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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 30 July 2018

"The Feather Thief" by Kirk Wallace Johnson

Yet another wonderful book lent to me by my mate Fred whose other contributions include:
  • A Time of Gifts: a wonderful travel book about a man walking through Europe between the wars; beautifully written
  • Dynasty: the story of the first Roman emperors by the wonderful historian Tom Holland
  • The Song of Achilles  a wonderful novel by Madeline Miller
  • Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner; a memoir of a man who grew up in Germany during hyper-inflation and the rise of the Nazis
This book is about a flautist called Edwin who is obsessed with tying flies. The sort of flies that trout and salmon fishermen use. Except Edwin doesn't fish. He just likes tying as an art form. He is a member of a worldwide fly-tying community. And the problem they all have is that many flies are tied using feathers from birds who are now endangered and protected. So it is illegal to hunt them or trap them or kill them or take their feathers. This means that the feathers are in increasingly short supply. The major sources are old Victorian hats. Following the law of supply and demand this makes the highly sought after feathers increasingly expensive. So Edwin decides to break into the ornithological collection of the British Museum in Tring and steal some of their specimens of rare birds. 

Despite these bizarre details, this is a true story.

As with many such tales these days ( for example, The Mighty Dead: a superb analysis of the Iliad by an author who writes like a dream) the author tells the tale of his own obsessive  journey "into the feather underground, a world of fanatical fly-tiers and plume peddlers,cokeheads and big game hunters, ex-detectives and shady dentists" to track down the obsessives of the fly-tying community, to find the thief and, if possible, to retrieve some of the stolen specimens. Thus, the narrative opens with the crime, it then goes historical as the adventures of Alfred Russel Wallace, Victorian collector extraordinary and co-founder with Darwin of the theory of evolution by natural selection, are told, shipwreck and all, and then returning to the present day for Edwin's biography, the account of the police investigation and trial, and what happened next.

It's brilliant.


Many fascinating facts of which these are a small selection:
  • Alfred Russel Wallace stood on the quarterdeck of a burning ship, seven hundred miles off the coast of Bermuda, the planks heating beneath his feet, yellow smoke curling up through the cracks.” (first line)
  • At the height of the Victorian collecting craze “Hats were designed with special compartments for storing specimens gathered on a stroll.” (p 18)
  • The first birds of paradise skins “brought to Europe by Magellan's crew as a gift for the king of Spain in 1522, were missing their feet. ... leading Carolus Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, to name the species ... the footless bird of paradise. Many Europeans thus believed that the birds were inhabitants of a heavenly realm, always turning towards the sun, feeding on ambrosia and never descending to earth until their death. They thought the female laid her eggs on the back of her mate, incubating them as they sawed through the clouds.” (p 25 - 26)
  • Two and a half million years [ago] ... New Guinea ... emerged from the ocean just off the northern coast of Australia. Colliding tectonic plates drove up a spine of mountains that continue to grow faster than anywhere else on earth.” (p 30)
  • The deepwater strait between Bali and Lombok, which [Wallace] realised formed a dividing line between species found upon the Australian and Asian continental shelves, now appears on maps as ‘the Wallace line’.” (p 38)
  • Before the Hermes bag or Louboutin heel, the ultimate status indicator was a dead bird.” (p 46)
  • Entire bird skins were mounted on hats so ostentatiously large that women were forced to kneel in their carriages or ride with their heads out the window.” (p 47)
  • In 1775 ... there were twenty-five plumassiers in France. By 1860 there were 120, and by 1870 the number had skyrocketed to 280. So many people were working in the feather-plucking and bird-stuffing business that trade groups spring up to protect its workers, such as the Union of Raw Feather Merchants, the Union of Feather Dyers, and even a Society for Assistance to Children Employed in the Feather Industries.” (p 48)
  • When the Titanic went down in 1912, the most valuable and highly insured merchandise in its hold was forty crates of feathers.” (p 49)
  • In 1813 John James Audubon once travelled for three straight days under a single eclipsing horde of Passenger Pigeons.” (p 49 - 50) The species went extinct in 1914
  • By the end of the century, the sixty million American bison had been hunted down to three hundred.” (p 50)
  • In 1496 “Wynkyn de Worde, a Dutch emigre running a newfangled printing press in Fleet Street in London. Published a Treatise of Fishing with an Angle
  • Why should the rightful owner need to prove to someone in possession of stolen goods that they deserve to get them back?” (p 190)
  • Edwin and the feather underground were a bunch of historical fetishists, practising a ‘candy-ass, ridiculous, parasitic activity’.” (p 200)

July 2018; 261 pages

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