Fingers in the Sparkle Jar – Lessons in Life and Death

Cider With Rosie meets A Clockwork Orange

By Chris Packham | Ebury Press | Hardback | May 2016 | 282 Pages | Black & White Photos | ISBN: 9781785033483

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Fingers in the Sparkle Jar Website

The Publisher’s View:Every minute was magical, every single thing it did was fascinating and everything it didn’t do was equally wondrous, and to be sat there, with a Kestrel, a real live Kestrel, my own real live Kestrel on my wrist! I felt like I’d climbed through a hole in heaven’s fence.

An introverted, unusual young boy, isolated by his obsessions and a loner at school, Chris Packham was only at home in the fields and woods around his suburban home. But when he stole a young kestrel from its nest, he was about to embark on a friendship that would teach him what it meant to love, and that would change him forever. In his rich, lyrical and emotionally exposing memoir, Chris brings to life his childhood in the 70s, from his bedroom bursting with fox skulls, birds’ eggs and sweaty jam jars, to his feral adventures. But pervading his story is the search for freedom, meaning and acceptance in a world that didn’t understand him. Beautifully wrought, this coming-of-age memoir will be unlike any you’ve ever read.

Other Views:… brave and powerful and very well written.” – Mark Avery

…The gaps of information leave the reader longing to find out more about how this wildlife-obsessed kid came out of the depths of depression to make his way in the world.” – The Press & Journal

… fierce, disturbing and surprising” – The Times

The Author: Chris Packham, TV presenter, photographer and conservationist is one of the nation’s favourite naturalists. He is best known for the BAFTA-winning The Really Wild Show and more recently for fronting BBC’s Springwatch and Autumnwatch programmes. He is president of the British Trust for Ornithology, the Hawk Conservancy Trust, the Hampshire Ornithological Society and the Bat Conservation Trust and vice-president of the RSPB and the Butterfly Conservation as well as a patron of Birding For All. In 2011, he was awarded the British Trust for Ornithology’s Dilys Breese Medal for his ‘outstanding work in promoting science to new audiences’. His partner, Charlotte Corney, owns the Isle of Wight Zoo, and his step-daughter is studying zoology at Southampton University. He lives in the New Forest with his two dogs, Itchy and Scratchy.

Fatbirder View: I don’t know Chris Packham. Sure, I’ve met him a few times and he is a patron of a charity I founded (Birding For All) but I don’t know him. I suspect that most people he is acquainted with don’t know him either and maybe, from reading this book, even those he spends time with may not truly know him. He was recently called a nutter by a the hunting fraternity which was re-tweeted by a tory MP. His response was sober “It’s very disappointing to see such comments retweeted by an MP. People with Asperger’s are not ‘nut jobs’ they are simply different.” Collins Dictionary definition of a nutter is ‘…a mad or eccentric person’. Personally I think this adequately describes people who hunt animals for sport and virtually every tory MP!

Of course Chris is weird, but for me he is in the category ‘weird and wonderful’. I’ve know people just like Chris who are genuinely deeply upset by the unnecessary death of everything from Pandas to Pond Snails. Most of us find killing for sport at the very least distasteful and at most bordering on Psychotic. I’ve always believed that being able to take an animal’s life and derive pleasure from it is only one step from feeling the same about people. I think anything that desensitises us to death or suffering is strongly to be discouraged. The wildfowler who takes one common duck for Sunday lunch, or the rough shooter bringing home a few rabbits for the pot is forgivable, those bagging dozens is dangerous and those who chase down the uneatable are unspeakable.

To find birds or other animals better company than people is strange, but there is more than a pinch of that in us birders. Who hasn’t revelled in the solitude of a moor or gloried in the overwhelming beauty of a beech tree full of redstart song?

I’ve seen a reviewer describe Chris Packham’s youth as troubled and described this autobiography as brave. I’m not sure either label apply. Chris may have found friends among non-human’s and had, still has, difficulty relating to people, but being out on a limb like that is not as troubled as, say, the abused or neglected child. And to tell it like it is to the world isn’t brave, but in this case timely. What is the point of fame and public adoration if you are not prepared to use it to fight just causes. Is Angelina Jolie brave to promote refugee rights or conservation or Is George Clooney brave to use his fame to shed light on atrocities? Chris is in a position to condemn those who selfishly use wildlife for sport and is doing so soundly and I shout bravo!

His writing style might seem weird (an autobiography written mostly in the third person) but keep reading until very near the end and you will understand why.

His use of language is poetical. I wouldn’t put it past him to have sneaked song lyrics into the text like a mediaeval monk’s palimpsest might contain older wisdom, not that I spotted any, but his almost casual ground-breaking metaphors turn this autobiography into literature, just like Laurie Lee did with Cider With Rosie. A few examples are ‘…when winter began to ache…’; ‘…an angry wren moused through a thatch of sedges in quick nips…’; ‘…a silent doily of sixty lapwings butterflied high over my head…’; and ‘…fiery grenades of cuckoo pint…’ and my favourite ‘…a blackbird listened to the lawn…’. These are not self-conscious and contrived purple passages but a constant insight and delightful sharing in a phrase that encapsulates an observation or comment that lesser writers might take a paragraph to portray.

I don’t usually ready anything cover to cover, word for word. When reading trashy Sci Fi (to which I’m addicted) I’m after plot and concept not pretty prose, when reading to review or for information or to learn I tend to skim impatiently. I read every word of this book including the acknowledgements, which I advise you to, too. Relationships seen through Asperger’s young eyes show us how the child felt, and the more sober gratitude expressed by the man show us the good, the kind and thoughtfulness of some significant others.

A lesser mind and less acute ability to recall would not have done this work justice. It’s as if the troubled adult in the psychologist’s chair could show detailed movies of his past life.

There are some challenging and mildly disturbing passages of his anger’s liberation via the media of Punk music and fashion more reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange than Cider With Rosie, which he allows us to glimpse from outside wearing his outsider’s shoes.

Lest anyone think this review is a drooling sycophant’s diatribe let me say that I used to think it was really arrogant to slip song lyrics into Springwatch. His attitude to pets is one I most definitely do not share. I’ve never really warmed to Chris Packham. However, I’ve always admired his knowledge and latterly his passionate conservation and condemnation of selfish slaughter and I share many of his views about over population and the like.

Few celebs have had the courage to talk about their mental health like Stephen Fry or their descent into drugs or alcoholism, none, so far as I am aware has ever opened up about their ‘otherness’. This book is beautifully written and a brilliant sharing of a way of processing information and interacting with others that is so unlike our own.

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