I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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Birds in Words

John Feehan
Four Fields, by Tim Dee, Jonathan Cape, 288 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-0224090728 It is four years now since the publication of The Running Sky, which has become a classic of modern nature writing, widely acclaimed for the way it combines precision of observation with lyricism of language; indeed, it is one of the most beautifully written bird books in English. The observant eye of Tim Dee’s new book, Four Fields, is that of the experienced bird watcher we became acquainted with in The Running Sky. The same observant eye takes in the detail of everything about him, and the encounter is crystallised in wonderful, often startling, metaphor. The concentrated language require that some passages must be read with close attention: you find yourself reading sentences and paragraphs over again, as you might with a sonorous poem (it comes as no surprise to learn that Dee commissions and produces poetry programmes for the BBC). His gift for metaphor spills over into everything else, at its best flowing on and on, the language distilled to a lyrical intensity that elevates it to rank with the finest nature writing of modern times. Episodes of personal and wider history alternate with passages of observation and description. Ordinary things and experiences are often described with a minimum of defining detail that sketches the scene indelibly on the mind, their significant outlines sparely delineated; and always there are the birds, around which these other encounters with landscape are woven: in the Ukraine bustards and calandra larks, swallows and black grouse, nightjars and demoiselle cranes, black woodpecker, none introduced without a striking metaphor or a string of them. Sometimes the metaphors are simple and startling. On the fens “Once, on ploughland far from the sea, I saw a storm-wrecked gannet looking like an abandoned wedding dress. Once, in a field after a thunderstorm, I found a swift grounded – a dropped glove.” When a whitethroat arrives from the northern Sahel in spring it is not merely an addition to the local fen avifauna, it comes to define the place: the bird “settled to its summer anchor and the place grew up around it”. Some of the bird pictures are more extended, for example his delightful description of snipe feeding, the result of eight hours watching them at the end of each afternoon during one autumn week: “Parties of the birds put the wind up themselves sometime and hurried off the…

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