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In Search of One Last Song by Patrick Galbraith

19 August 2022

Fergus Butler-Gallie enjoys a faith-streaked love song to the birds

I AM not a fan of liturgical variation; life, in my opinion, is chaotic enough without beginning every day with a flurry of ribbons and random canticles. The two times of year when I do make an exception are Lent and Advent, when I swap the glories of the Te Deum for the Benedicite at Morning Prayer. Perhaps my favourite line in this canticle is “All ye Fowls of the Air, bless ye the Lord.”

Scripture, hymnody, and liturgy are shot through with snatches of birdsong, and so it’s nice to see that the relationship is just as prevalent the other way. Patrick Galbraith’s beautiful In Search of One Last Song is shot through with references to faith. It is ostensibly a book about birdsong — or, more precisely, some of the birds that make song and people who are trying to prevent their disappearance from these shores; but the faith looms very large throughout.

Whether it’s the spire of St Lawrence’s, Lechlade, leading him in the general direction of a partridge, the touching inscriptions on the graves of a country churchyard which reverberate with the call of a turtle dove, or the glorious time when, in search of a kittiwake, we are treated to a man in Twatt, Orkney, who is midway through a steak slice, describing the Church of Scotland’s Great Disruption as a fit of “religious mania”. Galbraith is constantly encountering religion while on his own pilgrimage, and writes of it with care and affection.

The prose is certainly not minimalist — a “grey fug hangs heavy over Ilkley Moor”, “bundles of hazel faggots are lashed together,” etc. I don’t think it’s any worse for that; short sharp shocks of sentences are all too in vogue at the moment, and so, as Brian Brindley observed of quiche, sometimes lashings of cream can make things seem less rich.

This is no fluffy synodical motion about brother and sister bird, however; Galbraith is a proper countryman, and refreshingly honest about the fact that conservation often involves culling. Creation is not some story-book abstract here, but a lived reality: the people and places as known and loved as the birds and their song. The book is a triumph and well worth a meditative read, a love song to Britain’s birds and to those who love them. May they continue to “praise him and magnify him for ever”.

The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie is a priest and a writer.


In Search of One Last Song: Britain’s disappearing birds and the people trying to save them
Patrick Galbraith
HarperCollins £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.09

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