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7 November 2017

The Lost Words makes the most familiar things shiny and interesting once more

Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris bring together enchanting and accessible poems and artwork.

By Frank Cottrell-Boyce

Last Christmas my parents ended up in separate hospitals. I spent the festive weeks driving a relentless triangle between them and home. I was fast becoming a car component.

Painfully early on New Year’s Day I was trudging over the footbridge that linked the deserted multi-storey to the high-dependency unit, when the dawn chorus kicked in. In some dark corner below me, blackbirds were rolling out their melodies. On the wires overhead, the fax-machine racket of the starlings began.

I could try to describe the feeling I got from that moment: connection, maybe, or context. But the only important word at the time was “better”. I felt better. Something I’d lost was being given back to me. Not just the sense of the nearness of the natural world, but a stream of memories of my primary school nature table, my pile of I-Spy books, morning walks with my parents when they were young and well.

The Lost Words is a breathtaking book that sets out to replicate that moment of giving back. It has its origins in Robert Macfarlane’s reaction to the news that the Oxford Junior Dictionary had dropped words such as “bluebell” and “buttercup” in favour of “broadband” and “bullet point”. As he put it, blackberry had given way to BlackBerry.

Another Macfarlane masterpiece, Landmarks, is a hoard of names for things you might not notice if you could not name. I honestly have no idea how I ever lived without smeuse – a path worn through undergrowth by the habitual passage of mammals. Caochan is the gallic name for a moorland stream that is hidden from view by vegetation.

If we can’t name things, we don’t notice them. Words help us see. So it’s appropriate that Jackie Morris has created something that you could spend all day looking at. It’s beautifully complex. Goldfinches flutter through all its pages because the collective term for goldfinches is a charm, and Macfarlane’s poems are mostly charms. This is the kind of complexity that can enthral a child as much as an adult. Each subject is introduced by a flock of letters thrown across the page, with the name hidden among them. You can puzzle it out before turning over to the acrostic poem, sequenced alphabetically from “Acorn” to “Wren”. I watch my youngest lean over each huge page as if he could dive into its landscape (which you can, because there’s an exhibition of the original paintings at Compton Verney in Warwickshire).

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At the proposal stage this book must have looked financially suicidal: expensive and niche. In fact it’s a huge success, not just commercially but emotionally. One woman has set up a crowdfunder page to help get a copy into every primary school in Scotland. People have posted videos of their children chanting the spells from treetops, and reported the magical effect of reading it to relatives with dementia.

The roots of the success of this apparently very old-fashioned work – essentially a picture book about the English countryside – lie in the Twitter feeds of its creators. Macfarlane has been tweeting lost words to a rapidly growing audience for a year and Morris has been sharing sketches and notes on her feed. If you’ve been following them then the book has the slightly magical feel of something very digital and momentary incarnating itself as something you can touch and smell and give as a gift.

For all the gold and glamour of Morris’s art, the view of nature offered is refreshingly accessible. Yes there are otters and hares – creatures you have to go looking for – but some of her most enchanting plates celebrate the mundane: starlings, magpies, things you might encounter on a hospital footbridge.

Macfarlane’s excavation of lost words from rural communities and ancient languages has a comic twin in The Meaning of Liff, John Lloyd and Douglas Adams’s inspired made-up lexicon of feelings and objects for which there should be words. One of its most useful coinages is “Glassel (n): A seaside pebble which was shiny and interesting when wet, and which is now a lump of rock.” The Lost Words has the reverse effect. It makes you look again at things that have become so familiar as to be invisible and to make them once more “shiny and interesting”. It is utterly deglasseling

Frank Cottrell-Boyce is a children’s author and screenwriter. His most recent book is “Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth” (Macmillan)

The Lost Words
Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris
Hamish Hamilton, 128pp, £20

This article appears in the 01 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over