I wrote my novel about the 18th-century naturalist Gilbert White a good while ago. I haven’t done anything with it because I have never felt very happy with the ending. Endings can be over-contrived (see my Christmas story in the previous post!), hurried, or simply dull. One of my aims for the new year is to come up with a suitable ending. White was probably the first truly rigorous observer of the natural world, recording his findings in ‘The Natural History of Selborne’, the fourth most published book in the English language. Sam, a young clock maker, has come to work for White.
The novel records the world-famous wildlife photographer Peter Tusa’s thwarted attempts to track down what is left of White today. It questions the direction of the modern heritage industry, a topic very much in the news at the moment with organisations like the National Trust straining to find a fresh approach to historical presentation.
Below is an extract in which Gilbert White is teaching his new apprentice Sam how to observe birds.
‘How old are you, Sam? Sixteen?’
Gilbert White measures himself against the boy, patting the crowns of their heads in turn. ‘Neither of us was pick of the litter. Still, it’s up to us to make the best of the modest altitude God’s granted us. That’s why He gave us ladders. And hills.’
They’re out in the fields on the track to Noar.
‘This’ll do us.’
White drops down into the ditch and settles by the hedge. Sam follows, and spends the next minute jiggling to get comfortable, with White alongside bellowing through his ear trumpet.
‘Now, Sam, think of yourself as my eyes. So tell me.’
‘Tell you what?’
‘What you see.’
‘In that hedge.’
‘Can’t see nothin.’
‘No nothings in Nature, Sam. There’s always something. Look harder. What d’you see? There. What was that?’
‘Some bird or other.’
‘No bird’s just some bird, Sam. Not to a naturalist. Tell me about him.’
‘He’s back. There, Sam. No, he’s gone again.’
‘Will you mind yourself, sir.’ Sam rubs his cheek—each time the excited naturalist turns to speak Sam’s slapped in the face by an ear trumpet.
‘Of course he’s gone. That’s what birds do. They come, but mostly they go. So watch out for him, catch him at it. That’s your job, to catch them when they come. What bit of a clock does Tully call you?’
‘Is warnin wheel.’
‘Smallest wheel in the strike train. You could be more important to me than that, my eyes and ears. What with me getting deafer every day, old Thomas blinder than a pipistrelle, and my friend Mulso at me by every post telling me to get my book finished. Now I’m adding in Selborne’s history and antiquities he’s not happy at all. How did he put it? “It won’t be a parish natural history when it’s larded out with a farrago of historical material culled from the rusts and crusts of time.” But it’s got to be done. I don’t need a warning wheel, Sam, I need an entire clock mechanism to get it all going. Stop fidgeting. There, is that him? Yes, there. Colour?’
‘Nothin sort of colour.’
‘Grey nothing? Brown nothing?’
‘E’s gone.’ Sam sighs miserably and sucks at his cheeks. ‘Why am I here, sir?’
‘Grey or brown? What was he?’
‘Grey and white. Grey and black? Grey and red?’
‘Bit of black, bit of brown, bit of everythin.’
‘Black where? On his head? Breast? Tail?’
‘Dunno. E’s gone, ain’t e?’
And I don’t give no tinker’s cuss bout your bloody old bird. Sam whispers under his breath.
‘Look for him, Sam. And stop fidgeting. You’re worse than a whole houseful of nephews and nieces. Believe me, he’s there. He’s looking at you. He knows your colour.’
Sam’s colour’s red. He’s hot, upset and embarrassed. Why has Tully sent him to Reverend White for the morning? There’s clocks to make and repair. He screws up his eyes and watches, just as White wants him to do. For minutes on end he watches, watches harder than he’s ever watched anything in his life, harder even than when he stared through the Gullys’ window that time when Will’s elder sister Annie was undressing.
At his side White is still and silent, and Sam has the eerie feeling he’s completely alone in the ditch, with only a disembodied voice for company. He can’t believe anyone can stay as still as White. He glances out of the corner of his eye and sees the naturalist squatting next to him, back straight, arms neatly folded, peering down his long, beaky nose. Not a finger twitches nor an eyebrow wrinkles. Sam winces and hugs his knees. He needs a piss. The bird flutters out again and Sam jumps as White shouts out of the stillness. It’s as if a piece of his grandmother Jessie’s mantelshelf china has come to life, and Sam shivers with an irrational fear. He remembers he’s meant to be watching the bird, which is clinging to a twig and quivering its tail feathers. It topples into the thick branches of the hedge.
‘Describe him, Sam. Say what you saw.’
‘E’s gone. Can’t if e’s gone.’
‘A naturalist has to be quick. More so a naturalist’s assistant.’
‘Ain’t nothin to do about me being quick or slow, sir. More about you scarin im when you shouts. And I ain’t no assistant, I’m a clockmaker’s apprentice.’
Sam’s close to tears. But he’s crosser still with White.
‘Was he singing, Sam? I don’t hear much these days. Did you catch its song?’
‘Jus you bellowin.’
White chuckles. ‘I heard that all right, I’ll stay quiet. Let’s start again. Now, concentrate.’
Sam leans forward and cups his ear. He waits for a minute, then two, then three.
I must piss, please, let me piss. Where’s the damned bird? Why won’t e come?
‘Saw im.’ Sam speaks suddenly and confidently.
‘E flew out to that branch, e chirruped, then e went.’
‘What’d he say? Listen for me, Sam. Come on, sing it. Yes, sing it.’
Sam’s face reddens. He’d seen nothing. But with his bladder fit to burst he can’t hold out any longer.
None of our family ever had much of what you call a bladder, did we mother?
He frowns, purses his lips and makes what he feels is an encouraging chirrup. White leans in close and Sam feels the trumpet collide with his cheek again.
‘Again, Sam. I didn’t catch it.’
Sam trills and warbles and burbles an entire stanza of what he hopes is convincing bird song.
‘So, a full, deep, sweet, loud piping. Fascinating, Sam. Now we know what he is.’
‘You tells from what I sang?’
‘I know what he’s not. He’s not a Sylvia atricapilla.’
‘Sylvia atricapilla. That’s what you sang, the blackcap. A passable effort—the characteristic strain of short continuance—a little short on sweet, inward melody—but with the soft and gentle modulations that makes it superior to any of our warblers. But it’s fortnight or three weeks early. No, our friend is an Aegithalos caudatus. Long-tailed tit to you, or chittering, maybe, or long-pod?’
‘We calls im poke puddin.’
‘Poke pudding! Well, Aegithalos caudatus. I don’t think Linnaeus will be adding that new name to his species list. You’ll have to do better than that to pull the wool over my eyes, Sam. I’m an old hand, and this is my country. Now go and relieve yourself, then we’ll try again.’