Sunday, October 14, 2012

Nature Near London - R. Jefferies

Since I started blogging it's become unusual for me to have more than one book on the go but this summer there have been a couple that I've read slowly and in-between other things. Like the summer though, all good things come to an end and so it is with 'Nature Near London'. This is the first in a series from Collins - their Collins Nature Library, 3 titles have been released so far, I hope there are more on the cards. 

The first thing to say about these books is how attractive they are. The cover is cloth in a muted shade with a picture stuck on - the effect is both old fashioned and authoritative - I love looking at this book; it's a truly pleasing object, the paper inside feels nice too and I like the type face, these are small things but all part of what makes books so desirable - it's not just about the contents.

Which is not to suggest that the contents aren't the main thing, of course they are. This series is selected by Robert Macfarlane and consists of texts he thinks have been unjustly neglected. On the basis of this one book I think he has a point. The introduction puts the book both into the context of its own time and also ours. Jefferies wrote this in the early 1880's, by 1887 he was dead at the age of 38 (tuberculosis), he lived in the country on the edge of London - the city was drawing ever closer and now the places he observed are long built over but his record of those edge lands remains.

Jefferies is an observer, 'Nature Near London' is an account of the things he saw around him from tiny insects all the way up the food chain to farm labourers - it's all here. I found I couldn't read this book quickly, I need plot for that and bar a chapter about a trout (will he be caught or not) there isn't much of that, but it's beautiful and I have returned to it week after week whenever I've needed half an hour or more of calm. 

I can't help but compare Jefferies to Miriam Darlington - 'Nature Near London' records opinion as well as observation but it is above all a contemplative book and this suits me better. After a few pages of reading on the bus I found I stopped to look out the window to see what the trees were doing - you can't read and remain indifferent to what's outside the window, and he also reminds you that everything is worth a closer look. I live in a city, but right next to a park and river. The park is a small and reasonably well tended one which leans towards the formal flower bed - though it also boasts an impressive collection of culinary herbs, even so there are wilder pockets including a whole strip of bankside between fence and river. Anything could be living down there - even otters (definitely rats), I've seen kingfishers which bodes well for the rivers health, but to see anything at all you have to stop and watch, something it's easy to forget to do. 

 'Nature Near London' and 'Otter Country' are not in the end so very different but  'Nature Near London'  elicited a very different response from me; it was a much closer meeting of minds. 'Otter Country' will certainly sell more copies but Jefferies book deserves this attempt to rescue it as a classic and it deserves to be sought out and looked over.     


  1. It is a treat to read about this book. I have read his nature writing + apocalypse novel After London, but not his "pure" nature writing, which you make sound quite pleasing.

  2. According to the introduction you can trace the beginnings of 'After London' in this one. It is pleasing to read, I'm quite inclined to look out for 'After London' now.