Novelist, Ornithologist and War

This blog is about the unexpected confluence of three crucial strands of my life: a novelist, an ornithologist and War.

It is in one way, pure serendipity. In another it feels as if it has been waiting for me for a long time. It is sobering, yet at the same time it has brought me deep joy. The latter in particular is not at all easy, in this time of terrible news at home and abroad and I am sincerely grateful for it.

And to me it feels like a sign that I am, creatively speaking, in the right place and will find a good path.

See if you agree with me.

An Ornithologist Starts It

The triangle started to come together on 6th June. I was horrified by the wilful destruction of the Nova Kharkova Dam in Ukraine, a short sighted brutality that has caused not only great human suffering but is an ecological atrocity that will run and run.

To divert me, a friend I was visiting pointed out a robin visiting his garden. The bird seemed to have a twig in its beak.

So OK, I couldn’t just sit there for ever, radiating despair over the human condition. I aimed for a sensible question: wasn’t it a bit late for nest building?


We began to talk robins. And pretty soon my host was bringing out a small, slightly worn hardback book. It had a plain parchment coloured cover with a crimson rectangle on the front bearing the title and author’s name: The Life of the Robin by David Lack. It was published in 1943 by H F and G Witherby and cost 7/6.

“It’s wonderful,” he said, patting the little book like an old friend. “Still stands up brilliantly. And it’s very readable, too. Fantastic that the publishers were allowed the paper to print it in wartime.”

I got the message. Civilisation will creep through the cracks, even in wartime. I really did begin to feel a little better. So who was he, this inspiriting author I’d never heard of?

Distinguished Ornithologist?

The Life of the RobinMy kind host consulted his library and found a short biographical note. David Lack was a pioneer ornithologist. He wrote The Life of the Robin while he was a school teacher at Dartington Hall. He had published 2 papers on the breeding habits of the European nightjar and another on habitat selection in birds in 1933. They were rigorous but essentially unsupervised. Not quite a professional then.

Were his publishers simply enchanted by his clear, lively style, then? The book has stood the test of time, after all.

The latest edition came out in 2016, with an introduction and additional essays. One is by his son Peter.

Pallas Athene, the latest publisher, calls it “a landmark in natural history” and they’re clearly right. BBC Wildlife Magazine’s review says, “If you have never read this title you really must; it set the standard for accessible accounts of familiar species.”

But maybe his publishers genuinely recognised a ground-breaking study? For Lack’s Life of the Robin addressed both ecology and behaviour and that was a first. Senior British zoologists of the time did not count either as serious science. Julian Huxley was the honourable exception and, indeed, became David Lark’s “unofficial supervisor” when Robin was being written, according to a sympathetic memoir by W H Thorpe.

In 1954 Lack went on to formulate Lack’s Principle: that the clutch size of each species of bird has been adapted by natural selection to correspond with the largest number of young for which the parents can, on average, provide enough food.

Subsequently academics in other disciplines have explored the principle.  A 2013 biography of him is subtitled Father of Evolutionary Ecology. 

In August 1945, he became Director of the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology at Oxford University. He continued to publish work, as his Wikipedia entry points out, “almost entirely based on studies of the living bird.” Possibly Darwin’s Finches is the most famous, drawing on his own pre-war work and revising his earlier monograph. But I bet Robin is the most loved.

David Lack, Teacher

Most of the above was in the short biographical piece my host had shared. But this schoolmaster intrigued me. Such an important, imaginative jump! Was he a genius? There was just a hint in the bio that he was a bit of a loner and perhaps not always an easy man to get on with. Was he a good teacher?

So when I got back home, I pursued the matter a little, just to see what might be on the Web.

And Wikipedia gave me a truly mind blowing present: “one of Lack’s students at Dartington Hall was Eva Ibbotson.” Now, as regular readers of this blog will know, Eva Ibbotson’s books are very close to my heart. So, while I desperately hoped it was true, I didn’t entirely trust Wikipedia. I looked for evidence.

And yes, Ibbotson had told several people that she went to Dartington after her parents’ marriage broke up in 1934. So she would certainly have overlapped with David Lack.

She doesn’t name Dartington in her Author’s Note to The Dragonfly Pool. But she does speak of “amazing biology classes which sometimes began at four in the morning.” Thorpe says that Dartington gave Lack “a peach of a job” which gave him not only the freedom but also the encouragement to pursue his métier of ornithologist.

Dartington Hall

Dartington quotes Thorpe’s assessment on their own website. It goes further: “David Lack taught biology at Dartington Hall School 1933-39.” …

Beaulieu River near Fawley“David Lack first began colour-ringing robins in order to amuse his pupils, but it was not long before he was spending all his free time and holidays watching robins at Dartington and making notes. Many of the staff and pupils of the school conducted surveys, trapped and ringed birds and constructed aviaries to help Lack in his research.”…

And, “On a world scale he was judged to be among a handful of leading ornithologists and was awarded the Darwin Medal by the Royal Society shortly before his death in 1973, aged 62.” The citation states, “In recognition of his distinguished and numerous contributions to ornithology and to our understanding of evolutionary mechanisms.”


It is clear that Dartington Hall provided Eva Ibbotson with inspiration for both her adult novel A Song for Summer (1997) and  (for children) The Dragonfly Pool (2008), as Amanda Craig points out in her fabulous essay on Ibbotson’s wonderful short stories.

Wikipedia says that Lack’s biographer, Ted R Anderson, identifies the inspiring biology teacher Matteo in The Dragonfly Pool as based on David Lack.

Of course, no character can ever be wholly based on a real person. There isn’t room.

Matteo is an echo of Marek, the mysterious gardener/musician-in-disguise, who smuggles Jews out of Nazi Germany in A Song for Summer. Both characters have strong politically-inspired ideas and there is an elegiac tone, a sense of imminent ending, to their ultimately heroic behaviour. And each of them, within the context of their own story, is more than bit of a heartthrob. These are people with an independent existence which demands respect.

That Special Teacher

But in The Dragonfly Pool, there is a chapter called Biology at Dawn, which contains a long letter from Tally, in boarding school for the first time, about a lesson which could well have been conducted by David Lack.

“Matteo’s classes start at whatever time he thinks we will see the things he wants to show us. So I was woken by him walking down the corridors and opening our bedroom doors and saying ‘Out'”.

This is at four o’clock in the morning, you understand.

“Matteo made us stop and listen but actually he didn’t have to make us – it was so beautiful we couldn’t help listening…. Then we went on through the wood and no one said a word. If anyone starts talking when they’re out with Matteo he bites their heads off.”

He shows them a snail’s eggs, centipedes, woodlice, violet ground beetles and a sheltering toad under a stone.

“—and all the things were there, and I know it sounds silly but he made us all so pleased – I suppose because he was so pleased himself. … Then he put the stone back – putting things back is the core of fieldwork, he says.”

“You might think it wasn’t proper science, it was just a nature walk, but it wasn’t like that. When we got back we wrote down the date and the temperature of the water in the river and the exact location of the field-vole nest and I don’t feel I will ever forget what I saw. Not ever.”

Learning to See

Image by Meatle from Pixabay

So I do wonder if there is more of David Lack in the book than simply some elements in the character of Matteo. In one way, Tally has learned to see. Did young Eva learn that too? Not just to look with precision and respect but to see as a sort of spiritual exercise. She was very good at that in all her books, I think.

Compare this.

In 1941David Lack went to Orkney for the war effort.

He wrote, “On my day off each week I visited almost every island in the group, the northern ones during half my leave, which fell in June. Like many other naturalists, I was often as a boy exalted by natural beauty, but this happened less often as I grew older, though when it came it was more intense. It last came when I was 30, on a May day in brilliant sun on top of the high red cliffs of Hoy, with a convoy moving slowly through the Pentland Firth, when an aircraft dived steeply down at them, at once the protecting guns fired, and the noise set off a migrant robin (Erithacus rubecula) into full song on the cliffs.”


Which brings me to the third side of my triangle.

electronic benefitsAs some of you know I am writing a story set in World War 2. I have researched the historical events until my eyeballs bubble. But finding those little snippets where you catch the authentic voice of the time is harder than I thought. You can only hope that, sometimes, in reading contemporaneous writing, you will  just fall over them. With David Lack, I’ve done so again and again.

Always a man of principle, he had been a Pacifist since the age of 17. After Dunkirk he became increasingly restless at Dartington and resolved to join a pacifist unit in the East End of London.

He writes, “but [I] was so put off by the pacifists’ earnest attitudes, and so excited by the flashes and bangs, that I was immediately converted from pacifism.” 

naming-characters-appearing-out-of-mistAnd goes on, “A month later, the Central Register for Scientific Workers sent me for interview for an unspecified job. ‘As a biologist, you will, of course, have learned a lot of physics.’ ‘I am afraid not.’ ‘Well, I expect your maths is of a high standard.’ ‘I am afraid not.’ ‘Anyway, you will obviously be good with your hands.’ ‘I am afraid not.’ Then, very doubtfully, ‘I fear this job will often entail going out in the wet and cold in the dark. Do you mind ?’ ‘Not at all.’

And he was off to learn about radar.

When I stopped giggling over his job interview  – “Yes, I do dark and cold all the time, love it” – I realised that here was another gift, this time for my next book. To repeat myself, I think the universe just told me I’m on the right path.

Maybe Eva Ibbotson isn’t going to be the only romantic novelist to owe a debt to David Lack.

Sophie Weston Author


13 thoughts on “Novelist, Ornithologist and War

  1. Liz

    What a wonderful start to my day, Sophie. And how thrilling when the universe throws you such treasures.

  2. lesley2cats

    That is wonderful, Sophie. Why doesn’t everyone know about David Lack? And thank you for reminding me about Dartington and, of course, Eva Ibbotson, to whose books you introduced me many years ago.

    1. Sophie Post author

      So glad you enjoyed it Linda. I couldn’t believe it, the way everything just gell into place.

  3. Joanna

    I too had never heard of David Lack. Sounds like an amazing chap. And a wonderful find for you. The universe loves you, chook.

    1. Sophie Post author

      I can just see him. That delight in finding creatures and watching them do stuff that Eva Ibbotson talks about. Still hugging myself.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Hi Mary Jo

      Can’t believe my luck. One of the main characters in my World War 2 books has always been a schoolmaster (after an exciting career doing other things in other places). I know lots about his backstory but really nothing about the school he teaches at when my book starts, or his teaching philosophy. Now I know where to start.

      And yes, I’ve bought that biography of David Lack, even though my house is groaning under the weight of books and I’d promised myself No MORE. Couldn’t resist it.

      So, as soon as my current editing is finished, I’m plunging straight back into Gods of Love and War again. Can’t wait!

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