“I’m sorry, I haven’t got change of a ladybird” has to be one of the most intriguing openings to a book I’ve ever come across (and remember I’m a du Maurier fan, for whom ‘last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again‘ is the ultimate in classic first lines).
From that initial sentence, Chris Packham’s autobiography goes in only one direction, and that is upwards. It soars like his kestrel, demonstrating a complete mastery of vocabulary and description, permeated with discernible tension.
Packham’s unrelenting recall of events moves from early childhood when he tries to barter a beetle for an ice-cream, through school where he excels at art but skives a lot in favour of exploring and to escape the classroom bullies, to his identification with the rage of The Clash at 18. The author’s attention to detail is awe-inspiring, conjuring up breathtaking images of animals, insects, birds, weather, water. But this is not a romanticised retrospective: there is dog shit, and fags, and girls “who hung around outside Chelsea Girl on Saturday afternoon smoking and squealing at the men in lumberjack jackets with furry collars.” and then there is “the thrush’s silver-throated voice fell like pocketfuls of marbles down a church staircase.” And this eloquence from someone who was always anxious, barely spoke and was tormented at school for being weird.
Mr Packham intrigues me; his clearly encyclopaedic knowledge of wildlife and obvious enthusiasm for his subject, contrast with his slightly ‘buttoned up’ manner and awkwardness, unusual in such a seasoned presenter. It all makes a lot more sense now I’ve read ‘Fingers in the Sparkle Jar‘, as interspersed with the wildlife explorations and discoveries, are some very raw accounts of counselling sessions which he undertook in 2003. As a result of the therapy, Chris was found to have Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism. It explains a lot about his obsessions, collections, difficulty fitting in and forming relationships.
Apparently Chris Packham is not keen on his own work, and wasn’t sure whether this book was good enough for publication. Thank heavens for his mentor, whose resounding endorsement of the draft was “you must publish it.” How right she was.