Gig Review: Tim Dee in Bath

Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath hosts a number of reading groups, one of which is called The Paperback Ramblers. As the name suggests this involves getting readers together and going for a walk to discuss a chosen book. When I noticed that they had selected Landfill by Tim Dee, and that the author was to join the group for the event, I knew I had to attend.

On the day it rained heavily all morning. Emails were sent to ensure the walk would go ahead. Reassured that the forty mile round trip would be worthwhile I packed my full set of walking waterproofs and set out. The rain eased as I reached the bookshop and had stopped by the time our diminished group set out (such a shame that the wet weather put so many who had signed up off).

I should add that while waiting in Mr B’s I was offered a most welcome cup of tea. Independent bookshops know how to look after their customers.

Sam from the bookshop had organised the event and decided on the best route given the weather. I did not need the level of gear I was wearing. We wound our way up to the Royal Crescent and then through the park. The gulls which we had brought our binoculars to observe on our urban nature hike were staying away.

I had a lovely chat with Tim about his book as we walked. He told me about his interest in gulls, how the methods of classification have changed, and of his wish to capture a moment in birding history that was passing. I was glad that I had recently read Landfill as I had little prior knowledge of the subject. Yet our conversation was wider than that. Tim writes as much about human life as about the birds that have interested him since he was a teenager. The personal touch makes his subject a story.

  

We stopped in the park where Tim gave the group an overview of the book and its background. We stopped again at a pond where a few gulls competed with the many ducks for the bread that Tim had brought to feed them. A group of children were also feeding the birds – being Bath they had brought brioche. The birds were equally happy to eat Tim’s sliced pan.

We walked on and I chatted to some other members of the group. Several were regulars. A lady who had also read Landfill in preparation agreed with me that her interest had been piqued in a subject she had previously known nothing about. Tim’s writing is accessible for all.

I also chatted to Sam who expressed interest in where I published my writing. He had heard of Bookmunch but struggled to understand what I was saying when I named my blog (and there was me thinking I had lost my regional accent – I hadn’t thought to slip some business cards into the pocket of my walking jacket). I did try to persuade him to get Mr B’s to stock more books from small independent publishers. I do that with every bookseller I meet.

Given the subject of the Tim’s book, Sam next led us to one of Bath’s recycling centres. Being a Sunday it was closed which, as is explained in Landfill, meant little gull activity. We did see a few birds flying overhead. More appeared as Tim gave a reading. Hopefully they were appreciative of his sympathetic stance to creatures many regard as a nuisance – behaviours caused by man’s actions.

We made our way along the river and back to Mr B’s. From there it was decided that there was time for a quick pint at a local hostelry. Settled with our drinks Tim told me about the book he is currently working on in which he will follow Spring as it moves north at walking pace. He has become aware of the process of aging, and of capturing what moments are still available. I suspect it will be another fine read.

Landfill is published by Little Toller Press

Book Review: Landfill

Landfill, by Tim Dee, is the most recent addition to Little Toller’s series of nature monographs. With jacket design and occasional illustrations by Greg Poole, this beautifully produced book explores the author’s interest in gulls, and how their populations have grown and adapted to make the most of modern man’s waste generating behaviour. Dee’s research was carried out at various landfill sites where birds are tagged and observed. These once migratory creatures now live year round in British cities where they are regarded as pests for getting too close to the humans who have enabled them to flourish.

“It’s also important to remember that we’re responsible for all this. We’ve thrown so much edible stuff away.”

Due to man’s habits, gulls no longer need to travel to find winter food. Gulls fly over wide areas but many return to breed where they hatched so populations expand. They are dynamic and fast adapting. In eating human rubbish they have become indicators of future problems such as when DDT exposure caused feminisation of embryos.

The author has been a keen birdwatcher since his teens. He seeks out those with specialist knowledge to interview and accompanies them on field trips. He writes up the conversations that take place in: Bristol City Centre; various Essex landfill sites; an island in the Severn Estuary; the Isle of Lewis off Scotland; still segregated South African population centres; the rainforests of Madagascar; the Natural History archive centre. It is not always gulls that are observed. What bird enthusiasts seek are rare sightings and better understood avian behaviours. The author notes that evolution isn’t over – species are coming into existence as much as they ever were. When a new species is discovered it is new to science but could, perhaps, have simply avoided prior categorisation. Humans have this need to label – birds, animals and people.

Although accessible and raising interesting questions, the subject will be of particular interest to other bird enthusiasts. Gulls deliver a challenge for ornithologists as certain species can hybridise – nature exists whether or not man names or understands it. Nevertheless, awakening interest, as chasing a rare sighting does, may make man less eager to follow through on his typically selfish and destructive behaviour.

One rare bird spotted in Lewis in 2013 had twitchers rushing to watch in awe. They observed as its impressive aeronautic display was cut short, literally, by the blades of a wind turbine.

There are many historic books featuring birds, the merits of which the author discusses in sometimes scathing terms. The only positive views he has on the Richard Bach’s best selling Jonathan Livingston Seagull are about Russell Munson’s photographs which he wished to identify. This desire to recognise and categorise is strong.

In Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds, nature assembles to attack its greatest destroyer, man. Henry Mayhew’s London Labour London Poor, published in the nineteenth century, barely mentions gulls which at the time were kept for eggs or occasionally eaten, but rarely flew up the estuary. What this and other books offer as interest is how rubbish was perceived and treated. The recent growth in gull numbers is down to people. In visits to overseas landfill sites, Dee observes both human and avian scavengers.

“When do objects – or people – cease to have value?”

Having provided so bountifully for gulls, man is once again changing how his rubbish is treated. Food waste is no longer to be dumped in landfill sites, and these are to be covered over and converted into parks. Cities are taking measures to cull populations of birds regarded as unruly. Numbers may have peaked and now be in decline but the author is keen to show what wider lessons may still be learned from the tagging and sharing of information. If nature is to be protected it requires new generations of ambassadors.

“The world is, and then the world is as we say it is.”

As with each book in the monograph series, the author’s enthusiasm for his subject is infectious. I am highly unlikely to become a twitcher but will now view gulls with more curiosity. This was an interesting, informative and often entertaining read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller.