Book review: At The Very End of The Road by Phillip Edwards

ONE of the many delights of At The Very End of The Road is the imaginative way in which author Phillip Edwards describes the songs of individual birds.

For example, late in the year, a robin "trickles its glassy rivulet of sub-song softly over the brambles" while, in spring, a blackcap delivers from its “fluttering throat a rhapsody of mesmerising liquid bursts of song interspersed with momentary pauses".

Meanwhile, elsewhere, the "soft-edged twitterings of swallows bounce off brick walls and flagstone floors like intimate conversations."

Since the setting of the book is an estuary--saltmarsh habitat, it is inevitable that the vocalisation of wader species - including snipe, golden plover, redshank and greenshank feature prominently.

The one to which the author returns again and again is the curlew - "its long, ringing vibrato hanging tremulously in the stillness, a sound filled with infinite sadness for things long departed".

Slightly controversially, he describes the whistle of a redshank as "gentle". Some might dispute this, but it is true. Urgent and often loud - but also gentle.

To many folk, estuaries - often, at low tide, vast expanses of mud - constitute unattractive landscape, but what Edwards experiences most is immense beauty - both sight and sound - all around.

Here is his description of grey plovers: "Rotund and stolid, they have large wet black eyes.

"They stand sentinel on ridges, motionless, impassive and aloof from the world around them. Then, with wary gait, they step forwards and lean for a final close inspection of their prey before dipping to extricate it from the oozing mud with their heavy black bill."

Pretentious? Perhaps a little, but vivid nonetheless.

A word, too, for his descriptions - scrupulously-detailed and authoritative - of the hunting behaviour of raptors, particularly merlins, sparrowhawks and peregrines. No other author, surely, has done it better.

The illustrations that accompany the text are all restrained and in black-and-white. This is entirely appropriate. As the resolutely monochrome American newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, used to say of its own content: "The colour is all in the writing."

The author keeps himself completely out of the narrative. This is deliberate. As he states early on, he is opposed to "the long-held Western vogue for placing humans at the centre of everything.

"For me, the place is all - not the people inhabiting or visiting it."

At The Very End of The Road (Whittles Publishing, £16.99) is nature writing at its most refined. If the cliché can be forgiven, it is as pure as a mountain stream.

Highly recommended.