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Review Birding from the Hip by Anthony McGeehan

 
 

This page contains 3 reader comments. Click here to view (latest Mon 16/11/09 18:18).

Collections of columns are lazy, disjointed, pot-boiling releases that always underwhelm. Taken out of context, short stories are nearly always out of date, lacking in any impact they had first time around. Or so I thought. Birding from the Hip dates back in parts to 1992, old enough to be Birding from the Hip Replacement in ornithological terms, yet somehow this collection of stories seems timeless. Defiantly unfashionable, this, the third book in the Sound Approach canon, casts aside the ground-breaking clarifications of The Sound Approach and the pioneering identification advances of its follow up, the unashamedly esoteric yet fantastic Petrels night & day, for a collection of columns by Anthony McGeehan.

Kicking off with a tale from his youth about trespassing to see his first Corncrake, McGeehan sets the ball rolling for a high-octane retrospective of his career as columnist for Birdwatch and Dutch Birding. The topics are varied and wide ranging, from pelagics to autumn rarity-hunting, via sound recording Cranes in a sub-zero Spanish dawn. Belfast Lough makes frequent appearances, from being the site of trespassing in the hope of finding a Pectoral Sandpiper to his return twenty years later as reserve warden.

These aren't so much stories as they are warts-and-all vignettes of birding; sometimes he gets his bird, sometimes he doesn't. But they are always shot through with a great sense of humour and irony. What sets apart McGeehan's style from other, as lyrical, writers, is his love for small, seemingly unimportant details and tangential directions. This lends his prose a warmth and sense of time and place, so often sorely lacking in the work of others, which really grabs you as you read it. He combines this with an obvious talent for storytelling and a knack with small, quotable phrases you wish you thought of. Who else would describe the moment of calling out Ireland's first Fea's Petrel as "putting us on a crash course with nirvana"? Not the obvious description and all the better for being so original. We all know autumn can be stressful, but as a "counter-intuitive... pressure cooker, that when recedes into winter, leaves you relieved to look at gulls"?

When you realise that not only does he have such ability with words, but he also took the majority of the pictures that appear in the book, all of which are rather fantastic (e.g. the Gyr Falcon on page 164), then many will experience just the slightest twinge of envy.

Putting the envy aside, there are a few faults I can find with the stories. 'Fowl Play' fails to hit the heady heights of the rest of the book and 'Enlightenment, not epitaphs' is an emotive rant ("a manifesto born out of outrage") about the collection of vagrants and despite being a very eloquent rant it lacks the entertainment value of a more vitriolic rant. Also being a collection of rather short columns they suffer from a restricted word count and lack of space to fully evolve smoothly, and frequent chronological and geographical jumps. This can lead to a jerky read if you sit down and read it from cover to cover, which would be a big problem if it wasn't for the fact that it is the perfect book to have a quick five-minute dip in and out of.

Mairead McGeehan makes a surprise appearance with a few satirical looks at living with a birding addict. Her writing is a reaction away from Anthony's lyrical style and is heavily sarcastic, at first a breath of fresh air, by her second story a little repetitive and at the end of her sixth contribution, jaded and grating. Except for one story, a slightly surreal yet amusing tale of Anthony suppressing a bird found by a psychic with a crystal, told from Mairead's bemused viewpoint, which is genuinely up to Anthony's standard.

The production and design of the book is striking; from the black cover sharply off-setting Killian Mullarney's Lapwing painting, to its well-spaced and airy layout inside, it exudes quality. It's surprising how much decent production quality can enhance books and this carries on the fantastic production from the first two volumes. In fact I can only find two faults with the tangible product. Firstly although that black cover is good looking it does show up minor scratches and wear. Secondly the CDs still feel vulnerable mounted on the front cover, despite the mount having been improved since the first two volumes.

Unlike the first two volumes, where the CDs were an essential part of the 'Sound Approach experience', here they feel very much like an afterthought, containing only a few narrated versions of the stories, interspersed with (relevant) birdsong and some music composed by Simon Emmerson, which can only be described as 'filler'; it adds nothing to the CDs and although it's not awful, it's certainly not necessary, only serving to break up the narration. More bird song would've been better. The narration is well done, but at times the seams where it was edited together are a little obvious which ever so slightly spoils the flow. The CDs are referred to as free as well, which grates after a while having paid £30 for the book! £30 might seem expensive for a non-essential collection of columns, but this is offset by the quality of production. It costs the same as the similarly the first Sound Approach volume which is the same length.

Birding from the Hip is a buoyant read, filled with the sheer joy of birding that can all too often be forgotten. This makes the book required reading, not just for the weather-beaten experienced birder, but for the beginner needing just a spark to light a life-long passion. Unlike the previous two Sound Approach volumes, this lacks any sonograms, science or sub-specific splitting so works well as a standalone book, rather then just part of a Sound Approach collection.

You can buy this book from BirdGuides, click here.

Birding from the Hip by Anthony McGeehan published 2009 by the Sound Approach
Hardcover and CD set, 208 pages, £24.99
ISBN-13: 9789081093330

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The information in this article was believed correct at the time of writing. BirdGuides accepts no responsibility for errors, or for any consequences of acting on information in the article. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily shared by BirdGuides Ltd.

hide section Reader comments (3)

#1
Hi Steve, not sure if its an error on your part or the book but A.McGeehan did not find Irelands first Feas Petrel, that honour went to the late Jim Enticott. derek
   Derek Charles, 16/11/09 09:10Report inappropriate post Report 
#2
Hi Derek, The line in the book is "It swept up into the air and straight into the record books. It wasn't a Great Shearwater- it was the first Fea's Petrel to be seen on a pelagic off Britain or Ireland." Hope this clarifies your issue. Steve
   Stephen Rutt, 16/11/09 17:57Report inappropriate post Report 
#3
Thanks Stephen, Yes that clarifies it, not sure if there is a record book for birds seen on a pelagic. Must be somewhere if it is in the Sound Approach book! The first Irish record entered the record books on 5th September 1974 off Cape Clear Island Co.Cork derek
   Derek Charles, 16/11/09 18:18Report inappropriate post Report 

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