There have been several books about twitching in Britain in the past, some interesting and exciting, others so full of inaccuracies that they were better off in the fiction section. And, I must admit, I do like reading tales of twitching; as someone who used to be an active twitcher, I understand the thrill of seeing something new, the logistics of getting there and the obsession required to reach the far-flung corners of Britain (and, in this case, Ireland) at the drop of a hat. I am also fascinated by the characters involved – some are great bird-finders; some rely on the next piece of rare-bird news to plan their day; some are from well-paid jobs with understanding bosses; some have understanding partners and supportive friends; while for others there’s an element of ‘sneaking in’ the twitching between other aspects of their life. Many of the people and places named in this book are familiar to me from my days living in the UK.
Twitching by Numbers attracted a lot of negative attention when first published, so much so that the author withdrew the original edition from sale and hastily released a revised edition, with some of the more sexist and derogatory sections removed. That said, had I not seen the deleted excerpts online, I might have believed I was still reading the original edition (which is subtitled twenty-four years of chasing rare birds around Britain and Ireland and is, despite being briefly delisted, still available to purchase from Amazon alongside the revised edition). Not only is the text in this revised edition shocking in its own right – for example, the author describing his daughter’s friend as being overweight – but it’s hard to fathom why this is needed at all in a book focused on the author’s twitching life. I don’t believe Garry has made these comments out of malice, but they show a level of ignorance that is hard to excuse.
The book is published independently and available via Amazon’s print-on-demand service. Despite there having been much chatter from the author pre-publication about ‘the editor’, there is no credit given in the book. Indeed, going by the content, it’s hard to believe that an editor ever saw the book: there are multiple mistakes per page, including the incorrectly spelt names of birds, people and places. There is, of course, no shame in the author not picking these up himself, as he never claims to be a literary professional, but it’s unacceptable that any editor or publisher would let a book be published in this state.
Is there anything on which to commend this book? Honestly, I think there is. Obviously, if you enjoy tales of twitching, then this book – between the sometimes slightly uncomfortable detours – offers one of the most comprehensive personal twitching accounts of recent times. There is also a raw honesty to the book, both about Garry’s trips and his personal life, and he is to be commended for not sugar-coating aspects of his life that other authors may have passed by in their writing. The author’s own drawings, too, are bright and lively additions to the pages.
Perhaps above all, though, this book marks a moment in time. It documents an era when travelling hundreds of miles in pursuit of a rare bird was celebrated; when the highest listers in the land gained almost celebrity status amongst their peers. Twitching by Numbers will offer something for future generations to look back on; perhaps, in decades from now, the sort of high-carbon, all-or-nothing twitching described here will still be happening, or perhaps our great-grandchildren will read this book with the same perspective as us reading about bygone pastimes, such as egg-collecting or shooting for specimens. Regardless of how things pan out, this book offers a warts-and-all account of twitching in the early 2000s, and for that its value must be recognised.