Article published on October 31, 2016.
Simon Barnes has carved out at least two very successful careers that we know of – as a sports journalist for The Times and the author of journalism and books about British wildlife and birds in particular. Not surprisingly, Paul Cheney was keen to put his questions to Simon. (See also Paul’s review.)
Thank you for taking some time to answer a few questions about The Meaning of Birds for the readers at Nudge. This is the first of your books that I have read, and I really enjoyed it. I have since bought A Bad Bird Watcher’s Companion which I am looking forward to reading.
- Was there much research involved in writing the book, or is it a culmination of years of writing about birds?
Both. I was familiar with the broad outline of it all – science, history, etc – but the details required a fair amount of checking. I always love it when you realise that your subject is even more interesting than you thought. The shape of the book – the way that birds are the interface between human and non-human life – was there right from the start.
- How often do you borrow sporting analogies for your nature writing and vice-versa?
You take analogies from worlds you are familiar with, so naturally there is a fair amount of cross-fertilisation. Sporting references sneak into wildlife writing without any sort of conscious plan, but I quite often bring wildlife into sport as a more deliberate policy: to show that sport can touch us on a very deep, pre-human level. So I write about dominance hierarchies in tennis, or playful – sporting — behaviour in lions to try and explain sport.
- What would you most like to see with regards to conservation in the UK in the next five years?
The most immediate challenge is to do with Brexit and the consequent loss of the EU system of payments for sympathetic land management. Here is an obvious area of economy: stop spending on our great-grandchildren’s future and try and win an election next year.
Serious political opposition – and this is a political issue – to the illegal slaughter of birds of prey would address a long-standing injustice. Whose countryside is it anyway? Is it for you and me, or is it for a few very rich people who don’t think the law applies to them?
- Did you discover anything that you never knew about birds or the people who have studied them?
There were many, that’s the joy of working on a book on such a fabulous subject. Perhaps the most vivid thing was the realisation that many birds are tetrachromatic: they see the world in four colours, while we see it in just three. For these birds the world is a radically different place.
- I think that the line drawings make this book; is the book they were from one from your collection?
They come from books in the collection of John Burton, founder of the World Land Trust, to who the book is dedicated. He and I have made a series of good travels in the cause of conservation; this year we went to Armenia and visited a fabulous stretch of mountain that we are bringing into conservation with the local organisation, the Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets.
- Can you tell us anything about the next book you are writing?
Current book is to be called Epic and will look back on my years travelling the world for sport. I see this as an autobiography from which the author has been surgically removed. It will be more like an autobiography of sport.
And I am collecting notes for a book about the few acres of marshland in front of our house in Norfolk, I hope for a book to be called Wildness and Wet.
- Is there still a particular bird that you get a thrill from seeing?
Parakeets in London just yesterday… singing robins during a downpour this morning… the sound of mute swans — the world’s second heaviest flying bird – flying over the house… common birds, rare birds, all bloody wonderful…as Orhan Pamuk wrote: “What makes the marvellous is its peculiar way of being ordinary; what makes the ordinary is its peculiar way of being marvellous.”
- Do you have a particular place to write, or can you write anywhere?
As a journo I have written in many strange places, especially football stadiums while the match is still going on. But mostly I work from home in Norfolk and have a hut overlooking a stretch of marsh – see above. This morning I saw a stoat searching for a meal… so much action, there’s no excuse for ever doing a stroke of work here.
- Which natural history author(s) do you turn to for inspiration?
The evolutionary writings of Stephen Jay Gould were a series of revelations for me in the 80s. Cynthia Moss and George Schaller on animal behaviour were also game-changers.
- What book are you currently reading?
I’m reading Call of Nature: The Secret History of Dung by Richard Jones, original, audacious and fascinating. It’s an advance copy; the book’s out next February.
The Meaning of Birds by Simon Barnes
Head of Zeus 978-1784970703 pbk Sept. 2016
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