Magazine article The Spectator

If Mr Blair Wants a Subject for a Hinterland, I Suggest Politics

Magazine article The Spectator

If Mr Blair Wants a Subject for a Hinterland, I Suggest Politics

Article excerpt

A book has come my way quite out of the run of the dreary mail shots a political journalist tends to receive. A Wandering Voice: A Diary of Birdsong is written by Michael Waterhouse, with a foreword by Norman Lamont.

Though you may know Mr Lamont was Chancellor of the Exchequer and though you may not know Michael Waterhouse is a nephew of the Duke of Marlborough, this book is not about the single currency or the aristocracy, thank heavens. If you are unmoved by birdsong then its charm will be lost on you.

Mr Waterhouse has set his daily journal amidst endearing drawings (by Philip Snow) of the birds he encounters, little maps and sketches of the places in England and Scotland where he and his friends stay and walk, and some touching, understated accounts of the sights and songs which greet them. Bird-watching, among gentlemen, is a classy alternative to trainspotting, and Mr Waterhouse offers his own thoughts on the countryside and its feathered residents, his gentle, tentative tone belying but hardly concealing the fierce tenderness toward nature felt by a certain sort of Englishman. Social historians will note the persistence into the late 20th century of the gentleman-amateur.

But that is not why I was sent it. Mr Waterhouse guessed that what would engage me was his threading of the journal with extracts from the diary of Sir Edward Grey.

He was right. Grey, famous for his remark in 1914, `The lights are going out all over Europe', was elected Liberal MP for Berwick-on-Tweed in 1885. He was also a fanatical bird-watcher. In his spare time he was Foreign Secretary for a decade from 1906 to 1916, taking us into the Great War.

As Churchill recalls in Great Contemporaries,

Once, during the war, when we were rather dissatisfied with the vigour of Sir Edward Grey's foreign policy, I . . . said to Mr Lloyd George, who was not, `Well, anyhow, we know that if the Germans were here and said to Grey, "If you don't sign this treaty we will shoot you at once," he would certainly reply, "It would be most improper for a British Minister to yield to a threat." ' . . . But Lloyd George rejoined, `That's not what the Germans would say to him. They would say, "If you don't sign this treaty we will scrag all your squirrels at Fallodon." That would break him down.'

Grey is viewed in almost every commentary as a statesman sustained by his love of the countryside. From Mr Waterhouse's book, what is, I suspect, a more truthful picture emerges: of a countryman occasionally distracted by statesmanship.

`Another aspect of the Akaba trouble', he writes in 1906, `was peculiar and personal. There are a few days in the first part of May when the beech trees in young leaf give an aspect of light and tender beauty to English country....' Grey's habit at this time was to bicycle to a wood and picnic beneath the trees on what he called `Beech Sunday', and give thanks. From this poor Grey was dragged away to London by the Akaba trouble.

After days observing a chaffinch removing its nest from a cottage wall to a hedge, he was dismayed that `business in London prevented me from noting how many days were occupied in completing the nest, or whether any new materials were used for it'. Waterhouse quotes another birdmanstatesman, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, whose autobiography reveals that there were over 3,000 feathers in a long-tailed tit's nest. …

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