How Kingfishers Caught Fire

I was in Prague when I got the rather cryptic email: ‘Have idea for collaboration more demanding than our last. Lunch when you get back? Ax’.

We met for Korean. Alex arrived late, miming apologetically and deep in earnest telephone conversation with his father, who had recently been diagnosed with lymphoma. I noted the copy of Tim Dee’s The Running Sky he clutched to his chest. For the next hour or so over bibimbap and seaweed, he spoke passionately about the years he’d spent spotting birds in books, compiling notes and incubating his vision of an illustrated ‘literary ornithology’. It became clear that this was a book Alex had wanted to write for a long time, something close to his heart.

I had drawn the endpaper map and part-openers for Alex’s novel In Love And War and enjoyed working with him enormously. What’s more, the weekend we’d spent in Florence for its launch soaking up Negroni and autumn sunshine reassured me that there would probably be more to working on a bird book with him than thermos flasks and sandwiches in draughty hides.

Painting the birds was going to be a step into the unknown for me, but the prospect of a guided tour through the most evocative nature-writing certainly appealed. Besides, there was a good chance we would get no further than the Swallows we’d agreed to try out as a sample chapter.

As soon as I received the words from Alex, the static notions of bird imagery that had clogged my thoughts dissolved. I was dazzled by the linguistic aerobatics performed by writers trying to capture the swallow on the page:


A blue-dark knot of glittering voltage,                                                                                   
A whiplash swimmer, a fish of the air

Ted Hughes, ‘A Swallow’


…describing in the air the shape of a rope or rein by which all things might have been tied under the sky.
Tim Dee, ‘The Running Sky: A Bird-Watching Life’


…would arrow down to dip their beaks in the water, their tawny breasts dyed turquoise, then rise to inscribe giddy arabesques upon the air.
Alex, ‘In Love And War’


I wish my whole battened                                                                                                      
heart were a property                                                                                                                            
like this, with swallows                                                                                                                  
in every room – so at ease…

Kathleen Jamie, ‘Swallows’


Suddenly, beyond the bird itself, in between the voltage, the turquoise, the pool and the arabesques, I sensed the chapter’s visual centre of gravity; that point where vital images are to be found. I began to sketch and, sure enough, a composition emerged that seemed to capture the essence of the chapter; something with immediate impact that also carried quieter resonances. I had come up with something that did justice to our Swallows. And that, I assumed, would be that.

Two months later - to my astonishment - I found myself in a modish corporate meeting room high above The Embankment. Of the two publishers keen to produce the book, we had chosen Little,Brown because of editor James Gurbutt’s great enthusiasm for the project and for their commitment to making our book a truly exquisite, colourful object. The other offer, to produce it in black and white, would have made my job of illustrating it far easier, but would have resulted in a duller book. We’d agreed to take the longer, harder road in the conviction that the extra work would prove more rewarding. Thus, we found ourselves around that large table confronted by fifteen or so publishing types outlining what would be required to make the vision a reality, ‘We want to make this the most beautiful book published in 2017…’  ‘…and we’ll need all 21 paintings and 50 drawings by…’  I blanked the rest out.

It was the nearest thing I’ve ever had to an out-of-body experience. Every part of me was shrieking ‘Walk away now!’ except my voice, which I could hear saying things like ‘of course’ and ‘no problem at all’.

Leaving the building, I sat on a bench staring at the Thames, thinking Very Big Thoughts about the noble discipline of ornithological art and experts with vast knowledge eager to point out shortcomings in the foolhardy impostor.

I took the four further chapters Alex had completed and slept very little for a week or so worrying and working to prove that, in a certain light, I could pass myself off as a painter of birds. My mood shifted fractionally: the self-doubt was still there, but with the hint of something strange, new and exhilarating lurking within it.

Whatever this thing might be, I had no choice but to put my faith in it. I made a promise to myself to be as fearless as I could, undaunted by considerations of time or my own perceived shortcomings. The title As Kingfishers Catch Fire became a kind of mission statement too: the birds would be coaxed into flame from the sparks in the words.  And there too, I realised, lay my Get Out of Jail Free card for ornithological inaccuracies: I would not be aiming for academic representations of birds; my paintings would be distillations of the words used to portray them.

Over the ensuing months we fell into the rhythm of Alex emailing me each fresh chapter on completion. I came to see these simultaneously as gift and gauntlet. My readings of new manuscripts are always edgy - alert for connections, patterns, recurring images - but even so, these felt particularly heightened. My nervous energy manifested itself first in urgent thumbnail sketches, which I would send to Alex for his thoughts.

He questioned and demanded very little. Trust and empathy grew between us. We acquired a see-saw momentum - I tried to out-paint his words, he tried to out-write my painting. And those faces that had intimidated me around the Little,Brown table proved to belong to the most supportive, sensitive and knowledgeable people I’ve ever worked with. I was painting for them too. It became more than a two-way collaboration.

Across a giddy summer, I worked absurd hours. I rose at 4am to wrangle goldfinches and thistles out of dawn thunder; I burned midnight oil to cast a skein of snowgeese across a crimson elsewhere. The fearlessness became addictive - each image a more ambitious leap of faith than the last. My intuition seemed to draw me deeper into the heart of each fresh chapter in search of its visual resolution.

being the colour of snow, catching the light                                                                         so they were, in part at least, golden  Mary Oliver, ‘Snow Geese’

being the colour of snow, catching the light                                                                        
so they were, in part at least, golden

Mary Oliver, ‘Snow Geese’

They haunt the roughest, oldest edges of the parish landscape…patrollers of the bounds
Richard Mabey, ‘A Brush With Nature’

My only disappointment lay in Alex’s decision to close the book with the Nightingale. It seemed such a visually dull bird after the pyrotechnics of peacock and peregrine plumage. As I worked into the cascade of blossom I’d chosen as a metaphor for the nightingale’s song, a feeling of imminent loss overwhelmed me. The petals blurred. I realised I had been dreading this moment: the end of the project which, over a year before, I had dreaded starting. Alex’s closing passages provided some comfort, and explained why the nightingale had to conclude the book

…after the nightingale stops singing, we should hear the words rush in, words that may never quite capture the bird as we know it, but in whose noble failures we find new ways of figuring our world.

He quoted Wallace Stevens ‘Autumn Refrain’

The stillness of everything gone, and being still,                                                                
Being and sitting still, something resides

Only recently, when I re-read the text with the benefit of several months’ perspective, did I see clearly what does reside. Alex’s chapters read beautifully and stand as a body of work in their own right. I hope that my paintings do the same. Interwoven though, they represent a small monument to a year of colour, creativity and intensity that I would not have missed for anything.


for the Kingfisher’s Muse...