As a 12-year-old, I was an avid birdwatcher. I was also a fraud, a liar and a cheat. Those lists of birds seen, ticked off like Don Juan’s conquests? A tissue of lies. One hundred and thirty species? More like 60. Dotterel, firecrest, smew? Give me a break.
So when I revived my dormant mania early this year, I decided to right my childhood wrongs, even though they were born of good intentions. I would go birdwatching again. I would keep track of the birds I saw. I would not lie. To spice things up, and to guard against enthusiasm fatigue, I set myself a target. Six hundred and one bird species have been recorded in Britain. I would aim to see 200 of them in a year. A doddle, surely?
Not so fast, man-cub.
Half of the 601 are described as ‘rare’. One, the great auk, is extinct. That leaves 300. My friend Andrew is a proper and active birder. In his best year he clocked up 206. I’m neither proper nor active. What chance do I have? Slim to none. But I like a challenge.
Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? is the story of that challenge. But it’s not just about birds. It’s about family, music, nostalgia; hearing the stories of strangers; the nature of obsession and obsession with nature. It’s about finding adventure in life when you twig it’s shorter than you thought; losing and regaining contact with the sights, sounds and smells of the natural world; the humiliation of being a professional musician who doesn’t recognise the song of a blue tit. It’s about the first time my parents heard me say ‘fuck’.
It’s a book for anyone who has ever seen a small brown bird and wondered what it was, or tried to make sense of a world in which we can ask ‘What's that bird?’ and ‘What's for lunch?’ and get the same answer. It’s also a long overdue thank you letter to my parents.
It’s not the teapot it once was. White china, with a pretty floral pattern in relief, it’s longer than it is wide and has a certain faded elegance. But it’s cracked and chipped all over, and there are dark patches where it's been mended and the glue has seeped out. It’s a teapot that has been used, and dropped. But somebody has bothered to mend it. Crucially, it’s a terrible pourer, so often the downfall of a promising pot. But we don’t know that yet.
For the moment it sits on the kitchen table of my mother’s last house, the crest of a wave in a surging sea of teapots. My mother was a keeper of stuff, a collector of objects. This made for a childhood founded on curiosity. What’s this? And why is it? And let’s just keep it so we can look at it. My father too was a collector, a lister, a scribbler of things in margins. Miniature glass hats, wine labels, a notebook with details of every recital and concerto he ever played.
I’m mostly grateful for these habits. Not only have I inherited them, but they also allow for occasional moments of heady nostalgia, afternoons spent knee-deep in old photographs and postcards. But right now, as we wade our way through the detritus of a life of accumulation, they feel like a monumental pain in the arse. The teapots are ranged before us on the kitchen table. There are also three dozen china toast racks, twenty-one pairs of glasses, nine keys, half a dozen unfinished Post-It pads with things like ‘call plumber’ scrawled on them, and a small colourful plastic bird that makes an irritating tweeting sound when it rocks, which it does often.
Our friend Annie, also latterly my mother’s friend, surveys the teapots. She’s devastated but efficient.
‘What are we doing with these?’ she says.
‘Dunno. Know any china toast rack collectors?’
‘Why would anyone have so many?’
‘Well, since you ask, it was an accidental collection.’
‘Both mum and dad thought the other one collected china toast racks. Neither of them did. After two or three birthdays it turned out they both did after all.’
Annie contemplates them in silence. This is her business, it’s what she does. She’s not just a house clearer – she’s brilliant at helping people decide what to get rid of. But I can tell she’s less than chuffed at the prospect of the toast racks.
‘Well I can try them at car boots, but don’t expect anything. What about the teapots?'
‘How many does one need? Get rid.’
‘Oxfam. I’ll just check inside them.’ I give her a look, but Annie doesn’t quail easily, which is one of the reasons she was friends with my mother. ‘People put things in teapots.’
Indeed they do.
There are two pieces of paper, folded together. On the first the handwriting is scrawly and unfamiliar.
With warmest thanks and congratulations on a wonderful performance.
With warmest thanks and congratulations on a wonderful performance.
The second, smaller, flimsier, has my mother’s handwriting on it.
Teapot given to M by R Vaughan Williams. KEEP!
I turn to Annie.
‘I think we might keep this one.’
And my head brims full with the sound of my father’s violin, silent these 25 years, the silver chain of sound soaring upwards, higher and higher and higher, into the boundless sky, just as RVW intended.
It starts, like so many things in my life, with a humiliating and idiotic mistake.
Chris is an affable chap, thin, with bright eyes and a ruddy complexion. Overtly outdoorsy in a way that I will never be. He moved down from the North East to the Isle of Wight some years ago. He’s doing some work on the walls. We’re holidaying.
Tea is being had.
The weather is glorious in the way only a spring day on the coast can be. Bright and sunny, plenty warm enough to spend the whole day outside in perfect comfort, but with a hint of freshness from the breeze coming in from the coast half a mile away. Being British, we’re making polite conversation. Being British, we start with the weather.
...it was cloudy. I have the photos to prove it.
The plan for the day: up early (the emptiness of the road will give you a clue exactly how early), a walk round my local patch to see how the nuthatch chicks and other new arrivals were doing, breakfast, school run, work on some Berlioz, catch up with emails, rehearsal in the evening.
Oh yes. Launch a crowdfunding campaign.
I had no idea…
In my last update I shared Unbound’s schedule for making a book, and reported that, in accordance with the basics of quantum theory, we were simultaneously at stages 3 and 4.
Things have progressed in the intervening three weeks (quicker than I thought, to be honest – in my weaker moments I had nightmare visions of my manuscript coming back with a pithy 'no good – rewrite' scrawled…
One of the delights of pledging for an Unbound book is the nice surprise you get when you receive said book in the post over a year later having completely forgotten about it.
I mention this (a) because my copy of Paul Bassett Davies’ Dead Writers in Rehab arrived yesterday, and (b) to continue the process of expectations-management vis à vis and in re this here book o’ mine.
For all that…
I learned a new word the other day. It's 'gökotta' (approximately pronounced, so I gather, 'djuh-koo-ta' – sit on the T for half a second). It's a Swedish word meaning 'the act of getting up early specifically to go outside and listen to birdsong', and I love it unconditionally.
Those Swedes. Take that, hygge.
Scandinavian languages seem to be chock full of single words for which English requires…
There’s a lot of discussion among writers nowadays about the best software to use to write a book. In fact it’s been calculated that if all the time writers spent thinking about writing software were spent actually writing, then the world would be literally knee-deep in books.
Or maybe that’s the stat I read about breeding success in great tits.
But no matter, the principle stands.
At about 9.15 this morning I did a little Snoopy dance.
I do them most days, obviously, but this one had an extra bounce to it. I’d just received an email from myeditorthelovelyScott. It contained words like ‘warm’, ‘funny’, ‘very good book’. It transpired that he wasn’t talking about some bestseller he’d just read, but the 70+ thousand book-shaped words I’d sent him a couple of weeks ago. So a…
People have been asking me questions. Here are some of them.
I saw a bird today and wondered if you could help me ident—
It was a jay.
I haven’t told you about it yet.
It was a jay.
It was about the size—
Of a crow, but it had pink bits and looked exotic.
It’s always a jay. People know pigeons, they know crows, they know gulls, tits and parakeets. They don’t know jays, even though…
Once again I have deserted you in your month of need, and now all I'm doing is popping up to say 'Hello!' and 'Happy New Year!' and 'Would you mind giving me a hand with this corkscrew?'
It's been quite a year, and now, with just over an hour of daylight left till the end of my 200-bird challenge, it's all suspense and drama here as I scour the Isle of Wight high and low looking…
I do apologise. I’ve abandoned you in the shed without so much as a word for weeks and weeks, and now the biscuits have run out and you’ve resorted to eating potting compost. As I say, I apologise.
Mitigating circumstance No. 1: I’m writing a book.
Mitigating circumstance No. 2: I’ve been watching birds.
Mitigating circumstance No. 3: Elgar’s Violin Concerto doesn’t conduct itself.
It's the old football manager cliche: 'The lads gave 110%'.
And so did you. Well, 103% so far. This is fantastic. As previously stated here, it means the book can happen. It will exist.
'So what about the extra 3%?' I hear you cry. 'And why are you still nadging on about funding? Get to that desk and write that book, slacker!'
You have a point.
But as well as biting the rook, as the Reverend…
Sorry I haven't been around the shed for a while. I blame Mahler.
It was Mahler, if you recall, who told his friend Bruno Walter not to bother looking at the dramatic and precipitous Höllengebirge because 'I have already composed it in my third symphony', this being a decent representation of the truth, because said symph contains some stirring stuff.
It wasn't Mahler's third symphony that occupied…
That’s two-thirds (never mind the spare .66666666etc%). Time for a big ‘huzzah’, but also a medium-sized ‘oo-err…’
Because, you see, the Marvin/Eeyore/Toby Ziegler side of me can only see the downside: we still have to find 33% (never mind the spare .333333333etc%).
It’s amazing to have got this far, really. Enormous gratitude is going out, right this very second, to everyone…
The bird feeders in our garden have turned into a battleground.
Our efforts to quell the onslaught of ring-necked parakeets have come to nought. We’d hoped they might be too heavy for the new spring-loaded feeders we bought to deter the squirrels.
No such luck.
One parakeet is a delight. Two are acceptable. Three are a gang. Four are reason to buy an air rifle.
Strangely, I don’t feel…
It’s been quite a month. When I pitched Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? to Unbound, I did so more in hope than expectation. Their enthusiasm for the project has been a brilliant surprise, and the support I’ve received from numerous pledgers in the short period since the book was launched doubly so. Just two weeks into the campaign we’ve reached 30%.
A THANK YOU the size…
These people are helping to fund Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear?.