Can we save Britain’s wildlife before it is too late?
Jonathon Cape, 2018, 338 pages
£18.99 Hardback, ISBN 9780224102292
Review by James Robertson
If we are to save Britain’s wildlife, we first need to understand how the framework of organisations and activities which have built up nature’s defences in Britain came about. This is the challenge Mark Cocker sets himself in Our Place. His excuse in adding to “a vast library of books on conservation” is to offer “a simple single volume that summarises the story clearly and engagingly”. I am not sure I agree that the literature is vast – and in his extensive bibliography he misses some memoirs, such as Norman Moore’s The Bird of Time and Morton Boyd’s The Song of the Sandpiper; these combine useful if partial pieces of the conservation history puzzle (and a puzzle it is) with personal narratives. But the essential point holds true: no one has yet found a way to turn the dull, technical stuff of organisational development, battles over land use and so forth into essential reading. So how has Cocker attempted it?
For two summers in his twenties Cocker worked as an assistant warden for the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) at Holkam National Nature Reserve “and the whole long dark stretch of trees is filled with a crop of thirty-year-old memories”. Such memories provide the secret ingredient with which Cocker engages the reader. The natural world gives him a sense of place, but as the title reminds us, it is our place too. Vivid descriptive passages are interspersed with thoughtful analysis. There is no soapbox grandstanding, no call to righteous indignation – indeed he says that he found himself to be constitutionally incapable of polemic. Nor is this is an easy read. It avoids the style of ‘new nature writing’ fluff, and is all the better for it. There is a wealth of detail here, the winning of which, as Cocker says, cost him “more hard labour than any other (book) I have written”.
I thought I knew the subject matter well, but Cocker’s research has unearthed a good deal of information which was new to me. The nuts and bolts of history are given new twists, the flow of the narrative keeps changing course and commanding attention. The highly personal motivations which have drawn Cocker close to his subject also mean that his account is a personal one, and biased accordingly. There are important steps in the development of nature conservation which are missing. But Cocker has not tried to write a comprehensive history, and he has achieved his aim with distinction. I have been told on good authority that Michael Gove bought copies for his senior civil servants to read when he was Secretary of State for the Environment. If so it was a shrewd move, as there is no better distillation of the story of nature conservation in Britain, or expression of the passion which will shape the movement in the future. It is highly recommended reading.