by Helen Armitage


May 13, 2011 | by Helen Armitage

Helen Armitage
CONSTABLE, £7.99 PP192 ISBN 978-1849017022

Two months ago, this review would have been written differently. Helen Armitage’s book ends with the departure for African wintering grounds of Britain’s – possibly the world’s – oldest known osprey. Already the mother of 48 chicks, hatched from 58 eggs laid over an astonishing 20 breeding seasons, the bird had seemed close to death during the summer of 2010, lying dehydrated and exhausted in her huge stick nest at Loch of the Lowes, near Dunkeld, where she is watched by a small army of fans, volunteers, birders, twitchers, bloggers and by the remote-viewing community who follow her on webcam the way some people used to follow Peggy Mitchell.

It violates a basic premise for me – of which more in a moment – to suggest that a bird can have a sense of theatre, but just as watchers started to confirm the fear that the celebrated bird had succumbed somewhere on its long migration she reappeared at the Perthshire loch in the last week of March and once again set about nest-building with her mate, for an unprecedented 21st year. ‘Just like Elizabeth bloody Taylor’, I muttered, unaware that that other diva of the gaze, who’d frequently been reported as dehydrated and exhausted, was on her last legs.

The osprey is an iconic bird. As the only species in the Pandionidae family, it has no looky-likey cousins to compete for attention. Though still rare in Britain, despite its twentieth century resurgence, it is geographically ubiquitous and emerges in umpteen folklores and literatures, an ‘abomination’ (i.e. not to be eaten) in the Bible, one of the utopian avians in Aristophanes’ The Birds. Its eggs and chicks are the ne plus ultra of wildlife theft. It is, in the UK at least, a conservation triumph, brought back from a supposed extinction and now, if not exactly as pestiferous as the red kites which crowd the skies over Oxfordshire, then by no means a startling rarity.

‘Supposed’ because my grandfather, ever a man to pour cold water on a heartwarming story, claims to have seen ospreys in Scotland all through the 1930s and war years. Perhaps, he argued, the world was just too occupied with more important things to worry about a ‘burd’. It’s possible, but now, even more than the kite, or the avocet which is the RSPB symbol, or the little ringed plover (whose tentative colonisation of Britain was turned into high drama by Kenneth Allsop), the osprey has a starry quality, an aura of specialness that tends to lift it out of ecological context.

I detest the naming of wild creatures and though I have an obsessive’s library of bird books, I tend to avoid those where any animal is given a name and human characteristics. The Loch of the Lowes bird just gets away with it on the grounds that Lady of the Loch is a title rather than a name. But it takes Helen Armitage 120 pages to concede that naming is a ‘contentious issue’, which doesn’t stop her turning Lady and her initially feckless mate Laird into soap-opera characters. The issues are complex here – and I’m a hypocrite, since I regularly ‘do the voices’ of neighbourhood badgers, stoats and buzzards for the children’s entertainment – and one has to accept that if anthropomorphising animals and birds is the ‘hook’ to a change of attitude that will allow them to survive and thrive, then it is worth the small philosophical embarrassment. After all, Elizabeth Taylor continued as an AIDS campaigner long after she stopped convincing as an actor or as a great beauty.

On balance, and personal hypocrisy aside, I have to disagree. Our webcammed voyeurism and sentimentalisation of wildlife (the ‘tragic’ death of a chick, describing a male raptor as if he was played by Richard Briers) is merely a milder form of extermination; nature Disneyfied and made two-dimensional. That said, Helen Armitage tells a good story, adds lots of authoritative detail and her heart is unquestionably in the right place. As for Lady, I will of course be watching out for eggs and chicks. By the time you read this …

Brian Morton

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