Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo” is Michael McCarthy’s attempt to bring to our attention the worrying and drastic decline in numbers of Spring migrants to Europe. It’s a noble and important message. But for me, the way he writes failed to hold my attention.
The book did hook me from page one. This is to be expected: McCarthy used to be The Independent’s Environment Editor and is now its Environment Columnist, and is described in the paper as one of Britain’s leading writers on the environment and the natural world.
So at the start, McCarthy successfully inspired me to imagine what it would be like if the 16 million birds that migrate to the UK every Spring were to arrive at once. “They would cover the sky from horizon to horizon … work would stop … it would lead the television news…” And the chapter continues with some hugely inspiring facts about the miracle of bird migration.
Unfortunately however, as the author goes on to describe his dozen or so favourite migrants, I found myself getting quite disappointed and even losing interest in the book. The reason is simply that I’m not clever enough. I just couldn’t connect with McCarthy’s highly erudite and literary descriptions.
For example, he describes swifts screaming around the tower of his local church. They reminded him of characters from something called The Bacchae of Euripides.
Now you may be familiar with The Bacchae of Euripedes and laugh at his clever metaphor. However, I’m not, so missed the comparison altogether. When I watch swifts as they scream around the tower of my local church they remind me of a gang of loud and unruly teenagers on Red Bull!
When writing about swallows, he describes – in detail – the work of a Greek vase painter called Euphronios from 500 BC. The chapter on turtle dove gets bogged down in Pliny the Elder and Chaucer. Shakespeare appears regularly, as do King Solomon and Jeremiah.
He does have an important message to communicate – the extremely worrying declines in numbers of migrants. Yet here too he lost me – not with ancient literature but with statistics, which at times seemed like a Microsoft Excel report.
“Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo” is a book that needed to be written, and the message needs to be heard and understood. Every year there seem to be fewer Spring – and Autumn – migrating birds appearing in western Europe. It’s a sad fact that needs to be addressed.
Unfortunately however I found the book hard-going to the point of sometimes becoming totally inaccessible. Maybe you will have the opposite experience.