For Mark Cocker, beauty is always in the details. In his innumerable books and essays over the last 30 years, the author and naturalist has written about flowers, trees, insects, animals and, particularly, birds, but what sets them apart is their depth and attention to detail. In his ‘Country Diary’ column for The Guardian, Cocker regularly focuses on just one creature or plant, bringing it evocatively to life on the page.
It’s that talent, buoyed by the depth of his knowledge, that’s made Cocker such a celebrated nature writer; his book Crow Country was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2008 and won the New Angle Prize for Literature in 2009, and his most recent book, A Claxton Diary, won the East Anglia Book Award in 2019.
With the paperback release of A Claxton Diary this week, we got in touch with Cocker to ask about his life and writing. In his answers, you can feel his palpable love for the natural world, a childhood love he’s fostered and enriched as he’s aged.
Which writer do you most admire and why?
It’s a difficult question to answer for me, and I never really know what to say, because the answer changes all the time. Books that I found completely compelling in my 20s I couldn’t even finish in my 40s or 50s. I never pursue one author to the ends of their oeuvre. But writers who have influenced me recently include Cormac McCarthy; especially his Border Trilogy, and in particular the middle in the three, The Crossing, which was as close to perfection as a novel gets for me. It’s not for the fainthearted.
What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?
I seem to have specialised in weird jobs: dethorner of roses for a rose breeder, potato picker on a Norfolk farm, dustbin man and road sweeper, washer-upper in a busy fish restaurant. But weirdest perhaps of all was my time as nude model in an art college. One pair – male and female student – had me stood on the desk while they created speed monoprints, but one female student wanted to encase me in a layer of Vaseline and then cover my entire torso in Plaster of Paris. I drew a line at that!
Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times.
I adore and find something new each time in Marcel Pagnol’s 1962 novel L’Eau des Collines, The Water of the Hills, which was made famous by Claude Berri’s double-film Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. As far as I can judge, it is the most significant fictional exploration of our relationship with the rest of life that I know.
What the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
I love George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’. As I get older I aim for greater simplicity. Monosyllables, if I can manage them. I dislike dishonest writing; unfortunately I find it all the time. The single most important maxim I know is Jean Fabre’s ‘Clarity is the sovereign courtesy of the author’. I try always to live up to it.
What makes you most happy?
Aside from the obvious answers – family, companionship of my partner Maria and daughters etc., and along with music, reading and writing – the greatest joy of my life is having free time in a wildlife-rich environment, meandering very slowly and following up anything that catches my attention. I feel perfectly free. And experience a state of low-level ecstasy. These days I almost always pursue it alone. I feel immersed in companionship.
What’s your biggest regret?
That I haven’t been able to live entirely from writing words. I was amused recently when a Waterstones manager in Bridport classified me as a mid-list author. That seems to be my fate, alas. I don’t want to be rich; I want to be able to choose.
What’s your ideal writing scenario?
I have a view now over the fields and woods that I knew as a child. It doesn’t get better.
...and your ideal reading one?
Sitting under the oak at the top of the garden, which commands even wider views over the fields and woods, with my camera and binoculars on the side to distract me. I am a slow reader and am easily distracted.
What’s your favourite book you’ve read this year?
I have really enjoyed Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and Nick Hayes’ The Book of Trespass. Both are magnificent, radical and deeply challenging. The first is a devastating exposé of Western Christian right-wing patriarchal values. Modern America! Hayes’ book is an assault on British landownership and all its injustices. The longer I live, the more alienated I feel from my own country. I see its attitudes to nature and land as almost immovably destructive. The British people have lived on their knees for so long they seem to cherish their subservience.
What inspired you to write your book?
We are a part of life. The more I experience this the more true and important it becomes. All my last books have been iterations of this same theme. There is nothing more important. And I don’t mean climate change. I mean the fate of other species. A Claxton Diary, like its sister book Claxton, is a celebration of the importance of wildlife in the identity of, and our connections to, place.
A Claxton Diary is available in paperback now.