This is the first in a series of posts by members of the Sam Read’s team reflecting on some of our favourite reads of 2016. The following is Gill Cowton’s review of John Lister-Kaye’s Gods of the Morning (Canongate)…
When John Lister-Kaye is just 11 years old, he shoots a tawny owl with an air rifle he has just been given for his birthday. His grandfather has shown him the owl sitting in an ancient yew tree, where generations of owls had been wont to roost, and the boy knows that having the owl in that old yew “was a joy to him; a symbol of continuity, of English country life going on as it had done for many centuries”. In trying to come to terms with the overpowering guilt that he feels when he sees what he has done in this “uninvited surge of pre-pubescent machismo”, he determines to know and understand as much about nature as he can. And he does – in the fullness of maturity he becomes a life long nature conservationist.
But Lister-Kaye is also a wordsmith, and Gods of the Morning is his hymn to the natural world. Living in the remote glen where he founded Aigas, the first field study centre in the Highlands, his book presents us with “A Bird’s Eye View of the Highland Year”, following the seasons chapter by chapter on their sometimes erratic cycle.
The deities of the title are of course the birds that make up such a huge part of our wildlife environment, and all species are recorded with equal fascination. A favourite place to observe a colony of rooks, which he loves for their “dissonant, rough-edged, pub-brawl rowdiness”, is from his bathroom window. There is a wry and affectionate account of their activities – “the soap-opera of their constant bickering, sabotaging and thieving”. But humour quickly turns to compassion when a pair of rooks become ostracised by the group and struggle to maintain their nest under the mob rule of the colony’s mafia. They, and a whooper swan abandoned by it’s migrating companions which Lister-Kaye feeds through the bitter winter months, manage to survive. Others are not so fortunate: the “feathered wraith” of a barn owl he comes across, also starved by the severity of the winter; the tragic, tiny black cap which crashes into his study window, flying “so fast, so purposefully, so fatally”. There is no sentimentality here. The awful indifference of nature is presented without human gloss or spin, nowhere more so than in the description of a pole cat’s nocturnal visit to the hen house:
“squeezing his liquid body through the gap like toothpaste from a tube…the hen house flips in an instant from sanctuary into bloody death chamber.”
Along with such intimate observations of the animal world, there are stories of human interference: the incredible account of Edgar Lear, the inveterate egg collector, who tries to fool the RSPB and the police. In his efforts to steal the eggs of a pair of protected whooper swans, Lear swims out into a remote Scottish loch, with wetsuit and snorkel, under cover of darkness, a specially constructed box in which to place the eggs strapped to his back. The story doesn’t end there – its conclusion is as good as any Agatha Christie mystery. Read it for yourself.
This being the Scottish Highlands, there are the inevitable tales of encounters with the elements. One dramatic account of human courage is recounted, when the staff of Aigas (abandoned by professional fire fighters for reasons of health and safety) battle a blazing heath fire brought on by a sudden heatwave, with just hand-held beaters and shovels. In turn, there is the story of the author’s own scrape with death out on the mountain, when fine March sunshine suddenly turns into “a scowling wall of snow on a scything wind”, and he’s forced to take shelter under a massive boulder. From this most unpromising situation comes an amazing encounter with a wild raven. Sitting on its nest just a few feet away from Lister-Kaye, the raven watches him suspiciously, “with eyes like black pearls”, until his motionless and snow covered form ceases to trouble her. She goes back to fulfilling “the tedious obligation of all chick-minding mothers”, leaving Lister-Kaye to become the watcher rather than the watched.
Only once in the book is there any sense of weariness with the natural world, when August is described as the month that “combines tiresome midges and flies, sultry nights and muggy days, tourist traffic clogging… single track roads, and the sudden rash of litter spilling out of bins in car parks”. I felt he could very well be talking about the Lake District at this point. It’s hard not to agree with him that August is a month that’s hard to love: “most wild flowers are over….the bully-boy weeds have shouldered in and taken over …and a great green stain has descended across the land”. The disenchantment feels very familiar, but it is the language in which it is couched and the way in which the writer encapsulates the cumulative irritations of high summer, that provide the wonderful satisfaction of a common experience crystallised in words.
Whatever time of year he is writing about, whether it’s treacherous spring, bitter winter or fleeting Highland summer, John Lister-Kaye’s wonderfully lyrical prose transports us to places we might never venture, and brings us face to face with creatures – merlins, buzzards, foxes, polecats – that we might never encounter. But the more common animals – the rooks, the field fares, the blackcaps and robins, the voles, the badgers, even the house mice – are given equal attention. His intimate knowledge of them and his joy in their existence give his work a vibrancy that, for me, was simply addictive. Each time I picked up this lovely book, I looked forward to being transported by words into the depths of a Highland glen, to being entertained with stories of creatures new and familiar, and to marvelling at the craft of a master writer.
– Gill Cowton
Read an extract of Gods of the Morning here