On my bookshelves I have numerous field guides and photographic books on bird identification. Despite this, I had doubts about the concept of birdwatching as a central theme to a good story. I felt that any attempt would reek of nerdy ornithological elitism, never resulting in an engrossing story in its own right.
Two unusual books have proven me wrong. Perhaps all the more for discovering them by accident - one in an op shop and the other in a book clearance store.
Watch the birdie is essentially the memoirs of the British police photographer and birdwatcher Alan Parker. The book didn't resound with me as good literature, but as I persisted through the pages I found it had an appeal. Alan recounts his adventures, especially those across Iran, taking risk after risk for the sake of the rare sight of a particular bird - and surviving to tell the story. It was his larrikinism that drew me in. Eventually. His stories roll across the crammed pages chronologically with little distinction in treatment between unimportant and critical facts. Nevertheless for the persistent (or those with a passion for photography or ornithology), there is satisfaction. Alan comes to life as a reminder of what young men used to do; of the risks young men could take in a world that is now quite changed. I imagine he would be an entertaining reconteur and I am left wishing I could sit down with him and hear more.
The other unusual gem I found is A guide to the birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson. Contrary to the implications of its title, this book is not a field guide but a quirky story of love and integrity among a community of Indians living in Nairobi. This book has achieved what I thought not possible - a good story that encompasses birdwatching. Its not nerdy. Its not just for those who know their egrets from their godwits. Its a delightful story, with a birdwatching challenge winding through its chapters, a scaffold for the incredible misfortunes of its central character Mr Malik, in his quest to gain the attention of Rose, the local birdwatching group leader. It is delightful.
The gun rubs its rigid barrel against my bare belly in a cold embrace. The park bench presses into my back and buttocks, biting at my nervous flesh.
I expected a furtive cloak of darkness, but great globes of light, suspended like full moons, are strung along the park path. Their brilliance pins me to the spot like a museum exhibit. I sit exposed and sweating on a cavernous stage. There are secret eyes in the shadows of the trees, I know. I can feel their waiting, focussed, patient presence. I imagine them, this secret audience, smoking to pass the time but ready in an instant to lean closer, hungrily, still in their shadowy anonymity, expectantly awaiting my soliloquy.
Under my shirt my finger plays gently with the trigger, biding my time, delaying the final act. Will they clap in a glove-muffled silence, those bright eyes in dark faces? Will they turn and murmur each to the other, a tide of sound blending with the cicadas’ drone? Will the lights mysteriously extinguish when the show is over? Will my performance be a success? Or defeat? And who is witness enough to judge?
In the end it is only the flying foxes, disturbed by the sharp finale, that wheel and screech at curtain call.
We are gliding over a glassy sea. The only sound is from the oars as they rise and dip beneath the surface. That and my thumping heart as I gaze into the inky depths below. I see the black weed waving and imagine it clutching at my limbs, just as it does to the underside of the canoe. My father is not afraid. He carries me safely above the murky depths - its real and imagined dangers.
For me, this is the symbol of my father. His influence carries me safely above the baseness of the world. He has modelled tolerance, despite having his firmly held beliefs and attitudes. I have never heard him speak ill of anyone depite their difference. He argues with facts, without resorting to abuse. Unthreatened by any argument. Confident, sure and fair-minded.
His lesson of tolerance still resonates within me and carries me through my days.
He makes light of illness, death, misfortune - especially his own. If it can't be controlled then its better to laugh than to worry. I may occasionally cringe at his predictable jokes, but I value the ethos that underlies them - of riding, not fighting, the unrelenting waves of life.
I love it that one book can conjure up another completely different one, by its theme, subject or ambiance.
Peter Hill's Stargazing: memoirs of a young lighthouse keeper slowly pulled me into the rhythms of a lifestyle that only recently became obsolete. The routine life of the men maintaining the lighthouses off the noth west of Scotland was by no means mundane but full of risk. But more than that, the book is about being human, the tales we pass on to each other about our fundamental struggles in the face of the monumental force of nature. The wind roars on the other side of the stone tower. In a tiny space you share an aromatic meal and ponder the gossip of old men who in half a lifetime have experienced more than you know you ever will.
In contrast to this true story, Jeanette Winterson's Lighthousekeeping is pure poetry and fable. Her characters' stories are woven amid the same storm-tossed world of lighthouses but her words leap in exquisite beauty from one unexpected idea to another. There is a mystery at its heart. But the taste you are left with is that of the young Silver questioning the timeless Pew in the darkened lighthouse, while the wind and sea rages around them.
And I cannot help but make another leap here to Annie Proulx's The shipping news. The same wild force of the sea and wind. But a house, not a lighthouse, tied to the rock it crouches upon. A way of writing that couples words and images in extraordinary and exciting ways. And another character looking for their self in the stories told and histories that were shaped by the force of nature.