James Roderick Burns

Attenborough Goes East

Bat Before the Moon by Biho Takashi

Last week we watched a curious documentary – David Attenborough, knee-deep in bat shit, nosing round a Bornean cave.

‘The fascinating thing’, he said in that honeyed voice, slow as syrup left overnight in the fridge, ‘is that in these caves bird and bat cohabit like neighbours.’

And there in the musky, acrid dark a thousand sharp chirrups announced the interlacing flight of fist-sized bats, of minute swallows no bigger than your thumb. Somehow their tiny fragile journeys were shuttled together into a sounding loom, some sort of miraculous Grand Central Station of the air, but minus the usual jostling, squabbling and curses.

David stood transfixed. Even through three layers of a close-pressed hankie we could hear his little gasps of admiration and awe, the rich baritone whispering through cotton. ‘Nature’s co-operation’, he continued, ‘togetherness, goodwill on the wing‘ (or some such uplifting thing).

Then all at once one furry pilot lost his grip, turned end over end and dropped to earth. The camera whirled. We heard the thud. A shaky light lit up the dismal scene. A thousand swarming roaches reached the bat and racing, scrambled up his fur. They poked and probed, biting at his vitals as his little hands curled up to wave goodbye.

Oh bloody shit!’ a voice off-camera yelled, and everything went black. A moment later another voice came on, this one not David’s – and rather hot – apologising, making amends, asserting the value of a script.


About the writer:
James Roderick Burns is the author of three short-form collections, most recently The Worksongs of the Worms (2018). His work has appeared in The Guardian, The North, The Scotsman and a range of other publications. He lives in Edinburgh and serves as Deputy Registrar General for Scotland.

Image: Bat Before the Moon by Biho Takashi (1873-?, active circa 1890-1930). Color woodblock print on paper. 23.5 x 23.3 cm. 1905. Public domain.