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4.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating and unique insight into wildlife - and everyday life - in south east London during and after WW2,, 29 Nov. 2014
This review is from: Grey Daggers and Minotaurs in Greenwich Park: Memories of a London Schoolboy Naturalist in the 1940s (Paperback)
Grey Daggers and Minotaurs is based on extracts from the author’s diaries he wrote as a schoolboy in the 1940s. Although Greenwich Park features strongly, there are numerous accounts of other sites he visited in South London. To fully disclose, I was lucky enough to receive a free copy from the publishers. So, here is a summary of my thoughts.

John Burton’s observations of nature (particularly birds, plants, butterflies and moths) form the bulk of the book, but there’s plenty for other readers and the book is easy to dip into. Anybody interested in life in the 1940s is also well-served. For example, there is a hair-raising account of the author’s narrow escape from a Nazi bomb in Greenwich and the tragic loss of his friend in Charlton who sadly wasn’t so lucky. These reports are all the more poignant to readers who know well the places he refers to. He also gives his account of conversations with German prisoners of war who were put to work in Greenwich Park (surely one of the luckier groups of POWs in those days), even befriending one man and surreptitiously passing him chocolate bars! Burton’s open-minded, scientific approach is evident here – he prefers to see what these men have to say as individuals rather than dismissing every German as a monster, despite the falling bombs, reports of Holocaust atrocities and the prevailing mood at the time. Blackheath was used by the military in the 1940s and the author recounts how, surprisingly, this actually helped wildlife to survive, as the trampling feet of casual visitors were much reduced.

The author’s passion for wildlife and learning comes across vividly, enhanced by his own diary illustrations and grainy photographs of the sites he and his friends visited. Burton gives lively descriptions of other sights that seem incredible to those of us who know the area today - a Sand Martin colony in Charlton, Tree Sparrows in Greenwich Park and Lapwings nesting on Plumstead Marshes (since lost when Thamesmead was created!).

Burton also comments generally about our society’s increasing disconnection from nature. The resulting ignorance or indifference often leads to much destruction, loss of beauty and loss of biodiversity. On a more positive note, Burton suggests that Greenwich Park is in many ways better for wildlife than back in the day, while the Thames has been vastly improved and currently holds more wetland birds and fish than for a very long time indeed.

This book is highly recommended for anyone interested in the history or wildlife of SE London, particularly the changes that have taken place since then, and would be fascinating for those wishing to understand what it was like for a South London lad to live through World War Two and the first years of peace.
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4.0 out of 5 stars John F. Burton - one of the original urban birders, 13 Feb. 2014
This review is from: Grey Daggers and Minotaurs in Greenwich Park: Memories of a London Schoolboy Naturalist in the 1940s (Paperback)
'Grey Daggers and Minotaurs in Greenwich Park: Memories of a London Schoolboy Naturalist in the 1940s' is based on the illustrated Natural History diaries that the author, John F. Burton, began writing in 1942 and has maintained ever since. It is the story of how one young South East London boy, midst the war-time experience of the Battle of Britain, and the onslaught of the Blitz and the V1 and V2 attacks on London, developed his nascent interest and fascination in birds, butterflies, beetles, and other wildlife species into a post-war professional life dedicated to Ornithology and Natural History.

Many of his diary entries with accompanying drawings and photographs are reproduced in the book, and recall with immediacy and freshness his memories of those now-distant days and field trips. Although the 1940s are long gone, 'Grey Daggers and Minotaurs in Greenwich Park' will pique the interest of all generations who are fascinated by wildlife.

Born in Greenwich, London, John Burton began bird-watching in 1940 at the age of nine but gradually expanded his interests to other branches of Natural History as well, especially insects and wild plants. While still at school he became active in the junior branch of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and also in the London Natural History Society. As a result he was appointed by the Royal Parks as an official bird observer for Greenwich Park at the age of 16. On leaving school in 1948, his career took him from London’s Natural History Museum to Assistant Secretary of the British Trust for Ornithology, Oxford University and the editorial staff of Encyclopaedia Britannica. He began broadcasting on wildlife subjects on BBC radio in the 1950s and in 1960 joined the internationally famous BBC Natural History Unit, where he ran and developed the BBC’s renowned library of wildlife sounds as well as broadcasting on radio and television, and producing radio programmes. Amongst the latter was his long-running series Sounds Natural, that featured interviews with eminent people and celebrities interested in wildlife and its conservation, such as Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, Lord Home of the Hirsel, Bing Crosby, Humphrey Lyttelton, Spike Milligan, Eric Morecambe, Sir Harry Secombe and Frank Thornton. He was also involved in television production. Now in his eighties, John is still an active field naturalist and author. He is a Vice-President of Butterfly Conservation, a Scientific Fellow of the Zoological Society of London and a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society. His previous books include The Oxford Book of Insects, Downland Wildlife and Birds and Climate Change.
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