I mentioned discovering Derek Neimann’s Birds in a Cage recently. Interesting it looked, and it turned out to be much more than that. There’s a bit of birdwatching, and a lot of history, much biography too.
And they’re not all birds of these shores, different migrating patterns, unfamiliar habitat. We’re on mainland Europe, under the migratory route of up to 15,000 skylarks a day, and with the antics of wrynecks. The book is packed with anecdotes, of minute scribblings on salvaged loo paper; and of some wonderful sketches too. Remember too, these men had no binoculars, no telescopes or cameras, and precious few field guides available to them.
But it’s not all about the birds. And it is about people and places.
These four people, and a few others, went on to play a major part in the study of birds, which had been a fledgling activity in the first half of the 20th century. To properly study birds had required first shooting them, but things were changing. The men had hundreds of hours to spend watching a single goldfinch nest; and to make extensive notes on tiny behavioural aspects.
They had little choice about the place, for they were all prisoners of war, moved from camp to camp across Germany. Conditions were woeful in the camps, and worse on the transports. But through it all four men had time, time to stand and stare, and to take notes and to sketch.
The very act of note-taking aroused suspicion, and even earned time in solitary. That in itself could be a blissful respite from the noise and activity all around, from the regime and the chores. The watching was eventually recognised as a possible aid to the escape committee, coerced into turning their attention to the goons.
John Barrett was involved in one escape project, and I realised I had watched the film – of The Wooden Horse – just a few weeks earlier. It was the same camp that pulled off The Great Escape, though Barrett was not involed, not even aware of that, at the time.
So this is a tale of capture, of connections and of the benefits of having the time to carry out in-depth studies into the daily rituals of redstarts and treesparrows taking up the offer of a nesting box on site, and to note it all down in minute detail. It is a tale of men missing their wives and children, held together with other men. The officers likened it to public school, bunked together with only their own sex, except the masters could shoot, and often would.
Then the war came to an end, and the men faced the transports and the marches, they carried the guns of the guards, too starved and exhausted to do it themselves. Black men were seen driving trucks.
And at home they had to live out their lives with the damage done by five stolen years; wondering what all the cutlery on the table was for, after nothing but a spoon and a bowl; puzzling over how to eat asparagus. And putting the whole experience into a black whole.
But the protagonists survived their captivity and returned to their families. Peter Conder became director of the RSPB. George Waterston established the bird observatory on Fair Isle, having drafted his proposals in the camps. The Osprey nest watch at Loch Garten is another of his legacies. John Buxton wrote The Redstart, as well as war poetry. John Barrett established the modern guided walk, from his beloved Pembrokeshire coast, encouraging thousands. And it all started from being incarcerated together in the bleakest of times.
This is a gem; of nature writing, history and biography all fused together. It is well worth a place on my list.