James Fleming

Of fulmars and fleams

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Kathleen Jamie

Sort of Books, pp. 190, £

Kathleen Jamie is a poet. This might be described as her occasional book, in the sense of being a record of what she saw, smelt, heard or felt during these various experiences and expeditions. Most are concerned, loosely, with natural history —ospreys, wild salmon, corncrakes, whales; all of them pertain to Scotland (of which she is a fine-voiced native). There is nothing fey or arty about her writing. She has an inquisitive, unpredictable, generous mind that she speaks firmly.

In this connection, much of one chapter discusses a pair of peregrines trying to nest nearby. It is notorious that J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine (1967) is the last word on the subject: an unrepeatable and magical combination of observational and literary skills — the Tristram Shandy of bird books. Jamie not only gives him his full due, she also finds room for sundry speculations concerning Baker, who ‘utterly effaced’ himself from his masterpiece. (We know nothing of him save that he has/had a wife.) From there she moves on to the tradition of lone men engaging, if you will allow, with birds. Such asides are in the nature of her style. They both enliven and broaden her anyway vivid prose. All descriptions of natural history that are intended to be read, as opposed to consulted, must radiate some sense of wonderment that these other forms of life, with their various tricks and talents and purposes, should have been bestowed upon the same world as ourselves. Miracles are involved and there is no escaping the fact. Baker’s was a tour de force. Jamie has a similar ability.

Yet for me her two most satisfying chapters are ‘Skylines’, which describes, from Calton Hill, all the objects with which centuries of whim and religion have adorned Edinburgh’s rooftops, and ‘Surgeons’ Hall’. This is her style:

One of the earliest [specimens] is what looks like bracket fungus, but it is actually a fine slice of kidney into which the then preservator has introduced mercury. Silver threads fan through the tissue, illustrating the blood vessels. It is quite lovely; one could wear it as a brooch.

I liked that very much, also the neighbouring reference to fleams, an under-used word.

Her chummy page of thanks pre- disposed me to dislike this book and to suppose it to be entirely the puffing of the RSPB and others. This is not the case. It is an excellent and original work. She should lend her talents to something of greater consequence, preferably with a better typesetter.