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THE NIGHTINGALE: Notes on a songbird by Sam Lee book review

THE NIGHTINGALE: Notes on a songbird by Sam Lee book review
21 May
2021
by Sam Lee • Century

I’m not convinced I’ve ever heard a nightingale sing. According to Sam Lee, this is not hugely surprising in the UK. Nightingale numbers have been on a steady decline in this country and the birds are only found in a few southern locations. Gone are the days (if they ever existed) when A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, as the old Vera Lynn song goes. 

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Lee certainly managed to pique my fear of missing out in this regard. His evocative, loving descriptions of the bird’s nighttime song had me tuning into a YouTube version straight away, only to feel slightly disappointed. Not that it wasn’t lovely, but it was ultimately bird song, and quite sqwaky bird song at that. Lee does admit, half way through his book, that this might happen. Unused to the discordant sounds of nature, we undervalue them.

That slight disappointment over, I was pleased to learn so much about this bird. Unassuming in looks and manner (‘simple and yet so elegant’) the nightingale is revered across its wide range for its song and, in turn, has been immortalised in many more of the human-made variety. Sam Lee, a folk singer, nightingale enthusiast and campaigner (he talks about attending Extinction Rebellion protests unashamedly) has compiled a pleasantly diverse range of information about the bird in this book. Having covered its life cycle and migratory patterns, he moves onto its place in culture, tradition and song. Throughout this he interweaves personal stories of searching for nightingales and feeling entranced by their music. 

This is nature writing at its most romantic. Lee is simply passionate about nightingales. This is a man who takes groups of musicians into the woods at night to play and sing alongside them and who determinedly compiles lists of songs that mention them. The effect is contagious. Having spared little thought to my nightingale-free life thus far, I am now convinced I must hear one in the wild – I’ll just set my expectations at a reasonable level this time. 

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