A Sweet, Wild Note

The good people at Elliott & Thompson asked me to review Richard Smyth’s new book.

I was at a conference last year when one of the delegates balked at the idea of being called a nature writer. To be one of those, he suggested, would put him outside of nature: a false god looking down on creation, rather than a being of flesh and blood intricately linked to – both affecting and affected by – the surrounding environment.

In some ways it is this issue that Richard Smyth is setting out to explore in A Sweet, Wild Note: What we Hear When the Birds Sing. After all, as Smyth himself explains from the outset, this isn’t a book about birdsong, “it’s about the places where birdsong and human culture overlap, and interact.” There is, he suggests, a gap “between the noises the birds are making and the songs we’re hearing.”

Perfectly paced, Smyth’s writing bubbles along, itself like birdsong; the occasional unexpected wry note adding a layer of wit to an exploration of how literature, music, science and even concepts of national identity have been shaped by the birds’ quivering syrinx. For Smyth, birdsong should “belong to the birds” but the history he sets out demonstrates the repeated attempts by humans to make it their own. Poets, musicians, artists and emperors have all laid claim to birdsong, either through interpretation or, with speciest conceit, through bids to improve it.

But it is when birds are allowed to keep their song at the expense of freedom that Smyth’s book becomes truly captivating. His account of chaffinches being blinded by hot needles (to improve their singing) or lured by Victorians onto sticky lime, is a chilling example of the cruel disregard with which we have treated our fellow creatures.

It is such recklessness that continues to worry Smyth. As he continues to navigate the relationships between birds, people and landscapes, he wonders if attempts to unpick and isolate birdsong – the recordings, the music, the poems – has fostered a sense of “As long as we have a Works of Wordsworth on the bookshelf, we’ll have cuckoos”. Such complacency not only misunderstands the dynamic nature of birdsong and the environment more generally, but at a time when many species are suffering devastating declines, it is as unthinkable as silent fields, hedgerows and trees.

A Sweet, Wild Note by Richard Smyth is published by Elliott & Thompson on April 13.

Foxes Unearthed

The good people at Elliott & Thompson Books asked me to review Lucy Jones’ new book, Foxes Unearthed A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain.

It’s the fox that has cast its spell on Lucy Jones.  An animal surrounded by myth, controversy, complications and conflict. It captivates her; whether glimpsed in the countryside or sensed as an “intriguing flash of bright-eyed wildness” in the city.

Yet it would be a mistake to think this is a book just about foxes. With ancestral links to hunting and journalistic experience of the deep passions the fox debate stirs, Jones’ book is a distinctly human story.

Natural history and science are used to burn off the misty half-truths of perceived wisdom and paint a vivid picture of a predator that is at heart an apex opportunist – capable of exploiting a huge range of habitats and environments. But by the book’s conclusion the fox has become more than just an animal, it is a symbol; a ruddy-haired motif in a narrative that is ultimately focused on our relationship with the natural world.

This is no bad thing. It is in the chapters dealing with the hunters and the saboteurs that Jones really finds her stride, her impartial approach getting under the skin of one of the ‘big issues’ of the modern age. Through spending time with those who would lay down their lives for a fox and those who range from appearing non-plussed to hell-bent on bloody extermination, Jones brilliantly (and often bravely) captures two uniquely British subcultures.

Being buried in these opposed worlds, enables Jones to fuse her talent for research with journalistic reporting. Facing down a hunt with a group of saboteurs her account is as gripping as it is tense:
“’Look back every dozen steps,’ I was advised, again. ‘They target women so just keep looking back.’ Adrenaline pumped through my veins. What the hell was I doing here?”

Such experiences also neatly capture her own complex relationship with hunting, quoting philosopher and hunt supporter Roger Scruton as she describes how she is “transfixed” by the beauty of the horses and the foxhounds. It is a scene that presumably evokes her own childhood memories of the countryside and a late grandfather who “had a fondness for hunting.”

The theme of class is never far away when it comes to hunting. While one former saboteur laments what he describes as the increasingly political motives of the animal rights movement, others are less apologetic. During an interview about a recent film, Ricky Gervais tells Jones that hunting is a “sick” activity carried out by the “privileged few”, or as he later calls them, “posh twats.”

The charting of the change in the media narrative around foxes is also interesting. Clippings from the 1940s to the mid nineties reveal that newspapers have traditionally held foxes in high esteem. In 1994 even the Daily Mail ran a story called ‘In praise of the unbeatable fox’. Jones explains how this would soon change and the balance tipped against the fox with the first reported incident of a child being attacked. Again the politics emerge, with both fox expert Stephen Harris and other academics finding a correlation between the political affiliations of newspapers and whether they publish anti-fox reports.

It is also worth mentioning Jones’ refreshing honesty. Paul Evans once wrote how it was essential to ‘keep it real’ to be a good nature writer and there is certainly no airbrushing here. After a conversation with Brighton University’s Dawn Scott, who suggests resentment of urban foxes ‘in our space’ is learned rather than natural behaviour, Jones decides to head to the beach. Surrounded by hungry gulls giving her chips the glad-eye she admits to feeling “oddly irritated” by their presence. “What”, she asks, “would it take for a fox to be too wild for me?”

Foxes Unearthed is published on 19 May, priced at £14.99