Monday, 25 July 2016

FINGERS IN THE SPARKLE JAR by Chris Packham: review by Linda Newbery


This memoir, something of a departure for naturalist and Springwatch presenter Chris Packham, has many literary resonances. As an account of a young boy finding purpose and passion through his love for wildlife, it recalls A Kestrel for a Knave and My Family and Other Animals; the love and loss of a wild creature echoes Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water, which gave Packham a love of otters. The journey through depression, and emergence from it, is reminiscent of Richard Mabey's Nature Cure and Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk, while the experience of mental illness and acceptance of therapy echoes Matt Haig's Reasons to Stay Alive. It's a brave and important book, at a time when it's recognised that mental health issues, particularly for men, must not be hidden or 'toughed out'. Packham has of course published numerous books and articles on wildlife, but nothing as personally revealing as this.
 
The structure, a series of episodes, is an unusual one. In early chapters, Packham refers to himself as 'the boy' or 'Christopher', seen by a range of characters including an ice-cream van driver, a cinema usherette and, most touchingly, a hermit-like war veteran.  Other sections are narrated in first-person - either as himself, or in short italicised sections, from the viewpoint of a therapist treating the adult Packham after he had twice come close to committing suicide. In these latter sections we learn that he came to regard himself as an outsider - clever, obsessive, but unable to relate to others. Although the term Aspergers isn't used, it is hinted at in his assessment of himself.
Chris Packham clearly loves words, so much that they seem for him to fill a "sparkle jar" as enticing as the delights of the natural world. He sprinkles them with a liberal hand, piling up adjectives in almost every sentence. At first I was exasperated by the over-writing, but gradually, as my eyes adjusted to the surface dazzle, it became part of the book's charm. The breathless rush conveys complete absorption in the behaviour of bird, mammal or invertebrate and the settings in which they are observed. Often the choice of phrase is strikingly apt, as when mosquito larvae   "ziggle down in droves" or an old man peers into the "squinty dim"; glimpsing a sparrowhawk, there’s “a fleeting sense that some pulse of life had singed the air”. More than once, the rhythms and emphasis reminded me of Under Milk Wood, or of Seamus Heaney's Death of a Naturalist. And this description of a falcon in flight surely pays homage to Gerard Manley Hopkins' The Windhover:
 
"Unfalling, the bird stands chopping air, fluttering and then rolling down smooth, slipping and then sliding away to ring a curve across the storm until it pitches at the apex and begins to dance with the wind, its plumes constantly shaken, folding and flicking to steer it still and ... balance broken it tumbles and steadies with a twist of grey - cloud-licked and clean, now measuring the weight of the sky again ..."
The sparkle jar of the title is used as a metaphor for the beauty of the natural world and its frailty in the hands of careless others. A jar filled with minnows, sparking and glinting with rainbow colours, is grabbed by older boys and smashed. “A little bang of luminous blue, a pulse of silver and a flopping thwack marked the end of my pocket universe.”
 
The book's episodic structure, moving back and forth in time,  is held together by several sections called The Bird. Here Packham relates his taking of a kestrel chick from a nest, rearing and training it. “I squashed the blob of meat on my thumb and went down on one trembling knee to ask the biggest question of my life. He was a jewel, radiant in the rich dawn light, his head bobbing. He was the centre point about which I danced, his tail fanning. He was all my absolute everything, his freedom terrifying.” His identification with the kestrel is so complete that in some passages he becomes the bird, sharing the exhilaration of its flight. The  illness and eventual death of this beautiful bird left the fourteen-year-old Packham utterly bereft. Years later, he tells his therapist, “I think too many things broke in that moment, things that couldn’t ever be mended.”
Bullied at school and accepting his outsider role, Packham later found in punk rock an outlet for suppressed anger. The joys and trials of childhood and adolescence are sharply recalled, rich in details that evoke 1970s suburban domestic life: Kia-Ora and jamboree bags, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Brooke Bond picture cards, Airfix models and the How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs, the Clash and the Sex Pistols and new stacked-heel shoes from Tru-Form.

I suspect that Chris Packham, having so obviously relished the exhilaration of the "sparkle jar" of words, will want to continue writing in this lushly descriptive vein. 

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