The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster

5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

It took me a while to work out the best place to see swifts here in Dorset, there are rarely above my house. Instead, I found them near the River Stour that I spent many hours by during the first lockdown. They were very high up and I wasn’t paying a huge amount of attention as I was enjoying the sunset more. First I thought the black shapes were bats, but when I looked closely I realised that they were moving far too quickly to be bats, not only that they rarely flapped their wings. Then I looked properly.


They were collecting bugs at dusk and swooping and banking in their distinct way. hey were such a joy to watch that I missed the sun dropping behind the trees that night. I even tried to take some photos on my phone, but they don’t half shift!

I am not that obsessed by them compared to other people, Lev Parikian for example, or the author of this book, Charles Foster, but I can see why they both are. The arrival of swifts back in the country is a marvel of the natural world over the modern world. Waiting for Swifts to return from their African journey is probably worse than waiting for Christmas, at least we know when that day is even though it seems so far away when you’re seven. We don’t actually know what day they will fill our skies with their screaming.

Their power freedom and joy are the way everything really is – though we don’t usually see it. It is just when the swifts scream through the sky, you can’t miss it. That is how everything, all the time, is meant to be.

The first line of this book is: This is an account of an obsession. And he is not wrong either. He begins his story in January in Africa. He is full of snake and gassy African beer watching the swifts hunt for their insect food, swirling around his head so fast that the fuzziness from the alcohol means that he has trouble keeping up with them. They are masters of the air, so much so that they almost never land, always on the move, sleeping, feeding continually and even mating on the wing. The only time they touch down is to nest, lay eggs and feed their brood.

Like most animals they are under threat, In the uniquely British way we have tidied things up and the nooks and crannies that they used for their young have disappeared leaving very little options for nesting. Couple that with the desire to drench every living thing with some sort of insecticide, they are struggling to find the food that they need. To say we need to do more is a mantra that needs repeating endlessly; once they are gone they will not be coming back.

In April we find Foster in Spain, waiting on the top of a cliff for them the pass. He has been there a week and is beginning to hate the coffee, all he wants is a glimpse of them as they pass. As much as he looks though, he never sees them, until there is that scimitar flash in the very edge of his peripheral vision. They are here, passing onto the next landmark on the way home; except the UK isn’t really their home. The season of summer is where they live and they move back and forth across the planet.

‘They’re birds, for Christ’s sake!’ an ex-friend helpfully reminds me, trying to bring me back down to earth. But it’s no good: the swifts aren’t down to earth at all.

Charles Foster doesn’t like to follow convention, something that you will discover if you read, Being A Beast. His prose has an intensity that you rarely find these days; it is like having a double espresso directly in through the eyeballs! His passion, sorry obsession, about these birds is almost addictive and is starting to rub off on his family too. This is a wonderful book about these aerial wizards of the skies and the stunning sketches and artwork by Jonathan Pomeroy make this a perfect book.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    A five! Wow! I want to read this, certainly a story of obsession.

    • Paul

      Yes. He is quite intense as a writer. I have met him once at a Little Toller book event

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