Sunday book review – Natural Histories by Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss


This is the book of the radio programme.

Have a look at that cover – very clever! And quite pretty, too.

I’m almost totally addicted to Radio 4 and so I have heard bits of several of the radio programmes that make up the subject matter of this book.

The basic idea is that each programme/chapter engages with a species or group of species in a variety of ways: their biology, history, conservation, cultural importance, yumminess etc.  It’s a simple idea and a perfectly good one. As I have driven through the British countryside on sunny days,  or fulminated in motorway traffic jams (why are our quick roads so slow?) Brett Westwood’s soothing tones have washed over me, calming me, delighting me, and informing me.

I can almost hear Brett’s voice as I read the pages of the book – but not quite. The book feels a bit jerkier than the smooth flow of a radio programme. I wouldn’t want to suggest that the book was thrown together after the radio programmes were made but there is a bit of unevenness in the chapters and some harder editing might have been helped.The chapter on beetles is a bit disappointing as a whole but has one of the most fascinating stories (for me, anyway) about the Fogstand Beetle.  I’d never heard of the Fogstand Beetle (be honest  – have you?) and now I think it’s just wonderful.

There is plenty to like in the book.  Although the sub-title ’25 extraordinary species that have changed our world’ is slightly over the top, the species selected are a really good bunch: a mixture of familiar species (about which I learned interesting facts) and unfamiliar species (which fascinated me).

I was fascinated by the Giant Squid,  captivated by the Burbot and delighted by Brambles.

I think the radio programme spoils one for the book, in a way.  Brett Westwood is very good, partly because he knows his stuff but also because he is a very good presenter, and the different voices of contributors come and go in a radio programme in a way they can’t in a book. We came and went to a kitchen to prepare and eat Burbot in the radio programme in a way that we can’t in the few pages of a chapter. And whereas a good radio programme paints a picture in your mind a book can actually give you illustrations to bring the words on the page to life. I thought the illustrations in this book were quite beautiful but not very helpful, and the photographs were a bit unimaginative.

So you have probably got the impression that I love the radio series and like the book.  I’d recommend that after reading the book, or each chapter, you get onto iplayer and listen to the relevant programme. The Natural Histories radio series is another triumph by Mary Colwell as producer and a major scriptwriter (see her Guest Blogs here A natural history GCSE, 23 November 2012, Shared Planet, 15 January 2015, and read her excellent book about John Muir too).


Natural Histories: 25 extraordinary species that have changed our world by Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss is published by John Murray

Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.

Behind the Binoculars: interviews with acclaimed birdwatchers by Mark Avery and Keith Betton is published by Pelagic – here’s a review.

A Message from Martha by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.


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