Simon Barnes is unique in the world of literature. How many revered sports writers are also revered nature writers too? Off the top of my head I can think of one: Simon Barnes himself.
For many years the chief sports of the Times, he covered seven Olympics, five World Cups, a Superbowl and the World Chess Championship. His profiles included everyone from David Beckham to Red Rum, his publications range from novels about Hong Kong to a biography about England off-spinner Phil Edmunds.
What elevated Barnes above his peers was prose that could pithily encapsulate the drama simmering underneath the surface action: ‘With Sampras the beauty was subtle, the tactics and execution obvious. With Federer, it was exactly the other way around,’ as he wrote in his 2018 career-spanning retrospective, Epic.
As this reading from his excellent The Meaning of Birds, Barnes has brought similarly acute sensitivity to his accounts of the natural work - and of birds and birdsong above all.
This is one reason I approached Simon (in my other work for the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association) to be the Chair of 2020's Keats-Shelley and Young Romantics Prizes - for poetry and essays. Our theme is 'Songbirds', to mark the composition 200 years ago of PB Shelley’s To a Skylark and the publication in book form of John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale.
I recently met Simon in London to talk to him about his love of nature, poetry, sport and writing - not to mention how this feeds into Romanticism, Keats and Shelley.
Part one of that conversation is posted on this very website.