The ogre, the fairy, and the bird

The lighthouse, by Peter Scott (1946)

The Snow Goose
by Paul Gallico,
illustrations by Peter Scott.
Michael Joseph 1946 (1941)

This classic novella is so well known but I have to confess I’ve never got round to it until now. Yet it was worth the wait to enjoy this little offering of bittersweetness, a story with one foot in fable and the other in fact, to relish the natural world it celebrates and the poetic language it’s couched in.

Published eight decades ago in 1941, amidst the dark days of war and threatened invasion, The Snow Goose is set in a specified time and place but also retains a universal appeal, talking as it does about local suspicions and latent love, about conflicts and about kindness.

It also has the ring of authenticity in being inspired by real places and people and events, and while clearly highly fictionalised there is a kind of truth about it that becomes almost mythic.

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“Blossoms passing fair”

An illustrated introduction to Shakespeare’s flowers
by Dr Levi Fox,
Jarrold Colour Publications 1977

A slim 32-page booklet with colour photos on all but a handful of pages, this introduction is designed to emphasise that Shakespeare’s acquaintance of flowers “was not that of a botanist or horticulturalist but rather of a countryman gifted with an acute sense of observation”. He knew the colour of his plants, the seasons they appeared in, the folklore associated with them. In addition the poet ascribed uses to them (some made up, some genuine) and delighted in descriptions of them, in adjectives, simile or metaphor.

Here you’ll find quotes from Cymbeline and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost and the history plays, The Winter’s Tale and the poems; the late Dr Fox also includes an endpiece with mentions of Shakespeare’s herbs, from balm to savory, marjoram to wormwood and much in between. As with the flowers botanical names are included, relevant quotes, and interpretations or clarifications of a few more obscure names the poet uses.

Above all the author includes passages from Will’s works with brief commentary giving context, all supplemented by the opening essay. As an historian, archivist and then director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Fox was in a good position to give an authoritative summary of the Swan of Avon’s familiarity with blooms.

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“Rook, read from your book”

Bodleian crow
Crow, from an illuminated manuscript in the Bodleian Library

Mark Cocker Crow Country:
a Meditation on Birds, Landscape and Nature

Vintage 2016 (2007)

A long ellipse of shapes, ragged and playful, strung out across the valley for perhaps half a kilometre, rides the uplift from the north wind directly towards my location. The birds, rooks and jackdaws heading to their evening roost, don’t materialise gradually — a vague blur slowly taking shape — they tunnel into view as if suddenly breaking through a membrane. One moment they aren’t visible. Then they are, and I track their course to the great skirt of stubble flowing down below me …

A short paragraph from near the beginning of this ‘meditation’ includes much of what I loved about this book: the prose poetry in the language, the evocation of a moment in time and the willingness to share a worthy obsession. Mark Cocker describes himself as author, naturalist and environmental activist (in that order) but I liked the way he melded all those roles into a seamless whole in producing the eighteen chapters of this book. There’s some autobiography here, there’s also travel writing, science, historical perspective, literary allusions, potted biographies of contemporaries and predecessors who have laboured in this field. And yet he wears much of this learning and experience lightly, inviting the reader into the warm glow of campfire anecdotes mingling with facts and figures.

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