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I’m a big fan of Chris Peckham. I have fond memories of him on the Really Wild Show as a child with his blonde mohican haircut and his passionate, borderline obsessive interest in animals and the natural world. As a fellow nature lover, I’ve also enjoyed watching him on Springwatch and Autumnwatch, especially trying to spot when he was shoehorning The Jesus and Mary Chain or The Smiths lyrics into his pieces to camera. Therefore, I was excited to see that Chris had written his autobiography, “Fingers in the Sparkle Jar”. I was hoping for something exciting, a bit off the wall and just…different, a bit like Chris himself.
Well, this book is certainly different.
Unlike many autobiographies, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar is a series of captured moments, mostly from Chris’ childhood in the 1970’s. There’s a heavy emphasis on the wildlife he went in search of and the pets that he and his family owned. Interspersed throughout the text are more emotional passages about personal life (bullying, failed attempts at chatting up girls etc.) Every so often, there’s a jarring passage about Chris’ counselling sessions, where it becomes obvious that he had, at some point, been suicidal and had clearly suffered from bouts of depression. It’s clear that Chris’ dark thoughts were related to his inability to get along with other people (the book is full of references to how he simply didn’t fit in with his peers) and it becomes obvious that something else is going on. It transpires that, although not diagnosed until years later, Chris has Aspergers – although I’m not sure if this is made clear in the text or if I just knew that already. It’s so sad to see how much Chris suffered, but also uplifting to see how his focus and attention to detail made him into one of the foremost British naturalists alive today.
The book itself is almost entirely focused on animals. In some ways, Chris had a really idyllic childhood, free to roam the countryside to birdwatch, catch frogs, collect birds eggs etc. Occasionally this obsession with animals can become a bit gross – there’s a lot of examining poo, dissecting dead creatures and putting tadpoles in your mouth to see what they tasted of. In some ways Chris almost came across as cruel when he did things like steal birds eggs from nests, trapped insects in jars until they died and at one point even stole a live bird of prey from the wild to raise as his own pet. However, I think this was just an example of an autistic child trying to understand the world around them and not considering the feelings of others when there was something that he wanted.
Throughout the book, Chris recounts many of his memories involving animals and in particular, a very touching relationship with his pet Kestrel. Much of the book is focused on this relationship, with almost no discussion of his feelings towards his family (I sense that he pretty much ignored them) or friends (I don’t think he had any). It seemed that Chris put all of his emotions into caring for the bird and it was heartbreaking to see what happened when it inevitably passed away.
I did find the way that this book was written quite hard to follow. There’s an approximation of linear progression but the narrative does jump around, making it difficult to imagine what age Chris is and what events have happened previously. It’s obvious that Chris is highly intelligent but he uses very flowery prose to frame each vignette of memory – to the point where his allegories, similies and metaphors were so opaque that I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. This made me feel like I was almost being kept as arm’s length as a reader – as if by explaining the scene as poetically as possible Chris could skip the emotive part. As such, I found it difficult to connect to the book and really struggled to get into it.
There’s a TV programme that went along with the book which was shown on BBC2 and went even further into Chris’ life. Even though many of the stories in the book were discussed, the programme also focused on Chris’ personal life and we got to see his sister, his partner and his stepdaughter from a previous relationship. Seeing Chris in the context of his family really helped me to engage with his story and I enjoyed the programme far more than the book.
Overall, this book is a truly honest, brave memoir of a troubled boy/young man and his escape into the natural world as a coping mechanism. It’s sad, funny, disgusting, weird and wonderful – exactly like Chris himself. I just wished I could have engaged more with the writing, as the accompanying TV programme was brilliant.
A raw, visceral account of a difficult childhood. Honest, revolting and moving in equal measure, but written in a way that I found difficult to follow. It’s almost like Chris wanted to keep the reader at arms length…
Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley! I also read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #6 Read a book about nature.