Whenever I say that Jab was an important influence on my writing, it always sparks the question: ‘Who on earth is Jab?’ When I explain that this was the nickname of one of my schoolteachers, J. Arnold Benington (1903–1982), people often jump to the wrong conclusion. He wasn’t my English teacher. Literature didn’t feature among his interests. He never saw – let alone commented on – any of my imaginative writing. We didn’t talk about books and reading. Yet Jab had a profound impact on the direction my writing followed, despite our non-literary relationship.
Jab taught biology at Friends’ School Lisburn, the Quaker school I attended from the age of five until I was fourteen. At that point I moved to a school in Belfast. Leaving Friends’ made it easier for Jab to become a friend and to metamorphose – awkwardly and unsuccessfully – into ‘Arnold’. I was so used to his nickname that calling him by his given name felt strange. In class it was ‘Sir’ or ‘Mr Benington’. Amongst pupils he was invariably referred to as ‘Jab’. ‘Arnold’ seemed remote and artificial. Even now, when I write it on the page, ‘Arnold’ makes it sound like I’m talking about someone else. Although I never spoke it to his face, ‘Jab’ is how I’ve always thought of him.
When I think about him now, I find myself remembering a fragment from Louis MacNeice’s wonderful poem ‘Prayer Before Birth’. The poem asks that the unborn be granted a list of blessings and that they’re given protection from various dangers. One of the blessings requested is to have ‘birds and a white light/ in the back of my mind to guide me’. That fits Jab perfectly. He was precisely so guided through his life. Birds were his passion and he devoted hours to watching and studying them. As for the white light, that came from his strong Quaker faith and knowledge of the Bible. In fact I often thought he resembled a kind of Old Testament prophet with his shock of white hair, weather-beaten face and piercing, wide-awake eyes. He seemed somehow charged with more voltage than any of our other teachers.
Describing him as ‘interested in natural history’ is accurate enough. But it risks misleading by understatement, diluting into bland generality the supercharged concentrate of what was so evident when you met him. His enthusiasm was infectious. It wasn’t confined to the classroom. It was also displayed in the after-school Young Naturalists’ Club, his creation of a butterfly garden in a neglected corner of the playing fields, the field trips he organized to Iceland, the talks he gave on BBC radio, and the ‘Nature Diary’ column he wrote for a Belfast newspaper.
His natural history interests were wide-ranging – insects, wildflowers, fungi, pond life – all of them fascinated him, and his knowledge of each was impressive. But he had a particular soft spot for birds. Above all, he was interested in sparrowhawks, a species he’d carefully documented from his youth until well into his seventies. I spent a lot of time with Jab as I was growing up. We devoted hours to watching sparrowhawks in the Ulster countryside — which meant I received a kind of ongoing masterclass on the ways of these secretive raptors.
All this may make it sound as if I’m leading up to saying that, inspired by Jab, I developed into a ‘nature writer’. That’s not what happened. His influence on me was considerable. He undoubtedly nurtured my interest in the natural world, particularly birds, and that interest is evident in my writing. But the way we addressed our common interest wasn’t the same at all. If you look at one of Jab’s papers for the Irish Naturalists’ Journal, or his contribution to The Second BBC Naturalist – a nice essay entitled ‘Being a Weekend Naturalist’ – or his newspaper column, or unpublished field diaries and letters, the approach he takes is very different from mine. Jab’s emphasis was on describing what he saw and carefully recording details. I follow a more meandering and meditative path.
Graham Good, one of the best contemporary authorities on the essay, says that ‘Anyone who can look attentively, think freely, and write clearly can be an essayist; no other qualifications are needed’. That’s easier to state than put into practice. My looking is often dull, my thinking lazy, and my writing far from lucid. Good’s list is of skills you need to keep developing, rather than fixed qualities that can simply be assumed. Where Jab’s influence was strongest was in fostering attentive looking. It was with him that I learned the discipline of paying close attention to the natural world. Sitting for hours in a hide waiting to photograph sparrowhawks; dissecting owl pellets and sorting through their ossuaries of tiny bones in order to identify prey animals; searching swampy fields for the larvae of marsh fritillary butterflies; setting up a light-trap and logging the moth species it attracts; taking bark rubbings and learning to identify different trees by their bark patterns; watching how tadpoles metamorphose into frogs — these are things that hone attentiveness; they foster a close looking at the things around us.
One of my as yet unrealized literary ambitions is to take all the bird-related essays out of my eight published collections and present them together in a single volume. Such a book would include essays where gyrfalcons, waxwings, sparrowhawks, kingfishers, oystercatchers, corncrakes, woodpigeons, long-eared owls and other species feature prominently. The fact that birds are such a frequent point of reference for me is due in no small part to Jab. Yet despite the avian theme of this purported volume, I doubt it would appeal much to birdwatchers. And I strongly suspect that it wouldn’t have received Jab’s approval. His looking was rooted in his joy at the beauty of nature and his faith in a beneficent creator deity; mine has less secure, more questioning foundations.
Although my essays often crystallize around birds, they’re not so much about them as what they point to and suggest; what an encounter with them brings to mind. The birds act as portals into mazes of meaning and reflection beyond the world of immediate appearances. So my boyhood sighting of a flock of waxwings occasions a meditation on the complications attending memory; kingfishers become symbols that cast light on synchronicity and loss; oystercatchers prompt an investigation into the incredible cargo carried by a single moment; a corncrake provides the vocabulary to lament environmental degradation and a loss of faith; a blue tit becomes an unlikely icon for death and the question of when we should introduce children to the fact of our – and their – mortality.
Jab was a deeply religious man. He believed in a traditionally conceived Christian God: omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving. For him, sparrowhawks, like every other element of the natural world, were evidence of God’s creation. His reading of nature took an ‘All things bright and beautiful’ approach. How he squared the nature of hawks with this outlook was something I found incredible. Watching a hawk bring down a woodpigeon and start to pluck and eat it while it’s still alive is, for me, an argument against the kind of God he worshipped.
I never voiced such doubts to Jab. It would have pained him to know that what he saw as one of God’s beautiful creations was, in my eyes, a missile fired into the certainties he cherished. Our natural theologies led us in profoundly different directions, yet Jab and I shared a lot of common ground and I’m grateful for what flourished on it under the tutelage of his friendship. He taught me my alphabet of birds, helped me to see the quite astonishing things that are written in the book of nature. I suspect my books would have been quite different if I’d never had the privilege of knowing him.