The place of dinosaur dung in science and literature
Celebrated novelist Howard Jacobson's most recent novel is Man Booker-nominated 'J'. He has also written 'The Finkler Question', published to great acclaim in 2010. An acerbic critic and broadcaster with a passion for literature and art, he is known for his ebullient wit.
Saturday 20 June 1998
Where I come from, dung is dung, however long it's been hanging about, but to the scientist it's a coprolite - not to be confused, by the by, with the remains of the planet Superman hailed from, one tiny fragment of which could rob him of all his strength and self-respect. The substance you're thinking of is cellulite.
The magnitude of the Saskatchewan find to the scientific community can be measured by the phrase "king size". Scientists work on a scale barely comprehensible to the rest of us. "Only yesterday" to an astronomer means 30 billion years ago, and when a geologist says "king size" he isn't thinking marital bed. Imagine, if you can, a heap of ancient faeces equivalent in mass to the crater that would be made on the surface of the earth if the moon fell into us. But convex rather than concave. And less of a tourist attraction.
It's what the coprolite contains, though, that's exciting interest: nothing less than the remains of a three-horned herbivorous dinosaur as big as a cow, chewed whole, digested badly, and still in pain. Thereby proving what every schoolboy has always suspected, that the T rex was one mean mother.
None of this, I have to say, comes as any surprise to me. I've never held with any of the meteor or ice age theories to explain the disappearance of the dinosaurs. That they ate one another to extinction always seemed to me the likeliest explanation. What else was there to do way back then?
Considering the philosophical implications of the discovery, Shakespeare said it all long ago: "The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interr'd with their bones." Pity the poor Tyrannosaurus: 65 million years after its demise, and all we can find to remember it by is its messy eating.
As for the where the mega-stool itself was unearthed, here too there is nothing new to report. Didn't we always know that Canada was one colossal shit-heap?
Forgive what may look like a gratuitous rudeness. I'm nursing a long- time grievance with Canada on
the grounds that it never invites me to any of its famous waterfront literary festivals. Canada is big on festivals. Places which otherwise have no attractions, give or take a turd or two, always are big on festivals. You ask yourself, "What haven't we got?" You come up with the answer, "Anything!" So you have a festival. It's smart thinking. That way you subvert criticism. What writer wants to miss out on a junket? What comedian? Now you know why it's such a long time since you heard a joke against Toronto or Montreal. Or Edinburgh. Or Adelaide.
Hay-on-Wye is another matter. Unlike every other writer on this planet, not to mention those from planets with cellulite, I wasn't there this year. This may have had something to do with the poor reception I received last year.
Wrong place, wrong subject. Had Nature reported its findings earlier, I may have got away with my chosen topic - The Contribution of Faeces to Humour - by wrapping it in dinosaur talk. Every country person loves a stool when it's an animal that's dropped it. My mistake was to get heavy with the literature in a rural setting - farts in Aristophanes, turds in Chaucer, dunghills in Rabelais.
It's something you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy, being in a full tent in a muddy field in Hay-on-Wye (I always fill my tent in Hay, or at least, I always used to), frozen in horrid silence as you bury yourself deeper and deeper in ordure. While, from the other tents, come the sounds of male authors talking about their children and the washing-up. Ah, the children! Isn't that what we go to literary festivals for? To hear great writers talking about their children. "Well, better that than your fixation," my audience let me know. "Better to be a father than a coprophiliac."
In vain did I make protest to my audience that I was no fonder of dung than the next man. That, if anything, I was a coprophobic, a person who had walked in preternatural fear of dung all his life. Hence my passionate advocacy of the value of scatological comedy: it reconciled me to the horror. What did they think I was doing - compiling a list of my favourite droppings? Poo We Have Loved? Desert Island Dung?
The tent blew and I died. I signed and sold no books. Sixty-five million years from now, geologists will dig in Hay-on-Wye and find evidence that a creature the size of a man was once passed whole through the digestive system of a many-headed monster. It may even get in Nature. But no coprolite will ever tell the true tragic story of what transpired there.
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