SECOND OPINION: A Sweet, Wild Note by Richard Smyth

Review published on June 13, 2017.

The song of the birds on a spring day is, for me, one of the joys in life. I’m not very good at distinguishing the songs of different birds – I can just about identify a blackbird, robin and woodpigeon – but would like to improve. So I was immediately drawn to this book, subtitled ‘What we hear when the birds sing.’

The author is a journalist and bird watcher who admits he often finds ‘more babble than beauty’ in birdsong but who treasures it nonetheless. Birdsong is a tremulous, ephemeral thing, very hard to pin down and the writer takes different routes to try and do just this. In a chapter entitled ‘An infinity of possibilities’ he looks at how birdsong and poetry have so often entwined – I thought immediately of Keats’ nightingale and Shelley’s skylark – and how what the poet hears is influenced by mood and setting. In other chapters we learn about the way birdsong has been deconstructed in attempts to replicate it, how it has been incorporated into classical music and the history of birds caged for their song. In the final, poignant, chapter the author asks us to imagine a silent world, without the sparkling notes of birdsong and wonders whether that is a world we are headed for.

The book is beautifully presented, with a striking cover and illustrated chapter headings, and it was lovely to pick up and handle. It felt somewhat slight and elusive but that is also the nature of birdsong. There is history and science, literature and nature here and I would recommend it to anyone with a love of the natural world. As with a lot of non-fiction I’m not sure it’s really a book group read – though it would be worth taking along to a meeting just to show off the very pretty cover!

Rebecca Kershaw 4/2

A Sweet, Wild Note by Richard Smyth
Elliott & Thompson 9781783963140 hbk Apr 2017

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