How birdsong brought joy to a troubled British politician

THE gradual loss of his sight was a tragedy for a former British Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey - not least because he was an avid birdwatcher who prided himself on once having been sufficiently sharp-eyed to detect the microscopic droppings of a treecreeper under a pine tree.

A native of Northumberland, Grey was educated at prep schools in East Sheen, Surrey, and Northallerton, Yorkshire, before going to Winchester College, thence to Balliol College, Oxford where, regrettably, he flopped as a student.

But elected to parliament, he enjoyed a meteoric political career which saw him become Foreign Secretary for 11 consecutive years, longer than anyone before or since.

Alas, he was unable to prevent the outbreak of the 1914-18 war and was devastated by its consequences.

There were more tragedies, of a personal nature, to come.

He lost all four of his brothers - one killed by a buffalo and another by a lion.

His beloved first wife died after a riding accident, and his second also predeceased him.

Then, with not many years between, his two homes were gutted by fire.

It was his continuing fascination with birds which provided a consolation for so much grief and heartbreak.

After he could no longer see birds because his eyes were (in his own word) “crippled”, he found compensation in his precious memories of what they looked like and how they behaved.

But, as his eyesight faded, his chief joy was in listening to their individual songs about which he became an expert.

He invented the term “dawn chorus” of which he maintained the star performer was the blackbird “because its song gives tone and spirit to the whole”.

This study traces the life of Grey both as a pre-eminent politician of the Edwardian era and as one of the finest ornithologists of the 20th Century.

* EDWARD GREY: THE BIRD LISTENER is available (price £2) as an-ebook via Amazon's Kindle store.