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Grey Daggers and Minotaurs in Greenwich Park. Memories of a London Schoolboy Naturalist in the 1940s (John F. Burton).

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Foreword by Stephen Moss (producer of BBC 1’s Springwatch, broadcaster, writer)

Selected by the Guardian as one of the best Natural History books published in 2014.

This evocative book is based on the illustrated Natural History diaries that the author, John F. Burton, began writing in 1942 and has maintained ever since. It is the story of how one young South East London boy, midst the war-time experience of the Battle of Britain and the onslaught of the Blitz and the V1 and V2 attacks on London, developed his nascent interest and fascination with birds, butterflies, beetles and other British wildlife species into a post-war professional life dedicated to Ornithology and Natural History. Many of his diary entries with accompanying drawings and photographs are reproduced in the book, and recall with immediacy and freshness his memories of those now-distant days and field trips. Although the 1940s are long gone this ageless book will pique the interest of all generations fascinated by wildlife.

About the author

Born in Greenwich, London, John Burton began bird-watching in 1940 at the age of nine but gradually expanded his interests to other branches of Natural History as well, especially insects and wild plants. While still at school he became active in the junior branch of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and also in the London Natural History Society. As a result he was appointed by the Royal Parks as an official bird observer for Greenwich Park at the age of 16. On leaving the Roan School in Greenwich in 1948, his career took him from London’s Natural History Museum to Assistant Secretary of the British Trust for Ornithology, Oxford University and the editorial staff of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

He began broadcasting on BBC radio in the 1950s and in 1960 joined the internationally famous BBC Natural History Unit, where he ran and developed the BBC’s renowned library of wildlife sounds as well as broadcasting on radio and television, and producing radio programmes. Amongst the latter was his long-running series Sounds Natural, that featured interviews with eminent people and celebrities interested in wildlife and its conservation, such as Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, Lord Home of the Hirsel, Bing Crosby, Humphrey Lyttelton, Spike Milligan, Eric Morecambe, Sir Harry Secombe and Frank Thornton. He was also involved in television production. Now in his eighties, John is still an active field naturalist and author. He is a Vice-President of Butterfly Conservation, a Scientific Fellow of the Zoological Society of London and a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society. His previous books include The Oxford Book of Insects, Downland Wildlife and Birds and Climate Change.

Reviews for Grey Daggers and Minotaurs in 2014.

 John Burton is one of the original urban birders and I salute him. Not only is this book a charming and fascinating account of his birding life in the 1940s, it is a slice of social history. It’s a must for any bookshelf. David Lindo, The Urban Birder.

John Burton is one of the last of the all-round naturalists. As one of the outstanding post-war generation of London naturalists he knew the likes of James Fisher, Richard Fitter, Eric Hosking and Ernest Neale. It records in loving detail the lists of birds and butterflies, the friendships and small adventures from that now distant time when boys could roam about on their bikes doing more or less what they pleased. Today it seems almost as far away and long ago as W.H. Hudson’s Argentina.

Peter Marren, British Wildlife, April 2014.

‘Before I knew it, I was half way through [the book] and had completely lost track of time. Perhaps this is at least in part, because as a representative of the post-war generation of naturalists affecting south east London, John Burton met just about all and knew most of the ‘famous names’ of that era. Perhaps I recognise in author various familiar elements of my own schooldays, wandering around … without fear of strange men lurking in bushes …

Entomologist’s Record and Journal of Variation, (26), May 2014.   

John Burton, living at what was then the edge of southeast London, started a journal focused mainly on natural history in 1940, at the age of nine. The book provides an interesting insight into the birds and invertebrates, especially Lepidoptera, that could still be found in areas that subsequently became part of London’s urban sprawl. The nesting Wood Warblers Phylloscopus sibilatrix and flocks of Hawfinches Coccothraustes coccothraustes, within walking distance of his home in the 1940s are simply inconceivable today. 

Peter Oliver, ‘British Birds’, April 2014.

London naturalists will recognise many of the sites in south east London and the adjoining areas of Kent that the author describes. Many others however, are now changed beyond recognition, the post-World War Two expansion of London rivalling that of the Victorian era in changing open country to bricks and mortar… A very worthwhile book of record.

David W. Allen, The London Naturalist, No. 92, 2013.

Publication date: January 2014; ISBN: 9-781782-802068; Format: Softback; Extent: 436 pp.; Illustrations: 113 b/w

Retail price: £16.50; USD $27.00; CAN $28.00 There is a £5.60 postage and packing charge for UK orders. Please enquire for postal charges for overseas orders.

Click on the link to see and hear John Burton talking about his life as a naturalist on the BBC’s ‘Wild Film History’ website:

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