Tutors of the natural world

24th February 1995 at 00:00
Richard Mabey talks to Susan Thomas. I have had two great teachers but neither of them teachers in the conventional sense. I enjoyed school (Berkhamsted - where Graham Greene was so unhappy) and, after an unfortunate start, had a marvellous time at Oxford. The problem there was that I had gone up to read biology not realising that we would be required to perform the most unspeakable experiments on animals and that the first thing we would have to do would be to suck out the contents of our own stomachs.

But after I had changed to PPE - politics, philosophy and economics - it was wonderful with lectures from Sir Isaiah Berlin and marvellous one-to-one tutorials.

But my two best teachers, both writers, both people with this tremendous understanding of the natural world, were people I met long after leaving school. One was Ronald Blythe the naturalist and local historian and probably most famous for Akenfield, that extraordinary first person history of a Norfolk village. The other was Jeff Cloves, a poet, writer and pacifist.

I met Ronald Blythe back in 1969. Like so many other people I was absolutely bowled over by Akenfield and I used the fact that I'd been working for Penguin as an excuse to go and meet him. And we simply became good friends.

It is very much a mentorapprenticeship relationship. I have been hugely influenced by him. I have read his prose over and over again to see how it works and I have talked with him and walked with him over the Suffolk landscape and he has made it come alive for me. He is always supportive, slightly ethereal, never critical. His great gift is to console if you have bleak days and bad moments.

Ronnie is in his early seventies now. He is a great gardener, does all his own decorating, can walk me off my feet and still writes on a 30-year-old typewriter, (which probably saves his prose from the degradation that sets in when you begin to use a word processor). He still reviews and still does a monthly piece for the Guardian. He also serves as a lay parson to the villages around which are constantly losing their vicars. He actually played the parson in Peter Hall's film of Akenfield.

The extraordinary thing about Ronnie is that he has this ceaseless narrative about "place". If you go out for a walk with him he can show you the little strip of water where Constable's father moored his barge, he knows every person who is buried in the graveyard - their names and family history, Edward Fitzgerald's tomb with the Omar Khayy m rose planted on it and he was there when the Shah's emissary sent a replacement.

And as you drive him through Suffolk villages he can tell you about the martyrs of Hadleigh who were taken up the street to be burned, about the poets who lived in tiny cottages and the people who live there now. He reads the landscape like a text. For him it is still alive with those people. I understand it as a map of itself but he knows it in terms of "presence" - of people and habitat and farming.

He is wonderfully kind even when reviewing - if he doesn't like a book he just finds something else to say. And he has taught me as much about humanity as about the land. I have a little cottage up there and whenever I go there I meet him and we walk and talk and I constantly learn from him.

My other mentor Jeff Cloves is more critical. We have a lot in common. We both write and we've both taught - after Oxford I did a very Tom Sharpe-ish spell in FE where "sheet metal workers 3" were my particular bete noir. Jeff used to teach in a secondary school.

We met years ago on some Aldermaston march. We both played guitars, both got involved in leftish, libertarian groups. He has incredibly strong principles. He is often quite shocked by the double standards of the rest of us, cheerfully taking our turn pedalling the "green" electricity generator at some pop or folk festival having driven over half the country in a car to get there!

Jeff is the soundest and most perceptive critic of my work. On one occasion I wrote a book about nightingales called Whistling in the Dark. . . probably the most personal thing I'd ever done. It was both a natural and mythological history of the nightingale and, at another level, a metaphor for a failed love affair. But my mother had been very ill with Parkinson's Disease for 10 years and, somewhere in the book, I mentioned that I hadn't been able to travel abroad to hear foreign nightingales because I'd been looking after a sick relative.

And Jeff was outraged that I should have dismissed this vital personal thing in this way. He said: "This is your mother not some distant relation. Your writing is precisely the place where you should be examining the parts of your life that are difficult." And he was absolutely right.

His own writing is so unself-conscious it reminds me of John Cleese's journals. He does this extraordinary bi-weekly column for the St Alban's paper. It is so unorthodox that there can't be anything like it anywhere.

Richard Mabey's books include Food for Free and Street Flowers which won The TES Information Award in l976. The Oxford Book of Nature Writing will be published by Oxford University Press on March 2. Flora Britannica a compilation of fact and folklore will be published in a year's time.

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