Rather hubristic to call a book The Book of Nightingales rather than A book; it implies that the work is absolutely the last word on nightingales. I don’t expect it’s the author’s fault as this book was previously published as Whistling in the Dark: in Pursuit of the Nightingale. The copy I have is a Sinclair Stevenson reissue from 1997 illustrated with photographs.
This is a lovely book; not one to rush through but to pick up every now and then to read and ponder over. It’s part natural history, describing the habits and habitats of nightingales; part cultural exploration of the importance of the bird in myth, legend and literature; part personal odyssey as Mabey travels through England and Europe pursuing the song of the nightingale.
Since the time of the ancient Greeks, people have been fascinated by the small brown bird with the amazing voice. Nightingales have long been associated with spring and with love. They have been seen at different times as ‘melancholy’ or as ‘merry’ birds. Chapters in the book are interspersed with some of the many poems written about nightingales, notably those by John Clare, Coleridge and of course, Keats. The number of nesting birds in England has been declining for years, so our chances of hearing the song are slim. May is the best month for it, apparently, and my best hope would be to go to the firing ranges at Tyneham, where Mabey has found nightingales nesting in the scrub around old shell craters.
In the 1920s, the cellist Beatrice Harrison famously played ‘duets’ with a nightingale in Surrey woods. Millions tuned in to the wireless to hear this first outside broadcast. Here’s one recording on an old 78.
For a really spine tingling experience, click here for a recording made in 1942. A nightingale sings while Wellingtons and Lancasters fly overhead on their way to bomb Germany. Brrr.