Chris Packham’s book is a brave book, a very honest book, about growing up in the suburbs around Southampton. It must have been painful to write, excoriating. He was a loner, an outsider. He didn’t fit in at school. It was his burgeoning interest in wildlife that was his motivation and salvation.
The early chapters show his life from two points of view. There is an Old Soldier, a survivor from the Battle of El Alamein, who, standing in his garden at dusk, glimpses the boy crouching, studying something intently on the slope leading up to the wood.
In The Foxes we learn how Chris makes elaborate plans to slip out of the house unnoticed, hunkers down in the dusk waiting for the dog walkers to go home. Only then do the cubs venture out.
He glances back at the Old Soldier watching him. Most people call him creepy but the boy knows that he is damaged beyond repair from the war. Finally, after weeks of watching, the foxes accept him and he comes face to face with one: “It was indisputably and absolutely the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. And a secret too – my fox.”
The greater part of Chris’s book concerns his passion for The Bird, a Kestrel. His attempts to get help from The British Falconers Club and the Home Office are thwarted. Eventually, he takes the direct approach and, aided by his father, they take a young Kestrel, just about to fledge, from its nest. He fits it with jesses and bells. He breaks it to the fist, echoing the exhortations of Edmund Bert, the seventeenth century falconer: “She shall well be assured to find no other perch than the fist, from that time I rise until I go to bed.”
Chris found “every minute magical, every single thing it did was fascinating and everything it didn’t do was equally wondrous, and to be sat there, with a Kestrel, a real live Kestrel, my own real live Kestrel on my wrist! I felt like I had climbed through a hole in heaven’s fence, like something shiny had fallen and I had caught it with my heart.”
The story of the bird’s training is seen from those living nearby and from Chris’s point of view. The Old Lady in her garden is bewitched by the tinkling of the Kestrel’s bells and in The Neighbours a gang of children, banging on pots and pans scare the Kestrel off. Meanwhile Chris is ecstatic at how biddable his Kestrel is: “And then he came, in the sweetest flurry of shallow flaps and ringing tinkles followed by a long slow glide and a rush up on to my fist to crouch and snatch the titbit and flick it back and swallow it and I smoothly reached up and held the jesses and he was mine again and I breathed again.”
Chris had worked hard. The Kestrel was steadfast, a made hawk, until the day it spotted another Kestrel. It was off like a flash chasing after it. No amount of whistling could lure it back, Hours later he hears the tinkling of its bells. Eventually he spots it on the roof of his neighbour’s house. He whistles and gradually coaxes it down until he could grab hold of its jesses.
The Kestrel became ill. Nothing Chris tried helped. Eventually the bird was so weak that Chris’s Dad tried feeding it some glucose solution. “But in a second it was gone, my father rolled the bird in a towel and took it out, my mother wrestled me into bed, turned out the light and closed the door. Gone. Darkness. Confusion.”
He has a nervous breakdown. Painfully he reveals his feelings, his doubts, to an anxious but sympathetic analyst. It is a harrowing experience.
Finally, the title “Fingers in the Sparkle Jar” What does it mean?
I’m not going to tell you. There is a chapter devoted to it and like the rest of the book it is brilliantly written and utterly absorbing.