Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Even the bad times were good

I've just watched a television documentary about cricketer Ian Botham, who, thirty years ago today, almost single-handedly defeated the Australians in the famous Headingley test. The first half of the programme, that looked at his career between 1974 - 1981, had me drowning in nostalgia - not just for the cricketing performances that I followed so avidly at the time, but also because these same years also neatly dovetailed into my early birding life. Botham's test debut recalls a trip to Abinger Common. His rise to 'first-name on the team sheet' was at the same time that I began my mercifully brief flirtation with twitching. His glorious summer of 81 paralleled my own semi-residence at Dungeness. At first I was at a loss to put a finger on what it was that bestowed upon this period really good reasons to cherish it so much...

Viewing any archive news footage from this period is a shock - Britain looked so grimy and downtrodden. The birding was similar. Most birders dressed in ex-army surplus, wore long greasy hair, spots were rife and we carried, by today's standards, poor optics. Rare birds were rare - by that, I mean rarer than now. There weren't so many people out looking for them and thus there weren't so many clued up birders. I think that there had been maybe 25 records each of Radde's and Dusky Warblers in the UK by the mid-1970s - there wasn't as much to go and see. Field guides were few and limited in scope. Getting the 'gen' - good seventies word that - necessitated contacts that had to be earned. If you weren't in with somebody with a car, you had to hitch. And if you did get a lift, cars always seemed to break down back then. It took longer to get to places because of the lack of by-passes and motorways. It makes you wonder why plenty of us consider this the golden age.

Youth has a lot to do with it, of course. You can never replicate the initial wonder that comes when something takes you over and burns with a passion. Anything is possible in those early years - I was going to be an observatory warden and most probably be on the rarities committee by the time I was 30 (no I didn't on both counts). Maybe because it wasn't easy - no pagers, no detailed ID, no relative affluence - each birding success was that much more cherished because we had to work for it.

I do look back on that period with a smug satisfaction that I lived through it and birded through it. Punk, riots, Wallcreepers (I had to get that in) and a stocky bearded Englishman who defined a sporting era by picking up a bat and ball, walking out onto a cricket pitch and giving it large to eleven Australian tourists.

3 comments:

  1. Happy days - I watched it, too. Birding wasn't part of my life back then, but far more satisfying by the way you describe it. You must have not long finished at art school, like me.

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  2. I didn't start birding until the late 1980s (I had my scope for my 11th birthday/Christmas). Opticron 30 x 70. I have never replaced it. Cost £110 with case. Back in those days if you saw a birder with a scope, it pretty much guaranteed they were good. I figured, if I spent a grand on a scope now, am I going to find more birds? The answer is clearly, no. How many keys to obscure groups can I buy for £1000? Lots!

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  3. Neil - I left art college in 1980. Blimey, that's 31 years ago now...

    Graeme - the number of people out birding with bins and scope that cost a combined £3000+ is truly staggering. It certainly does not bestow upon them any guarantee of knowledge, that's for sure.

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