My preferred flavour of non-fiction is history, so I’d never heard of John Lister-Kaye prior to musing over a copy of his newly-published book, Gods of the Morning, as a potential birthday gift in Perth Waterstones, a little over a month ago.
The blurb spoke of tracing the effects of climate change and agricultural policies on the bird population of Lister-Kaye’s home, Aigas, where he has lived for several decades. It sparked my interest because I was in the middle of reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. Furthermore, Waterstones would be hosting Lister-Kaye for a talk and book signing at the end of April. It seemed too good to miss, even if I did have to google the man in question to have the faintest idea of who he was.
I’m glad that I followed my instincts, as Lister-Kaye’s talk, held last night, was delightfully informative on both natural history and the business of writing.
He began by briefly tracing the history of nature writing – he defined this as literary writing about nature, as opposed to biographical ‘furry creature’ books or scientific monographs – and particularly the dearth of nature writing in British non-fiction for much of the 19th and early 20th century, which he put down to the Judeo-Christian worldview of man having dominion over the earth. He then spoke briefly about Gavin Maxwell, with whom he worked, crediting him with reviving an interest in nature writing, and recommended J.A.Baker’s The Peregrine, before recalling that he was there to sell his own books.
Lister-Kaye also traced his own path to writing, from early yearnings and literary pursuits at University, to penning a few articles in the aftermath of the Torrey Canyon disaster which focussed on the impact on wildlife (at a time when environmental journalism did not exist), which brought him to the attention of Maxwell (he likened it to an amateur footballer being invited to stay with David Beckham), who asked what exactly was stopping him from writing, and would subsequently offer him a job.
More recently, under pressure to produce another book, and feeling that he had said all he could on nature, a chance encounter with an ill-fated Blackcap (detailed in the first chapter of the book) prompted him to write Gods of the Morning. He read the first chapter (which can be previewed on Amazon) to us, before giving examples of other changes, such as the decline in the number of nests in their Rookery, his tone conversational but betraying a deep knowledge of the subject at hand.
There was then a digression into the politics of publishing, as he discussed the hazards of dealing with a managing editor who, while enthusiastic about the book, was largely ignorant of natural history (apparently most people don’t think swans are birds – an observation which brought a roar of laughter from the audience).
A second reading, on the illness of a beloved pet dog, and the subsequent operation, ended the evening. Thankfully it had a happy ending, and displayed the authors lyrical touch, even in passages about defecation.
What stood out for me about Lister-Kaye’s observations on wildlife, and specifically the changes, over time, to bird populations, is that they are the kind which can only come about when one is able to stay in the same location over a long period of time. As someone who has moved 27 times (and lived in 4 different countries) over the course of 33 years, I simply don’t have that kind of connection to the places I’ve lived; it’s something I would need to actively learn to create.
This realisation also led me to ponder his earlier assertion over the effect of a Judeo-Christian worldview on British nature writing. He had, after all, referenced and praised American nature writing of precisely the same period when it was lacking in Britain, and their worldview was hardly any less Judeo-Christian. The period in question, of astonishingly fast industrialisation in the 19th century, and two World Wars in the early 20th century, was also a time of great displacement – perhaps the lack of nature writing is rather a reflection of the increasingly mobile and rootless population.
I have yet to finish Gods of the Morning – the precious signed copy is earmarked for the intended birthday recipient, while I will read mine via the Kindle app – but have enjoyed what I’ve read so far and will definitely add Lister-Kaye’s other books, and recommendations, to my ‘to read’ list. Should you get an opportunity to hear him speak, I highly recommend that you take it.