A Curious Boy by Richard Fortey review – the making of a scientist | Science and nature books


It is a fun exercise among naturalists to try to pinpoint a childhood moment when they deviated from the path of “ordinary” people and set out on their tangent towards the other parts of life. American birders use a nice shorthand expression for such an epiphany: “the spark bird” – the encounter that switched on the nature-loving light.

This wonderfully lyrical autobiography is constructed around a search for an answer to that question. And it is important because it has shaped Richard Fortey’s whole life. At the end of the memoir we see him become one of Britain’s top palaeontologists, a world expert on trilobites, a celebrated author on the earth sciences and a TV presenter of wildlife programmes.

Yet the heights he achieved in later years were not clear at the outset. Being in thrall to nature in the 1950s was hardly a choice with many career prospects. Most naturalists admit to an early anxiety about fitting in, especially at school where ridicule of the “nature nerd” was a common form of torture. Fortey the public man goes back to reunite himself with his awkward, bashful, intensely clever youthful self to see if he can spot the moment of transformation.

He defines his family as “middle middle class”, and describes a postwar childhood partly set in London, where his father ran several fishing shops, and partly at Boxford in Berkshire, where the Forteys had a country cottage. The latter was strategically close to the River Lambourne so that Fortey senior could indulge a passion for fly-fishing.

The author may go on to propose that “I was first made on a riverbank”, but it turns out not to be a simple matter of family tradition and paternal genes. While the father was a record-setting angler, a scratch golfer and school champion at boxing and fives, the son was an outdoors disaster. The closest he seems to have come to any sporting prowess was a semi-serious ability at tiddlywinks.

The great outdoors ... salmon fishing on the Tay.
The great outdoors … salmon fishing on the Tay. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

What his family fishing excursions did provide, however, was a free-form space in which Fortey could find his own paths. And what an instructive set of enthusiasms they turned out to be. He takes us along on his bird-nest robbing excursions which, while full of a sense of visceral and life defining adventure, were also illegal by 1954. Taking birds eggs is frowned on by today’s environmentalists, but almost every naturalist of a certain vintage admits to its forbidden allure. Me included.

Fossil hunting was a slightly more esoteric pastime, but what is perhaps most telling about Fortey’s childhood was his awakening to toadstools. Today there is a whole library of richly illustrated guides and scholarly works on mushrooms. The fungus foray is a popular activity offered for public participation up and down the country. Yet when Fortey did it there were no teachers and the only widely available book was The Observer’s Book of Common Fungi. It covered 200 of the many thousands of British species. Fungi, in short, are difficult.

The author tells us he remains an amateur enthusiast, but it is a mark of his ability that he describes how, in 2006, he found a tiny fungus Ceriporiopsis herbicola new to science. The discovery of entirely unknown organisms happens to few, but it happens in Britain to almost none. You realise that a challenge in this funny and entertaining book is peeling back the curtain of the author’s self-deprecation.

I would also suggest that the real revelation of A Curious Boy is something other than the way these multiple childhood paths converge at his contemporary self. I can illustrate it by invoking the author’s description of the Pembrokeshire landscapes where he went on family holidays. “The glory of St David’s is its coastline,” he writes, “nothing here remains horizontal and the rock beds are often twisted tortuously into folds, or abruptly terminated by great faults that cut vertically as if to ignore the geology altogether.”

The Pembrokeshire coast path near Whitesands bay, St David’s.
The Pembrokeshire coast path near Whitesands bay, St David’s. Photograph: Michael Roberts/Getty Images

Different colours were juxtaposed when the Earth’s crust was sliced into these chunks: Caerfi Bay is backed by bright red shale; Solva displays black slaty rocks; massive, subtly coloured sandstones define promontories. Most implacable of all is St David’s Head.

This is an example of what his old schoolmaster called “Fortey’s forte”: his ability to see and interpret the complexities of the living world, as if from a great height, and then to compress all the technical material into a scientifically accurate form that is also full of poetry and music.

What we really learn from the autobiography is its author polymathic aspirations, his childhood passion for rather arcane composers – Constant Lambert, Maxwell Davies and Lennox Berkeley – for polyphonic music and choral singing. Another youthful trait was an omnivorous consumption of European literature (Beckett and Ionesco), a taste for writing poetry that survived into adulthood, as well as a love of painting, which could easily have been his real metier.

Fortey writes midway through the text: “It took me much of my life to reintegrate myself into the person I was when I was sixteen.” That’s the most compelling insight of the book: the way in which its author has striven to fuse and harmonise, often against career typecasting, professional constraint and simple circumstances, to become the whole person he wished to be. This is the substance of A Curious Boy and it strikes me that both the book and the life it recounts amount to a singular triumph.

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