Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Birds Britannica

I am reading, with astonished interest, Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey's masterpiece. No, I have never 'twitched', but I am always happy to sight a bird. Uncommitted and half interested people like myself will have had bird guides in their hands, with their dutiful box ticking of range, plumage, song and the rest. This transcendent book is a cultural history of every bird that has been sighted in the British Isles, from Albert the Albatross to the commonest avian. The folklore, economics, rise or decline, taste when eaten: every facet of the interaction between a species and the British is recorded, along with anecdotes from particularly remarkable sightings: the birdwatcher whose captivity in a prisoner of war camp was alleviated by the chance for sustained observation of a pair of redstarts perhaps best sums up the loving attention birds have been given. Coming at the book from my 16th century specialism, that sense you get from Elizabethan literature of nature's lost plenitude is abundantly confirmed, with accounts of the numbers of now rare birds that could be trapped in previous centuries. What could England have been like, its rivers full of fish, and birds, ubiquitous, in a variety that compelled knowledge? Because of lecturing on Keats, the one bird I really felt I could test the book on was the nightingale. Everything is there, except for the fact that Beatrice Harrison is playing 'Danny Boy' to the nightingale's counter-song, in the famous first ever BBC outside broadcast - hear it on
Anyway, at £21 from Amazon, this is a fantastically enriching book.

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