In the same week that Richard Briers passed away recently it was announced that the Reader’s Digest was going into administration. For me it was as if the 1970s had had two more kicks into touch, receding a little further into history. The Good Life was a back to nature revelation to my formative young mind that has stayed with me ever since, while the Reader’s Digest produced the most iconic coffee table book ever (imho!), the Book Of British Birds. In the 70s every household seemed to have a copy of this, even if it was the only natural history book they possessed. On family visits to any relatives I could get the great tome down and discover yet more exciting facts about birds. With only three channels on the TV and computers yet to be invented there was then plenty of time to go out and see these things for myself!
The book had been envisaged as having thorough information on the birds of Britain, but with the style and drama to appeal to those who had never picked up a field guide in their lives. The publishers had given up hope of ever finding an artist to fit the bill when Raymond Harris-Ching fell out of the blue, fresh off a boat from New Zealand. The kiwi’s unique style of detailed drybrush watercolours on mesonite panels was a sensation. With six years in mind the Reader’s Digest were stunned by Ching’s promise to have all 230 plates completed within a year. He did but ended up exhausted, quite ill, and (with no advance agreed) penniless! Today though his pictures fetch six-figure sums so I guess he feels better now!
Naturally, along with just about every other bird book ever published, I have a copy on my shelves and got it down, blew the dust off it and opened it for the first time in years. There is no doubting the uniqueness of the works, though perhaps their best purpose is in inspiring further study. On their own some are more work of art than plain field reference. Take the divers on pages 206 and 207. The black-throated looks like its slipped through a mangle, while the red-throated appears to be floating in space. It’s a space-diver this, traversing inter-galactic highways in search of space-sprats! Ching’s plates demand attention though, you find yourself admiring them for far longer than a ‘normal’ illustration.
The artwork is surely a major reason why the book is the best-selling bird book of all time, but it was all the other chapters of the book that seared it in my affections too. Here was information on migration, avian physiology, ecology, and relationships with humans. All of which made me first realise there is more to this birdwatching lark than meets the eye-Ching. On which terrible pun I think I will stop!