Preface: in the 1980s the word bird was used as British slang to mean a girl or a woman. It wasn’t a particularly polite term and carried with it a hint of deprecation and objectification. As a child I only understood the word bird to have just one meaning; that is to say, creatures with feathers on and this innocence one day led to a classroom incident, filled with laughter at my expense. Here’s the incidence from c.1982 when I was 12.
When I was 12 our English teacher Mr Cope asked the class to write 200 words on a favourite hobby. At the end of the class he would be asking some of us to read ours out in front of everyone .
I wrote about my favourite hobby, ornithology. I had a big pair of 10×50 binoculars, a birthday present, which came with rubber cups, a black case with a strap, and a cleaning cloth. I would go in to the garden and the local park to get closer looks at blackbirds, blue tits, crows, sparrows and starlings. I was a member of the RSPB and had a book called ‘Birds of the World’, and I craved for the day I would see an eagle, condor or ostrich in climes more exotic than mundane south London.
At the end of the writing session, Mr Cope chose some children to go up to the blackboard and tell everyone about their hobby.
First up was Paul Harris who started his talk, ‘My hobby is making model aeroplanes’. He spoke for a full five minutes on how he had made a small spitfire, a F14 jet and a Boeing 747 from plastic model kits, which he’d glue, paint and suspend on threads on his bedroom ceiling. The class listened intently.
Then Mr Cope chose Theresa Delaney who went to the front of the class and started her talk, “My hobby is Duran Duran” which was her favourite pop band. She told of albums she had and continued to explain details about band members Simon Le Bon and Nick Taylor, showing cuttings from pages from a pop magazine. This too kept the class spellbound.
Next Mr Cope chose me. I took my exercise book up to the backboard, cleared my throat and said:
“My hobby is birds.”
There was a giggle from the back of the class. Just one of those abruptly ended high-pitched giggles that could pass off a tickly throat.
“Birds come in all shapes and sizes,” I read. “You can get big birds, small birds and medium sized birds.”
The half suppressed giggle found utterance. Now it was clearly a sniggering giggle, undisguised.
“Birds come in different colours, brown, black and white …” I carried on regardless.
The giggles became contagious. Someone else caught the giggle on the other side of the classroom. It became giggling in stereo.
“For my last birthday I got a pair of binoculars so that can get a closer look at the birds in the park.”
There was now open laughter coming from distant parts of the classroom, and around me were faces of my class mates some of them smiling, others laughing, holding their bellies and rocking on their chairs.
Mr Cope in contrast was silent. He was suppressing a laugh.
“I attract birds by leaving them bread in my garden.”
It went on and on. Every sentence carried another meaning. By the time I had got to talk about birds of Africa and India, and how some birds were fast and some were slow, the laughter had reached a crescendo.
Every thing I said became comedy gold. If I had intended to make people laugh it would have been excellent stand-up. The class were hollering in peals of laughter. Some were crying and I had no idea why.
I concluded my bird talk and went back to my seat in a confused manner. I could see Mr Cope’s face had gone red from suppressing his laughter and I could see tears welling behind his spectacles.
I was grateful for the bell that afternoon and I never realised why people were laughing till the weekend when George knocked on my door to tell me the other meaning of bird.