Field Notes from a Hidden City: An Urban Nature Diary by Esther Woolfson - review by Diana Athill

Diana Athill

Beyond the Garden Wall

Field Notes from a Hidden City: An Urban Nature Diary


Granta Books 355pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

The diary is a difficult form. If it is truly a diary, a great deal of it will be boring even to the diarist, which is why so few people manage to keep one going. The genuine diary of a remarkable person can, of course, make good reading if intelligently edited, but a diary written in order to be published, however remarkable its author – well, it can’t be what it calls itself because it has to be ‘made interesting’, so the form puts an uncomfortable strain on the writer. In the case of Esther Woolfson’s new book the words ‘Field Notes’ are also somewhat misleading, because much of the information it contains comes from the author’s reading rather than from observation: she cites some ninety authorities. What the book gives us is a picture of wildlife in Aberdeen, a city not remarkable for the richness of its wildlife except for its gulls; but that doesn’t matter, because what Woolfson specialises in is demonstrating how little most people understand about creatures they think ordinary.

As is only to be expected from the author of that delightful book Corvus, she does this well, provided she is gripped by her subject. Her book amounts to a series of essays with groups of shorter pieces in between them, and the essays are on subjects very much to

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