I’ve just finished Chris Packham’s brilliant memoir which left me discombobulated and surprised on several levels.
Firstly, I was intrigued by the choice of narrative structure and narrative position. Sparkle Jar charts various events throughout his childhood in the 60s and 70s, moving from one memory to another, irrespective of linearity, with each chapter ending with a recent account of Packham’s breakdown told in third person.
While a non-linear narrative is closer to how we actually recall things, his detailed descriptions draw attention to the fact that this is a (re)construction. The constructed nature of autobiography is further reinforced by, firstly, shifting between first and third person and, secondly, writing some events from the point of view of other people. I found the latter to be a particularly interesting narrative device; was it a means to exorcise his anger by attempting to see how other people considered him? Did he discuss events with those involved and write it from their viewpoint or did he make up what he thought they were thinking and feeling? Did he purposefully sit down and decide he would tell his story this way or did it come naturally? Did writing about the counselling sessions as if he was writing about someone else make it easier, less vulnerable? Whatever the answer to these questions it worked well and is a refreshing approach to memoir.
Packham recounting sneaking out at night to watch fox cubs:
“Years later they told me that they had seen through my antics from the outset and took turns to wait up for my noisy scramble back up the tiles. Apparently the note on the door that read ‘Please do not come in. I am very tyred/sick and do not want to miss school Tuesday (crossed out), Wednesday (crossed out), Thursday (crossed out), Friday. Don’t wurrey I’m okay. Goodnight (drawing of a fox)’ was a dead giveaway.”
Not all TV personalities have a flair for the written word so I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the prose (he credits his mother for his interest in literature and poetry and encouraging his writing). I shouldn’t have been surprised by the detailed descriptions of flora and fauna, but I’d expected a more straightforward memoir rather than pages dedicated to his kestrel (the creature that is the main love and focus of his childhood), his obsession with otters (including an amusing outing to the zoo where he had to put up with his family’s whims) and dinosaurs (which was dominated by his desperation to see One Million Years BC, thwarted by his parents’ prudishness in the face of Raquel Welch in a fur bikini), his love of foxes (including a brutal and unflinching episode I’ll never forget) and his fascination with tadpoles (his curiosity going as far as a desire to eat them just to see what it would be like).
The tadpole episode highlights the dark side of his fascination, a desire to explore and possess that disregards the autonomy of the creatures he loves: he would take eggs from nests to catalogue and preserve in a display drawer; he stole a kestrel from a nest, tying this wild thing to a future of dependence on him; and he’d use an air rifle to shoot small birds in a bid to give this shackled kestrel a proper diet. I appreciate that he presents all of this without judging his childhood self, and doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence by moralising in retrospect – he leaves it to us to work through our reaction. I felt discomfort at his need for ownership and wondered how different his violence was to the boys he saw methodically smashing tadpoles against a rock, but of course the difference was quite clear – his actions were never malicious, never gratuitous; it was a childhood curiosity that soon blossomed into respect. This, of course, doesn’t negate responsibility, and his need to possess brought back my own childhood guilt about keeping insects in jars not realising they’d die, neglecting the safety of my gerbils which resulted in their death at the paws of my cat, and pestering my parents to buy me a lizard with little knowledge of where he came from and what it took to care for him.
Packham on his need to own animals as a child (from an interview with Richard E Grant which is well worth a listen):
REG: “Did you ever feel a sense of guilt about taking him from his nest and away from his natural habitat?”
CP: “Not at the time. I was so into him. And I’d grown up always wanting to keep animals. Everything had to go in a jar, everything had to get into the bedroom or into the garden. But later – now, for instance – I don’t need to keep animals, I need to watch animals. And this was the last point where I needed to try and own wildlife. I don’t have any regrets for doing what I did but I don’t need to— I mean, I have two dogs now, that I dote upon. And my partner has a zoo full of animals that have been rescued from horrendous places, circuses and the like, but ideally I prefer my animals in the wild now.”
Vulnerability and Resonance
What surprised me most of all about Sparkle Jar is the way the narrative is permeated with vulnerability. I’ve been sucked in by Packham’s professional persona; he comes across as unshakeably confident, and completely unfazed by any vitriol directed his way (anyone who can annoy the Countryside Alliance gets a high five from me), so it was a surprise to learn he was an outcast at school and he’s suffered such despair that he almost killed himself twice.
I was particularly affected by his account of being both ignored and bullied at school; I had a similar experience and I’d started writing about it for the first time just before I picked up Sparkle Jar. Reading about what Packham went through as I summon up the courage to confront the torturous high school experience I’ve carried with me for years was very emotional; just being able to say “Yes, I understand this. I know what you went through,” was a very powerful thing for me.
I had a similar love of animals as a child (though, not quite to the same level of focus and obsession) which further marked me out as ‘weird’. I also share an analogous liberation through music – goth, industrial, punk, rock (in particular, Manic Street Preachers) allowed me an outlet for the rage and hate I thought would kill me (I’ve also experienced a despair that had me counting out the pills).
Despite it being my childhood dream come true, the thought of my novel being published next year provoked some anxiety for this shy introvert who will be expected to do interviews and events; reading Packham’s book and seeing how successful he’s been while being true to himself and his beliefs has been encouraging and boosted my confidence.
Fingers In The Sparkle Jar is a fascinating and honest memoir; a (sometimes brutal) love story to nature and animals, and a punk snarl to a homogenous restrictive society – stay beautiful, Chris x
Packham on punk:
“Their arrogant rhetoric is irresistible to me, their posturing so proud and idealistic. The music and fashion the perfect fabric to fuel my raging need to confront my parents’ taboos, all their contradictions and confusions as well as the destroyed economy, the degenerate racist, fascist, class-ridden mess that I’ve realised is my seventies Britain. Whirling amongst all these apprentices of anarchy I can see that smouldering disaffection so clearly, and I love the press-fuelled fear and loathing, the farcical hysteria that is allowing me to use a few safety pins, zips and ripped T-shirts to instantly separate myself from everything and, essentially, from those classroom-cannibals who had torn me up and who I now truly hated.
I’d been bullied beyond any need to care, so with one packet of Born Blonde and some Crazy Color I bleached away the desire to satisfy anyone but myself and lit up my loneliness with a shock of blue spiked hair. With a black leather motorcycle jacket and a bag of studs I was rejecting the wrong-world and embracing an impenetrable outlook of defiance, an indestructible determination to win at all costs, in my way, on my terms.
Ironically, despite the aggro, the beatings on the street, outside gigs and at college that left me bloody-nosed and fat-lipped, punk was protecting me. I seized at any pertinent mantras mouthed by the bands, started reading about things that weren’t dinosaurs, otters or Kestrels, and could hide in a place where I could concentrate my anger and stoke my blazing engines of rage. I might stumble, get battered and bruised, get locked out, get hurt, but if I could fight, work and drive myself harder, madder, faster than anyone else then ultimately I would win. And petulantly, they hadn’t wanted or understood me anyway, so now they weren’t going to have me. Fuck off, fuck you, fuck it all.”