Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 17 Dec 2017

As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Books and Birds by Alex Preston and Neil Gower

It’s not the least bit surprising to discover that the combination of Alex Preston’s words and Neil Gowers artwork landed As Kingfishers Catch Fire a place on the shortlist for the 2017 Most Beautiful Book Award because it socks you in eye right from the outset with the scintillating colours of its cover design.

This isn’t really a book to sit down and read from cover to cover at a couple of sittings (although I suspect that could be done with great pleasure too) but rather its one to dip into, to select a bird and discover some expected and some unexpected literary delights associated with it.


Alex Preston has used many years of notebook entries to pull together the two loves of his life – birds and books. In his pre-adolescent years he discovered the beauty and majesty of birds and turned himself into a dedicated bird-watcher but, as he grew older and his interests switched to girls and other teenage fascinations his time in the field came to an end. But his love for birds didn’t; instead he switched it across to seeking out those birds in the undergrowth of literature that he grew to love.

So what we have here are stand-alone chapters for a selection of his favourite birds and maybe half a dozen pages of text that explain the fascination the author has for a specific bird. He then trawls through literature for examples of where poets and novelists have taken inspiration from the bird in question and illustrates the entry with meaty quotations that he transcribes from his notebooks.


Blake Morrison reviewing the book in The Guardian earlier this year said of it:

It’s a difficult one to categorise – part memoir, part anthology, part nature writing, part critical treatise, part coffee-table book, with biographical snippets about various writers, relatives and ornithologists thrown in for good measure. Every chapter is devoted to a particular bird, most of them commonly seen in Britain (robin, swallow, crow and so on), a few more exotic (waxwing and snow goose). Each comes with an illustration by Neil Gower, who worked closely with Preston on the project, “his fresh words and the timeless words of others the vivid sparks from which I coaxed each bird into flame”.

I think Morrison puts his finger on it when he puts the memoir element first in his list of descriptors because, for me at least, this is the aspect of the book that gives the collection its cohesion. Without the personal insights and the evident enthusiasm of Preston, both boy and man, this would be just another, albeit very good and beautifully illustrated, anthology.


It is his own life story that runs as a thread through all of the choices he makes about the birds that appear here and every entry starts with a revelation or epiphany of sorts – something that turned him on to the bird. It’s far easier then to see why his choice of literature makes entire sense – the love he has for birds and words are almost symbiotic which is something we can see in his choice of title for the book which is plucked from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins who is arguably one of the greatest poets to deal with avian themes.

Neil Gower’s artwork is delectable and it’s obvious just how much the words and pictures need each other – together they are substantially greater than the sum of the parts.

At the time of writing this review, the book is still only available in hardback but if it’s something that interests you, you’ll want it in this format in any case. Expect to pay a little under £20 for a copy.


Terry Potter

December 2017