Weekly Local Biography

 Tony Ball


Tony Ball is instantly recognizable - a tall man with twinkling eyes and a head bereft of hair, but a full set of luxuriant ‘mutton chops’ moustaches to compensate for the lack of growth up top. He is a Birdlife Researcher, and one of the few ‘experts’ in northern Thailand, though he would modestly decry the title of ‘expert’. However, he is a man who spent three years to survey and catalogue the birds nesting in the Wat Umong Open Zoo area. He may appear terribly ‘British’ but he owes much of his life to Scott of the Antarctic and to the Japanese movie industry, an interesting mix to begin with.

Tony was born in Chelmsford in Essex, the son of a British diplomat, and his primary schooling commenced in the UK. His father was seconded to Germany, so the family of seven children followed and Tony was sent to a British school there.

Tony found that he was not particularly interested in school work, and when the headmaster of his school said, “Anyone want to go bird-watching?” young Tony thought this would be a much better alternative than sitting behind his school desk and immediately volunteered. He was 12 years old, and the facilitator for these avian expeditions was the naturalist Peter Scott (son of Scott of the Antarctic fame), who fuelled an interest in studying our feathered friends.

When his schooling was over, the British Army took Tony for a couple of years for that fun activity called National Service, which he saw out in the Marine Commandos in Cyprus.

Returning to civvy street, it was time to seriously consider a suitable occupation. Tony told his father that he wanted some sort of job which was associated with bird watching. “Bird-watching is not a job!” thundered Ball senior, and no more discussion was to be held on the subject. Ball junior was dismissed. As were his hopes for the future.

More as an act of retaliation, rather than a burning desire, Tony took a job in the entertainment industry, doing a ‘training course’ with the Rank Organization. He ran recording studios and theatres. It was easy money. He remained in the industry for 15 years. “I was so lazy, it was easy to stay in it,” he said, laughing.

A turning point then came in his, up to that point, rather directionless life. He met the au-pair girl staying with one of his brothers - a petite Japanese girl, Yurie. They were ‘soul mates’ and moved in together. When Yurie wanted to return to Japan, they went as a couple. “That’s when life started for me. I went to Japan and taught English in Tokyo.”

He did indeed teach English, but one day was accosted in the street by a man asking him if he wanted to be in the movies. Unsure as to whether this was some sort of ‘casting couch’ offer with a difference, he reluctantly accepted the proffered business card but did nothing about it until three months later when, on a whim, he rang and was interviewed about a part in a movie, where he was to be cast as a Spanish detective. “But I can’t speak Spanish,” was not enough to lose him the part. He was given two pages of Spanish to remember and his screen debut was made.

Tony, as the star of the silver screen, made enough of an impact in Japan, that he was snapped up to make TV commercials. This was where the real money was to be made, and Tony, often billed as “Mr. Nissan”, who introduced new models of the Nissan cars, did very well. After 10 years in Japan and 50 commercials in the can, he made enough to retire. The fact that Tony, a lifelong non-motorist who cannot drive, was hidden from the Japanese public, watching Mr. Nissan’s exploits!

With retirement, Tony and wife Yurie, decided to go somewhere different, and Bali seemed like a reasonable place. They built their dream home there, and Tony took up studying birds seriously. However, after two years and increasing hassles from the Indonesian Immigration authorities, they decided that this was not what retirement was about, so they left.

They looked at Penang, but felt it had no real intrinsic beauty in it. So they looked at the next country up the line - Thailand. “We tried Bangkok and hated it, but then came to Chiang Mai fourteen years ago and we loved it!”

In Chiang Mai, Tony went straight into bird watching, studying ornithology. “I’ve never stopped learning,” he said, recounting the story of hearing a strange bird call in the wilds, stalking the bird till he was close enough to identify it - a budgie!

Having identified so many species, and finding some that were considered not to be part of Thailand’s wild birds, Tony’s main thrust these days is towards conservation. He is proud of the fact that by getting the authorities to stop slashing riverine grasses, he saved the lives of countless young hatchlings in Fang District.

He and wife Yurie then began producing tapes and books on the birds in the north, in conjunction with a local publisher, with Yurie learning to paint to beautifully illustrate the publications. However, in the midst of this great joy, there came extreme sadness. His beloved Yurie found that she had terminal cancer and died this year.

For Tony Ball, this was an event of such shattering proportions that it has been difficult for him to carry on. It has cemented atheism as his (anti)religious philosophy. When I asked him about any regrets in his lifetime he replied, “Only one. That Yurie isn’t here. They were the happiest days of my life since 1973 (when we met).”

He takes solace in words written by Yurie as the introduction for a stillborn book. “Life is too short ... so we should enjoy our lives while we can.” Tony, there is still enjoyment for you out there, live life through your birds.