YOU might be forgiven for thinking that this is a book about natural history, particularly because each chapter has the title of a different animal or bird with the common English name followed by the zoological Latin one. But it isn’t. It’s a book about Simon Barnes.
He is the chief sports writer for the London Times, though he has also written novels and books and articles about nature. The subtitle of the book is a little more helpful — The Animal Kingdom & How It Shaped Me.
The book opens with: “The animal kingdom came to my rescue. It always has done. I suspect it always will. It rescued me at Sunnyhill Primary School, it rescued me in my adolescence, it has rescued me over and over again throughout my adult life.”
This sounds like a recipe for disaster. An egotistical journalist writes a mid-life crisis memoir and uses cute animals and birds to sell it. Luckily it doesn’t turn out like that. There are two things that save the day. First Barnes is a wonderful writer. He uses English in a lean, mean fashion and each of his 23 short essays on different periods in his life is superbly crafted. Second he has an excellent sense of humour which he is particularly keen to direct at himself.
Many of the chapters are about his native London and the south of England. But he has also travelled a lot, sometimes as a sportswriter and sometimes on dedicated wildlife journeys.
One chapter tells about a journalistic assignment to cover the Super Bowl in San Diego. He is feeling unwell, he is drinking too much, he is disillusioned by the media circus. So the day before the game he goes down to the waterfront and pays for a ride on a whale watching boat. An encounter with three grey whales completely cures his blues. This is what he means by the animal kingdom coming to the rescue.
There are also several chapters set in a national park in Zambia.
“There were also two game scouts, uniformed men with ancient, battered rifles whose job was to keep us safe when we walked in the bush. Perry Nyama, tall and impossibly slim, was the cool one. I’d have faced a charging elephant with him. In fact, I did: we were close to a small group, me, Perry, Manny and a tough old girl of an English client, when a small female elephant got wind of us and gave us a bit of a charge. Perry, nonchalantly leaning on his rifle, merely let go of the weapon and gave a handclap; Manny did exactly the same thing at the same moment as the elephant got within, say, 20 yards. She turned and made off, as if embarrassed by her faux pas.”
There is also a moving piece in which Barnes tries to communicate with his rebellious 15-year-old son. He decides to take him badger-watching. They spend over three hours sitting in a hide and no badgers appear. It gets dark and they are about to give up when a striped face appears above ground. The experience restores some communication between father and son.
The book is light reading and I probably won’t go back and read it again. I did really enjoy it but I’m hesitant to recommend it. I think some people will love it and others will be irritated by it.