22 May 2011

Birdwatching: literature pairs

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.

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