Bee Quest – Dave Goulson

It seems I’m on a roll with nature writing at the moment – after Chris Packham’s memoir (with almost poetic reflections on the wildlife he encountered) I dived straight in to Dave Goulson’s third book on bees (and other creepy-crawlies) . I’m not sure why I haven’t read the other two (apart from the usual #somanybookstoolittletime) because I did spend quite a lot of time in the last ten years or so campaigning for Friends of the Earth in general (and bees in particular). After all that I thought I knew quite a lot about the subject but, compared to Goulson, I knew much less than I thought. What I particularly loved about this book is the way that I learned so much almost effortlessly!

bee questI learned a lot, particularly, about conservation which is a rather counter-intuitive field. I would never have considered, for example, that green-field sites often contain much less biodiversity than brown-field ones. Or that the few animals whose presence can delay developments (bats and great crested newts) are actually much less rare or endangered than many of our native invertebrates. It is, it seems, easier to gain sympathy for creatures with backbones than for those without (no matter how beautiful, scare or economically useful in terms of pest control or pollination). I’m certainly going to be much kinder to the bugs in my own garden (leaving some of it wild and unkempt is already second nature, or possibly laziness…)

Goulson is a man who is, self-admittedly, stuck in his 10 year-old ‘bug phase’ and who has used his love of invertebrates in general to carve out a career as a university biology lecturer. I would hope his students do very well as his way of imparting information seems to be both thorough and entertaining – he obviously not only knows his stuff but is hugely passionate about it. In particular he is very eloquent on the subject of conservation – not just for bees and other animals but also for our own benefit. His closing words are a hope that children, in the future, will still have the chance to get out into nature: to explore green spaces and muddy puddles, to get dirty and to meet our wildlife face to face. I’m of an age with Goulson and was lucky enough to have that kind of childhood (rarely indoors during daylight in decent weather, frequently filthy and with a wide range of pets which included a fish-tank full of woodlice). I can really heartily recommend it!



Fingers in the Sparkle Jar – Chris Packham

How remarkable. I have just had my view of someone changed by a segment on the One Show. This is not usual behaviour for me (or, probably, for the One Show) but watching Chris Packham on the programme earlier this week clarified impressions which I had gained from reading Fingers in the Sparkle Jar – a memoir of his childhood and his relationship with the natural world – so that the penny, which had been half-way down, finally dropped. I had always considered Packham to be an excellent naturalist and an enthusiastic advocate for the animal kingdom. I thought him outspoken on the subject but passionate in his beliefs – like most people I assumed this was mostly an honest manifestation of his character but partly a tv persona. But reading this unusual memoir I gradually began to feel that there was more to Packham than met the eye. And when, during his interview, he began to refer to autism and Asperger’s I realised that this was the aspect I’d been missing.

41WQQ7Ip9NL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This isn’t necessarily an easy memoir to read – the focus moves around through Packham’s childhood, the late 1960s to the rise of punk rock in the late 1970s, and drifts back and forth over that period; the language is unusually poetic, with some passages I had to read twice over to get the meaning; but it is certainly worth persisting with.  He is obviously an unhappy child, bullied at school, uncommunicative; he enjoys many of the normal hobbies of boys his age, airfix models, subbuteo and sneaky peeks at pornography, but the only thing that seems to give him peace is immersion in the natural world. His early experiments in the biological sciences are not always successful (it turns out a sunny window-sill is not the best place for a jam-jar full of tadpoles) but his fascination with animals and birds is all-consuming.

What made the complexity of his descriptions worthwhile to me was the reminder that these were the words Packham uses to explain how nature grounds him. He is a complicated human being (as so many of us are) but an interesting one (unlike some…). If you take the effort to hear what he has to say he can tell us a lot about what it is like not to fit in and how it can be possible to carve out a place in the world that works for you.


No Way But Gentlenesse – Richard Hines

There are certain books which, it seems, whole generations of young people have read as part of their secondary education. When it comes to English literature there really does seem to be a National Curriculum. Classics like Of Mice and Men, Animal Farm and To Kill a Mockingbird feature heavily on many teens reading lists (or at least they did before the latest round of changes in syllabuses – but let’s not go there…) and, from conversations I’ve had with customers about some of these books. they are popular. Not just because they are modest in terms of page count but also because they are great stories with plenty to say to both adults and children. I missed out on a lot of these books though – I was too young to read books like To Kill a Mockingbird when it first came out but it hadn’t quite got to ‘classic’ status by the time I was doing my ‘O’levels. I’ve read it since, obviously, but I wonder if I would have loved it as much as so many of the customers I speak to about it if I’d read it first in my teens. And, of course, another book which I could add to the list of exam favourites is Barry Hines’ Kestrel for a Knave. Which I also read as an adult rather than at school.

gentlenesseI was interested to read Richard Hines’ memoir, No Way But Gentlenesse, because it promised to give detail to the background to his brother, Barry’s, beloved novel.  And it does this in the early chapters in which Richard struggles a bit at school and spends his summers raising and training wild kestrels which he finds close to his home on the outskirts of Barnsley. But there is so much more to both this book and to Kestrel for a Knave than just a boy and his hawks.

Both books are very clear about the inequalities of the education system which existed in the 60s. Bright kids who passed their 11+ exams went to Grammar schools and had a future which involved ‘O’ levels, ‘A’ levels and possibly university. They could look forward to decent jobs and the respect of their communities – and these are the advantages which are still cited today by those who’d like to bring back the grammar school system. Sadly there was a flip-side to this idyll – the Secondary Modern. From Richard Hines’ experience these schools could be brutal and demeaning – I can’t see a reason why it wouldn’t be possible to get a sound (if basic) education from these establishments but the reality seems to be that teachers saw them as an excuse to get the working classes ready for a life of doing what they’re told by their social superiors…Hines is obviously a clever lad (like his brother who did get to Grammar school) but he is made to feel ignorant and insecure. Interestingly he does, eventually, become a teacher himself and was, hopefully, more understanding for his own experience.

There is a fair amount in this book about the training of kestrels – and an interesting acknowledgement by Hines and other local lads that these are definitely not pets but wild, free creatures which they work with for a season and then release. But there is much more about what this could lead to: Hines trained Kes which led to his brother writing his book. This, obviously, led to the making of the film Kes on which Hines worked as a falconer and helped to inspire him to teach and also to become a documentary film maker. And all this despite his education rather than because of it…

It is easy for us to assume that baby boomers, those born in the post-war years have had it easy. But Hines, born in 1945, proves that a really great life was available for those who did well at school, either through class, background, brains or, like Hines, sheer determination. If people in their late 50s, 60s or 70s these days have advantages we can only dream of it seems to me that they really earned them.




Rain – Melissa Harrison

Apparantly, in polite conversation, you are recommended to avoid mentioning politics and religion. Obviously if everyone did that Facebook would disappear overnight but, on the whole, with people I don’t know (and a few I do) I find this very good advice. However, there is one very popular subject of conversation which, unlike most people, I would personally love to hear less rather than more of – the weather. In fact, I sometimes wonder if I am really a British woman – I don’t like talking about the weather and I hate buying shoes…It is odd though, as I am as interested in what is happening in the way of rain/sun/snow outside as the next person, but I’m just really bad at talking about it. Or maybe I just don’t like inaccurate talk about it – if someone tells me it’s freezing and there is no actual ice I am always, at the very least, slightly miffed. Let’s just add it to the general oddity of Jane..That said I do enjoy most sorts of weather but I am probably one of the few people who avoids sunshine (for complicated reasons involving having to use Factor 50 suncream on some parts of my body…). I mean, how many people don’t like using umbrellas in the rain but will happily utilise one as a parasol?

rainHow then could I resist a book about the joys of walking in the rain? After all I do have a full set of waterproofs, walking boots and faith in the phrase ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes’. And Melissa Harrison’s timely little volume (given recent weather conditions) is a beauty – like rainy days it is, in places, lush, fresh and soothing. The language used is often poetic but there are also good, accurate descriptions of the natural world. I am interested in rewilding and this book showed me that it is about more than just planting trees – did you know that peat holds 30 times more carbon than trees? I was struck by the idea that those of us who only experience rain in urban surrounding miss the joy of the soft sounds of falling rain – like light pollution low-grade noise pollution is rife in towns and cities. I was also reminded, via the descriptions of the various walks covered in the book, of novels set in those parts of the world (for example when reading about the fens I was transported to Ariana Franklin’s Winter Seige and Dorothy L Sayers Nine Taylors – two of my favourite books, so a total win for me!).

This book is so wonderfully, wonderfully British. I mean where else in the world would have developed a British Rainfall Organisation? Or a leech-powered storm warning system? As for me, I’m off out for a stroll – there is a light drizzle falling, Spring is here and I need to get out there and enjoy it!