Charles Foster: The Screaming Sky

The Screaming Sky

Charles Foster (author), Jonathan Pomroy (artist)

Published by Little Toller book, Apr 2021

There’s no way to write about the entirety of what’s referred to as ‘nature’. It’s too big, so writers are forced to narrow their focus to specific elements, and a common approach is to focus on a particular species and use that as an avatar, as the singular embodiment of a much larger concept, or by cleaving to the Hindu tradition, where an avatar is the actual manifestation of a deity. And for the author Charles Foster, that deity is the swift. This bird, a common presence in the skies of a British summer, is more unusual than you might think, and in its every aspect Foster regards them with a religious reverence that tips over into full-blown obsession. This is made clear from page one, thus removing any ambiguity and leaving the author free to detail that obsession, which he does with a kind of focused eccentricity that provides for high entertainment and fascinating insights.

‘I’m embarrassed to think they will be arriving soon. I want to tidy the place up for them – but that would mean demolishing England.’ This comes after he’s been in west Africa and the Middle East, tracking the bird’s annual migration north-westwards, and suggests that part of his reason to wandering about the northern hemisphere, with one eye always cocked skywards, is that he’s not especially fond of his home country. And yet it’s where he must return, as that’s where his beloved birds are heading, completing incredible journeys of monumental endeavor that makes human sojourns look rather pathetic by comparison. Some swifts departing from Liberia to Britain have been recorded as having completed the 3000-mile journey in 5 days, averaging 600 miles a day. Statistics like that force you to reconsider these small hollow-boned creatures in a new light, especially when our science in its attempts to explain how they possibly navigate these enormous distances fails utterly. We don’t know how they do it, but every year they do, and every year Charles Foster is there to watch them roll down out of the skies over Oxfordshire and slot themselves into hollows under rooftops to spawn and hatch another brood.

Charles Foster is a qualified veterinary surgeon, with a PhD in law/bioethics from the University of Cambridge, who now teaches Medical Law and Ethics at Oxford. How much of this feeds directly into the book is hard to say, but in his restless inquisitiveness and wide reading, the book benefits by his being able to draw for a sprawling variety of sources. His theological fascinations bleed through into the book, with ponderings on The Ark of the Covenant, the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. His interest in poetry allows him to draw from Wilfred Owen, R.S. Thomas and John Clare, but gives most of them short shrift when it comes to their perspectives on his favourite bird, ultimately dismissing all their efforts to capture the essence of the swift as ‘abject failure’. ‘Some try to lock swifts up inside language’ he writes. ‘It never works: swifts are far too fast to be snared by words.’ He’s especially unimpressed by Ted Hughes, suggesting that Ted used them as ‘…sedatives: CBT counsellors’ and leaves the final judgement on these trifling human efforts to the birds themselves: “Nought out of ten”, screech the swifts as they hurtle by beyond sight, thought and syntax, saving from themselves those who can hear them.’

Charles Darwin, Gilbert White, and even Aristotle appear later in the book, a messy collision in the hands of most other writers, but he ploughs on, supremely confident in the logic of his imagination. His conclusion, if there is one, is that as much as we now think we know about these birds, they remain deeply mysterious and as far removed from our rooted existences at the foot of a many miles deep gravity well as the creatures of fable and myth: the griffin, the phoenix, the thunderbird. And while the human species may now be locked into a death spiral of self-induced extinction, he remains confident that swifts, who flew the skies long before our ancestors walked upright, will still be around long after we’re gone, making their nests in the hollowed ruins of our hubris and folly.

Little Toller Books have impressed me for years now, with their consistently high production values, attention to detail, and unwavering focus on bringing different and distinctive perspectives on the natural world and our position within it. From Adam Thorpe’s rumination on the neolithic pyramid that has haunted his imagination in On Silbury Hill; to John Burnside’s Havergey, an imaginary island in the near future where the remnants of societal collapse are considered by a time traveller from our precipitous moment in history; to Iain Sinclair’s Black Apples of Gower, an unearthing of his buried memories of the Gower Peninsula, aided by Ceri Richards, Vernon Watkins, Dylan Thomas and a skeleton. They’re one of the most quietly radical publishers in the country, who clearly believe in the value and purpose of physical books, and this new release is no exception.

Though sparingly illustrated, Jonathan Pomroy’s artwork is used to great effect, especially on the cover which uses a crop of a watercolour depicting a twilit sky and the smoky silhouettes of swifts descending out of the indigo dusk. It establishes a mood of quiet awe and reverence for the subject that is the consistent thread throughout the whole text therein. Both men – writer and artist – are besotted with their subject, finding in swifts an embodiment of how they feel towards the entirety of the non-human world. The book, as small and compact as a swift, is as dense as lead with content and the very real sense that this was something worth doing, something worthy of your attention.

And it is.

R.Rawling, Apr 2021

Order a copy HERE, direct from the publishers.

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