Book Review: An English Guide to Birdwatching

An English Guide to Birdwatching, by Nicholas Royle, is a novel that plays with words in a manner that makes it a challenge to describe, and in places to read. Written in two distinct parts, albeit with the occasional cross reference and a shared conclusion, it poses interesting questions, mesa and meta, about reactions to literature and those who curate it. Although fiction, it draws heavily on reality, including roles for the author and his Manchester based namesake. It delves into the conceits of the literary world – its creators, teachers and those who consider themselves intellectually superior, who task themselves with what they believe to be essential deconstruction, being, in their own minds at least, uniquely qualified to ensure literary quality is policed.

Scattered throughout the book are line drawing illustrations of birds, a subject referenced throughout.

The story opens by introducing the reader to Silas Woodlock, a recently retired undertaker moving from Croydon in London to Seaford in East Sussex with his wife, Ethel. The elderly couple take some time to settle into their new abode. There are amusing observations on how the ‘old codgers’ prevalent on the south coast of England view one another, how they do not recognise themselves in their fellow aged beings.

Back in London an editor for the London Literary Gazette, Stephen Osmer, completes an essay and promptly falls off his perch. His untimely death at the age of twenty-seven ensures he will be remembered as brilliant, despite having published little. Known for his ‘intellectual candescence’, his knowledge of Dickens, and his witty if somewhat cutting commentary, he harboured a deep seated jealousy of those who, unlike him, had succeeded in publishing creative work. He was contemptuous of ‘the self-enclosed nature of academic life’ yet lived wholly within his own specialism’s rarefied world. Much like the south coast elderly population, he was unable to recognise himself in those he observed.

Back in Seaford, Silas and Ethel are being driven to distraction by the gulls noisily breeding on their rooftop. In an attempt to get her husband out of the house, Ethel suggests he enrol in a creative writing workshop. As a result he writes a short story – The Gulls – and promptly loses the only copy of his manuscript. He is subsequently incensed when he discovers his words published in an anthology under another’s name.

Alongside these dastardly goings on, the reader is taken back to the final months of Stephen Osman’s life. During this period he had insulted both the Nicholas Royles at an author event in Manchester. When he makes his escape, inadvertently abandoning his beautiful girlfriend, Lucy, she meets southern Nicholas Royle’s wife, Portia. This leads to an invitation to a party for the literati, held at the Royle’s house in Seaford, where the two storylines coalesce. Prior to this is an erotic scene offers up a cliched male fantasy – perhaps an attempt at attaining the Bad Sex In Fiction award once won by the other Nicholas Royle.

Other interactions at the party are more amusing. The attending intellectuals are vying for attention, sorrowful that their kind are not as revered as they once were. The party ends with a somewhat improbable bang after which action returns to London and the creation of Osman’s final essay.

Part two of the book contains seventeen chapters, each titled Hide. Many of these are clever if somewhat dense plays on language and its meaning. The tableau around which these musings are wrapped include elements of surrealism. There is pondering about man’s attitude to killing and eating birds, his belief that he is a higher being despite having existed for a much shorter time. Although interesting ideas and concepts are aired I found part two much less engaging.

The writing wanders in many different directions, much as a stream of consciousness would. The mix of fact and fiction is disconcerting in places as is the inclusion of the two Nicholas Royles. There is plenty to think about, and the author is unafraid to mock himself and his associates. At times I felt the prose became didactic and I have no doubt many references passed me by. Although clever the second part was not always entertaining. Adding it to the novel appeared experimental rather than necessary.

Would I recommend? Perhaps to those who enjoy wordplay – literature lovers unafraid to laugh at their own conceits. I am glad to have been given the opportunity to appraise, even if it wasn’t the easiest of reads.