Patrick Barkham's account of a year spent looking for all of Britain's butterflies is a wonderfully well balanced book. While his quest for the 59 species known to breed in the UK is central to the book, there is so much more to the story that just his quest for each species.
The book seems to follow the tradition of a number of bird watching stories where a person (often, but not inevitably, a man) seeks to see all, or as many as possible, of some form of list. What separates this book from some of the more mundane "number chase" books is the complexity and intent of the material that revolves around the central chase.
There is the relationship with the author's father, which is interwoven with childhood memories. This aspect of the book glows with remembered affection, but, thankfully, seems to avoid sentimentality. There is the relationship with Lisa, his girlfriend, which for a few pages dominates the book, but is always present elsewhere. There is the nature of the environment, both ours and the butterflies. The contrast between the condition of sites that the author had visited as a child and their current condition is used to highlight the issues that face butterflies and the wider natural world. While there is little new in this particular aspect of the book, it is remarkably effecting at showing the range of issues and challenges that our wild places face today.
A regular theme is the challenge of conservation, with good new stories (such as the Large Blue) as well as the more side spread bad news stories. If ever we needed more evidence that conservation is a multi-faceted activity that depends at its heart on good biological knowledge, then it could be found within the pages of this book.
And finally, centrally, there are the butterflies that weave their way through all the aspects of this book. Beautiful, plain, robust, delicate common or shockingly rare, each plays a part. Some are seen with remarkable ease, other prove more elusive. Although the book inevitably becomes a kind of check list of sightings, it never becomes simply just a catalogue of success or failure. The personality of each species is brought to the fore in a way that is both charming and probably accurate.
I would recommend this book most highly, not only to those who have childhood memories of buddleia, thick with butterflies, or for those who see the butterflies of today and are capture by their charm and grace, but also to those who are interested in first rate nature writing.
on 15 October 2010
This is a very accomplished book which goes beyond just butterflies. Weaved through the pages of Barkham's butterfly hunt is personal narrative, natural history and travel writing. It is a hugely enjoyable, touching and funny book. And it contains a delectable cliff hanger: Will he manage to see all 59 British butterflies in just one summer? Throughout the book, I willed him to succeed. He took me to parts of Britain that I did not know existed but now want to see. He rekindled within me an interest in these curious creatures I too had loved when I was a child. I know Barkham, and I know he is a great writer. What I did not know is how much he loved butterflies. He has combined his two passions to make for a magical read. Any lover of nature would cherish this book. My birdwatching dad will definitely be getting a copy for Christmas.
Engaging account of a rather Quixotic mission to see all of Britain's butterfly species in a single year.
This is a great idea for a book, giving a structure and narrative drive to a study of a specific area of Natural History. Although, in fairness, there is very little drama involved in Barkham's quest; As he readily admits himself, it boils down to a bit of research, mostly on the Net, and getting actual experts in the field to show him rarer species, the biggest problems he faces are bad traffic and, ultimately, a slight sense of boredom (p.278.)However, the real point of the book is to describe the various species of butterfly found in Britain and to celebrate them.
Barkham's interest in his subject is definately amateur. Any of the more qualified experts he consults-including the authors of the mighty "Millennium Atlas..."-in his search would, surely, be able to write a more authorative description of the butterflies of Britain? But it is the fact that our author is such a relative novice that makes his quest so appealing. The reader can share the author's pleasure in learning more about his rich subject matter, a more expert author would only be able to impart his knowledge, not have a joint experience in gaining the knowledge.
Not all the species are given equal space, some-particularly the Large and Small Skippers and the Ringlet-are given rather short shrift. Perhaps a separate heading or sub-chapter for each species would have avoided this problem.
The author's photos are an important part of the book, Barkham often mentions taking pictures of the species he sees; Strangely however, not all the species photos are included...some of them, even those who are specifically mentioned in the text (e.g. Mountain Ringlet) are not shown. Some of the colour pages are taken up with standard ID pictures of most (not all) species. This is nice but not vital, many identification guides exist, surely including a shot the author took of every one of the butterflies would have been a better use of space.
The main strength of "The Butterfly Isles" is the author's obvious truthfulness. Many of the situations and characters he meets could easily have been polished a bit to make them seem odder or funnier (e.g., the "innocent" walk by the Thames, P.65) but the author is admirably honest. In the course of the year the reader is allowed to glimpse the author's own life, particularly his realtionship with his father and girlfriend but only in passing. The butterflies themselves are the main subject. Hopefully many readers will be encouraged to learn more about them, and the Butterfly Conservation is given a good plug.
A useful site guide and bibliography (including, quite rightly "Finn Family Moomintroll" and "Brendon Chase") round off the book.
on 11 October 2010
I picked this up after meeting the author briefly at a book festival* rather than out of any interest in butterflies, so I wasn't prepared for how fascinated I was about to become. For a start, it's brilliantly written: Barkham conjures the personalities and foibles of each species of UK butterfly (I liked the 'viscious, self-satisfied' Green Hairstreak, with its dirty sexual morals, best) in lucid, witty and beautifully-coloured prose, and manages to tap back into a childhood fascination with nature - he's still looking, wide-eyed, at things most grown ups are too busy to see.
This book is more than just nature writing, though: it's travelogue, journalism, history (of the Aurelian movement, those eccentric old Victorian lepidopterists) and also social geography: the story of Britain's butterflies is bound up with the story of Britain's changing urban and rural spaces over the last century. It's also an examination of the obsessive behaviour of collectors, a touching tribute to a father-son relationship, and there's a cracking narrative binding it all together, too. An utterly lovely read.
*He was wearing a t-shirt with butterflies on it.
on 23 October 2010
I had seen this book and thought it would be of interest to me. Birdwatching is my main hobby although I have had sojourns into the world of lepidoptera from time to time (I am up to 44 species of butterfly, Purple Emperor was the last new one I saw, and I regularly trap moths, so a bit of a saddo I guess!) but I grew rather suspicious about this book when I saw three 5* reviews all from first time reviewers. Oh no Patrick Barkham has got his mates to review his book and give it the top rating......or has he?
So with a huge chunk of cynicism and a 'I know what's coming, a two star load of rubbish, or worse a 'Tim Dee Running Sky' encyclopaedia of tedious literary quotations and smugness about how intelligent I am' feeling I began to read the book.
I desperately wanted it to be rubbish so I could write a 'told you so' review, but I simply can't. I absolutely loved the book, so much so I have stayed in bed until 11.45 today to finish it.
Patrick Barkham's best quality is that despite clearly being a well educated person and a butterfly pervert he is not 'up himself'. When I read these types of books (not necessarily about Natural History) I think would I want to meet this person or, in this case, go out butterfly watching with him? In this case it would be a resounding 'yes'. Not pretentious at all, perhaps self deprecating in parts but wholly honest in his writing, he comes across as a decent humorous enthusiast who loves his hobby yet recognises the frailties that it unearths in him.
There are literary quotes but these were done with such skill that I didn't feel that it was a quotefest unlike Tim Dee's book. I think it is probably a cross between Alex Horne's 'Birdwatchingwatching' and Tim Dee's 'Running Sky' and works better than either of those books.
I expect the purists will hate this because as Patrick points out you mustn't anthropomorphosise a butterfly which he does, and good for him for doing that when he could easily have made this a stale dull book to please them.
There were a few typos and errors in the book ('relict' not 'relic' population surely? And 'Dad' and 'dad' annoyed me, pedant that I am) and normally I would deduct a star for that, but I am not because even I can see it would be churlish.
A great book and very pleased to have read it and found out that the other reviews were indeed spot on.
on 5 December 2010
I bought this book partly because I liked the cover but wasn't sure if I'd find it riviting enough. I usually read murder mystery (Peter Robinson), but i'd just moved to a property where the next door neighboor has a wierd Budlia that in August was covered in butterflies. This coincided with a review of the Butterfly Isle and I wanted to know more. Strangely, I have been hooked on this book since I started reading it. It's conveniently in little sub-chapters so if, like me, you just want to read a little before going off to sleep it's ideal. You will find yourself reading it at other times, just to know if he manages to tick off another on his list. Patrick leads you on a journey in his search for each Butterfly and without realising it he tells you many interesting facts. You suddenly realise why it is so important to stop airport runways and by-passes because every time we mess with nature we are upsetting a delicate balance. Parts of it are like a murder mystery - when he describes how so many species have been affected by what man does or doesn't do. If the book gives you the butterfly bug there are lovely illustrations so that you can do your own spotting in the summer, which is what I fully intend to do.
on 3 February 2011
Just finished reading this. What did I think?
This was actually a double test as I got, by request, a Kindle for Xmas, mostly as a way of conveniently storing more books in no space. I'm an addicted reader and owner of books, and I have a fairly small house which ran out of storage space a long time ago. But it also looks like it will be cheaper as the lure of all those free e-books is pretty strong! Anyway, I bought the Kindle version of the book.
The Butterfly Isles is an account of the author's (a Guardian journalist) attempt to observe all the British butterfly species in the wild in one year, undertaken in 2009. Butterfly watchers out there will associate 2009 forever with Painted Ladies, as we experienced an enormous spring influx of adults of this species from North Africa making it perhaps the most commonly observed species in 2009. The Painted Lady migration does feature in the book, but more of them later.
The book is organized by season and takes you, in sequence, through each of the moments when the author ticked another species off his list. Some of the observations are casual; in his Mum's garden or on his way to somewhere; opportunistic encounters. But by far the majority had to be observed as planned trips to nature reserves. Butterfly watchers (or Aurelians as Barkham refers to them throughtout the book) will be familiar with this necessity. As a result, the book resembles a sort of entomological travelogue. The places Barkham visits are as interesting as his real subjects the butterflies, and so are the people he meets along the way. To get to see the more difficult species, Barkham enlists the help of several conservationists, scientists and amateur Aurelians, whose characters and conversations also pepper the book, as does their battles to save what's left of our butterfly fauna. Barkham is also charmingly and disarmingly open about his own feelings on his quest; the thrills and frustrations, the loneliness, the conflicts and shared experiences with family and friends and strangers. His descriptions of each of the butterflies he encounters are also very vivid and make the whole experience very real for the reader. I'm not exaggerating when I say it does make you want to go out and see them for yourself. Towards the end of the book the reader is of course aching to know if he will tick off the last couple of species of if the quest is doomed to failure. I won't spoil it for you. It's actually funny how that really matters; in the end the book becomes curiously not about butterflies at all but about whether humans can still connect with nature in the twenty first century. A feature of the book that emphasizes this is the descriptions of Aurelian experiences from centuries ago and the contrast with the present day: the Swallowtails of the Thames valley and the Camberwell Beauties of Camberwell are long gone.
I enjoyed the book a lot, and learned a lot, and Barkham had no trouble keeping me interested right to the end. The Kindle version was of course black and white, so I lost the colour plates at the end of the book which illustrate all the British species along with pictures of many of the specimens that Barkham actually observed on his quest. But I have other butterfly books and don't feel I lost out on much. If you don't know the British butterflies already and want to know what they look like I'd recommend getting a hard copy in colour. In all this book gets four stars.
on 2 December 2010
I am a butterfly enthusiast and proud to admit that butterflies are a major aspect of my life, so maybe I am totally biased when I write that this book is absolutely fantastic. I am only up to page 40! Spring is still unfolding but I have finished the chapter on Winter. Patrick Barkham acknowledges that with butterflies need for sunshine,warmth and flowers enthusiasm for them might be seasonal. Some dedicated individuals search bare winter trees and bushes for eggs, whilst others dream of the first butterflies of the new year.
But for me time will be well spent this winter journeying through The Butterfly Isles, a book that will certainly ensure readers are beguiled by butterflies. Hopefully this book will achieve the author's ambition of appealing to people beyond the 15,000 or so enthusiasts in the country and in so doing increase peoples' interest in helping to conserve these wonderful insects.
It is fitting that the book is dedicated to Patrick Barkham's father John, who, for many years, was a hard working supporter of the national charity Butterfly Conservation [...]
on 7 February 2011
This is the story of Patrick Barkham's quest to see all of the butterflies native to the British Isles in one Summer.
As the author points out, he is not the first or only person to try this or to write about it, but he tells the story in such an engaging way that I found myself torn between wanting him to succeed (because I really started to feel for him towards the end), and wanting each trip he made to yield as few species as possible so that the story would continue a little bit longer.
In addition to making the most of the story of his search, Patrick Barkham also adds in information about the butterflies, their habits and their personalities. He also talks about butterfly hunters old and new, with characters such as Matthew Oates (recently featuring on BBC R4's saving species series) adding to the story.
In a well written tale the author takes you from the south coast to Scottish hillsides, across the Irish Sea to Northern Ireland and off into Central England's woodlands. (I always associated butterflies with gardens and was amazed how many were mainly found in wooded areas!) Much of his mission is undertaken on his own with interjections from childhood memories and occasional help and guidance from butterfly experts and family members (aka his dad who started Patrick's boyhood interest in butterflies).
The author's interest in butterflies is infectious and has resulted in a number of books making it into my Amazon shopping basket - beware -this book is not good for your bank balance or bookshelves! If you have any interest in natural history in general or would like to read more about butterflies then I cannot recommend this book enough. If you know a lot about butterflies already then it is probably still worth a read, if only to sympathise with the vagaries of butterfly spotting.
on 10 October 2010
Barkham brings the butterflies and the english countryside to life with his detailed and lively descriptions. From the first page you are willing him to find all 59 species, and you feel his anxiety as he sets out on yet another butterfly mission on wet summer's day.
Barkham recounts the importance these tiny, beautiful creatures have played in his life with humour (binoculars are not a good look), candour, and the passion of a true enthusiast. I know Barkham, and can tell you that yes, he does run off mid-conversation as soon as any butterfly flutters past. A wonderful read, with beautiful plates. A must for nature lovers and a fabulous gift.