I’ve mentioned before the beautiful books being published by Elliott & Thompson, and I have another one – gorgeous inside and out – for you today. If you’re a lover of the natural world (and I’d guess most of us are) this is one that you really need on your bookshelves. Subtitled What We Hear When the Birds Sing, A Sweet, Wild Note by Richard Smyth was published yesterday (13th April) and is available in both hardcover and kindle editions.
Birdsong is woven into our culture, our emotions, our landscape; it is the soundtrack to our world. We have tried to capture this fleeting, ephemeral beauty, and the feelings it inspires, for millennia.
In this fascinating account, Richard Smyth asks what it is about birdsong that we so love. Exploring the myriad ways in which it has influenced literature, music, science and our very ideas of what it means to be British, Smyth’s nuanced investigation shows that what we hear says as much about us, our dreams and desires, as it does about the birds and their songs.
At a time when our birdsong is growing quieter, with fewer voices, more thinly spread, A Sweet, Wild Note is a celebration of the complex relationships between birds, people and the land; it is also a passionate call to arms lest our trees and hedgerows fall silent.
I must add a couple of quotes that really summed up this book for me:
” Will make you listen differently … consider this book a bit like the ‘tasting notes’ on a fine wine” — Richard Littledale, The Preacher’s Blog
“This is a delightful book that does exactly what it says on the cover: it plays a sweet wild note. If you are already tuned in to bird song you will learn a lot more and if you aren’t you will want to be. Reading it honestly seems to have improved my (ornithological) listening and hearing as well as cheering my heart” —Sara Maitland, author of Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales
When I decided to spotlight this book, my original intention was to just pull some bits and pieces out of the press release. But I had a copy – and the book, I have to say, is a real thing of beauty – so I decided to flick through it. A couple of hours later, I closed the last page. Richard Smyth’s lovely writing style – a bit like that bloke you enjoy chatting to down the pub, but the one with a real passion and depth of knowledge about his subject – really drew me in, and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment. I found out about different birdsongs – the blackcap “drunken, loud, littered with chitters and generally all over the shop”, the turtle dove “a soft woolly power drill”, and did you know the robin’s song changes with the seasons (or does it…)?
One lovely sentence, early in the book, really resonated with me:
A bright birdsong on a lonely street can lift our mood, or leaven our loneliness.
I instantly shot back in time, to a personal memory – the unmitigated misery of a childhood caravan holiday (maybe aged nine or ten) with grandparents and extended family, escaping (with a book, of course) into a nearby field, and hearing for the very first time the song of a skylark. I can taste, smell and feel the moment – the sheer unadulterated joy of it.
This book ranges far and wide – across birdsong in literature, why birds sing (because they’re happy to be birds?), the science of birdsong, the story of Graham who identifies birds by songs and calls, a trip to the British Library at Thorp Arch, the fact that chaffinches learn dialect from their fathers, birdsong and music, bird keeping and a caged bird’s interaction with the wild, the impact of human noise on birds’ behaviour. It was just totally fascinating… and I was so caught up by it that the final part on hearing the silence almost made me cry. Did you know film makers sometimes suppress birdsong for increased dramatic effect? The Road – and the silence surrounding Hardy’s Tess?
Wonderful stuff…I’d recommend this gorgeous book to just about anyone.
My thanks to Alison Menzies and Elliott & Thompson for forwarding a hard copy – not for me to review, but it was an absolute pleasure to do so.
About the author
Richard Smyth is a writer, researcher and editor based in Bradford. He is a regular contributor to Bird Watching magazine, and reached the final of Mastermind with a specialist subject of British birds. He writes and reviews for The Times, Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, Literary Review, New Statesman, BBC Wildlife, New Humanist, Illustration and New Scientist. He also writes novels and short fiction, and has written several books on English history.