Newsletter 63


Welcome to the spring 2022 issue of our occasional news.

Saints and symbolic birds

St Valentine’s Day, 14th February, is a date for celebrating love and affection, but it has been turned into a highly commercial occasion. Valentinus was the Latin name for at least two 3rd-century Christian martyrs who were revered in the ancient city of Rome. The origin of the name does not lie in romance, but is based on the Latin word “valens”, meaning strong or powerful. Stories about the different martyrs became mixed up, and because of the lack of reliable information, the Roman Catholic Church removed St Valentine from the General Roman Calendar in 1969, though he was kept on the list of official saints.

There is scant evidence that any of the St Valentines were associated with courtship and marriage, but the feast day became linked with the idea that birds paired up then. In his poem “Parlement of Foules” (Parliament of Fowls), written in Middle English in the late 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer describes a group of birds gathering on St Valentine’s Day to choose their mates: “For this was on seynt Valentynes day, When every foul cometh there to chese his make”. The word “fowl” was then used to mean any bird.

Chaucer based his poem on traditional bird lore and legend. With the waning of winter some birds were becoming amorous, but many others, such as the swallow and cuckoo, had yet to migrate back from Africa and would not be expected until April. This postcard of 1913 is therefore inaccurate in its portrayal of swallows bearing February valentine greetings.


Drawing lots

Many customs became associated with Valentine’s Day. Samuel Pepys in the 1660s mentioned how anybody, married or not, became the “valentine” of the first person of the opposite sex they met that day. At social gatherings, names might be written on slips of paper and drawn at random to select their valentines, providing an excuse for merriment and an exchange of gifts. In 1725, the Reverend Henry Bourne described this custom amongst the working-class people of Newcastle:

“It is a ceremony, never omitted among the vulgar, to draw lots, which they term Valentines, on the Eve before Valentine-day. The names of a select number of one sex are by an equal number of the other put into some vessel; and after that every one draws a name, which for the present is called their Valentine, and is also look’d upon as a good omen of their being man and wife afterwards.”

Coins and cards

Feast days of any kind were an opportunity for begging, especially by children, and at Weston Longville in Norfolk on 14th February 1788, the Reverend James Woodforde commented: “This being Valentines Day, I had a good many children of my parish who called on me, to each of whom, gave (as usual) one penny, in all 0.3.1.” The children had to earn their money (37 pennies on this occasion) by reciting to Woodforde one or more lines of verse, such as “Morrow, Morrow, Valentine” or “Good Morrow Valentine”.

Low-value coins like copper pennies were inscribed with appropriate initials for love tokens to be given on Valentine’s Day. If a couple was unable to marry, perhaps because of the constraints of an apprenticeship or lack of money, such a token might be cut in two, one part for each of them, as a symbol of their engagement. John Cannon, like Woodforde, came from Castle Cary in Somerset, and he wrote that in 1706 he and his sweetheart Mary divided a silver shilling in two, and she made a bag for each half, to be opened after their marriage. For more information on love tokens, download the fascinating PhD thesis Love Tokens: Engraved Coins, Emotions and the Poor 1700–1856 by Bridget Millmore (2015).

From the late 18th century valentine cards were hand crafted and delivered to spouses, relatives and would-be partners, but from the 19th century printed cards were available, with symbols such as birds, hearts and cupids. Valentine postcards were popular from the early 20th century.

A Cupid holds an umbrella against a shower of valentines,

watched by a pair of birds (from The Book of Days 1863)


Hazel Jones, author of The Other Knight Boys: Jane Austen’s Dispossessed Nephews (2020), has told us that in his diary for Saturday 25th February 1832, Charles Knight wrote that because it was old Valentine’s Day, his three sisters at home got three more Valentines. It is a surprising reference to the loss of eleven days when the calendar was changed in 1752 (see a feature on this topic in our newsletter 26, below which there happens to be a short piece on lovely Valentine’s Day cards). 

Omens and oracles

Marriage for women was essential for financial security, and girls and young women tried many ways (not just on St Valentine’s Day) of discovering who they would marry. When the first cuckoo was heard, coins were turned while chanting a rhyme:

“Cuckoo, cherry tree,

Good bird, tell me

How many years I shall be

Before I get married.”

The number of times the cuckoo called gave the number of years. Another custom was for a woman to run into a field when the cuckoo was first heard and remove her left shoe so as to see a hair matching that of her future husband. Alas, cuckoo numbers have diminished so much that anyone today might prefer to eat boiled eggs, with the yolk mixed with a great deal of salt. This was commonly practised in order to induce a vision of a marriage partner. In The Connoisseur of 17th February 1755, one letter is alleged to be from a woman desperate to find a partner, describing the rituals she tried on St Valentine’s Day: “But to make it more sure, I boiled an egg hard, and took out the yolk, and filled it up with salt; and when I went to bed, eat it shell and all, without speaking or drinking after it.”

If you have somebody you are fond of, dispense with short-lived chocolates and flowers and instead treat them with gifts of books, not just on Valentine’s Day, but on Old Valentine’s Day – or any day at all.



Net Book Agreement

In March 2020, during England’s first lockdown, only essential retail outlets were permitted to remain open. Ones like garden centres and bookstores had to close, even though they are obviously essential and benefit people’s well-being. For authors, it meant increased anguish about sales of their books.

This situation led us to reminisce about the “good old days” of bookselling, so we decided to devote some space to this topic over the next two or three newsletters, starting with the Net Book Agreement. This was a voluntary fixed (minimum) price agreement among booksellers that, in the United Kingdom and Ireland, operated for almost a century, from 1st January 1900. The price of 6 shillings – shown as 6/- net – is shown here on the inside flap of Odd Corners in English Lakeland by William T. Palmer (5th edition, 1948, published by Skeffington ). The diagonal line was a guide for removing the price if the book was intended as a gift.

Another book, Companion into Dorset by Dorothy Gardiner, was published in 1937 by Methuen. It shows a price of 8/6 NET (8 shillings and 6 pence), but this is a price rise of one shilling, because the jacket was originally printed with a price of 7s. 6d. NET.

Another price rise occurred in 1937 to North Country by Edmund Vale, published by Batsford. The price shown is 9s 6d NET, but it is glued over an earlier price of 7s 6d – a hefty rise of 2 shillings.

In 1997 the Net Book Agreement was deemed to be illegal by the Restrictive Practices Court, and books now display a recommended retail price that can be discounted. In 1998, Amazon took the opportunity to launch in the UK as an online bookseller, heavily discounting books at first. It now also provides a platform for “marketplace sellers” who offer new and used books, something that Ebay also does. It is an oddity that many of us expect to buy books cheaply, but when shopping for other staples of life, paying the full price is acceptable.

The result has been the demise of numerous independent booksellers, along with most secondhand bookshops, which is a substantial cultural loss, though on the High Street Oxfam bookstores tend to have the lovely feel of times past. Independent bookstores still operate today, and new ones are even opening, but they face stiff competition from the main chains – Waterstones, Foyles and Blackwell’s. WH Smith used to be a key place to buy books, as they were well stocked and accessible to everyone, but they are now dismal.

The irony is that in even the biggest of bookstores, most books (apart from a few favoured titles) are sold at their full recommended retail price, just as if the Net Book Agreement still existed, leaving online sellers to offer cheaper alternatives.

Book clubs (and publicity)

Under the Net Book Agreement, all kinds of mail-order book clubs were permitted to sell discounted books. In 1929 a scientific book club was formed in the United States so that its members had one new book a month selected by a specialist editorial committee. Members were free to purchase the monthly selection or a substitute volume. The chairman said:

“I am convinced that there are thousands of intelligent men and women who are eagerly searching for reliable and truthful information concerning the great contributions to knowledge which have resulted from the widening spread and deepening hold of scientific habits of mind, both in this country and abroad.”

A decade later, in 1939, a Scientific Book Club was established in Britain, one of a range of book clubs operated by Foyles of Charing Cross Road, London. In 1958, the selection was From Earthquake, Fire and Flood by R. Hewitt, published the year before by George Allen & Unwin. Inside our secondhand copy, a flyer has just slipped out that advertised a bizarre free gift – what was described as an exciting Parisian perfume for the women members.

Another book club was the Readers Union, established in 1937 as part of J M Dent who published the Everyman’s Library. It proved hugely popular, but in 1970 was sold to David & Charles and eventually ceased trading.

World Books was founded in 1939, and its heyday was in the 1950s. It offered reprints of numerous fiction and non-fiction books, all sharing a standardised appearance, as seen in the flyer below. Those who signed up had to agree to buy six “books of the month”.

In 1966 World Books was sold and renamed the Book Club Associates, which operated several specialist book clubs, including the History Guild, the Military and Aviation Book Society and (our favourite) the Ancient and Medieval History Book Club. It finally collapsed in 2012 after years of disastrous practices.

While they existed, book clubs were of great benefit to readers, who were likely to become habitual readers and book buyers. Authors also benefited hugely from the widespread publicity, from Sunday supplements to flyers, even though they earned little money for each book sold.

Nothing ever since has matched that sort of publicity, and although reading books has never been more popular and is likely to increase with an ageing population, the number of reviews in most magazines and newspapers has been slashed (just when their readers might appreciate an increased number). This means that most would-be buyers of books today have no idea what is being published.



Our new book, When There Were Birds: The forgotten history of our connections, was published by Little, Brown a month before Christmas, in hardcover and as an e-book (which has just dropped in price). Summarised here are a few aspects of the modern world of publishing and bookselling that we have encountered. It usually takes a year from submitting a manuscript to publication day. This starts with the editor suggesting changes, then we do what is needed, resubmit the manuscript and prepare illustrations and map roughs. The revised manuscript goes to a copy-editor, who analyses everything, from full-stops to repetition.

The publisher commissions the jacket, sells foreign rights and starts a marketing campaign, so that everyone in the trade (such as bookstores, libraries and Amazon) gets excited. We deal with problems revealed by the copy-editing, and the text goes to a typesetter, who sets up the actual book pages. We check the proofs for errors, the typesetter does the corrections, and we then see a second lot of proofs, which a proofreader also checks. At this stage, an indexer starts work. Bound and digital proofs can now be produced, allowing the publicist to launch a campaign designed to create a massive buzz with newspapers, magazines, literary festivals, radio, television, book bloggers and much more, in time to generate review coverage, features, interviews and invitations for talks. Once the books are printed, copies can be sent out to enhance that publicity campaign.


So how did When There Were Birds fare? Well, we finished writing in May 2021, but a decision was then made to publish in November, so we had to cope with an incredibly short timescale alongside all the pandemic problems. We therefore missed out on a great deal, and in addition have had to work non-stop (even creating our own maps and index). Thankfully, we have worked in the past as copy-editors, editors, indexers and illustrators, which must have helped.


When There Were Birds is the incredible story of the role played by birds throughout the history of Britain and beyond, shining a light on topics such as literature, religion, superstition, witchcraft, language, folklore, medicine, cookery, sports, pets and warfare. There is obviously much detail about birds and the environment as well, including migration, shooting, stuffing and eating. Even Lord Admiral Nelson gets mentioned. We wanted the book to be marketed under categories such as “Birds (Books)”, “Great Britain History”, “Social History” and “Folklore”, topics that reviewers have applauded. Instead, there is a narrow focus on all things birds, with Amazon ranking it under “Wild Birds”, “Birds (Books)” and “Birdwatching (Books)”, which is like putting our book The Keys of Egypt under “home security” or The War for All the Oceans under “oceanography”. So you may find our book nestling in unexpected places!

Media reviews

We are sincerely grateful to the various reviewers for their wonderful comments: they have all understood and appreciated our book. In our last newsletter, we mentioned excellent reviews in The Independent and the Daily Mail. Since then, we have had other lovely, often extensive, reviews (details are on our website). A few quotes from some of them are:

“The book is a beautiful, yet original portrait of the integral role played by birds throughout history, how they shaped the natural environment and our customs, literature and even folklore … Readers, flock to this tome” (Dr Emma J Wells, BBC Countryfile Magazine)

“The facts and folklore of birdlife, and man’s equivocal relationship with birds, are dissected in admirable detail in this handsome new book” (Roland White, The Sunday Times)

“The sheer breadth of information reflects every part of life on earth. And that’s what makes it such a worthwhile read” (Annette Shaw, Devon Life)

“this substantial social history … makes its own vital contribution to our perception of our relationship with creation, providing further stimulus for us to achieve an environmental renaissance” (Richard Greatrex, Church Times)

“Unusually for a book about nature, the species in question, in this lucid story of the relationship between birds and humans, is ours … An evocative chapter, ‘Abundance’, assembles descriptions of a British landscape so vivid you feel you almost remember it” (Horatio Clare, The Spectator)



Reader reviews

Everyone is urged these days to pen reviews. You only have to buy a computer lead from Amazon or a secondhand DVD from Ebay, and emails flood in begging for feedback and a rating (1 to 5 stars). Inevitably, we are equivocal about such requests and largely ignore them, but take the opposite stance for our own books and exhort everyone to heed them! A while ago Amazon changed from reviews to ratings, which are supposedly devised by algorithms, so that somebody with 100 ratings may have just 8 reviews. To our dismay, When There Were Birds has been stuck for weeks with just 7 ratings, including one lone but lovely review. Are reviews being blocked? Or is everyone, like us, too weary? Or is this low number due to the book being placed in narrow categories? The online world is very strange.

Talks, interviews and podcasts

We enjoy giving talks and, with the publication of a new book, would normally expect to have invitations. Because of our very tight deadline, we had no time to get to grips with zoom, but have recently watched a few family history talks that had a global audience. We are waiting to see what happens this coming year, as we all yearn to be able to meet people at talks, face-to-face.

We have, so far, done two radio interviews. One was with Giles Coren on Times Radio (“a wonderful book … the perfect gift for Christmas this year for a bird lover … no, bird lovers are fine, buy it for someone that hates birds and see if you can turn them round”) and one with Steve Yabsley, himself a keen birdwatcher, on BBC Radio Bristol (“The book is absolutely packed with wonderful stories. You’ve really researched it to pieces … I hope that this book inspires and galvanises those that want to protect birds”).

We have also recorded a podcast interview with History Extra, which is the official website for the BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed, so listen out for that (and also look out for our forthcoming feature in the BBC History Magazine).

Flying (too) high

The problem with us having a surname starting with ‘A’ is that our books are placed on the top shelf of those bookstores who arrange new titles alphabetically. Here we are at Waterstones in Exeter, perched beyond the reach of all but the tallest. Bookstores seldom regard accessibility as a major consideration in their displays.



A is also for Audiobook, and we are thrilled that the actor John Telfer has agreed to record an unabridged audiobook, to be released by Hachette Audio in March 2022, ISBN 9781405555029.  In the United States, Tantor has swooped on the recording, which we are told will be released there later this year. If you can’t wait, then you can hear John Telfer narrating Trafalgar, Gibraltar and Jack Tar.

Overseas markets

As we said last time, When There Were Birds focuses not just on Britain, but also flits far and wide, even to the moon. Our UK publisher holds all foreign rights, and we are waiting to hear about any foreign translations or if the book is on sale in, say, Australia or New Zealand. There is huge interest in British history, heritage and literature overseas, so we are pleased that the hardcover will be available in the United States from 16th August 2022. We think it will be sold by our UK publisher, rather than being released by a US publisher, so it may be available only on Amazon. Time will tell.

That question

We are often asked “what is your next book?”, an excellent and generous question, but one that usually throws us into turmoil. We would love to be working on another book, and in the old days that is exactly what we did, but nowadays authors have to be involved so much in promoting their books, while publishers tend to wait until the current book is a success before commissioning a new book. Ah, how we long for a return to those book club days.



Reflections on the London Library

The London Library has been magnificent during the pandemic, sending out requested books to members and remaining open wherever possible. With the regulations changing all the time, their work has been much appreciated. The library is based in St James’s Square in London, but an alternative entrance is Mason’s Yard, and in that part of the library called TS Eliot House, there is a window display in which new books by members are featured. Thank you to the library for the image, which was difficult to do with all the reflections of other buildings, but gives an idea of the Georgian surroundings. Their website is


In the latest issue of the online magazine Quarterdeck (winter 2021–2), we have a feature called “Birds Over the Seas”, on pages 16 to 19, in which we look at the association of birds with the sea and the coast. You can download the entire issue free-of-charge here. Quarterdeck is published by Tall Ships Communications and distributed by McBooks, a must-have for anyone interested in maritime fiction and the sea generally.

Gibraltar Heritage Journal

In our newsletters 48 and 54 and in the Gibraltar Heritage Journal 24 for 2018, we wrote about the tragedy of the sinking in World War One of HMS Britannia on 9th November 1918, just off Cape Trafalgar. One victim was John Jones, a stoker, who is buried at Gibraltar’s North Front Cemetery. Since then Helen Melia (whose father was John Jones’s cousin) has kindly provided us with a photograph of him, which we have had published in the latest Gibraltar Heritage Journal (volume 27 for 2021, pages 114 to 115). See the Gibraltar Heritage Trust journals here.

The Week

When There Were Birds was featured last month in The Week’s prestigious “Review of reviews: books”.





Selling ballads

We have an article in Folklife West magazine 69 (January to April 2022, pages 4 to 5; see It is called “The Poor Ballad Sellers and Singers” and talks about how the flimsy ballad sheets were sold in the streets, often by singing them. Perhaps that’s an idea for selling books.



The next newsletter will probably appear in the early summer.