Thanks to the generosity of Karen Lloyd I was posted a copy of Mark Cocker’s latest book to review. This was a double privilege, firstly because I am a fan of Mark’s work and secondly because the book doesn’t actually come out until June.
When I learned Mark Cocker was going to write about Swifts in his new work I was intrigued. Works like Crow Country are partly staple texts because they distil a lot of knowledge of well studied species, whereas so much is still to be discovered about Swifts.
This is probably a good point at which to say that this book is about Swifts but it’s also not about Swifts. In the prologue Mark explains that the book has been in the offing for fifteen years, and was originally going to be about Blackbirds. The underlying concept that remains in the final work is the interconnectedness of the bird under discussion, the wider biosphere and ultimately us and our impacts on those interrelationships.
This is underpinned by a structure based on a notional day of watching Common Swifts from Mark’s garden. This device is effective because Mark has put the time in with his screaming summer visitors and it shines through in his knowledge of their behaviour, augmented by extensive research including personal discussion with a number of authorities on these birds.
So far so typically Mark Cocker I guess. But there’s more to it than that. As Mark says in the prologue this is his most ambitious book. The whole history of the planet is covered, and there’s quite a lot of more scientific content than in, say, Birders: Tales of a Tribe. For me the acid test of this is whether it remains readable, and I am pleased to be able so say it does.
The final pages of the book take a fast paced trip through the threats facing swifts and the wider ecosystem. The damage done by our actions is writ large, sharks kill four people a year whereas people kill 100 million sharks etc. I wouldn’t want to give any plot spoilers here, but I think the conclusion is an appropriate balance of realism and hope.
One of the hallmarks of good nature writing for me is that it makes you take a fresh look at things you thought you already knew about. One Midsummer’s Day has this in spades, whilst probably also telling most readers lots of things they didn’t already know about. It’s a tremendous achievement, and whilst it hasn’t taken a decade and a half to write it’s easy to see why the gestation was protracted. But I also liked some of the small details, such as Mark affording the Swifts in his nestboxes privacy in a world where even nature proponents are increasingly intrusive in their approach.
Ultimately I guess most people reading this will be birders so is it a good read for that section of the potential market? I think it is, this is someone savvy enough to find a vagrant needletail in Britain and very knowledgeable about ornithology. But above all it’s an author who conveys the everyday behaviour of everyday birds in an exceptional way, and the enigmatic Swift is a worthy subject for his latest and in many ways best work.
One Midsummer’s Day is published on 1st June in hardback and ebook by Penguin Books
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