Caitlin Moran

Richard Mabey: ‘Writing should be like birdwatching: attentive and disciplined’

The celebrated nature writer and author Turning the Boat for Home shares five books that have shaped his life and writing, from a youthful obsession with Dylan Thomas to the genius of Annie Dillard.

My parents weren’t especially bookish. They moved from London’s East End to the Chilterns just before the war, and brought with them the famous 24 volume, 1928 “wedding present” edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which remained my prime source of knowledge about the world until I left school. The rest of my reading was magpie, and has remained so ever since. I devoured Biggles and bird books and, like most boys of my generation, the exploits of Wilson in the Wizard. My elder sister introduced me to Richard Jefferies’ nature writing, and a bookseller aunt in South London sent birthday presents of the summer holiday adventure novels of David Scvern, a kind of bohemian version of the Famous Fives. There wasn’t a classic in sight.

I went to Berkhamsted School, Graham Greene’s alma mater, and in the mid 1950s, a disaffected clique of us in the Lower Sixth discovered jazz and CND and Look Back in Anger. We found Jimmy Porter’s spluttering expletive “pusillanimous” perfectly expressive of what we felt about Britain in the 50s. More importantly perhaps, we found our way to the Romantic poets, Keats and Shelley especially. But it was that modern romantic Dylan Thomas that did it for me (Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems, 1934-1952). His florid lyrics are a gift for moody adolescents, and I saw his heroic first lines as rebel slogans: Do not go gentle into that good night; I see the boys of summer in their ruin; The force that through the green fuse drives the flower (which I used as an epigraph for one of my own books fifty years later). But the school proved very tolerant of these dissident stirrings, and in a gesture of double forgiveness awarded me Thomas’s Collected Poems as a prize for the music (skiffle, and singing madrigals) which I fled to when I should have been doing chemistry revision.  

But there’s a dark sequel. In the summer we left school my poetaster friend John and I  decided to make a pilgrimage to Thomas’s motherlode in Laugharne. We hitchhiked to Wales, slept in a wood on the way, and survived on blackberries and a half bottle of whisky. We saw no herons on the bleak “heron-priested shore” but fetched up at the country club where Thomas had drunk. We were shocked by the regulars’ memories of him. He’d been their pet performing soak. For the price of a drink he would stand on a table and recite doggerel, and they despised him for it. It was a salutary lesson in the dangers of hero worship, and the fact that insight never came from wallowing in pure feeling. Writing would have to be more like birdwatching, attentive and disciplined.

'It was a salutary lesson in the dangers of hero worship'

These days I find much of Thomas’ verse a tad bombastic. But his revelling in the physicality of language, so that words can feel like ripe fruit in the mouth, has stayed with me, for better or worse.

I read the now infamous PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) at Oxford, but it was the early 1960s, and there was more politics outside the curriculum than in. I got acquainted with a lot of New Left writers, especially E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams, both of whom I still find inspirational. And I discovered the occasional writings of another, thoroughly idiosyncratic English radical. George Orwell’s essays (George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters) are beacons of fiercely argued democratic ethics, which somehow combine uncompromising principle with home-spun common sense. He was a champion of free speech, just so long as language itself wasn’t abused. His seminal ‘Politics and the English Language’ is as relevant now as when it was written. “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”, he wrote in 1946. He was also a surprisingly sympathetic writer about the natural world, as in the heart-rending ‘Killing an Elephant’. My favourite remains ‘Some thoughts on the Common Toad’, written a few months after the end of WW2. It’s sharp-eyed and biologically literate, and sets the redemptive power of spring so decisively against the horrors of the world that it could be a tract from our recent plague year.

I also discovered Orwell’s poetry, and one piece in particular, whose title was a kind of poem in itself. ‘On a Ruined Farm near the His Master’s Voice Gramophone Factory’ helped frame the theme of my book, The Unofficial Countryside: "For I can neither/ Dwell in that world, nor turn again/ to scythe and spade, but only loiter/ Among the trees the smoke has slain”. I sympathised with his confusion, but was sure that trees could live next to factories.

'What I have learned from Ronnie’s writing is the difference between the personal and the self-centred'

I first met Ronnie, as he graciously allows us to call him, after being left breathless by his classic Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village in 1969. To be honest, I engineered the meeting. I was working for his publisher Penguin at the time, and travelled to Suffolk on the pretext of commissioning an educational book. I didn’t need the excuse. He was as courteous as he always is to visitors, and had baked a cake for the occasion. We’ve remained good friends over the five decades since, and I find it difficult to disentangle my feelings about his writing from my love for him as a person. Being with the man is like reading him. You’re drawn into a winding conversation in which gardens, drinking in post-war Soho, the Suffolk landscape, cats, Georgian poetry, listening to nightingales, and always, always John Clare, are enthrallingly connected by something which can seem like free association, but is in fact a kind of fluent cultural map-making. This way-marking is his special gift, and From the Headlands shows him off as perhaps Britain’s most undervalued essayist. As well as scholarly but deeply personal reflections on writers such as Hazlitt and Hardy and the dangerous myths of country life (the rural idyll “slips in blood”, he writes), it contains a handful of pieces in the more intimate, memoirish style that was to characterise his later work. The scent-trail in these is intoxicating. In ‘A Country Christmas’ he talks about the custom of “waking it off” on Christmas Day afternoon. "When I was a boy, dozens of complete families walked it off, flaunting heir kinship and strength. There are frozen stains on the lane made by discreet lorries which weekly deliver straw soaked in horse urine from Knightsbridge Barracks to our mushroom factory on the old World War Two aerodrome.” Which aerodrome now lies next to a US nuclear base and over the lanes tramped by the poet Edward Fitzgerald. Whose nearby grave is ornamented by a rose grown from cutting from Omar Khayam’s grave, which Ronnie witnessed the Shah of Persia plant...

What I have learned from Ronnie’s writing is the difference between the personal and the self-centred. Over the past half century we have been slavered with narcissistic memoirs and egotistical confessionals , the literature of the ‘me’ generation. Ronnie’s writing – though always unmistakably his – offers something altogether more valuable and noble: the literature of ‘us’, where the ‘I’, so to speak, becomes the eye, fascinated with the world beyond itself. As he’s written in a piece about night-walking: “Everywhere, it is all so perfectly interesting that one might never go to bed.”

'The apparatus of simile and metaphor has always been a challenge for writers about the natural world'

I was introduced to Lewis Thomas by the late Richard Boston, who brought it to an editorial meeting of Vole magazine, c. 1977, with the intimation that it was required reading for the team on a magazine that aspired to be literary, ecological and funny. The Lives of a Cell had recently been awarded, unprecedentedly, two US National Book Awards, one in the Arts category, the other in Science, and the New Yorker had described the book as “a shimmering vision”.  Thomas was something of a vision himself, being a biologist who was not only literate but poetic, a polymath who was as learned in etymology as entomology. His day-job was as a medical academic, but he contributed a left-field column called ‘Notes of a Biology Watcher’ to the New England Journal of Medicine, on subjects as seemingly disconnected as moth pheromones and Bach’s St Matthew Passion. But of course they aren’t disconnected except in the most literal sense, and it was Thomas’s genius to conjure some thirty of these essays into a coherent treatise of reverberating knowledge and sublime prose. Against the grain of the times, he shunned New Age waffle and environmental doom, and celebrated instead the tenacity of life, and the way, specifically and allegorically, it all joined up.

In the book’s title essay, he reimagines ‘Earthrise’, that step-changing first photograph of our planet seen from space: “Aloft, floating free beneath the moist, gleaming membrane of bright blue sky, is the rising earth, the only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos... it has the organised, self-contained look of a live creature, full of information, marvellously skilled in handling the sun”. ‘Has the look of’ is Thomas’s signature phrase. Bees building a hive “have the look of embryonic cells organising a developing tissue”. Language itself has the look of a continuously evolving ecosystem. In a fantastical vision of connectivity, ‘Vibes’, about communication by smell (or at least vaporous chemical messaging) he imagines the earth kept in tune by a worldwide web of scent: “informing tissues in the vegetation of the Alps about the state of eels in the Sargasso Sea, by long, interminable relays of interconnected messages between all kinds of other creatures”.

The apparatus of simile and metaphor has always been a challenge for writers about the natural world, leading too often to the obscuring the real lives and identities of other organisms, and at worst, absorbing them inside some human-shaped template. Thomas’s visionary analogies go beyond metaphor, and suggest resonances that may be authentic clues to how the world works.

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