonishment, and possibly everyone else’s, that voice was mine.
And so here I am now, in a garret flat in a 16th-century building in Faversham. Don’t get too excited: pretty much every building in Faversham is 16th-century, unless it’s earlier. And I am in loco parentis to a yellow-plumed Melopsittacus undulatus, Tweety Pie to my Sylvester, if you will. Not that I harbour any evil designs on the bird. It’s just that there’s a certain physical resemblance between us both. Or rather, us four. If you see what I mean. Me, Sylvester. Diogenes, Tweety Pie. That makes four.
“Remember,” said Katy, as I saw her off at the station, “Diogenes likes Chet Baker and Ella Fitzgerald. You’ll know he’s enjoying himself because he gets very vocal.”
“Well in that case,” I replied, “Diogenes is bang out of luck, for while I respect Chet Baker and Ella Fitzgerald as artists, I don’t like the noises they make enough for them ever to have featured on my playlists. What does he think of the Beatles?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never played them to him.”
When I got back, I started singing the Kinks’s “Victoria” to Diogenes, but replacing the word “Victoria” with “Diogenes”. It works.
I then asked the bird if he’d prefer it if I sang the Fall’s version of “Victoria”, replacing the word “Victoria” etc, instead. Diogenes did that brilliant thing, which is sort of like moonwalking for Melopsittacus undulatus, of shifting along his perch without seeming to move his feet. I will assume this signifies assent. Too much jazz that bird’s been having: time for some overlooked classics from the 1960s, and their reinterpretations by the alternative music scene of the 1980s.
Meanwhile, I am petrified by responsibility. The last time I had to look after an animal it was a cat called Tybalt and he was pretty much capable of looking after himself. (Yes, I know, I know. Their names. These pets, and their owners, are fully fledged – and in Diogenes’s case I use the word “fledged” advisedly – members of the Remoaniac Liberal Elite. Deal with it.)
Now I have to deal with seeds and cuttlefish bones and feathers and whatnot. There is also the whole matter of a caged animal. I had mentioned to my friend S— that I was going to be looking after a budgie, and she went full-on A Robin Redbreast In a Cage Puts All Heaven In a Rage, and I didn’t know where to look. What I didn’t know then was that according to Katy’s testimony, based on experience, is that Diogenes actually prefers to stay in his cage. This is fine by me, as I foresee only disaster if I let him out of it.
Then again, what’s so bad about a cage? It’s just like a home, or a good marriage, and there’s nothing axiomatically wrong about either of those things. Once again, I find myself in another cage, albeit a temporary one, and one with an excellent library; but I wonder when I will find myself in a cage I can call my own. Diogenes seems happy enough; I’ve just checked. Meanwhile, the bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling.
This article appears in the 09 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain