Some bird books, the ones you take with you across mountains, into bogs or through jungles, are small in size, compact and easy to stuff into backpack or pocket, offering ready reference in all locations and in all weathers. C. A. Gibson-Hill’s British Sea Birds is not of that kind. A large hardback, too cumbersome to take into the field, intended for the shelf in library or study, it is a work of education and of celebration. It was written by a man who loved birds for others who shared his passion, to enlighten and delight; and it merits the highest compliment one can pay to such a book – it makes one want to go out and see the birds for oneself, to get to know them as he did.
I found British Sea Birds in a second-hand bookshop in York and, enchanted by it, tried to find out something about the author, whose name was entirely unfamiliar to me. A little research uncovered something of the remarkable history of Carl Alexander Gibson-Hill. A doctor by training, a naturalist and ornithologist by passionate inclination, he spent most of his life in Singapore working as a zoologist and museum curator; but he was also an able historian, a gifted photographer and a tireless traveller and writer – a man who was, as Singapore’s Straits Times said in an appreciation published after his death, ‘outstanding in many fields’.
Gibson-Hill, who was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1911, qualified as a doctor in 1938, and immediately sought a medical post in some remote place where he could devote himself to natural history. He managed to find such a position on tiny Christmas Island in the eastern Indian Ocean, and arrived there in the summer of 1939, having travelled largely overland, via Afghanistan, India and Indochina, on foot or by bullock-cart. Barred from active service in the Second World War by his acute short-sightedness, Gibson-Hill remained in the East and was in Singapore with his wife Margaret (also a doctor) when the
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