TORY Cabinet veteran Ken Clarke has described how birdwatching has provided him with
a valuable diversion from politics since he took up the hobby in the early 1980s.
He includes it with jazz, cricket and football (he supports Nottingham Forest and Notts County), plus Formula One motor racing, as a private enthusiasm about which he is obsessive.
Sometimes during breaks on official overseas trips, he has been able to watch hundreds of different species on expeditions to mountains, jungles rainforests, plains and coasts on every continent. His lifelist now numbers more than 3,000 species.
In his entertaining memoir, Kind of Blue, he reveals how he had formerly scorned birdwatching as "a very anorak activity that only spoiled a country walk".
He changed his mind on a holiday in southern France where he found himself entranced first by the number of attractive butterflies, then by the "varied and interesting" birdlife.
The 76-year-old MP for Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire writes: "I therefore bought a handbook of birds and also invested in a pair of binoculars which I proposed to use principally when making my frequent visits to watch First Class cricket at Trent Bridge
"To say that I was a novice when I started would be an understatement.
"I recall staying with friends in Cornwall and peering at a small bird in a hedge and slowly turning the pages of my book one by one to try to identify it.
"I think I had got past the hawks and gulls, but I was making painfully slow progress until my wife, Gillian, walked up behind me and said: "It's a blue tit - we have lots of them in the garden."
The politician has an amusing anecdote about a problem he encountered when he sought an opportunity to watch cranes and other exotic species in Japan.
"Birdwatching is an almost unknown western interest regarded as deeply eccentric,"he says.
"On one trip, Gillian and I were driven by our government escort an enormous distance through very attractive looking birdwatching territory to a large natural history museum where we were shown in to a collection of stuffed birds in cases.
"I tried to explain that my interest was in searching for birds with binoculars in the wild.
The Japanese were totally nonplussed.
"They explained that there were many more birds in the museum than could be found in the open air and that they would be much easier to study at close quarters."
Clarke is understood to have been paid an advance of £430,000 for Kind of Blue which is published by Macmillan at £25.
As well as charting his political and business career, he takes the opportunity to reveal that he has never used a computer and that, contrary to frequent media jibes, he does not wear Hush Puppies but hand-made suede shoes from the long-established Northampton firm, Crockett & Jones.
* Michael Heseltine's regret over magpies: http://thewryneck.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/heseltines-regret-over-magpies.html