Howard Jacobson: When it comes to discovering yourself, look to the pelican for inspiration really

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The Independent Online

A pelican crossed my path on Boxing Day. Not in flight, on foot. And not in Queensland or in Florida but in London. You feel there should be superstitions associated with such an event. When a pelican crosses your path on Boxing Day it means you're going to go on a long journey, or inherit a fortune, or lose your heart to a beautiful feathery white woman with a big mouth and an inordinate appetite for fish. Unless pelicans materialise vengefully on Boxing Day in a spirit of bird solidarity with the turkey you stuffed and ate the day before. When a pelican crosses your path on foot on Boxing Day you know that the next time you gorge on flightless fowl you'll choke on it.

Whatever the auguries, I was out strolling in St James's Park with my wife, enjoying the wintry sunshine, relieved to be to walking off the previous day's excesses, when a pelican cut across us. We were approaching the Blue Bridge in a westerly direction, and he was approaching it in a easterly direction, on foot, as though he'd just come from the Palace. Since he wasn't going to pause, we did, allowing him to get on to the bridge without obstruction. It is a strange experience meeting a pelican, pedestrian to pedestrian, and it must have been even stranger for those already on the bridge observing him coming towards them. You don't expect to meet a pelican on a bridge.

In fact I know this pelican. He's the sociable one who sometimes joins you on a bench in St James's Park and tries to eat your mobile phone while you're filming him with it though I'm sure he does that only because he knows it makes a better photograph. Even by pelican standards he has a piercing eye and a wonderfully Italianate beak, all distressed umbers and citric yellows and patina'd verdigris. He also has more pink in his feathers than you expect of a white pelican as though a flamingo long ago sneaked in between one of his forbear's sheets. Some consciousness of his individually fine deportment, despite the inherited absurd appearance of his species, must explain his conviviality. Food has nothing to do with it. He peramabulates more like a human than a bird, in order to be seen and admired.

It is, in general, a wonderful thing to run into any of the large birds as long as they don't mean ill by you. You wouldn't want to find yourself alone on a bridge with a cassowary, for example, on account of his penchant for ripping out your stomach with his big toe. And even the most flirtatiously feather-boa'd emu always looks as though she will turn on you if you read her signals wrong.

But there is something benign about a pelican. On his own territory, fishing on a lonely beach or sitting folded and uncomfortable, as though buggered, on a pole, he will cast an idle but protective eye your way. They say a dolphin will save a swimmer who gets into trouble in the water, but a pelican offers more existential assistance. He teaches the virtue of imperturbability and absurdism. On our territory, however, that something benign about him is increased a hundredfold. Have a pelican amble towards you in St James's Park and you believe a kindly hand is ordering the universe after all.

There wasn't anyone on that bridge, no matter what language they spoke, no matter what kind of Christmas Day they'd had, who didn't laugh to see him. Though he is a show-off and even a bit of a bully when it comes to right of way, he inspires, in humans at least, an unconditional joy.

So why is that? Because he is out of place, partly. Because we don't expect to see a pelican strolling through the park on Boxing Day as though he too needs to walk off a heavy dinner from the day before. And because, though he chooses our company, he comes from a world we can't begin to understand. But most of all, I think, because he isn't beautiful. He is grand but it is the grandeur, as it were, of adversity overcome. Fancy managing to look good when you have all that extraneous bulk and a floppy throat pouch to carry around. A flamingo approaching us on the bridge would also have had us reaching for our cameras. But she would not have inspired the affection the pelican did. Too graceful. Too naturally the thing she is.

It's for the same reason that the fast bowler Darren Gough won this year's Christmas Day celebrity Strictly Come Dancing champion of champions dance-off, easily beating the beauteous Alesha Dixon who had triumphed in the competition proper only the week before. When Darren Gough dances he defies probability. Dancing is not a skill we feel can be, or should be, locked away inside a man of such lumbering machismo. And when he releases lightness from his giant frame it is as though he is refusing the limits placed on flesh itself. For a moment, anything is possible for anyone.

This, after all, is why we surrender to the programme despite all that nice to see you to see you nice drivel not to applaud someone born airy like Alesha merely be herself, but to watch great albatrosses of men and women find elegance in their earth-bound ungainliness.

There was a way in which this was true of Alesha also. She did not, of course, have physical bulk or an inappropriately comic personality to transcend, but she did have a clumsy assumption about herself to overcome: the assumption that as a thoroughly modern girl a pop singer with a round red mouth and a lean hot body she would do best when her dresses were brief and she was free to jive or salsa. In fact she most moved the judges and the voting public when she waltzed. Bounce we knew she had; the surprise was to discover she could do old-fashioned grace.

There is a fancy abroad that we are all in pursuit of ourselves. It is a commonplace of the self-improvement business that once we learn to act in accord with who we really are we will be happy. In X Factor dross-speak, we have a dream we must make true. Bad advice, all of it. It's who we are that keeps us miserable. Rather than find ourselves we need to find someone who isn't us at all. Release the person you didn't know was there, I say. Learn from the pelican. Be who you're not. Don't fly when flying is expected of you walk. Don't be beautiful, be strange.