Caught by the River

In Search of One Last Song

Tim Dee | 11th May 2022

Despair and sadness smoke up off the pages of Patrick Galbraith’s debut, writes Tim Dee.

Here are ten chapters on some of the most threatened birds in Britain, each told by meetings with a diverse human crew involved one way or another with the species: nightingale, hen harrier, lapwing, black grouse, kittiwake, capercaillie, turtle dove, grey partridge, bittern, and corncrake. None of these birds, except perhaps the bittern, are faring well in Britain today. And Patrick Galbraith makes no promises that we are in for anything other than an unhappy time. The cover text, the dedication, the narrative preamble (a memory of a rabbit shoot in Dumfriesshire) all imply a quest undertaken without much hope. 

It is indeed a downbeat book, and I must say right away that I struggled to like it as much as I would have wished. The writing is strong, the book an impressive debut, establishing Galbraith as a quality writer. His project also has what ought to be an energising agenda, seeking to correct a prevailing narrative as to who knows (or even owns) nature in Britain and what it means, and who therefore might tell us how best its birds should be preserved. Unless, Galbraith says through his encounters with his selection of (mostly) alternative or contrarian conservationists, we have contact with the wild and get intimate with its living material meshed in the web of life, we cannot admit it fully to our minds, neither to our understanding nor to our imagination. We cannot care for what we do not love. I agree wholeheartedly with that, who wouldn’t? That said, Galbraith’s book struggles to demonstrate what it is arguing for. It reads as a fugitive text, at times even at war with itself, and never quite saying, I think, what it intends. It certainly doesn’t hear many of the songs it sets out to hear, while the remedies it passes on for the preservation of the last of the wild mostly restage the old battles (loved by gamekeepers above all) between the supposed unnatural or out of control wild (non-human) predators and their vulnerable or disabled prey. Killings are called for. The diagnosis is bleak if not terminal. And, in the end, despair and sadness smoke up off these pages more than the subject-birds or their friends or our author: its songs, such as they can be heard, are not the nightingale’s or any other birds, but rather human laments for lost species, and cracked ones at that. 

The book starts with two jolts. A double barrel. First, those shot rabbits prompt a wistful memory retro-actively firing off the subject for investigation. Then a barely explained encounter with Chris Packham sours a second start. After that, we are underway, species by species. Never was it totally clear to me who Galbraith is nor why he wanted to write his book. The meetings with the bird men (and they are almost all men and mostly men of a certain vintage) are told with a journalistic verve. Galbraith gets a lot from his contributors but rarely details his own views or the nature of his participation in the meeting. Novel-ish details and colour are everywhere, the birds hardly ever. One section winds down: ‘No lights on in the village shop and the George and Dragon is closed’. Another chapter ends:

On our way out of town, beyond the retirement homes and semi-detached bungalows, we pass a man up a step-ladder outside a flat-roofed church. He’s reaching up and sanding down Jesus’s legs. The winter weather has left him pale and flaky and he needs another coat.

This is good stuff, if perhaps a little needily overworked, and it and many similar scenes make the book as much a tour of worn-out and broken-down rural Britain as anything that might be labelled nature-writing. That it doesn’t read like nature-writing isn’t a bad thing at all (none of the nature writers I know want to be thought of as that), but Galbraith’s book is still trading on birds and the birds it is said to be at least half about (the subtitle: ‘Britain’s disappearing birds and the people trying to save them’) are rarely directly present in its pages. And I missed them. I know that is partly the point, many are invisible as near gone, but their absence here is in other ways telling. Galbraith meets people who have been intimate with the imperilled species, but he has only a few encounters of his own (either in his recorded past or in the chronology of the book itself). Consequently, his prose about the birds feels distant, even estranged, and the avian rarities are mostly remembered by others rather than known by our author. I understand the anxiety of influence and the need to be on your guard against J.A. Baker or any other heavyweight meister colouring your raptors or whatever. I know the need to make it new and to re-feather the heavenly bric-a-brac (not even I want to wank on like me), but the phrases that Galbraith throws at a few birds sound off, and his writing can feel wilfully flat when attending to its core material: ‘the shrill song of siskins’, a robin’s ‘inquisitive song’, snipe ‘shrieking across the sky’, ‘the trilling of blackbirds’, sparrows ‘trilling’. Make it new, yes, but make it true, surely, too… Try your coinage trilling back out on a sparrow and you’ll feel it wrong, simple as that. 

More damaging I think is Galbraith’s dependency on the testimony of his interviewees for any bird-energy (what makes Baker’s The Peregrine extraordinary and enduring is his capture and harnessing of his subjects’ violence and life-struggle, etc.) and, three poets aside (the sections on Colin Simms, Tom Pickard and Katrina Porteous are among the best pages here), few of Galbraith’s people (he must have recorded them – there are pages of direct speech) have enough original or quality words to adequately speak out loud their obsessions. The payoffs from these people, deemed still to be in some sort of deep contact/consort with these vanishing birds, the big why-nightingales-deeply-matter to me quotations, are often rather floaty. A nightingale man says – ‘That was the sound I dreamed about as a boy…we cannot lose that…to lose that, for me, would just be the end’. A turtle dove man says, ‘he can’t remember when he didn’t love turtle doves, but that the more their numbers have diminished, the stronger that love has grown.’ Those who seek to kill whatever predator they regard as doing in their birds have a more visceral vocabulary to hand, and Galbraith quotes these words freely too, but that only serves to make his book, at moments of its strongest language, seem bloodied in defeat. 

All passion spent, the birds gone, the sometime un-articulate lovers of the birds are met staring at empty spaces, and a matt downbeat tone glazes the whole enterprise. You could say that writing about reality is depressing because reality is depressing, but if you’ve only got other people’s equivocal (hackneyed or bloody) lift-offs to transcribe, your dirigible will bump along the bruised earth for page after page. Galbraith knows this, I think, but is trapped by his chosen episodic form. Nor can he be rescued by his escape strategies which are on show in his framing of these episodes. The book lacks momentum. The shape of each of its chapters is necessarily the same. And the mood too. There were once these birds, they danced for me (man one, two, three etc.,) in their own way, they marked me, and marked me in this place, that was theirs, I came to understand them, but other people around me didn’t share the meaning I took from the birds, and these other people called the shots, and the birds are now gone, whilst I’m still here and though I think I know what we might do to keep the species back, it doesn’t seem to be happening, and now I am somehow out on the far side of life, a ‘grumpy prick’ perhaps, and, by the sound of things, a lonely one too…

Even more of the evasive or absent feel to the book comes, I think, from our camouflaged or parenthetical author. He tells us right at the start that he is a shooter who has put down his gun to think about everything that being a nature-loving hunter might mean regarding the ten threatened birds. But then he basically disappears and apart from one or two subsequent sentences we hardly know where he stands regarding his quarry. Meanwhile, the species he has chosen are revealing –­ a large portion are birds that have had a shooting-related past in Britain (game birds and predators of game birds, and other species whose fortunes might also be tied to game and game-keeping – are nightingales suffering because unchecked deer are eating their breeding habitat? etc.) Furthermore, the correction Galbraith wants to make to the big conservation or scientific narrative of human activities (persecution, hunting, land use and abuse, climate change) being responsible for the decimation of species, makes him in the end, despite subtlety and nuance in his writing, an apologist for a throwback yarn of man (men, in fact) being the best thing for nature, for man (men) the manager, of husbandry, for the legitimate killer on behalf (asserted not negotiated) of some weak bits of nature against other bits deemed unnaturally powerful and needing violent control. For these bad bits read ‘bastard’ crows, ‘capable’ rats, badgers, squirrels, foxes, weasels, pine martens, buzzards, sparrowhawks, ‘this fucking goshawk’ – the all-too familiar black-list of predators that those men, who believe themselves to be – like Adam in Eden – ordained guardians of nature, know to be the true enemy. Nature, this anecdotal idiot wisdom declares, is bad for nature. Nature scientists, it also says, are no use either; the knowledge or policies of Natural England, the RSPB, the BTO, hardly get a look in. Galbraith is careful to set himself (and his interviewees) against the lawbreakers (like hen harrier shooters) and the extremist pundits (those who write on the sparrowhawk Armageddon etc.) But the bottom line, more or less, is that to keep lapwings we must kill badgers: ‘they haven’t got a fucking hope in hell with Billy Brock everywhere.’ The new take on our contemporary nature crisis and what might be done to ameliorate it turns out to be an old silent-type with a set of traps and snares (mental as well as wired) who, when warmed up, will go on (or snare himself) as to how wildlife crime doesn’t exist, how rearing grouse is good for curlews (even for hen harriers), how only hunters will save the grey partridge, how townspeople have never understood the countryside, and about how cruel crows are and deserving of every murdering….

This might be all a confirmation of what Galbraith (who tells us he turned down gamekeeping training to read English at university and thereafter was for some time an editor of a hunting magazine) has long believed. But I think the book records a sort of crisis in its author about that, although without ever clearly saying what is going on. Is he trying to write himself away from those beliefs or does he seek to endorse them? A bit of both perhaps, but that uncertainty may well break his book. He says the following to an animal-rights activist in his hen harrier chapter: ‘I tell him I really feel that everybody I know who shoots is opposed to hen harrier persecution. The polished words tumble out of my mouth – I’ve said them so many times they feel as though they aren’t mine anymore.’

The same fugitive effect marks Galbraith’s writing into and away from each bird episode. Here’s another page on the hen harrier: Galbraith has failed to meet the poet, Colin Simms; he hasn’t seen a harrier on his trip; he’s driving away from missed poet and missed raptor and stops on Ilkley Moor, not for birds. The book is dedicated ‘to all those people trying to preserve the beauty of the world’ but we already know that they might be people who would crush a buzzard (‘we drove out into the open where he brought his boot down on the still-warm bodies, stamping them into a bog’). We also already know that our author is keen to go against nature-romance, plangency, anything that might sound too plashy (‘For half an hour I sit wondering whether this is the bit when I’m meant to feel some wholeness or like I’ve discovered a part of myself’). These reality-check wide-angle shots end many of the sections, where the camera of the prose pulls back to take in the incidental edges and wider context of all that we are to think has mattered up until now (the book often has the feel of a shooting script/screenplay). Here, some of the best writing happens (when he talks, he disappears, when he looks, we see him – any future Galbraith novel might grow from this sort of his writing), but these scenes come again and again, and their effect is to diminish what they surround rather than establish or place it. Almost every one of these corrective incidents are in some exurban grimy moment on a hybrid edge-land. A place that birds are missing from. We get the point, but then we are asked to get it again, and again, and again. Bathos can be a tic as much as pathos a cliché. I lost count of the number of times Patrick ‘pisses’. We get a measurement of his ‘cock’ too. Someone else ‘puckers his mouth likes a dog’s arsehole.’ He eats all the way through his book, as well (gingerbread, a caramel wafer, sausage rolls, rabbit pie, custard creams munched ‘naked’, scampi tails, ‘porky ballast’…). All such bodily functioning comes as a kind of anti-lyrical device. But, as any former student of literature knows, the anti-masque was part of every masque – and anti-pastoral is another version of pastoral. 

People in twos and threes are spread out across the cow {a boulder on Ilkley Moor}, watching the pink sky soften. On my left, girls in running gear are sharing a bottle of rosé, and above me, three teenage boys are passing a spliff back and forth. It is the eve of the Glorious Twelfth, 9 p.m., still 28 degrees. Beneath the rocks a lost lamb, almost old enough for slaughter, is bleating and further down, on the road rising up out of Ilkley, a man in lycra is fighting a bicycle, weaving all over the road, churning a big gear.

This excursion continues: 

I look from the sky to the people’s faces and I wonder, in a secular digital age, if we are now turning to the wilds for faith and silence, but the gods in the hills and hedgerows, the hen harriers and the turtledoves are fading too. 

That says not very much, but its Arnoldian fuzziness, (‘Dover Beach’ and tides of faith have just been intimated), the very softness of its thought, is a trigger to Galbraith, the thinker of the thought, who knows he must deploy an IED against the rising waft of his own seriousness: 

‘’What you got a notepad for?” A boy in his late teens is shouting across at me. “Are you a copper?” On my left the hill drops away stiffly. “It’s for a book about birds and art and about how birds make us human and stuff”, I reply.

Did he really say that I wonder? 

The boy shouts it – “Big lad’s writing about birds!” – the people he’s with start laughing. He turns back and lowers his voice. “Nobody wants to read about birds. People want to read about drugs and sex and stuff.” He draws hard on his vape and exhales. “Write about that, lad, and put me in it.”    

I too set off my own IEDs in and against my own writing; I know I must get the critique in before anyone else levels it. I am sympathetic to Patrick, but I wonder if he might have faced it all down better by showing himself less camouflaged. Argue on behalf of the hen harrier killers, perhaps. Ask more openly why people are still killing such birds. Dig down into the atavistic hatred for other life that lies in these moors murderers – the strange out of skew competitiveness evinced in the struggle to raise a moor of grouse that might be shot to make a shooter happy in their killing. Ruddy heathery chickens that people don’t even want to eat anymore. Is that the truth of the countryside? 

These awkward truths are well debated right now: several books might be read in conversation with Galbraith’s, though he is quiet on other publications – apart from a rather outlandish and questionable section on rewilding. Ben Myers has just written an introduction for a reissue of Barry Hines’ novel The Gamekeeper, and I remembered that good book as I read Galbraith’s, and I thought of Human, Nature by Ian Carter, and Mark Cocker’s Our Place too, and Will Burns’ The Paper Lantern as well – awkward nature’s awkward squad are everywhere, and now we have In Search of One Last Song.

But look again at Galbraith’s words on birds above. The way he puts it, they – his notional subject – sound a sort of embarrassment to him, a source of his own awkwardness. Maybe he wants the beauty of the world, but cannot fully admit it to himself, maybe that’s what allowed him to be a hunter (or at least a journalist of hunting). You might hurt the thing you most love. Love goes like that for some. Maybe he was touched by the things with feathers, their songs, their birdiness, but felt it best for himself to put that away somewhere and hang out with the buzzard stompers because that is where the world lives and dies (and writes, perhaps) more strongly. He doesn’t say it quite like this, but that was what I felt reading his writing, and that makes his a terrifically sad book for me. Sad not for the defence it mounts of some bird-helpers, or for the catalogue of avian losses it annotates, but sad for the young man who shot rabbits and was hunterish enough to edit a hunter’s mag, but who wanted to write a book, still as a young man, that might exonerate such bloodletting whilst also staunching its wound.  


Published by Harper Collins, ‘In Search of One Last Song’ is out now and available here.

‘Landfill’, Tim’s book on gulls, gull-watchers, and the organising of life, is new in paperback from Little Toller in June.

Follow Tim on Twitter: @timdee4