Book review: Bearded Tit

by Rory McGrath

When Rory McGrath appears on QI, the erudition he displays does much to counter the image of a lairy, leery and laddish Arsenal fan that viewers might have gathered from his many other panel-show slots. This was never truer than the episode in which he flaunted an encyclopaedic knowledge of Latin bird names, impressing even the polymathic Stephen Fry.

But it turns out that our feathered friends have been a lifelong obsession for the comedian, from childhood days spent copying drawings from a guide to British birds, to his rural life today. He is, however, reluctant to call himself a fully-fledged birder, or even a twitcher, all-too aware of the heavy stigma such an unfashionable, anoracky pursuit carries.

He reckons, though, that there are a lot more amateur birdwatchers out there than you might think. Up to one in five of the population, according to a statistic he seemingly plucks out the air like a sparrowhawk, but most of them are too embarrassed to admit it.

If he’s right, his bird-based memoirs Bearded Tit should do very well in the bookstores. But for those who don’t know their shag from their chiffchaff, McGrath’s unbreakable fixation may get in the way of what is otherwise a nicely touching love story.

In fact, it’s two almost completely separate stories. The first half of the book tells of his undergraduate crush on JJ, the girl who worked in the local bookstore, with whom he struck up a flirtatious friendship based – as unlikely as it seems – on Latin nomenclature. The obligatory sitcom wacky neighbour – going by the hard-to-believe name of Kramer – gives wisecracking comic relief with his doom-mongering and witty mockery of McGrath’s tentative, faltering steps with the first love of his life.

The second part of the book covers his life now, as a grown-up ‘or what passes as one’, settled down with a partner – and another irresponsible friend who tries to lead him astray. But he’s still indulging his interest in the birds, going on holidays to spot them and even buying the expensive equipment to enable him to get a better look.

There is a precedent for these autobiographical tales of male obsessions, of course. After Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, this is Feather Pitch, if you really insist on such a laboured pun. But whereas even the football-illiterate can relate to the passions in Hornby’s book, the non-birder will find themselves skipping over huge chunks of trivia about birds’ plumage, migratory patterns, collective nouns and – yes – those Latin names in McGrath’s tome.

There are a few interesting snippets in all this, rife for dropping into a pub conversation, but too much of it is dry facts. ‘It’s hard to explain the appeal of watching birds,’ he finally concedes on page 222; but that doesn’t mean he won’t try to do so at every turn. The fact that every single incident in his life has to be related back to birds in some way, however tenuous, becomes repetitively tiresome.

Which is a shame, as the stories at the core of the book are engaging and surprisingly tender. McGrath has an easy style, too, writing in episodes similar to a comedy sketch show, with dozens of brief chapters, each with a ‘punchline’ of sorts. If only the more ornithological digressions didn’t get in the way…

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett.

  • Bearded Tit, by Rory McGrath, is published by Ebury Press, priced £12.99. Click here to buy it from Amazon at £7.79.

Published: 15 May 2008

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