Finding W.H. Hudson - The Writer Who Came to Britain to Save The Birds

"I SOMETIMES wonder if Hudson was ever actually able to switch off from bird protection and relax . . ."

So comments Conor Mark Jameson midway through in his illuminating study, Finding W.H. Hudson - The Writer Who Came to Britain to Save The Birds.

The observation is understandable. Hudson was relentless in his campaigning. Once he got the wind in his sails, there was no stopping him.

Although, in recent times,  women such as Emily Williamson, Etta Lemon and the Duchess of Portland have received most of the credit for the activism which led to the formation of the Society for the Protection of Birds -  later to become the RSPB - the role of Hudson was equally, if not more, vital.

Evidently (and perhaps surprisingly), he was too reticent to speak at public meetings, but he wrote numerous highly influential books and pamphlets and fired off controversy-stoked letters to The Times and other newspapers, both national and local.

His targets included the practices of taxidermy, egg-collecting, recreational shooting of birds and, above all the millinery trade which encouraged the adornment with  feathers - the more exotic, the pricier - of slaughtered birds in women's hats.

And Hudson did not mince his words - he was willing to put the boot in, to speak truth to power, in a way guaranteed to embarrass and upset people in high places.

While his female allies provided much of the strategy and administrative skills, it was Hudson who supplied the snarl.

His robust approach was to cost him his membership of the British Ornithologists' Union and the British Ornithologists' Club - two organisations which preferred a more more nuanced (ie feeble and inconsequential) approach to challenging the ways in which Nature and birds were routinely abused.

Today, we owe him a debt. If it had not been for the courage and zeal of Hudson - an impecunious and self-educated immigrant from Argentina - the birdlife of Britain today would almost certainly be in an even more parlous state than it is.

Since his death, aged 81, in 1922, it has probably been inevitable that Hudson and his memory should have faded somewhat.

It is to the credit of Jameson, a former RSPB employee, that he has brought him back to the forefront of consciousness as an example of what can be achieved when tenacity, conviction, passion, bravery and literary skill combine.

Because Hudson was shy and destroyed many of his letters and other personal effects and memorabilia, it cannot have been at all easy or straightforward for the author to have got inside the great man's mind and the circumstances of his personal life (for instance his childless marriage) to the extent that he would have liked.

However, through his tireless and often inventive research (which must have taken many hours), Jameson has provided as fully-rounded a portrait as conceivable, with plentiful insights and anecdotes - for instance, the day, in September, 1890, when Hudson helped to rescue three girls from drowning in the sea off Shoreham Beach in West Sussex.

Along the way, Cambridgeshire-based Jameson also provides rich context about everyday life in late Victorian and early Edwardian Britain, with pen pictures of many other notables of the days along with commentary on some of Hudson's friendships, for instance with the novelist, Morley Roberts, with the MP, Robert Cunninghame Graham, and with the publisher, Edward Garnett.

This is an excellent book. Jameson's narrative style is perhaps not the paciest, but he is an engaging companion with a colloquial touch and a gentle wit.

As he compiled his coherent and thoughtfully-constructed narrative, the author must have but been struck by the parallels between the conservation movement as it was then and as it is now, but, on this, he keeps his thoughts and attitudes to himself. After all his admirable study of Hudson is not a polemic.

Or, on second thoughts, perhaps, reading between the lines - it is a polemic. Only Conor Mark Jameson will know.

Finally, a word for the impressive index, bibliography, choice of photographs (some taken by the author) and imaginative design on the front cover.

* Finding W.H. Hudson is published in paperback at £21.99 by Pelagic Publishing.