As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Alex Preston – books and birds – The Guardian

In the middle of writing this book, Alex Preston and his young family moved from north London to a rose-clad, redbrick rectory in Kent. What he found was no simple rural idyll: the mood there, close to the Channel ports, was “a bubbling … rage”, pro-Brexit and anti-immigration. Nonetheless, the move has been a happy one, in part because he can lie awake at night and listen to nightingales.

The nightingales don’t stay long – a brief three months from April to July – and it’s impossible, thinking of their perilous journeys from Africa, to forget their human counterparts, on their perilous journeys. Even birds allow no escape from politics, Preston says. For the Russian Anna Akhmatova and the Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish, the nightingale is a symbol of the poet’s struggle against state tyranny and censorship, and for Keats its “happy lot” is one denied to humans: “No hungry generations tread thee down.” So many different meanings have been ascribed to the bird down the years (by Shelley, Coleridge, Christina Rossetti, TS Eliot, DH Lawrence, Wallace Stevens, Virginia Woolf) that it risks seeming a mere trope, or metaphor, “more fable than bird”. To hear the real thing has been a source of elation for Preston.

He first became interested in birds at the age of seven, on holiday in the Isle of Wight, when he saw a peregrine. In adolescence he dumped his Barbour and binoculars in favour of girls, Nirvana and skateboarding. But the habit of birdwatching never quite left him, and soon he was finding a new way to observe them, in books. Whenever he came across a poem or prose passage that seemed to capture a bird, or “set off little detonations of recognition”, he would transcribe it in a notebook. Now in his late 30s, he has pulled together 25 years of notes to compile this book.

It’s a difficult one to categorise – part memoir, part anthology, part nature writing, part critical treatise, part coffee-table book, with biographical snippets about various writers, relatives and ornithologists thrown in for good measure. Every chapter is devoted to a particular bird, most of them commonly seen in Britain (robin, swallow, crow and so on), a few more exotic (waxwing and snow goose). Each comes with an illustration by Neil Gower, who worked closely with Preston on the project, “his fresh words and the timeless words of others the vivid sparks from which I coaxed each bird into flame”. As that might suggest, the images tend to the lush; Gower is no Bewick or Audubon. Like them or not, they reinforce a point that Preston makes about the difficulty of representing the quintessence of birds. Hard though we might try to pin them down, their inscape or birdiness forever eludes us.

A few plucky souls have tried to penetrate the consciousness of birds by copying their behaviour. Preston cites the case of “Professor Seagull”, a New Yorker immortalised in a book by Joseph Mitchell, who used to perform his gull poetry at Greenwich Village parties in the 1920s and 30s, “flapping his arms and letting out a piercing caw with every skip”. There’s also Charles Foster, author of Being a Beast, who, after inhabiting the minds of badgers and otters went further by “becoming” a swift. George MacBeth’s wonderful poem about an owl ends in triumphant metamorphosis: “Am an owl, am an owl.” It’s a surprising omission here. Perhaps the images of the owl as “a feather duster in leafy corners” or heard “hoovering over the floor / of the wood” are too domestic for Preston’s taste.

Mostly, he’s astute about metaphors that work and those that don’t. Paul Farley is praised for his evocation of the heron’s “begrudging” and “cranky” take-off. Then there’s Tim Dee on the wren (“an energetic walnut”), Paul Muldoon on starlings (“their gloom a gloom so distinctly shot through with glee”), and the “bonkers brilliance” of JA Baker describing the sound of a nightjar (“a stream of wine spilling from a height into a deep and booming cask”). Preston adds a few of his own – his swifts are “kids on aerial rollercoasters”, and he talks of the “shonkiness of gulls”. The challenge is to prevent enthusiasm spilling into purple prose. He’s good on the peregrine – a “blue comet trailing tawny fire”, “the head of a shovel flung from the heavens” – less so with some of his scene-setting (“the wild sovereignty of air”, “a roil of raging sea”). As for his account of seeing a kingfisher in the New Forest as a child – “I watched him as he dove, then dove again” – why the American usage?

Birds resist anthropomorphism, Preston says, and his favourite writing about birds does justice to their otherness, with Ted Hughes, Mary Oliver and DH Lawrence scoring top marks. Still, writers can’t help finding human attributes in birds or assigning moods to them. With crows, it’s death and depression, with the curlew loneliness and melancholy, with the kestrel (so folklore would have us believe) knavery and brutishness. Preston likes to cite counter-evidence, or add nuance, to protect his birds from stereotyping. To cosy images of the robin as a Christmas spade-percher, he offers Philip Hoare’s portrait of a violent bully (“10 per cent of all adult robin deaths are robin-on-robin, red-on-red incidents”) and a Robert Graves poem with a “murderous robin” prophesying “more snow, and worse than snow”. There’s also a Charles Olson poem about kingfishers – whose nests are made of “excrement and decayed fish” – to offset the usual picture of a bird whizzing by in a joyful flash of blue.

Along with plentiful quotes and some entertaining footnotes are a series of cameos from Preston’s life. His avian epiphanies map out a rough biography: a childhood by the sea, a year in Paris after leaving school, then Oxford, London, marriage, journalism, globetrotting to literary festivals, and, now, a university post in Kent. The chapter on collared doves becomes, without any strain, a chapter about his father’s cancer. Other relations also take their place: the aunt in France whose bedroom is nested in by swallows; the grandfather (the celebrated author and critic Samuel Hynes) whose edition of Thomas Hardy’s poems the teenage Preston scrawls in when a “dewfall-hawk” (nightjar) is mentioned.

Further back in the family tree, there’s Edward Grey, Britain’s longest-serving foreign secretary, famous for saying (in 1914): “The lights are going out all over Europe”, and less well-known as the author of a book (a model for this one) called The Charm of Birds. There are fascinating glimpses into Grey’s marriage (probably unconsummated), and his friendship with Henry Newbolt. But it’s always to birds that Preston returns.

His book is less a polemic on conservation than a plea for close looking and close listening. He believes, with Gerard Manley Hopkins (from whom he takes his title), that the world is charged with grandeur – the world of birds especially – and that our lives are the richer when we attend to that grandeur. “What thou art we know not,” Shelley tells his skylark, but some of the greatest poems in the language have come from the effort to find out.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Books & Birds is published by Corsair. To order a copy for £18.75 (RRP £25) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Comments

Write a Reply or Comment:

Your email address will not be published.*