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BOOKS:The world before Attenborough

THE NEW NATURALISTS by Peter Marren, HarperCollins pounds 14.99
MY grandmother, in an eccentric if well-meaning attempt to foster my interest in natural history, once took me to see a film called The Birds and the Bees. I think the low biological content of this long-forgotten movie mystified us both; as did The Snows of Kilimanjaro, also selected for its wildlife interest, but memorable chiefly for its scenes of torrid love-making beneath a Red Cross jeep. The stars - Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner - etched themselves on my schoolboy mind; alas, the wildlife on which my grandmother's hopes had been pinned remained a blur in the middle distance.

These were the post-war years, before television and the ubiquitous Attenborough had turned us all into armchair naturalists; apart from occasional visits to the cinema, we experienced the living world as it should be experienced - at first hand, in the field. There were few restrictions on our activities. Birds' nesting and bug-hunting were still tolerated. The thought-police of the RSPB (The Royal Society for the Prevention of Birdwatching, I sometimes think) had not yet laid a censorious hand on almost everything, and it was still possible to roam freely in places - such as the Ouse Washes - which have since surrendered much of their wild beauty to the sanitising embrace of conservation.

We had few reliable books to guide us. What was available were either dense university texts, or cloyingly sentimental pictorial essays under such titles as Aristocrats of the Air or The Summer of a Million Wings. The modern field guide, pioneered by the influential American bird painter Roger Tory Peterson, was still in embryo. H.F. Witherby's massive five- volume Handbook of British Birds was far too expensive, and in any case much too bulky to carry into the field. So there was a general, if ill- defined, craving for a series of popular, authoritative scientific texts, copiously illustrated (colour photography was then in its infancy) without ever descending to the level of mere picture books. This was what Collins' famous New Naturalist series attempted to do. As James Fisher, one of its founding fathers, is reputed to have said to Billy Collins in 1942, "What this country needs is a good series of books on natural history to take its mind off the carnage."

Fisher was in many ways the New Naturalist incarnate. Formidably industrious and energetic, he managed to tread the delicate line between being "accessible" and scientifically respectable. He had little patience for popular natural history or for scientific elites. Yet it has to be said that a number of his authors were incorrigibly elitist; none more so than the lovable E B Ford, whose Butterflies launched the series in 1945 and sold 20,000 copies in the first edition. Ford was a Fellow of All Souls, but like many naturalists he combined a child-like sense of wonder at the natural world with an endearing inability to cope with human relationships. Part of this child-like condition took the form of an exaggerated misogyny. As a university lecturer, Ford would be in the habit of addressing his mixed audiences as "Gentlemen". During the war, the male undergraduates dwindled until only one remained. "Sir," began Ford. When this individual too was summoned to the ranks, Ford was left with a sea of expectant female faces. "Since there is no one here," he announced calmly, "there will be no lecture."

Peter Marren's lovingly researched history of the New Naturalist series, published to mark its 50th anniversary, combines readability with scrupulously organised fact in true New Naturalist tradition. James Fisher - had he lived - would be especially pleased with Appendix 3, in which Marren attempts a collectors' guide to the series. A full set of these beautiful volumes - although almost worthless without their fine dust wrappers by Clifford and Rosemary Ellis - would nowadays fetch around pounds 4000, but some volumes are of almost legendary scarcity. Fisher's own monograph on the fulmar (three times the bulk of the others in the series, possibly because Fisher edited it himself) is now almost impossible to obtain in anything resembling pristine condition.

James Fisher was candid about his reasons for writing on the fulmar. His book was the fruit of a personal obsession with a bird and its habitat. The best of the New Naturalist titles - Miriam Rothschild on fleas, John Gilmour and John Raven on botany, Desmond Nethersole-Thompson on greenshanks - bear witness to similar obsessions. In a world shrunk by television and eco-tourism and hemmed in on all sides by the restraining forces of conversation, the birds and the bees still repay individual attention; the New Naturalist books showed us what could be done by simple observation, deduction and experiment: good old-fashioned virtues, all of them, as James Fisher would have been the first to admit.