The Observer book series….
This is my tried and trusted Observer’s Book of Wild Flowers, the 1951 edition compiled by W.J. Stokoe and published by Fredrick Warne & Co. Two hundred species, over two hundred illustrations, many in glorious colour, it has proven invaluable in my wanderings across the English countryside.
So why not a new glossy format book, or my smartphone to help me identify the plants that I see? Well, I am, in many ways, a traditionalist. I embrace the new to the extent which I feel comfortable with, the rest I look to what has gone before and the Observer Books were an important part of my childhood in the 1970s. I can still see the editions I had; Automobiles, Motorcycles, British Birds and quite probably Freshwater Fishes. But sentiment aside, they are entirely practical books, they are, quite literally, pocket size and perfect for taking on an excursion.
I do not study plants, trees or birds but I appreciate my surroundings and much of my free time is spent walking in woods and fields and I value what is there for me to see, free of charge. So when I see a particularly striking wild flower I stop to look it up and this book satisfies that need without venturing into the scientific.
Each flower has a single page dedicated to its description, gloriously worded in the manner reminiscent of my school text books, they are clear and concise, but it is the wonderful illustrations which do most to capture my attention. I am nothing if not a sucker for an old book of illustrations, nothing in the modern era comes close to giving me that sense of adventure which I first felt as a young boy seeing books like these and I often think of the things we have lost over recent years as technology continues to advance in the ways that it has.
This particular volume was the second in a long series which began in 1937 with the author going on to become an important contributor to others in the collection. All of the 1930s editions concentrated on natural history until Airplanes was published in 1942 principally to act as a public’s guide to spotting enemy aircraft. Observer published almost one hundred titles in the pocket book series, hugely popular during the middle half of the last century they were eventually sold to Penguin in 1983, cementing their place in literary history.
The list of subjects is all encompassing, I loved the automobiles book as a boy; models I recognised on my own roads and supercars I dreamt of owning, the one glimpse of a Lamborghini before the internet saturation made such wonders the norm. Many years later I find myself happily contented in being no closer to owning a Lamborghini but happily enjoying the natural and much cheaper landscape around me and the wonders within these pages.
One look inside and those ancient names leap out of the page: Perforated St. John’s Wort, Mouse-Ear Chick Weed, Dropwort, Hogweed, Jack-By-The Hedge, Knotted Figwort, the list goes on. One can picture the history behind such names, their uses in medieval medicines, witchcraft and recipes. These books deserve their place in publishing folklore, they provided education, interest and inspiration to millions and continue to do so to this day. Pick up a copy on your favourite subject, you won’t regret it.
Categories: The Reading Room