Red in tooth and claw

4th October 1996 at 01:00
As schools and libraries prepare to celebrate reading, Jeremy Sutcliffe marks the start of Children's Book Week by talking to Dick King-Smith, creator of Babe the Sheep-Pig about fiction and farming.

Dick King-Smith says he can "live quite happily on bacon and eggs for the rest of my life". Coming from the creator of Babe the Sheep-Pig, whose story became the movie hit of last year, the remark carries the weight of conviction. How, one wonders, can someone who has delighted millions of children with his story of the big-hearted pig with a talent for herding sheep, be a pork-eater? The answer is central to understanding a man who, late in life, has become one of our leading children's writers. It also reaches the heart of his remarkable new book, Godhanger, which explores man's relationship with a community of animals with the kind of moral purpose rare in modern children's fiction.

Unpublished until the age of 56, King-Smith has an interest in animals which goes back to his childhood. But it was his early career as a first-generation farmer which shaped his moral outlook and provided much of the material for his stories.

During 20 years as a farmer - his first farm was "a children's picture book place" which gave him the setting for The Sheep-Pig - he learned to cope with the reality that all livestock bred for food, including milking cows and breeding sows which may have been on the farm 10 years, eventually end up at the slaughterhouse.

"If you have thought about farming it is something that in ethical terms you either have to be quite happy about or turn a kind of mental blind eye, " he says.

His own view is that the killing of animals for food is an intrinsic part of breeding, caring for and raising those animals, and has been a natural way of life since man ceased to be a hunter-gatherer. Children, he believes, understand better than adults the moral paradox of the farmer who kills for food but nevertheless cares for his animals. "I think the great thing about the majority of children is that they are very hard-headed about these things. They accept that there has to be death as well as life in a farming situation. I think they accept it as something that's reasonable and understandable. "

But he is no defender of modern factory farming techniques, and believes free-market economics has forced many farmers to lose their relationships with their livestock. Some large-scale pig and poultry farmers are, he says, actively cruel. Early in his farming career he put a couple of dozen hens in battery cages. After two or three days they were so distressed that he let them out.

With such an attitude it was perhaps inevitable that, after six further years managing a large dairy and cereal farm, he quit farming, largely on the advice of his bank manager.

After two short-term jobs he decided to retrain as a teacher and gained a BEd at the age of 53. His first teaching job was in a small village primary school, where he spent four years teaching eight-year-olds, before switching to teach infants. During this period he wrote and published his first four books, beginning with The Fox-Busters in 1978.

His reputation as a leading children's writer was established with the publication of The Sheep-Pig, which won the Guardian Children's Fiction Award in 1984.

By the early 1990s he had already sold more than 2.5 million books worldwide, most of them aimed at seven to 10-year-olds. The phenomenal success of the film Babe, which uses ground-breaking technology to make real animals "talk", promises to put him in the super-league of children's writers.

There is, however, a new sense of direction and ambition in his latest novel Godhanger. This one is aimed at teenagers and adults. He is intensely proud of it - and with reason.

A stark and often brutal book, it tells the story of a community of animals whose lives are blighted by an ill-tempered, cruel gamekeeper. One day a strange and magnificent bird - the Skymaster - comes to the wood and becomes a leader and moral tutor to the animals.

While he can do nothing to alter the natural order of things - he is, after all, a bird of prey, and himself a predator - he can, and does, intervene to prevent unnatural cruelty. In doing so, he saves a life. but loses his own.

Wildlife aficionados will recognise the Skymaster as a golden eagle, but he is the one animal not identified by the author. Most adult readers will recognise him as a Christ figure: he dies for the sake of others, is hanged on a gibbet, and rises from the dead.

The story is beautifully told, full of the paradoxes of life and death, where hunter eats hunted and man is the supreme predator. The gamekeeper, however, takes pleasure in killing beyond his needs, until he is finally driven mad by his own bloodlust. He clearly represents the dark side of human nature; selfish, cruel, and at odds with both the natural world and the community of animals to which, ultimately, he belongs. Factory farmers, take heed.

Curiously, for the author of a book whose story is based on the Christian message, King-Smith is no Christian (though one of his sons is a vicar). There is, one feels, some slight discomfort about this. Like the caring farmer, another paradox: the unbeliever who, nevertheless, is restlessly searching for God.

The book works on several levels: it is about man's abuse of nature and the animal kingdom; man's inhumanity to man (the community of animals, in best anthropomorphic tradition, is a metaphor for the human race); the importance of moral values. Equally important is its strong spiritual sense.

But for most children it is just a marvellous story; somewhat chilling, but ultimately optimistic and uplifting. Fittingly, for a novel written by a man who prides himself on the accurate depiction of wildlife, the action turns on the four seasons, ending with the onset of spring, the season of renewal.

At 74, King-Smith is clearly enjoying an Indian summer in his career. Godhanger is the mature work of a fertile imagination by a writer whose confidence has never been higher. It is also timely, appearing shortly after Philip Pullman, winner of the Carnegie medal, appealed for a return to stories as a resource for teaching right and wrong. The creator of Babe has never been better placed for bringing home the bacon.

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