About this Recording
NA444612 - BARNES, S.: Bad Birdwatcher's companion (A) (Unabridged)

A Bad Birdwatcher’s Companion
Simon Barnes


A beautiful girl once said to me ‘I love you, but I don’t know your name.’ It was a touching avowal. She was five at the time. And I must say, I know how she felt—about life, if not about me. Many a time, I have had a glimpse of a bird, flying past on whirring wings, seen another vast distances away, heard a fragment of a song from an impenetrable thicket: and I have thought, I love you, but I don’t know your name.

I think many people feel like that about much of the natural world. We see a lot of big green things and we think—ah yes—trees. Those brightly coloured things on the ground and on the branches are flowers. Those shimmering little fluttery things—flitting from flower to flower—are butterflies. And those lovely things that fly and sing are birds.

And most people have some kind of attraction to such things: a vague, unfocused but genuine love: a love that does not categorise, a love that doesn’t know intimacy: the love that does not know its name. It is a love that is pleasant and sincere: but not entirely fulfilling. It is like the relationship you have with a gorgeous person on the up escalator when you are on the down: perfect, heart-stopping, perhaps never to be forgotten: but a love that is doomed to die of ignorance.

Love does not need a name. At least, not to begin with. But a name is essential for intimacy. And with intimacy comes a deeper, and more complex kind of love: a love that can be flawed and difficult and sometimes maddening, but which enriches your life, and without which your life is incomplete.

With a name, you begin to understand: you begin to have a relationship. And when I first began to tell one kind of bird from another, to know their names, I found a greater meaning, not just in the birds, but in the natural world: in all the processes of life.

But how to get going? When you first seek a deeper relationship with birds, it is like walking into find the chorus line of some fabulous, exotic musical, every creature apparently equally lovely, equally loveable, equally eager to be loved: but where to start? Which one to talk to? And how should I begin?

That is why I wrote A Bad Birdwatcher’s Companion: as a startingpoint. So that a beginning birdwatcher might be able to move on from the I-loveyou- but-I-don’t-know-your-name stage. If you learn the first few names, then many more will follow. Once you have got the hang of the most obvious birds, you will find your knowledge expanding: and with it, your senses and your intuitive grasp of the entire natural world and its processes. The more you look, the more you see, the more you know, the more you love.

I am deeply pleased that this book is now available to be heard as well as read. You can try as hard as ever you might, but you still can’t write down birdsong. Mee-oo. Pink, pink. Tu-yu-yu. Pe-pe-pe-pe-pe-pe. Sisi- si.Chirp. These are transcriptions from an old birdbook, and they represent (didn’t you guess?) buzzard, blackbird, redshank, meadow pipit, blue tit and (tell me you got the last one right) house sparrow.

If you know the call well, then you know exactly what the writer meant. But that’s no help. So I am delighted that along with the words, the listener will also be able to hear the birds themselves: and, I very much hope, be able to tune into the birds in the garden and greet them by name.

For most people, birdsong is a lovely mush, the elevator-music of outdoors, something that people are vaguely aware of without really listening to it. It is a bit like Sir Thomas Beecham’s famous remark: ‘The English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes.’

A liking for the music, rather than the mere noise it makes, begins with a learning of the instruments of the orchestra. If you can begin to learn the names of the instruments of the great avian orchestra, then you begin to find the first stirrings of the deeper kind of love: the love for the music rather than the noise. It is not too much to say that one of the great joys of my life has been my learning of birdsong.

It began for me in the Luangwa valley in Africa, when I met a world-master of birdsong, Baron Robert Stjernstedt, and he taught me about the black-collared barbet’s duet and the bird that sings ‘three cheers for the BBC’ and the bird that makes a call ‘like a lost soul falling down the bottomless pit’.

And it carried on when I was researching a book about the RSPB’s great Minsmere bird reserve in Suffolk, where I learnt that avocets say kluut, and bitterns go boom and that nightingales explode with a twit twit twit jug jug jug. And as I learnt the names and the instruments and the voices, my love—well, no, it didn’t get greater, because how can any love be greater than love at first sight, that gorgeous unstoppable upwelling of feeling, the instinctive love of the gloriously nameless?

But with the names and the knowing, love becomes not greater but deeper. Knowledge does not spoil a love: knowledge enriches: above all, deepens. This book, and recordings will, I hope, offer the beginnings of knowledge.

It my belief that everybody’s life will be enriched by a slightly deeper relationship with the natural world: and the easiest and the best way to cultivate this is by looking at birds and listening to birds with just a little bit more knowledge: because with knowledge, the love becomes that little bit deeper, that little bit more charged with meaning.

Notes by Simon Barnes


The music on this recording is taken from the NAXOS and MARCO POLO catalogues

HAYDN Quartet NO 32 in C major Op 33 No 3

Kodály Quartet

VIVALDI The Four Seasons

Capella Istropolitana
Stephen Gunzenhauser, conductor

GRIEG Piano Music Volume 8 Lyric Pieces

Einar Steen-Nøkleberg, piano


David Greed, violin
English Northern Philharmonia
David Lloyd-Jones, conductor

PROKOFIEV Peter and the Wolf

Czechoslovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Ondrej Lenárd, conductor

SAINT-SAËNS Carnival of the Animals

Czechoslovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Ondrej Lenárd, conductor

ROSSINI Overtures

Zagreb Festival Orchestra
Michael Halász, conductor

COATES Sleepy Lagoon

Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Penny, conductor

VIVALDI Flute Concerto in F major Op 10 No 5

Béla Drahos
Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia

SAINT-SAËNS Carnival of the Animals

Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Ondrej Lenárd, conductor

SAINT-SAËNSCarnival of the Animals

Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Ondrej Lenárd, conductor

LISZT Works for Organ Légende: Saint François d’Assise: la predication aux oiseaux

Andreas Rothkopf, organ

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