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Richard Smyth on R. S. R. Fitter, British Book of Birds, Slightly Foxed Issue 82

The Making of a Bird Nest

It’s an enticing mystery, this question of how one of the great ornithological brains trusts, a convention of the finest minds in twentieth-century bird science, created the most popular bird book of its age, and perhaps of all time.

Not just the best bird book – that would be no mystery at all, given the calibre of the naturalists involved: the editorial board included Ian Newton, author of four books in the Collins New Naturalist series and the man behind the longest running raptor study in British history; Phyllis Barclay-Smith, head of the International Council of Bird Preservation (and niece of the RSPB founder Etta Lemon); Dr John Carthy, the first scientific director of the Field Studies Council; Kenneth Williamson, director of the Fair Isle Bird Observatory – the list goes on, for another fourteen names, another fourteen ornithological heavyweights. (My typing fingers resist the term ‘boffins’, but if ever there were boffins these were they: collectively, the epitome of a certain type of interwar natural scientist, conjuring, from this distance, the side-parting and the tank top, the military-issue binoculars and the pencilled notebook, the pipe and the anorak, the abstruse monograph and the stilted wireless slot.)

No, the thing about British Birds (1969) is not its quality but its extraordinary popularity. It was on my grandad’s bookshelf. It was on all the grandads’ bookshelves.

The book itself is largely brown; the brown spine simply reads Book of British Birds and from the cover stares out a brown tawny owl. On the back, a single feather (brown) is picked out in colour against pencil-sketched undergrowth. Of course there were reissues and translations later on, but this first edition is the definitive edition. It was the product of a golden era in natural history study; it was also, more problematically, a product of the Age of the Automobile.

In the same way that the tyre manu

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It’s an enticing mystery, this question of how one of the great ornithological brains trusts, a convention of the finest minds in twentieth-century bird science, created the most popular bird book of its age, and perhaps of all time.

Not just the best bird book – that would be no mystery at all, given the calibre of the naturalists involved: the editorial board included Ian Newton, author of four books in the Collins New Naturalist series and the man behind the longest running raptor study in British history; Phyllis Barclay-Smith, head of the International Council of Bird Preservation (and niece of the RSPB founder Etta Lemon); Dr John Carthy, the first scientific director of the Field Studies Council; Kenneth Williamson, director of the Fair Isle Bird Observatory – the list goes on, for another fourteen names, another fourteen ornithological heavyweights. (My typing fingers resist the term ‘boffins’, but if ever there were boffins these were they: collectively, the epitome of a certain type of interwar natural scientist, conjuring, from this distance, the side-parting and the tank top, the military-issue binoculars and the pencilled notebook, the pipe and the anorak, the abstruse monograph and the stilted wireless slot.) No, the thing about British Birds (1969) is not its quality but its extraordinary popularity. It was on my grandad’s bookshelf. It was on all the grandads’ bookshelves. The book itself is largely brown; the brown spine simply reads Book of British Birds and from the cover stares out a brown tawny owl. On the back, a single feather (brown) is picked out in colour against pencil-sketched undergrowth. Of course there were reissues and translations later on, but this first edition is the definitive edition. It was the product of a golden era in natural history study; it was also, more problematically, a product of the Age of the Automobile. In the same way that the tyre manufacturer Michelin built a vast and prestigious sideline out of its restaurant guides – profitably turning focus away from how motorists get from A to B to what they do at B when they get there – the Automobile Association co-produced a run of hefty countryside books (Wildlife in Britain (1976), The AA Book of Britain’s Countryside (1973), and so on) designed to draw the leisured Brit out of his home and on to the roads. It still does this, in fact – the AA’s publishing wing is a fascinating artefact of the opening up of the British countryside by the advent of cars (echoing the boom in seaside nature study made possible by the expansion of the railways a century or so earlier). So British Birds was a venture undertaken with a view to seizing the reader by the lapels and saying, look at this! Or, more precisely, go and look at this! It wasn’t a book for people who already knew about birds, and neither was it a field guide for the clueless to consult when out and about. Perhaps we might think of it as a brochure. It existed in part, of course, to put across information, but just as important, perhaps more important, was the necessity of bringing the subject matter to life. Draw them in, get them hooked – then tell them about Patterns of Bird Migration, about The Many Shapes of Bills, about How Birds Keep Their Feathers in Peak Condition. In this, it succeeded. It hooked me, 7-, 8-, 9-year-old me, eating sandwiches and drinking squash on my Granny and Grandad’s living-room carpet, poring over Hawfinch and Merlin, Sandwich Tern and Storm Petrel, wondering if I might ever see such things, might ever visit the glories of Snettisham or Grassholme or Perry Oaks Sewage Farm (it wouldn’t be an AA book if there wasn’t a Where to See Birds appendix in the back). My grandad was a birdwatcher, but by the time I was around he wasn’t able to get out much. Still, he’d tell me now and again about various odd birds he’d seen in various odd places – a Firecrest in Grange-over-Sands, a Marsh Harrier at Martin Mere – but it was quite a thin diet for a growing birder, so I supplemented these scraps with what I could find on his bookshelf – and it was there, in among books by Ellis Peters and Georgette Heyer, The Cruel Sea and the Poldarks, that I found British Birds. That owl! It hooked me just as it hooked thousands of others. I was a bird nerd. I’d drift away later on, drift back later still, but nevertheless I was marked for life. Three men, I think, deserve the bulk of the credit for the book’s popular appeal, its catchiness, its pull. I’ll start with the least obvious. Jeffery Boswall served for thirty years as a producer in the BBC’s legendary Natural History Unit. He was no slouch as an academic naturalist – he wrote more than a hundred scientific papers – but in wildlife television he was a transformative influence. His series Look made the naturalist Sir Peter Scott a household name; in 1966 he produced Ron Eastman’s The Private Life of the Kingfisher, the BBC’s first colour wildlife film. It’s hard to know who did what on British Birds – Boswall was on the editorial board, that’s all the book tells us – but it’s also hard to believe that Boswall’s eye, as much as his expertise, didn’t help to shape it. It’s a book that exhibits a masterly handling of ‘show’ and ‘tell’, in balance, in harmony. That’s a filmmaker’s skill. Indeed, in a chapter on ‘taking ciné films’ of birds, the book advises: ‘Let the pictures speak for themselves.’ A more overt influence, at least for students of the evolution of the birdwatchers’ field-guide, came from the consultant editor, R. S. R. Fitter, one of those ornithology writers who isn’t a well-known name but who seems to be everywhere once you take an interest in the field; Mark Cocker has called him ‘one of the great perennials of British wildlife’. Fitter, in his 1952 Collins Guide to Bird Watching, subtly reinvented the field-guide. Out went taxonomic order, positioning the birds in the book by order, family, genus and so on, as had usually been done before; in came an intuitive approach, with the birds grouped instead by habitat, colour and size – grouped, that is, in a useful way. At a stroke, Fitter had democratized the bird book. British Birds follows the same pattern. An introductory ID section shows us thumbnail birds by colour and type (‘Land-birds, greybrown or brown’, ‘Water-birds, brightly coloured’ and so on) and by their shape in flight. Then, for the feature attraction, the fully illustrated profiles of 217 birds, habitat takes precedence. Fitter’s approach really pays dividends here, because these groupings are not only useful, they are magical – they transport you, to the Broad-leaved Woodland, where you are among Woodcock, Sparrowhawk, Turtledove, Wryneck, to the Sea-cliffs and Rocky Islands, to Farmland, to Heathland, to – and this was always the section to which I turned first – Mountain and Moorland (Golden Eagle! Ptarmigan! Short-eared Owl! Dotterel!). These collections of birds, like a good museum diorama, give you a sense of habitats as habitats, of place as a living component, of birds as interconnected things, and not just names on taxonomic charts, skins in drawers, Latin in books. It wouldn’t have had the same effect, of course, without the right illustrator. This is where Raymond Ching came in. Ching was a New Zealand watercolourist who moved to Britain in the 1960s, where his vividly detailed drybrush art caught the eye of Peter Scott, among others. At this point, the British Birds project was more or less at a standstill; Reader’s Digest, who were to publish the book in partnership with the AA, had supposedly assessed pretty much every bird artist in the country, and found them all wanting – none had the flair, the zing, considered necessary for this great popularizing project. With the undertaking at risk of petering out before it had even begun, Ching was called in. Could he, the publisher asked, take on the 230 full-colour portraits required? Ching said he could – and what was more, he said he could do it within the year. The effort left him skint and exhausted – but look what he did. That tawny owl is his, and that’s just the start. Not for Ching the traditional eyes-right pose, each bird in immaculate profile, looking constipated, if not in fact stuffed; these birds are alive. What’s especially striking is that they look alive, fiercely, wildly alive, even when they’re doing nothing (because of course, birds often do do nothing). His Long-eared Owl is asleep; his Mallard has its head tucked under its wing. There’s some action elsewhere – the Hooded Crow picks at a dead mouse, the Spoonbill preens, the Nightingale is singing, the Red Kite fixes the reader with a murderous stare – but either way the impression is of actual blood-and-bone birds living real lives in real places. An introductory note emphasizes the ‘quality of wildness’ in Ching’s portraits: ‘The wildness of birds is revitalizing in a world where nature has so often been tamed and straitjacketed for the purposes of man.’ The editors clearly knew what they had here. There’s another thing, though, that I love about British Birds – and if I’m honest it has less to do with ‘the quality of wildness’ and rather more to do with something like straitjacketing. British Birds is a masterpiece of the art of editing. The vivacity of Ching’s birds is hemmed all around by nature codified, ordered, explained. I came to birds through books first as a kid. Only later did I learn that there is far more to birds than could ever be squeezed into any book. And yet I cherish the attempt – the eternal human quest to take nature, this clattering, changeable, jerry-built evolutionary bodge, this sprawling, terrible, magnificent, beautiful thing, and try to make it fit between the covers of a book. There is in British Birds whole lifetimes’ worth of knowledge and wisdom, but all of it would be more or less useless without the deft craft of the edit, the infographic, the subhead, caption, chart, box-out, factlet, map. It sounds dry – it is dry, beside the displaying Ruff, the glowering Raven – but it’s magnificent too: magnificently human. For me, one of the wonderful things about British Birds is that it didn’t just help me to fall in love with nature; it helped me to fall in love with making sense of nature. I don’t know if I ever will – I don’t know if we ever can – but I know we’ll make marvellous things while we’re trying.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 82 © Richard Smyth 2024


About the contributor

Richard Smyth is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in the New Statesman, the Guardian, Prospect, the TLS and the New Scientist. His books include the novel The Woodcock and, most recently, the nature memoir The Jay, the Beech and the Limpetshell. He lives in Bradford.

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