When we think about what makes us happy, we tend to linger on the major events, the births and graduation days, that special Christmas in the mid-1970s, spent with exactly the right person or persons rather than a rag-tag gaggle of neighbours or in-laws. Habitually, we think of happiness in terms of occasion, not habit; of days marked in the calendar weeks in advance, not the days of idleness that we consign afterwards to the dustbin of personal history.
On reflection, however, I would say that some of my happiest times have been spent doing nothing of any consequence. Walking in the woods. Sitting by the river. Standing out in the yard on a clear night, gazing at the stars. And, as old-fashioned as it might seem, one of the most rewarding of such ordinary pleasures has been rummaging in second-hand bookshops, looking for natural histories and field guides.
I am not a collector, nor am I an expert on such titles. I am not necessarily looking for rare or beautifully illustrated editions of classics. The finds I most appreciate are often quite common: Edmund Sandar’s A Beast Book for the Pocket, for example, a guide to “the Vertebrates of Britain, Wild and Domestic, other than Birds and Fishes”, first published in 1937. I would have acquired it for the title alone, but consult it frequently for any number of reasons. This is a reference book, of course, no-nonsense and factual – but there are others that, as practical or plain-spoken as they might try to be, frequently offer passing glimpses of a time or a place that is now long gone. And, on sleety, dark nights on our little hill, when everyone else is tuned into something electronic, I mine these treasures for whatever surprises they might afford.
The flamingos of Britain, for example. Had I not read it in Howard Saunders’s An Illustrated Manual of British Birds (published in 1899 by Gurney and Jackson, of 1 Paternoster Row, London), I would never have known that, usually after particularly grand storms, flamingos have been recorded as far north as Staffordshire. In September 1881, “an adult Flamingo was seen for a week or so on the estate of the late Sir John H Crewe” there, while others were observed, during the late 1800s, at New Romney and on the Isle of Sheppey.
A flamingo nerd for as long as I can remember, I found these snippets exciting . But reading on was a troubling experience as, sadly for the birds, all of the specimens recorded by Saunders ended up dead. The Staffordshire flamingo “having crossed the river Manifold to another property… was captured and taken to the owner of the land, by whom it was kept alive for a few days, and then killed”, while the Isle of Sheppey visitor was shot on 16 August 1873.
From an ecological point of view, these killings are irrelevant. The flamingo is not a native British bird and the loss of a few strays can have no environmental impact on the species as a whole. This is the common sense view, which writers like Saunders would probably have taken. Old-school naturalists tended to make their observations dispassionately, with an eye for the details rather than the emotional pay-off.
Still, I have to wonder what they thought of a man who’d shoot a flamingo just because it was on his land. I hope that, secretly at least, they were repelled – as any thinking person today might be – by the killing of any wild bird, native or not, for no good reason.
This article appears in the 27 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit broke politics