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Thursday, 30 September 2010

Writing to Ronald Blythe

Whaddya mean you’ve never heard of Ronald Blythe? Actually, I’m not surprised. He’s a writer, but no-one’s ever taken a film option on one of his books. He’s never been, to the best of my knowledge, on The Times bestseller’s list and has never appeared on Loose Women or sat (thank goodness) on Richard & Judy’s couch. He is to most people relatively invisible. You’re unlikely to see him on Twitter and you’d be disappointed if you searched for him on MyFace. In fact, despite being the author of many fine books and an intellectual heavyweight you can find his regular ‘blog’ updates in the pages of his parish magazine for which he still faithfully writes a piece each month.

He is well into his eighties now and has for the last forty or so years been writing breathtaking books about ordinary people, their history and their landscape. His most recognisable work is Akenfield but my familiarity with his work came about largely by accident. My exasperated A-level English tutor (an inspired and saintly man rejoicing in the name of A.R. Wooll) sent me and my facetious questions about Hardy’s Wessex to a section of the school library labelled - curiously, mysteriously and patronisingly - ‘Pastoral’. And it was there, amongst Adrian Bell’s Men and the Fields, Ewart Evans’ Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay and John Stewart Collis’ The Worm Forgives the Plough, that I found Akenfield.

And so I found myself in my local library at a loose end and I asked myself if it would be slightly weird if I were to write to Ronald Blythe to tell him how much I admired him and his work. Now if I’d asked that question out loud to my wife she would have immediately told me that I was, in all but criminal record, a stalker and that I should desist. But seeing as she wasn’t there, then my rational senses told me that there was nothing wrong with this plan at all. So I leafed through Who’s Who and found Dr Blythe’s address. I won’t bore you with what I said but I thanked him, told him why his work was so meaningful to me and that I’ve begun to try my hand at writing.

And he wrote back. He told me that to understand the living world around us is to understand who we are with a “…deeply personal precision.”

“I live in an ancient farmhouse…and not a day goes by without some fresh revelation of people, climate or plants. It is inexhaustible. Landscape is amazing, with its multitude of statements and variations.”

So here’s to you, Ronald Blythe! A true statesmen of the best in nature writing and social history. I’m glad I wrote and glad you wrote back. I’m glad no-one told me that it was a daft thing to do because he also said that “writers have little or no idea where their words go” and I feel better that he knows, at least from one person.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Having a whale for dinner...

The question why? must have rung like a siren in the heads of our greatest scientific forebears, people like Lamarck, Wallace and Darwin and they didn’t rest until they had answers. On a recent whale watching trip I was glad to see that this zealous spirit of enquiry is alive and well when one of the whale watchers asked ‘if you could invite any species of whale to dinner, which one would it be and what questions would you ask it?’ This question was not exactly expected but, ever the professional, I thought I’d better give it a stab so as to avoid disappointment.

For a start there are some species of whale and dolphin that, wonderful as they are, would be a dinner host’s nightmare. The last thing you need is a spinner dolphin leaping spectacularly but messily into the soup and, worst still, decimating your tropical fish collection. Likewise, you’d think twice about turning your back on a killer whale between courses. Furthermore, for whatever reason, I see the minke whale as being slightly effete, nonchalant, fussy. Maybe it’s the starched white collars around the fins. No. There are some that just wouldn’t get an invite.

The chance here would be to get answers to the big questions, to see what they see; to finally understand the biggest and deepest secrets from a world so improbably inaccessible; a world which we only get glimpses of when they surface to share a brief moment with us and then are gone; a world which we know only from the grainy floodlit images of the bow of the Titanic.

So to get answers to these deep questions, who do I invite? For me at least, it would have to be the grizzliest and most ancient warriors of the oceans: the bowhead and the sperm whale. These are true elderly statesmen; creatures that are imbued with the deepest magic of the very coldest, oldest and darkest waters.

The sperm whale is the biggest predator on earth, by far the largest toothed whale and man’s target for centuries. Its amazing shape, unique physiology, behaviour and shared history means that in our collective imagination it has become much more than just a species of whale: It has become a representative of all its kind, a mirror for all our fear and wonder associated with deep water. It is Jonah’s predator, Ahab’s tormentor and man’s lamp oil. It is more than a species: it is Whale. And he could answer some questions…

What creatures do you see in the torch beam of your sonar when you are 2 miles down in the inky black? How does it feel to have the ocean’s weight pressing on your senses? In your landscape of the sea bed, do you see man’s influence and detritus in the folds of the deep canyons and arteries?

And then there’s the bowhead. He is uniquely an animal of the frozen north; a creature from a place that is not only deep and dark but made more inhospitable by the face-burning cold. The bowhead truly comes from a place where it feels we’re not supposed to be. It is said that where you find belugas, you find the bowhead, its sedate progress being tracked by glowing ghosts, deep water outriders. You can see the appeal in the photographs and footage: The unique quality of light underneath the ice creating a cathedral of glinting spears around the whale.

It is true that old bowheads killed by the Inuit peoples were found to have ivory spear heads buried deep inside their blubber, survivors of hunts up to 200 years ago. And that’s why he’d get my invite: What have you seen in your long life? What changes has the ocean undergone? What is it like to move under the blue glow of the ice sheets during the hard arctic sunrise?

I’d want my questions to be vital and thought-provoking. Otherwise it’s the same as queuing next to the red carpet at a premiere only to ask your favourite film star what it’s like being famous. So what would you ask? How badly do you want to know? What do you really want to hear?

So at the end of the questions, when you think you’re slightly closer to understanding their place on the planet and, more importantly, their vital place in our imaginations and just why they make us feel so uplifted when we see them, what would you say? Would you say ‘thank you’ or would you say ‘I’m sorry’?