Fingers in the Sparkle Jar by Chris Packham
I no longer buy hardback books unless I want something particularly special – they’re large, cumbersome and tricky to comfortably read so when Chris Packham’s book Fingers in the Sparkle Jar first became available, I knew I had to wait until it was released in paperback. This was made considerably harder by the fact I worked in Waterstones over Jol and would regularly pass the book whilst working and would admire it’s alluring cover – the simple but iconic silhouette of a bird of prey – and occasionally, I would run a loving hand over the smooth, fresh cover; my fingers practically itching to prise open the pages, my legs wanting to run to some forgotten corner of the shop and devour its contents in greedy chunks. But I waited. Patiently.
I remember when Packham first arrived on Springwatch; I was in my teens and I immediately didn’t like him. He was replacing Bill Oddie, who I had become accustomed to watching and I didn’t warm to this strange man. So much changes with the passing of time though and I soon warmed to his quirky jumpers, slight speech impediment, a fiery passion for nature and an a seemingly endless well of wildlife knowledge that surpassed that of the other presenters. I admired his love for the more unpopular beasts like woodlice and cockroaches because he simply wasn’t a man to pick and choose which wildlife deserved more admiration or attention. As I got older and progressed my education, Packham was consistently flitting into the news for being what some dubbed “controversial”. What they call controversial, I call a committed conservationist using his fame for a good cause, nay, the best cause. There are numerous things he has been wrongly criticised for and among them was calling for an end to driven grouse shoots due to the risk to Hen Harriers, keeping the fox hunting ban, branding the people culling badgers as ‘thugs’, his views on human population and calling out wildlife charities for their silence and inaction with regards to certain issues. (See this link discussing this particular subject)
“The Countryside Alliance has frequently criticised both Packham – who has presented Springwatch and the Really Wild Show – and the BBC. In 2013 it said the broadcaster was “neither fair nor balanced” on rural issues.”
No, Countryside Alliance, he’s saying what all conservationists should be. I could go on for hours about this but I’m not going to as I’m here to review his book.
I ordered the book in the post along with two other plump Philippa Gregory books about Tudor women. I often find I don’t have the energy to read through the week now as I work so much but I carefully set the book aside for the weekend, when I’d have more time and energy.
Fingers in the Sparkle Jar explores Packham’s childhood and the beginning of his love for nature; from collecting and tasting tadpoles, to Grass Snakes, keeping ladybirds in matchboxes, intimate encounters with a Vixen and her cubs, a deep fascination with Dinosaurs, blowing Eggs and of course, stealing a Kestrel chick. Each section is dated and flits tirelessly between Packham as a child, a teenager and as a man, told in both first and third person narrative and often through the eyes of others around him; be that the Ice Cream man, a neighbour or his therapist. In many ways, these outside perspectives were often the most poignant or heartbreaking to read as they emphasised how the world perceived him as odd for simply not fitting in and having a bizarre dedication to the outside world.
This book is deeply descriptive and consequently paints beautiful pictures of the landscapes and the wildlife Chris encounters in your minds eye; you don’t so much read the book as walk alongside with him on his ventures into wilderness to find his own slice of wild. Perhaps some would find this level of description clunky and difficult to read but I personally found it charming; my insides would warm as I was drawn into the world of this unique little boy finding solace and endless pleasure from the wildlife around him. Hiding in holes to see foxes, getting wet and cold throughout spring whilst hunting for a Kestrel’s nest, catching fish in jam jars, seeing an otter for the first time in the wild…. Maybe I’m biased to such a book as I saw much of my own childhood in these pages; forever falling in rivers, bumping into wildlife accidentally and being amazed at those deeply intimate moments when I would make eye contact with a wild animal. We’d share those few moments, eye to eye; only mere seconds would pass but they always felt like an eternity until one of us turned away. It was never me.
“Apparently i had to ‘learn to wait’. But why? after all id been waiting all my life to see a real otter. Didn’t a whole lifetime of anticipation qualify for instant otters? Would yet more waiting make me feel better, would the tedious trudging around antelopes at toddler pave actually enhance my experience? Why are adults all such idiots?”
The evocative imagery is what makes this book; every encounter with a wild animal is absorbing and fascinating and you can feel his love and passion radiating through the words. The love he has for his Kestrel is overwhelming, faintly reminiscent of Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave due to the freedom, unadulterated pleasure and companionship this bird offers him.
“That surge of raw ecstasy as the male kestrel flew into view and his mate squeezed out of her cubbyhole made me physically shake.”
“Every minute was magical, every single thing it did was fascinating and everything it didn’t do was equally wondrous, and to be sat there, with a Kestrel, a real live Kestrel, my own real live Kestrel on my wrist! I felt like I’d climbed through a hole in heaven’s fence.”
In addition to his collections and his feral activities, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar touches on various other elements of his childhood; his difficulties at school, the unhappiness at home, his discovery of punk and the understanding of mortality and where he stands in the universe. Ultimately this book is both brave and powerful; not only does it expose the dazzling highs of nature exploration but touches on his troubles as a child and as an adult; each chapter finishes with Packham as an adult, discussing his mental health following a suicide attempt. These excerpts of Packham as a man are deeply personal as he studies his life where he has never and will never fit in; it explores acceptance in a world where nobody understands him.
It’s very rare for a book to move me to tears nowadays but this book did so on a couple of occasions; I won’t go into too much detail for risk of spoilers but the book would synonymously break and then mend my heart; encountering other children mindlessly killing tadpoles with a hammer, finding a fox still alive in a snare, his Kestrel becoming unwell… This stories spoke to me personally as you can feel Packham’s outrage and confusion at other people mindlessly abusing wildlife, (it explains a lot about why he seeks to ruffle so many feathers when it comes to conservation); in one such instance, he tries to visit a Falconer to help with obtaining a License to keep a bird of prey and spots a tiny Falconet in a cage:
“It was scared, scruffy and small, it couldn’t settle and when I knelt down to study it, I saw confusion and desperation, a sadness in its peeled forgotten eyes.”
This is a deeply exposing memoir about a true love and passion for nature – such passion for a subject so close to my heart, my very being, made by insides hum with joy. Full to the brim with close encounters with wildlife and the unbridled joy it brings him alongside the sorry state of struggling with his inane studies, trouble at home, bullying, death and finally turning to punk in outright defiance of a world that has repeatedly pushed him down and branded him an outsider. I saw so much of myself in Packham’s childhood exploits and experiences – although I never stole a Kestrel chick – and all reading this book has done is deepen an existing love for the man.
I wish to finish with two quotes; the first is a quote from the book itself which seems incredibly poignant; the second, from the guardian newspaper.
“The result of my possibly excessive appetite for juvenile amphibians wasn’t diagnosed through any medical examination so I cant prove anything scientifically. But those harmless inoculations probably positively contributed to the ignition of a spark that fuelled a lifelong interest in living things, an enduring curiosity in everything that creeps, climbs, bites, stings, slithers, scuttles or slimes; and in entirely romantic terms, I imagined, the molecules of the tadpoles i digested were fused into the fabric of my eyes to facilitate a heightened awareness if life and instilled a profound love for it, the likes of which could never have arisen from my sterile school studies…. but only from the heart that fluttered as my throat was tickled, softly, by the simple beauty at that essential point in my own metamorphosis.”
“The reason Packham seems to divide opinion so starkly is precisely because he is passionate, speaks his mind and is willing to stand up for what he believes in. In the pressured and unforgiving world of television those are rare qualities.”
Packham is the kind of conservationist we need. 10/10. Must read.