Last year was the 100th anniversary of the collation of a rather special list. Much to my shame, both the list and its anniversary completely passed me by. As has the fascinating, poignant history of the man behind the list, a Mr Charles Rothschild.
Rothschild was from ‘good stock’. A Harrow man, son of a baron, he was a dedicated public servant and a pretty dab hand as a banker. He also happened to be a skilled entomologist; his work on fleas is still relevant to this day. He was also one of Britain’s first conservationists, and he remains one of the most important figures in British conservation history.
The list in question was in many ways the genesis (with both a capital and lower-case G) of British nature conservation as we know it. It was the brainchild of Rothschild’s organisation, The Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves, which would eventually become the Wildlife Trusts. The SPNR was stacked full of high-minded scientists, aristocrats and businessmen with enough time and emancipation to realise the value of the natural world. They decided that it was in dire need of protection, and that they really ought to do something about it, and so they did. The first thing they did was draw up a list of places that they decided deserved to be nature reserves. Today, many of them are.
So, more fool me. Fortunately, the Wildlife Trusts, in collaboration with Simon Barnes and the illustrator Nick Pollard, have produced a rather wonderful ebook, ‘Prophet and Loss’, which treats the subject admirably.
In the book, Barnes potters about visiting seven of the places noted in the list. Some have been protected and even improved for wildlife since Rothschild’s day, while others have been lost completely. As he potters away, Barnes tells us the stories of the places he visits, Rothschild’s own story, and indeed the history of British conservation.
Truly excellent ‘nature writing’ is one of the trickiest forms to master. Fortunately the Wildlife Trusts found an expert craftsman in Simon Barnes. An old hand of ‘proper journalism’ with 16 books under his belt and 32 years at The Times, Barnes is a master of the lost arts of constructing an argument, using sustained metaphor, structuring ideas and layering imagery and themes. He manages this with his distinctive style; a light, candid lyricism which somehow manages to avoid pretension. If he is occasionally prone to fits of florid verbosity (for example, ‘something so utterly wonderful that it seemed for a moment as if the processes of life had been suspended’), then we can forgive him that, because he is after all writing about flowers, among other things. (And after all, what writer isn’t prone to fits of florid verbosity? Certainly not one who would include the phrase ‘florid verbosity’ in an online article…) Most importantly, Barnes combines great passion for his subject matter with a clear mind and polished erudition, which ensures that this book is both accessible and occasionally rather profound.
The book is illustrated by Nick Pollard, whose evocative, timeless splashes of colour sit alongside historical postcards of the places that Barnes visits. Pollard’s studies, vivid, loose and visceral, are exciting enough to deserve their own review by someone with more knowledge of fine art than myself.
Every now and then you hear about a subject and you realise that you should have known about it for a long time, and it reminds you that you are not quite so clever as you thought you were. Great books not only remind us that there is always more to learn about the world, but also crystallise dimly felt thoughts and emotions into full phrases and philosophies that resonate like fine-cut glass. It is only a short work, but Prophet and Loss is one of those books.
As far I’m aware, the book has yet to make it to print. Happily, you can buy the PDF version for a quid, and can get a kindle version too. Here’s a link:
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