Behold, one of my earliest TV memories: Chris Packham, Terry Nutkins and Michaela Strachan, and a very ’90s introduction to the animal world. It began broadcasting about 11 months before I was born, and despite the fact that Wikipedia claims no crossover between Terry and Michaela on the show, this is the only line-up I remember watching. Combined with a very rural childhood, it had me nose-deep in Collins Gem guides, tramping the woods on dawn-chorus walks with my Dad, and picking through owl pellets and feather collections. None of that’s really comparable with Chris Packham’s animal-entrenched life, but that’s why he’s one of the best naturalists, nature presenters and wildlife activists around and I’m not (also because I can’t hold onto my obsessions for that long, they dissipate and form anew too quickly).
Also, you should know that because of this being such a long-standing connection, and because he worked an insane number of Smiths song-titles into his Springwatch presenting, and because Tory twats who hate the BBC like to pick on him at any opportunity, I will judge you on your attitude to Chris Packham. If you don’t like Chris Packham, I don’t much like you. That’s even more true having finally got my hands on the paperback of his sensuous, often brutally frank childhood memoir.
The memoir never once uses the term ‘Asperger’s syndrome’, which the author was only diagnosed with relatively recently. It just asks you to come along, to see things through his eyes, and to feel what he felt through some of the defining moments of his childhood: moments of intense emotion, of loss, fear, puzzlement, and most of all, of love. His love for animals is as absolute, as unconditional as he sees their love being in return. He knows that others will think it’s strange that he can celebrate this love by taking, piercing and blowing bird’s eggs, by shooting sparrows to feed his pet Kestrel, by collecting dead things to dissect their wings and workings, but he makes no apology for it; he just presents you with his single-minded fascination and with the way he revels in discovery and experience. Words flow across the page, synaesthetic and winding sentences that describe the light and the English countryside in a way that puts you right there. No matter whose perspective he writes from, they all see the countryside as he does: they all experience the living world in the same way, though they may not be able to recognise it.
The narrative swoops from perspective to perspective, first introducing us to the reticent little boy collecting insects through the eyes of the ice-cream seller. It’s such a self-conscious technique, inserting himself into others, imagining how others imagined him, fleshing out their moments in the narrative limelight with details to fit their lives, their position in space and time. But it’s done sensitively, with a careful regard for each person; although most of those whose heads he imagines peering out from are people who showed him sympathy or empathy themselves. The only exception I can think of currently is the school bully, Bazza, and in that instance, Packham’s not so much seeing himself through Barry’s eyes, as imagining Barry hoping to cop a feel of the same pair of tits young Chris himself was interested in. When Barry comes to beat him up, he views Chris from a distance, sees only the lack of reaction. The rawness of feeling that Packham admits to his therapist in between chapters — no, he doesn’t forgive people like Barry. He can’t — is revealed more subtly through the use of these other perspectives. Outsiders like the shell-shocked ‘Tramp’ and the divorcé next-door see the introspective little boy far more clearly than other, equally well-meaning strangers.
The memoir flits back and forth between the sixties and seventies, tied largely together by the story of his time as the trainer of a young Kestrel and by interludes based on the therapy he sought after an attempted suicide. He’s unflinchingly honest throughout, letting the reader in on the necessity of everything he does, whether it’s the absolute, impossible-to-deny-it need he has to take a Kestrel chick, legal permit or not, best interests of the bird or not, or the incident with the fox in the snare, that turns from foolhardy, shockingly brave rescue, to a reluctant, miserable euthanasia. He’s never knowingly or deliberately cruel, and he’s pragmatic about nature, but humans often are cruel, and when confronted with the preventable cruelty of the two boys smashing tadpoles with a hammer, he’s furious, white-hot with anger and sadness, and it’s palpable in the prose that even the memory stirs echoes of that strength of feeling.
Packham also turns a critical eye on the War generation’s buttoned-up attitudes to emotions, to pain and to sex. Much is not explained; much more is not discussed; and the things that go untalked about weigh heavy throughout his childhood. The disastrous response (lack of response) to the death of his Kestrel (a far more prosaic, lingering death than that suffered by Kes‘ bird) actually sends the boy into a spell of muteness: post-traumatic stress disorder repeatedly ignored by his parents. But again, his empathy wins through, self-taught though it may be; despite this, and despite their blazing rows and eventual separation, he’s in awe of both of his parents and all they did for him. But the childish bewilderment, the search for guidance through the most deeply-felt hurt he’d ever experienced, remains heartbreaking.
The more recent loss, the one that drove him to take far too many pills — and, thankfully, not enough pills — is never named. His eloquent rebuttal to his therapist’s question (“what about your family?”) is magnificent, and I hope that those inclined to ask questions like that of suicide survivors (and of those who don’t survive) read this passage and take a long hard look at themselves:
Everyone says that suicide is selfish. How fucking stupid. Selfishness would only be apparent if you could be conscious of your actions’ effect on others. But there are no fucking others, they are not there. There is nothing there … but you and a fucking, great, hopeless vacuum.
If that resonates please get in touch with the Samaritans.
Just as the loss of an animal affects him greatly, so he then describes the impossibility of contemplating the same thing when his other animals are in the house: the devoted, uncomplicated love of his dogs means that he can’t make a second attempt.
For all the fact that ‘if not fully constructed his ability to empathise has been learned’, it’s Packham who displays the most empathy in this memoir. He notes that
Back then I thought they were too cowardly to think deeply about themselves, that they chose to protect themselves by loving themselves and their world, but now I know they had no more choice than I did, we’re just wired differently, different parts of our brain are a bit more developed than the others. They’re out, I’m in … it’s the way it is.
But by constantly looking inwards, pouring the depth of his feelings onto the page, he reveals a desire to understand others that lingers, and that is rooted in the curiosity and observation that drives his engagement with nature. It’s often more wry, aloof, but it’s a knowing take on humankind nonetheless. Shades of that Munch quote here again.
Despite his fears (‘pure love, immaculate, perfect love, is the thing that is there waiting to destroy you. Because it becomes all of you and when it’s gone there is absolutely nothing left…’), there is so much love, and so much of his vivid, poetic view of the world in this book, that all I can think of at the end is Philip Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb:
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:
Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone finality
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.