Flying Backwards: Lev Parikian’s Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear?

Why Do Birds final cover

A review and author interview as part of the blog tour for Lev Parikian’s Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? published 17 May 2018.

There’s something about men, at least some men, that likes a list: this reflects a compulsive, urgent need to quantify things and keep score of life and experience. In fiction, Rob Fleming, the central character of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity is an archetype of sorts, with his obsessive, possessive Top Ten lists of songs, albums and ex-girlfriends.

In the real world, Birdwatching, or Twitching, for the seriously committed, is one of those pursuits that almost demands a list, as Lev Parikian admits early on in his book:

“Birders love a list. Day lists, week lists, month lists, year lists, life lists, garden-lists, county lists, walk-to-work lists, seen-from-the-train lists, glimpsed-out-of-the-bathroom-window-while-doing-a-poo lists.”

This list of lists flags the inherent danger involved in recounting the story of one man’s attempt to see 200 different birds over the course of twelve months. Before he even begins, the author assigns loose categories to his hoped for sightings: “Already Seen, Will Probably See, Might See and No Chance.”

There is a risk of course that such a book could end up being little more than an inventory of sightings, as one bird after another is collected, ticked-off and mentally possessed. In the wrong hands this could end up just a neat framing device – more journalistic exercise than act of love. Thankfully, it becomes very quickly apparent that Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? is no mere checklist.

There are, inevitably, lists featured in the book, which are updated at the end of each chapter and correspond with a month during the author’s year-long quest in 2016.
These lists detail birds seen during each calendar month and where they were observed. This on-going tally lends a pleasing momentum to proceedings, especially towards the end, as Autumn and Winter set in. Reading the last couple of chapters, I found myself willing Lev on in his efforts to see the few remaining, elusive birds required to meet his target.

The lists, though, never get in the way of the main narrative, which bounds along looking forward and back, flecked throughout with great charm, wit, and wisdom, as we follow Lev’s efforts to right a distant childhood wrong.

As a boy Lev loved birds; he liked to see them, wonder at them and identify them. Regretfully, this innocent delight was undermined by “a rich history of lying” and involved the curation of a list of birds he claimed to have seen, of which a good 30% were ‘fictional’. The young Lev couldn’t keep up the pretence and one day, in a tear and snot ridden confession, revealed the truth to his parents.

The boy grew up and music became far more of a focus in his life, and gradually, the birds, or the birding at least, faded with childhood (although, as can be gleaned from the book, cricket and literature and girls all played their part in this too). The music took over and Lev Parikian became a professional conductor. Yet, in the background, the birds were still there and when he turned fifty, Lev was struck by a desire to rediscover them.

Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? recounts a year spent making up for that boyhood lie, as the author sets out to see 200 British birds, but this time for real.

Above all else, what I most enjoyed about reading the book was the sheer joy and genuine pleasure Parikian takes in the act of simply being out there, seeing these birds, whatever and wherever they are. There is of course an aim to the exercise, a numerical target to be hit, but that’s never really the point. In a Nan Shepherd sense, the lived experience and the moment are always more important than the desire for the peak of the mountain.

Crucially this joy is (on the whole) something to be shared. There’s a wonderful instance where the author and his teenage son Oliver are in the Glenmore Forest in Scotland, hoping to catch sight of something interesting. At one point Oliver freezes, having seen fleetingly what they realize is a Goshawk and Parikian’s recollection of this electrifying moment, makes clear that its all the more special for having been experienced by the pair of them.

But of course, the author is only human, so there is a counter to this sense of joyful familial experience; when on another occasion Oliver sees a Barn Owl, which his father doesn’t,  he is forced into an awkward display of  pleasure for his son, whilst inside actually feeling a touch jealous and rather grudging.

Refreshingly for this field, there seems to be no hierarchy of sightings. There is no sense of the obsessive twitcher, chasing down rarities and bragging about it. Whether noting Blue tits, Robins, Blackbirds, Sparrows and other ‘usuals’ in his own patch of West Norwood, Streatham and Dulwich, or travelling further afield to woods and wetlands and islands elsewhere in Britain to see Spotted Redshank, Whimbrels, Dartford Warblers and more, the author simply enjoys what he is doing.

An early example of this is Lev’s first encounter with a Goldcrest, a bird he’d seen in books, and desperately wanted to see in the real world, but the tiny creature constantly eluded him, until:

“one bright spring day in 1977, there it was. My goldcrest. Not, as I’d been led to expect, flitting around in the upper tiers of a conifer, but perched on an apple tree, head cocked and staring directly at me with an appealing look. Its crown was alive with the yellowy-orange stripe that gives it its name, and its tiny body quivered with energy…The bond between us was a momentary thread of eye contact, but no less strong for that. To me, at any rate. History doesn’t record the goldcrest’s feelings…”

A Goldcrest also happens to be the book’s cover star, fading out of view on the jacket, which itself – in a special feature of the Unbound subscriber’s edition of the book – conceals a lovely design touch. Lift the jacket and underneath, on the hard boards of the cover, front and back, you’ll find a set of tiny footprints, debossed on the surface.

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I have this mortal fear of boring people with my writing

Although the book’s central focus is on birding, the narrative is interlaced with memories and observations, digressions on literature and cricket, collecting and the pursuit of hobbies and obsessions. There’s a nice line in comparisons between these different worlds, at one point, overlooking The Scrape at Minsmere, the author can’t help himself from smiling as he shares a moment’s empathy with a fellow birder, whom he overhears talking about a Gadwall:

“’Gadwall there. Underrated bird.’ There’s a reverence in his voice. He could be talking about a cricketer or author, a Rikki Clarke or J.L. Carr, but I know what he means. He’s a connoisseur…”

Or later on, when he fears he won’t complete his list, there’s a nice examination of the disappointment of missing a double century, rather than rejoicing in a high score, using the experience of Indian batsman K L Rahul, who England much to his dismay, once got out for 199 as a comparison.

As such, Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? can’t be neatly categorized. It is a nature book, or ‘new nature book’ of sorts, in that it mostly concerns birds and their behaviour and their environments, but it is also an autobiography, a meditation on childhood interests and their relationship to the adult self; it’s about parents and parenthood, loss and gain. But if that all makes the book sound very solemn, it isn’t. The tone is often very funny. Here birds are taken seriously, but the author does not do the same for himself.

Before writing this piece I was lucky enough to meet up with Lev Parikian, who happens to live nearby, to discuss the book with him. One of the things we talked about was humour, which is something that does not often play a big part in nature writing. I asked how Lev felt about this.

“I have this mortal fear of boring people with my writing. And the way I know to make it entertaining is to put jokes in. Or to try to make a sentence have something that in some way keeps it alive. Which can become self-indulgent if you’re not careful…there are people who write descriptive stuff exceptionally well, but I’m not one of them. Mark Cocker’s Crow Country is brilliant prose from beginning to end…and it comes from a lifetime from being immersed in the subject. I can’t do that. What I can do, is the odd gag.

I’m just trying to be me. But I had to say to myself ‘you know you can write a description of a Great Tit’, but that sort of poetic thing doesn’t really come very naturally to me. It’s a really difficult thing to get over. All you can do is write what you think. But it takes a while to find that and to know what it is. And to gain the confidence to go ‘this is what it is and I don’t care if people hate it…’

It’s strange that there is so much nature writing at the moment, the last ten years I suppose, and yet there are these debates about what kind of nature writing we want. It’s a broad church, surely. I’d never describe myself as a nature writer, because I’ve only come back to nature in the last few years. It’s a book and its got birds in it and that happens to be my core enthusiasm. But it’s also about music and its got some cricket…”

I found the jokes and wry, self-deprecating humour to be a huge part of the book’s appeal. Somehow Parikian has found a way to at once share his rekindled enthusiasm for birds and his knowledge of them, whilst threading the story with some genuinely funny observations and recollections. Whether concocting ridiculous acronyms for anthropomorphised prehistoric birds, as they learn to fly – WHIFLAMM (Woo-hoo I’m flying, look at me Mum!)– discussing the meaning of Jizz in a serious, yet knowing way,
or recounting a Buzzard-induced first use of the F word in front of his parents, laughter is never very far away.

Another key relationship in the book is that between the author’s professional life as a musician and conductor and his reawakened passion for birding. The most obvious connection between the two I suppose would be birdsong, and this is indeed addressed. However, it becomes clear that an ear for music, is definitely not the same thing as having an ear for birdsong. In one episode the author finds himself stopping in his tracks to listen admiringly to what he thinks is some exotic warbler that just happens to have lighted on this particular London side-street. He records the bird and sends it to a friend, who is an expert, for identification. The beautiful singer, it turns out, was a Robin.

“You would have thought a conductor, trained to perceive faulty intonation, poor tone, wrong notes in the back desk of the violas and myriad other discrepancies in a complex web of orchestral sound, would be able to learn the songs of a few common birds. You would have thought.”

I ask Lev if one attraction of going back to birdwatching was in some way an escape, or counter, to the controlled world of the conductor:

“It definitely appeals to the side of me that doesn’t want to be standing in front of a load of people, telling them what to do. I really enjoyed being by myself, just me and the birds. And it wasn’t just going for a walk. You get a little hit of pleasure every time you see one – even a robin or a blue tit

It’s people asking you things and having to put on that cloak of control. And you have to act a little bit. My conducting persona is pretty much me, but there is a little bit of that extrovert thing going on. Whereas with the birding it’s just you and the birds.

So that’s one of the things that appeals to me, which is also what appeals to me about writing. It was quite a shock – thinking I’ll just listen to some birdsong and pick it up again. The little anecdote about the robin song is true, because I’d been listening to this CD of birdsong which had two examples of robin song on it and the thing that I heard – out of context – didn’t sound like either of them. Cos it wasn’t the same notes.”

I wonder if identifying different birdsong might be harder for a professional musician and whether, perhaps, the rawer, younger Lev was better at it as a child?

“I think it might be for a classically trained musician. A jazzer might pick it up more easily. It’s all about phrase lengths and particular timbres and frequency…with some birds of course, like a chiff chaff – its easy – Melissa Harrison describes it wonderfully – ‘Chiff Chaff song is like a toddler with a glockenspiel’.

I was much better at recognising them in books than I was disappearing into a bush. The birdsong thing I didn’t devote any time to. I suppose in the 1970s, when I was really keen, there just weren’t the resources. Now you just go online. And there’s endless examples. There were tapes and records…but…associating the sight of a bird with its song. I didn’t do that with a robin, but I could with a blackbird.”

“I did walk to Beddington the other morning looking for a Hoopoe, but that’s a Hoopoe,you know”

A further aspect of the book I liked was the fact that birds seen locally in urban surroundings are just as important to the building up of the list, as those observed in more remote, less built-up locations. In the book’s Maychapter, the author is thrilled to see Swifts return to the skies above his home. This seems especially important because the birds are back on his patch.

I happen to live in the same area of London as Lev, so I know some of the particular sites he visits well, but in a general sense I was curious to know whether he felt there was a big difference in terms of satisfaction, between seeing a bird locally, in a park or garden and seeing one he’d had to travel to encounter, in a more rural or coastal setting.

“I think I have to sometimes remind myself that that local thing is just as much fun as going and seeking out the rarities. So you try not to fall into the trap of ‘Oh its just a chaffinch’, but inevitably if you’ve got a chaffinch here, but today in Kent, a Nightingale, then I’m going to go and listen to the Nightingale, because I’m not going to get many opportunities to do that this year. So there is that element of it… I don’t think, I mean, I’m certainly not interested in driving huge distances, just to tick off a rarity. Although I did walk to Beddington the other morning looking for a Hoopoe, but that’s a Hoopoe,you know, I’ve never seen a hoopoe and it was just four miles away, on the doorstep.

It depends on the bird. There was a snowy owl that turned up in Norfolk a few weeks ago and I very nearly drove to Norfolk –  a snowy owl is very rare and just a wonderful bird, so um, I did think about it, but I didn’t go, in the end. I think I’m happiest just picking a day somewhere and thinking where am I going to go, where am I going to get the best variety. I do think its nice to get away from the local patch from time to time.

Again though, there’s the repetition thing. You go what’s there? And Were they here last year? When I’ve been doing it for a few years I’ll be noticing those patterns a bit more, what’s breeding where and following those patterns a bit more. But it’s another level of knowledge that I don’t yet have.”

As I’ve said above, the book is funny and rather knowing throughout, but it is certainly no one-dimensional ‘light read’. Inevitably, a memoir that looks back upon the younger self is going to have to address the matter of one’s parents, and in those moments when his mother and father appear, Parikian, without ever being mawkish, or sentimental, is often at his most humane and moving. The book opens with the author in his recently departed mother’s house trying to work out what to do with the things she’s left behind. If you’ve ever wondered at the subtle emotional power of an old china teapot, you’ll discover it here.

Later, in the December chapter, there’s a wrenching depiction of grief – at once raw and immediate and time-worn in distant reflection, as the author looks back on the day of his father’s death. Possibly, amidst the jokes and the dry wit, these moments have all the more punch.

Serious, in a different way, is a passage where Parikian is in a wood at night, on the Isle of Wight, hoping to encounter a nightjar. In a gripping sequence that reads almost like a thriller, the author gets lost, re-orientates himself, finds his car, then as if lead by some doomed-instinct, discovers his nightjar:

“And now it begins, an other-worldly and mesmerising sound, a reeling so fast and compressed it has a rattling quality. It has two gears, one marginally lower than the other, alternating between the two every few seconds without pause. There’s no stopping for breath, no rise and fall of natural phrasing, the mechanical nature of the song an inherent part of its appeal and adding to the nightjar’s already substantial mystique, enhanced by the eerie atmosphere of the forest.”

It is for striking moments like these – as well as a spirit of generously shared knowledge of and affection for birds and birding, combined with the ability to find the funny in a grim, wet hide in the small hours of a dark English morning – that anyone interested in birds, or people, birds and people, would do well to grab themselves a copy of this most charming of books.

And as for the lists? The writer and critic Brian Dillon once asked if “there is such a thing as a happy list in literature?” There may remain some doubt about that, but when it comes to a happy list in a new-nature-writing-musical-cricket-booky-birding work of autobiography, the answer is a resounding Yes.

Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? was published by Unbound on May 17th. Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

A great place to get a copy is an independent bookshop, like this one for example:
https://booksellercrow.co.uk/shop/ who have some signed copies if you’re quick

I should add that I was a supporter before I was asked to take part in the book’s blog tour, so I was predisposed to like it. 

See below for details of other upcoming blogs and those that have already appeared, which you might like to catch up on.

Blog tour

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One thought on “Flying Backwards: Lev Parikian’s Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear?

  1. Pingback: Swifts and books – LEV PARIKIAN

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