It is remarkable that, a century on from his death, W. H. Hudson still needs ‘finding’. After all, he was pivotal in establishing the RSPB, tirelessly helping the women who created it. He helped to secure important legislation to protect birds, wrote numerous well-received books and, towards the end of his life, even attracted interest from Hollywood. He became a household name and is the subject of at least ten previous biographies. And yet, his passion for birds and his lasting contributions to their conservation have been glossed over by earlier writers.
Hudson is arguably Britain’s most significant writer-naturalist and campaigner. In many ways, he is also an enigma. There are mental and physical frailties, yet he had a seemingly limitless energy when it came to exploring the countryside and campaigning to protect the birds he found there. He hadn’t set foot in England until his early thirties, when he arrived in Southampton on a boat from Argentina. All the birds he saw would have been new, so his knowledge was built from a standing start – no easy task without modern optics, field guides and transport. But what he came to love set him on a path: a relentless, life-long determination to stop the killing of birds for their elaborate plumage, to protect gamebirds or, worst of all in Hudson’s mind, to cater for the private collectors of skins.
Hudson had an irredeemable fear of public speaking and a reputation for avoiding the limelight and social gatherings; and yet his circle of acquaintances came to include a wide range of famous writers, politicians and socialites. He was good friends with Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary as Britain headed towards war, though the two talked birds rather than politics whenever they met. He was distraught when news came from the front of the death of his young friend, the poet Edward Thomas, thinking of him as the son he never had.
Despite his reticence in public, Hudson was a prolific writer of letters. It is these, together with his published writing, which have enabled Jameson to write such an intimate and engrossing account. Jameson is a consummate storyteller. His enthusiasm is infectious and he has done the hard yards of research, delving into the archives and visiting places frequented by his subject. Hudson’s words, disarmingly honest at times, are skilfully woven into the text, so we get a real sense of his motivations, and his state of mind, as the story unfolds.
I enjoyed this book immensely, for its compelling portrait of Hudson, and equally for its evocation of a bygone age – a turbulent time in world events, and a turning point in our attitudes towards wild birds, and much else besides. Bird protection has come a long way since Hudson, and while the journey is far from complete, he helped to establish a clear direction of travel; we have much to thank him for. We must thank Conor Jameson, too, for telling his story with such passion and care.