A Natural Cornucopia – part 2


First written for Time Out in late 2011…

As sure as the nights lengthening, leaves turning and temperatures falling, every Autumn brings in its train a bumper crop of nature books. In a spirit of literary natural history, let us investigate this little-known publishing ecosystem.

Symbiosis is as important to writers as it is to lichens. So we witness the phenomenon of Stephen Moss introducing David Lindo’s book, and David Lindo appearing in Stephen Moss’s TV programmes. This piebald pair produce work that usefully illuminates each other, with Lindo writing passionately about a life spent watching birds in cities and Moss, having retreated from London to Somerset five years ago, concentrating on the animal, plant and, particularly, bird life of the village of Mark on the Somerset Levels. While neither books are classics of their genres – The Urban Birder is autobiography and natural history combined, Wild Hares and Hummingbirds aspires to be a modern Natural History of Selborne – they each convey their writers’ jizz (lest you wonder, this perennially dirty sounding word is the bird watchers’ term for the combination of qualities that make a bird what it is). Lindo, being the son of Jamaican immigrants, is the more unusual, and his message – to view buildings like birds do, as cliffs and mountains, and always to look up – resonates with the city dweller. Since Lindo brings nature back to where it seems most absent – the city – it is appropriate that the book is almost as much about growing up in the 1970s as it is about birds, and the tale of two young birdwatchers being pursued by airgun-shooting Essex toughs from Rainham marshes is almost worth the purchase price alone.

Moss’s work is full of nuggets of information, as concentrated as an owl pellet, such as a goldcrest – Britain’s smallest bird – weighing the same as a 20p coin, and the deadly consequences to field voles of marking their territories in wee. For urine reflects ultra-violet light and kestrels, the hovering predators of motorway verges, can see in ultra violet. While there’s much like this to enjoy in the book, the writing isn’t quite of the same standard as Gilbert White and Robert McFarlane, whatever the publisher’s blurb may say.

Bees In The City and The Natural Navigator belong to a different genus of natural-history books: the guide. Both are practical, well produced and do pretty much what they say on the cover, although potential apiarists and explorers should beware before buying hives or crossing the Orinoco without further research: neither topic can be constrained within the covers of a book. To be fair, none of the authors make such a claim, and bees in particular need all the help they can get. Honey bee colonies have been dying off over the last five years, probably due to a combination of environmental stress and infestations of the all too appropriately named Varroa destructor mite, but in response there has been a huge increase in beekeeping, particularly in urban areas. Benjamin and McCallum begin their book by profiling some of these new, young and, I should think, Time Outy apiarists, before moving on to a manual of practical beekeeping. Gooley sets navigation in its pre-GPS, even pre-compass, contexts and so seeks to open the senses of anyone outdoors to the cues our ancestors, and the birds and beasts of today, use to get around.

If the first four books belong to different genera, Fire Season comes from a different family altogether: American wilderness writing. Starting with Thoreau’s Walden, through Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey, Americans were faced with an entirely different experience of land and nature than the miniaturists of England: the Big Country. While English writers studied the ordinary and showed it to be extraordinary, it doesn’t take much effort to convince the reader that spending five months of the year watching for fires from a lookout tower in a semi-desert wilderness of sage bush, ponderosa pines and mountains is worth reading about. Although not quite the classic it hopes to be – Connors is either too present or not present enough in his narrative for it to match its antecedents – Fire Season does succeed in making this alien landscape and even more alien way of life come alive.

Edward Stourton’s book belongs in a different phylum altogether: essays. To be honest, I didn’t want to like a book that reproduced the fortnightly Telegraph columns of a BBC magnate regaling us with tales of men and beasts met when walking his Springer spaniel, but Diary of a Dog-Walker is an unexpected delight, combining gossipy politics and shaggy dog stories adroitly. Who could resist the tale of the boy who tricked his mother into calling their puppy Achilles so that he might hear her calling, ‘Achilles, heel!’ across the park?

The 2011 harvest of nature books shows the genre of nature writing, if not the natural world that inspires it, to be in rude health, and the common method of these books – to look harder at the world around us however ordinary it may seem – is certainly worth following.

Bees In The City: The Urban Beekeepers’ Handbook by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum.

The Natural Navigator Pocket Guide by Tristan Gooley.

The Urban Birder by David Lindo.

Wild Hares and Hummingbirds: The Natural History Of An English Village by Stephen Moss.

Diary Of A Dog-Walker: Time Spent Following A Lead by Edward Stourton.

Fire Season: Field Notes From A Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors.

Unlikely London Clubs

London is the most clubbable of cities, but the true heyday of societies and associations was the late-19th century. Then, alongside the clubs and societies that have continued through to the present, there were many others whose loss I mourn. They included the Surly Club, where men met to practice contradiction and foul language, as well as a Lying Club and a Mock Heroes Club, a No-Nose Club and a Farting Club. There was the sinister Man-Killing Club, which required members to have done what it titled itself, and the melancholic Club of Broken Shopkeepers, for bankrupts and failed businessmen. And, my favourite of all, the Humdrum Club, for men who ‘meet at a tavern, smoke their pipes & say nothing till midnight’.

A Natural Cornucopia

For a couple of glorious years – before Time Out went free and dropped its book reviews – I wrote the annual review of natural history books. Here’s the first I wrote; each of these books was a privilege to read.

Weeds by Richard Mabey,
Weeds by Richard Mabey,

Weeds. How vagabond plants gatecrashed civilisation and changed the way we think about nature. By Richard Mabey. Published by Profile Books.

The Butterfly Isles. A summer in search of our Emperors and Admirals. By Patrick Barkham. Published by Granta.

The Running Sky. A birdwatching life. By Tim Dee. Published by Vintage.

The Invention of Clouds. How an amateur meterologist forged the language of the skies. By Richard Hamblyn. Published by Picador.

Weeds ask us where the boundary between nature and culture lies. Richard Mabey’s book is an exploration, celebration and investigation of that mysterious hinterland, where the wild things enter into our carefully laid plans and then refuse to leave, despite billions of pounds spent on herbicides and thousands of years spent on hoeing.

Weeds evolved originally to colonise disturbed ground and they are now perfectly positioned to take advantage of the vigorous shaking we’re giving the world’s ecosystems. Take Danish scurvygrass for example. Up until the 1980s, it was limited to the drier coasts of Britain, but since then it has been on the march down the central reservations of motorways and trunk roads. The reason? Salt. Winter gritting on the country’s main roads has brought salty, coastal conditions inland. And where the gritters go, the plant follows.

Every weed has its own story, and many were once much loved plants that fell from favour as fashions, be it agricultural or horticultural, shifted. Even the humblest dandelion becomes, in Mabey’s book, a thing of wonder, living in plain sight, embedded on our lawns.

But if the very definition of a weed involves hardiness, a butterfly would seem to embody the opposite: a delicate, ephemeral beauty. Patrick Barkham was ensnared by their lure as an eight-year-old boy and, as an adult, set out to find all 59 resident species of British butterfly. Turns out, they’re not so weedy after all. They live across almost all habitats in Britain, either rushing from caterpillar to pupa to butterfly in a heady rush of life, or laying low over winter to emerge, exactly like a butterfly, in spring.

During the year, Barkham loses his girlfriend, a part of his sanity and any claims to a low-carbon lifestyle as he hurtles up and down motorways in search of the next butterfly. I won’t say if he succeeds in his quest, but he does succeed in entangling the reader in the net of the Aurelian’s consuming passion – and he taught me a new word. Don’t you think Aurelian is an altogether more appropriate name for a lepidopterist?

There’s no such fancy name for birdwatchers; twitcher sounds as much an insult as a description. But Tim Dee’s extraordinarily passionate book about a life spent watching birds is an immersion in song, and wind, and feather. Like the other books, it describes a world that intersects our own without ever becoming part of it (except, perhaps, for chickens). It flows south with the autumn migration, following our house martins as they disappear without trace into the steaming jungles of the Congo. It returns, to rest in the unheard subsong of summer, when birds dream, and dreaming, sing.

The backdrop for Dee’s book is, of course, the sky. Up until the nineteenth century, clouds were the essence of formlessness, and no more possible to name than the air was to grasp. Richard Hamblyn tells the story of the man who named the clouds. Luke Howard was a Quaker. In the early nineteenth century, Dissenters were among those excluded from university education, so they formed an early, direct contact version of the internet, circulating news, information and ideas (but no porn). These were self-confident times, and though Howard was naturally shy, he found a forum in the vigorous lectures and societies of the time. In 1802, he gave the lecture that named the cirrus and the stratus, the cumulus and the nimbus, and coined the vocabulary that named the unnameable.

Article Archive

Over the next few weeks I’m going to put up on my blog some of the magazine articles that I’ve had published, in places ranging from Time Out to History Today, but which are not available online and, in the cases of some of the magazines, pretty well unavailable anywhere. In part, of course, this is advertising, but I’m also reasonably proud of some of these pieces and it will be great to allow them a fresh readership – it also helps me to keep the blog content refreshed without taking too much of my time, so win win all round!

Rejection notes – no.21 in a series

Dear Edoardo,

Thanks for sending us your work, we’ve been agonising over the final selection because we did really enjoy your story, but ultimately it hasn’t made it into Issue Five.

We’d be very pleased to see more of you work in a month or two when we begin selecting submissions for Issue Six.

Thanks again for trusting us with your work. We wish you a happy 2014 and best of luck with your writing.


The Last Solderslinger

For many years, I worked repairing TVs and videos, driving around in my white van. It was a family business, and it had kept us all gainfully employed for twenty years or so. But sometime in the late 1990s we realised that our days wielding the soldering iron and the Avometer were numbered. Most of the other repairmen, men who had started when you could warm a house from the heat generated by the thermionic valves in the back of a television, also lay down their irons around this time. I wrote this piece for us all.

Cyril Dennis retires after 53 years repairing TVs.
Cyril Dennis retires after 53 years repairing TVs.

The last solderslinger drove out of town. It was showdown time. The Cyber Cowboy was going to pay. Twenty one years ago the last solderslinger had rolled into the city, sniffed the petrol in the air, and settled down to raising kids. Now the young whippersnappers thought they could steal stock from right under his nose. Well, today they were going to see the old timer still had a few tricks left in his toolbox.

The solderslinger pulled up in his Transit outside the new ‘light industrial unit’. Things sure had changed since he started riding the range twenty one years ago.

Striding towards his enemy’s stronghold, he remembered his first van: £4141 in 1980. Then only this year he had gotten a brand new transit from Dan Dan the Van Man for £11926.

But in that time his stock, ah, his stock. The first time, alone and nervous, he had gone out to see a sick TV was in 1980. There were three TV channels and BBC 1 played the national anthem shortly after midnight and went to bed like decent folk. And the TV, a Sony KV2204, complete with Trinitron tube and plastic wood appearance fascia, that fine piece of livestock had cost £530. Now a Sony KV21X5 went for £260.

Then his stock was 12.8% the cost of his nag. Now it was 2.2%. If he wanted to keep his ranch he was going to have to take out the Cyber Cowboy.

The last solderslinger burst through the doors, solder gun in one hand, Avometer in the other.

‘Come on then, you varmints, eat solder!’

The Cyber Cowboy looked up, startled. On the bench before him, innards indecently displayed to the watching world, lay a Sony KV28-DX30 hissing in pain from the torture instruments plunged deep inside its gizzards.

‘What are you no good son of a bitch doing to that there TV?’ demanded the last solderslinger, waving his gun menacingly.

‘Er, repairing it?’ said the Cyber Cowboy, some little whippersnapper who looked like he’d never even gotten a decent electric shock when disconnecting the EHT lead.

‘Sure,’ said the last solderslinger. ‘How?

‘Well, I just hook it up to the PC and it runs a set of diagnostics and then I do what it tells me to do,’ said the Cyber Cowboy.

‘Pah,’ said the last solderslinger. ‘Call that repair? Bet that gear costs thousands. Give it here and I’ll sort it with my Avometer in an hour flat.’

‘What’s an Avometer?’ asked the Cyber Cowboy.


A little while later the solderslinger sat in his van. He had lost. They had taken away his solder gun and Avometer and given him an application form for a training course in basic IT skills for the over-fifties.

He opened his flask and drank, but the milk tasted sour. No longer the last solderslinger, just the millionth mousketeer.

He got out of the van, went to the back and scratched a couple of words in the dirt, then got in and drove away.

‘For sale.’

A soldering iron.
A soldering iron.
An Avometer.
An Avometer.

Acceptance Notes – no.9 in a series

Dear Edoardo,

Thank you for submitting Disconnecting to […].  It’s an excellent story and we’ll be happy to publish it.
Terms:  […] will pay the equivalent of $30 USD in British Pounds via PayPal upon publication of Disconnecting (date to be determined).  You retain all rights.  We archive until you ask us to remove this piece from our site.  If you submit Disconnecting elsewhere you agree to cite[…] as its original publisher.
If these terms work for you, please confirm your PayPal email address and send me a one-sentence biography to appear with your work.
Hope to hear from you soon.
Welcome to […].

The Reluctant Eagle – a taster

This story won The Independent Story of the Year competition many years ago, but it’s now very hard to find, so I’m delighted that Alfie Dog Fiction has published it on their website. The novelist Angela Lambert, one of the competition judges, was kind enough to compare it to Kipling – high praise indeed.

Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos).
Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos).

Here’s the start of the story:

One day the Reluctant Eagle decided he would like to see outside the nest. He knew his feathers were not quite ready for flying but he thought that it would be alright just to look.

Foot by foot he struggled up the eyrie. By the time he got to the top his legs were aching.

Then he had his first look Out There.

It was just as well the eyrie was old and well built. It could take the impact of a nearly full grown eagle falling into it flat on his back.

The sky and cliff had still not stopped spinning when Mrs Eagle returned to the nest.

“Are you alright, dear?”

The Reluctant Eagle struggled upright and tried to bury himself under his mother. But really he was far too big for that anymore and all he succeeded in doing was nearly pushing her out of the nest.

“Calm down, dear. Now, what’s the matter?”

“I… I looked Out There,” the Reluctant Eagle said. “I’m really sorry, I know I promised to be good, but I just wanted to look.”

“At least you didn’t try to fly before you’re ready.”

“It’s so far down,” he said.

“What’s so far down?” Mrs Eagle was beginning to realise what her son was talking about.

“Everything. Out There.”

“But you will be able to fly, dear. Up, down, and round and round.”

The round and round was a mistake. The Reluctant Eagle groaned and hid his head beneath his wing.

Mrs Eagle’s suspicions were confirmed. Her son was scared of heights. She was flummoxed.

Mr Eagle arrived at that moment. When Mrs Eagle had explained what was wrong he prodded his son with his beak. “Pull yourself together, boy. This is no way for an eagle to act.”

“I wish I’d never hatched.” The voice was still muffled as the Reluctant Eagle had discovered that if he kept his head under his wing and his eyes tight shut then everything stopped spinning. “I liked the egg. I never asked to be an eagle. Why couldn’t I have been a… a rabbit or a deer or something?”

Mr Eagle was too shocked to answer. How could an eagle want to be a rabbit?

Mrs Eagle spread her wings, indicating for her husband to follow.

“We’ll be back soon, dear,” she said. “Don’t forget to eat your dinner.”

The wind caught her wings and in one soaring swooping arc she was carried off until she landed on a nearby crag. Mr Eagle followed.

“How are we going to teach our son to fly if he’s afraid of heights?” asked Mrs Eagle.

Mr Eagle was taken by surprise at this request to start thinking so soon after landing. “Er, I think we have to do something,” he said.

“So do I,” said Mrs Eagle.

“You do? Oh, of course you do. Yes, we have to do something.”

“Quite,” said Mrs Eagle.

“Right. I know, I’ll tell him to start acting like a proper eagle.”

“You already have,” Mrs Eagle pointed out.


“Who do we know who’s afraid of heights?”

“No one on my side of the family,” said Mr Eagle.

“I didn’t mean eagles.”

“Who else is there?”

“Well, you know.”

“I do? Oh, yes, of course I do.” Mr Eagle stared off into the distance, hoping for inspiration. He noticed a pair of ears twitching against the skyline.

“Rabbits?” he said.

“Well, not just rabbits,” said Mrs Eagle. “Any of the four feet. They can’t fly so I suppose they must be scared of heights.”

“Right. Quite. Scared of heights. Hmph.”

“So we could ask them.”

“Yes.” The word was out of his beak before he could stop it. “Ask the four feet?”

“Who else would know?”

“Er, yes.” Mr Eagle was trying to work out how he had agreed to this.

“So.” Mrs Eagle turned to look at him. “What are you waiting for? A watched egg never hatches, you know.” As she spoke her wings opened to their full span and before Mr Eagle could say anything she was airborne. He watched her disappear over the edge of the cliff.

“Ah well,” said Mr Eagle and went off in search of four feet.

The rest of the story is available to download from Alfie Dog for the princely sum of 39p (of which I receive half), in files suitable for Kindle, other e-readers or as a pdf to be printed out.