As Kingfishers Catch Fire
Alex Preston and Neil Gower (Corsair, £25)
A Sweet, Wild Note
Richard Smyth (Elliott & Thompson, £14.99)
The fewer birds, the more we treasure them, hence the continuing gush of avian books, many of them, such as these latest offerings, the personal testimonies of ‘bird lovers’ for fellow enthusiasts. The father of the genre is J. A. baker, author of The Peregrine, who is duly acknowledged. Also recognised by both authors is Grey of fallodon’s older classic The Charm of Birds. Lord Grey was the great-uncle of one of Alex Preston’s grandmothers. As this suggests, Mr Preston (b.1979) is young enough to have been born into a world of declining bird—especially songbird—numbers. richard smyth, of similar age, admits he had never heard a cuckoo until 2016.
both authors exhibit a self-referential style. ‘i’ve ended up writing something that tells more truths about me than perhaps i wanted it to,’ writes Mr Preston, his book ‘triangulating between the bird, the world and literature’. As he’s a journalist, prize-winning novelist and senior Lecturer in Creative writing at the University of Kent, ‘literature’ means abundant quotation in prose and poetry from other authors old and new.
he has chapters on 21 birds, from peregrine to nightingale, which he hears where he lives in Kent. Neil Gower provides dramatic full-page colour illustrations (above, grey heron) and black-and-white tailpieces of each bird. his co-authorship emphasises that As Kingfishers Catch Fire is also to be enjoyed as a picture book.
in boyhood, Mr smyth could identify many birds by sight, but few from their songs and cries. A Sweet Wild Note makes amends. it explains what he’d ‘been missing’ and what other people, past and present, ‘have been hearing’. it’s also ‘about the places where birdsong and human culture overlap and interact. it’s easy to forget that science is a culture, too’. he writes journalism, history and fiction and has been a finalist on Mastermind (specialist subject: birds). There is more scientific detail in his book and, as with Mr Preston, plenty of quotable facts and quotations. Lucretius thought birds taught us music.
Mr smyth’s favourite songster is the blackcap, hence his title, Gilbert white’s description of its song. his meditation concludes ‘there’s more babble than beauty in birdsong’, but it’s still ‘wonderful’. Tim Oakenfull provides delicately smudged but photographically accurate blackand-white illustrations to introduce the six chapters. John Mcewen