Live Kindly, Tread Lightly -Animals and Us

Occasional book reviews and recommendations, but the focus here is mainly on animal welfare: news of campaigns, and interviews with inspirational people who try to make the world a kinder place.

A Tribute to K M Peyton, 1929 - 2023

It came as a sad shock to learn that K M (Kathleen Peyton has died aged 94, after a remarkable and distinguished career as a writer for both children and adults. Many readers love her Flambards quartet and the Pennington novels, and she's influenced many another author, including me - she was (possibly unintentionally) a pioneer of young adult fiction in the 70s and 80s, along with other such 'golden age' authors as Robert Cormier, Jill Paton Walsh, Jean Ure, Alan Garner, Robert Westall and Aidan Chambers. One of her extraordinary achievements was to publish books over eight decades - I wonder if there's another author in the world who can match that? Surely very few. 

I first came across K M Peyton during my training as an English teacher, when I happened upon Flambards in the college library. I well remember how eagerly I devoured it, captivated by the setting, the characters, the social issues and how beautifully and economically she evoked countryside, seasons and weather. I went on to read more and more of her work. I'd always wanted to write, and she introduced me to young adult fiction, which hadn't existed in my own teenage years. So I owe her a great deal - especially as, many years later, she gave me permission to continue the Flambards story by writing a novel (The Key to Flambards) about Christina's great-great-granddaughter, set in 2018. I've written here about how I became friends with Kathy and about the various elements of the quartet that I wanted to pick up in my own story, so I won't repeat that here beyond explaining how we met: I was at the time a regular reviewer for Books for Keeps magazine, and asked to interview her for the Authorgraph feature. She invited me to her Essex home, and from then on we met regularly at publishers' parties or for lunch in Chelmsford, until she became less mobile and I visited her at home each year. A couple of times, staying overnight, I made a point of doing some writing in bed, in the hope that a little of the Peyton magic would get into my words. 



Readers may not know that the of K M Peyton referred to Kathy's husband Mike, an illustrator, writer and sailor. For a while they wrote serialised stories together, Mike supplying plot details while Kathy did the writing. Before that, Kathy had published her own first novel, The Horse from the Sea, when she was only 15; she once showed me her handwritten first draft of that story. She also showed me her MBE, awarded for services to children's literature, but I was more interested to see her Carnegie Medal - she won that for The Edge of the Cloud, the second of the Flambards books, as well as the Guardian Prize for the trilogy (as it was then). Other accolades include the Children's Book Award, for Darkling. Numerous other titles were shortlisted for the Carnegie and in 1966 she was declared runner-up for Thunder in the Sky, the year the judges decided not to award the Medal - she always retained a sense of aggrieved bemusement about that! (And in my opinion, Thunder in the Sky would have been a worthy winner.)

So what were the qualities in her writing that earned her such acclaim and such devotion from her readers?


David Fickling, editor of many of her books, has called her 'a born writer', and surely she was - with the desire to write from an early age, and an enviable gift of fluency that made writing look easy. In our conversations she told me that she didn't like revising her work, and only did so at the request of editors, sometimes reluctantly. She was described by John Rowe Townsend (I think it was him) as 'an Ancient Mariner of a storyteller' for her compelling plots. She was particularly good at action, whether it involved horses and hunting, early aviation, sailing or mountain-climbing - the finale of The Boy who Wasn't There is truly nail-biting. Her characters and the tensions among them were never less than compelling; she was attuned to adolescent yearnings, frustrations and conflicts, and several of her stories involved a young person at odds with a demanding or ambitious parent and determined to find their own way in life. And no one - not even Dick Francis or Cormac McCarthy - wrote about horses better than she did; their beauty, grace and vigour, their personalities.


(Erm, hunting. If you follow this blog, and especially if you've read my most recent Animal Advocate feature on Rob Pownall of Protect the Wild, you may be surprised that I could enjoy the Flambards books, especially Flambards itself and Flambards Divided, with their relish of fox-hunting. I'm a long-term supporter of the League Against Cruel Sports and now of Protect the Wild, and can't wait to see a complete ban. The Flambards books, however, depict fox-hunting in the past, which in my opinion is where it belongs.) 


Meg Rosoff is another author who was impressed by the qualities of Kathy's work, writing in a Books for Keeps article:  "I started reading and couldn’t stop. Something about this woman’s writing resonated directly with my brain and my heart – the unsentimental, sharply-observed, clear voiced love of horses and riders, the trials of adolescence, of friendship and country life and the endless difficulties with families, all rendered in the most intelligent elegant prose."

Best-known for the Flambards quartet and the Pennington stories (oh yes - she could write wonderfully about music, too; Patrick Pennington was a gifted pianist) Kathy wrote a number of stand-alones that were just as impressive. A favourite of mine - and, I know, of hers too - is A Pattern of Roses, a beautiful and lyrical mystery which begins when Tim, son of materialistic, class-conscious parents making a new life in the country, finds a gravestone with his own initials on it, marking the death of a fifteen-year-old boy from Edwardian times with whom he finds affinity.    This book was filmed, incidentally giving the young Helena Bonham Carter her first screen role as the imperious, privileged Nettie. The cover shown here uses Kathy's own artwork - a trained artist, she provided cover images for several of her novels as well as illustrations for some younger books. Her painterly eye is apparent in her evocation of place, shown here just before Tim finds the other boy's grave:


He walked across the churchyard, through long yellowing grass. It tapered down to the compost heap, the elm-trees closing in on it. A few graves humped themselves untidily; it was the cheap end, Tim thought, the stones, roughly etched, all illegible now with lichen and time. There was a rose-bush growing, with strange, smoky-violet flowers dropping faded petals into the grass. The colour smouldered; the roses, the rotting peat round the gardener's heap, a tangle of old man's beard like white mist over the elm hedge. Tim saw it with his O-Level artist's eye, and smelt the old summer going and all the years and years that had gone before in the decayed, deserted corner of the churchyard.



The Flambards trilogy (as it was then - the fourth book, Flambards Divided, followed after an interval of twelve years) was filmed by Yorkshire television - it's well worth watching, but true Peyton lovers will prefer the novels. I still love, as I did back in my twenties, the sense of imminent change as the First World War approached; the feudalism of Uncle Russell and his obsession with hunting, the social inequities that Christina's cousin Will sees clearly. When the kindly groom Dick is unfairly dismissed by Uncle Russell and Christina visits him at home where he cares for his invalid mother, she contrasts the poverty there with the attention lavished on the Flambards horses:


She thought of the new blanket on Goldwillow that Dick had smoothed the last time she had seen him in the stable: thick and bright with stripes of black and red on deep yellow. The blankets she looked at now were grey and threadbare. Dick's mother was less than a Flambards horse. Dick had always known it. It was a part of his reserve, his quietness, knowing things like that, she thought.


Kathy hadn't at first intended Flambards to be published for children; it was at an editor's insistence that it appeared on a children's list, but as the series progressed to depict Christina in her twenties, widowed, divorced (sorry, spoilers) and contemplating a new beginning, it became what we would now call crossover fiction. Kathy wrote several adult novels too, though they never won acclaim to match her writing for young readers. The Sound of Distant Cheering is set in the world of horse-racing, clear-eyed enough to show the seamy, callous side of the industry alongside the glories and the triumphs: Jeremy, a trainer, thinks:


Oh, Jesus, who would be in the racing game! It was so magnificent at its best, seedy – to put it kindly – at the bottom. Human greed ruined it; the exploitation of one of the kindest, gamest animals on earth for money ...


Possibly her favourite of her adult novels was Dear Fred, set in Victorian Newmarket, in which teenage Laura is obsessed with the champion jockey Fred Archer before finding loves of her own. Kathy felt that this had been published rather uncertainly, not a children's book but not marketed for adult either; in recent years she hoped that it might be reissued, something we discussed. Anyone ...?


I will miss my visits. Kathy was always great company - forthright, sparky and funny. Sometimes we talked in her study, a spacious room overlooking the garden and her bird-feeders, with shelves lined with her own books among many others. On the walls were a number of fabric collages she had made, all depicting horses in her distinctive style. On warm days we would sit outside the back door looking out at the large pond, or walk into the wood she had planted alongside the house over many years - another commendable achievement. 


She'd started another novel, for adults, in her nineties, but failing concentration halted its progress. It's sad to think that there will never be another K M Peyton book - but for her many admirers, or for those new to her work, there's that huge, glorious list of titles to revisit or discover for the first time, and the inspiration she's left to both readers and writers. 


Animal Advocate No.7: Rob Pownall of Protect the Wild

Rob is the driving force behind Protect the Wild, which began as Keep the Ban. Still only 24, he's been campaigning against cruel sports since he was 15. Protect the Wild was voted Campaigner of the Year by Great Outdoors magazine and is influential in exposing cruelty and malpractice by hunts and shoots. One example is supporting the Mini's Law campaign after a cat was killed outside her home on a housing estate by a pack of hounds. Last year Protect the Wild issued a striking animation, A Trail of Liesvoiced by Chris Packham and showing the reality of 'trail hunting' - watch it here. Find out much more on the website, including information about wild animals and the law. If you'd like to join the campaign and receive regular newsletters and updates, everything you need is here.

Linda: Could you give a bit of background about how you got started on this? Were you aware of cruel sports as a child? Were you brought up in a rural area where you saw hunting and shooting? Were there other things such as books, documentaries or influential people that sent you in this direction?

Rob: My awareness of cruel pastimes such as fox hunting and bird shooting was fairly limited as a child. It’s only when I look back now that I realise in hindsight that up until the age of 16 I was very much living in a bubble, isolated from not just issues of wildlife persecution but all forms of animal abuse. It wasn’t until I came across an online petition aimed towards preventing David Cameron from repealing the ban on fox hunting that I became aware of the fact people were still hunting foxes with packs of hounds. 


And it’s for this very reason that I always remain strong willed that petitions can make a difference even if they can often feel powerless in achieving change. Because from this petition I opened my eyes to what was happening. I watched videos, read articles, joined online groups, and within a couple of weeks the Keep the Ban page was born out of a desire to end the madness that was unfolding.  

Linda: Your single-mindedness on this campaign is impressive and is already seeing results. With so many other kinds of widespread cruelty to animals around us, for instance in intensive farming, why is it this campaign you've decided to devote yourself to?

Rob: Single-mindedness is vital to stay focused and achieve success both in the short and long term. But it’s certainly challenging at times keeping to this philosophy in the face of so much cruelty inflicted on animals in so many other areas. Especially with a platform to promote and put a spotlight on other forms of cruelty taking place. 


And like many other campaigners we always get the same old retorts of ‘what about x?’ The reality is we can’t cover everything, and if we tried to do so we would only water down our central focus and dilute the message of protecting British wildlife.


There are some brilliant groups and people advocating to end the animal agriculture industry, for example, but it’s not Protect the Wild’s fight. However, as time passes it becomes ever more apparent that wildlife persecution and the animal agriculture industry have considerable overlap.  


You’ve only got to look behind the reasons for the badger cull in protecting cattle that are then exploited and slaughtered for human consumption. On a personal level I’ve been vegan for six years now. And unlike many others in the wildlife protection movement I’m not a speciesist, fighting for one animal to be protected whilst paying for other animals to be killed on my behalf. 


As far as I’m aware, Protect the Wild is the only wildlife protection organisation ran with vegan principles and advocating for all life to be conserved, not just wild life.  


And from where I see it, we'll only see the end of animal agriculture if we can create a shift in societal thinking. If the notion that some people can hunt wild animals for enjoyment still persists, then how on earth will we ever persuade the public they shouldn’t be consuming animals too? 

Linda: I listened to your interview on Off the Leash podcasts with Charlie Moores, and was impressed by your determination and clarity. What are your immediate aims for Protect the Wild - where do you see progress happening most imminently?

Rob: It's my belief that wildlife persecution is one of the major dominoes that needs to be knocked down to further the animal rights movement as a whole. Once it topples and we see the end of pastimes such as fox hunting then naturally people will begin to shift their thinking towards other forms of animal abuse. If we can destroy societal acceptance for bloodsports, we will be well on our way to protecting all animals from abuse and exploitation.


But when it comes to Protect the Wild’s immediate aims, our focus is a lot more short term. To be honest the situation is pretty dire when it comes to wildlife abuse across the UK. We’re under a Government that couldn’t care less about these issues or doing anything to help end them. And the vast majority of laws supposedly protecting wild animals are falling way short of the mark. And that’s why over the next year or so we see educating the public and directly helping activists in the field as the best way forward. While we still have overarching goals for legislative change, our current aims are to do absolutely everything we can to equip activists and shape public opinion until a change of Government during the next 18 months. 

Linda: Protect the Wild, the League Against Cruel Sports and various hunt monitor groups are doing great work in recording and filming hunt trespasses and illegal activity, and have achieved high-profile coverage and prosecutions for cruelty - the sort of things that have always gone on out of sight of the public, such as digging out foxes and throwing them to hounds. Yet hunts can still claim that they're following trails and that kills are 'accidental'. Clearly the 2004 Hunting Act is inadequate - what do you think are the prospects of a complete ban on hunting with packs of hounds?

Rob: This potential Government change could prove pivotal in whether we get a proper ban on hunting or not. As I've already mentioned, there's no hope for any legislative change as things stand - it's not pessimistic or defeatist to admit that when it’s the reality of the situation. But what we should be doing is advocating for a new proper ban on hunting in this year or so before the next election. What we shouldn’t be doing is campaigning for the current flawed ban to be strengthened. It’s no good fiddling around with an Act that is littered with exemptions and loopholes. It only opens up the goal for the pro-hunt lobby to sneak in one modification or amendment that could send us back to square one.


You’d have to ask the groups forming the coalition for strengthening the Hunting Act why they genuinely believe this is a better approach for wildlife than fighting for the ultimate goal, a new proper ban similar to that of Scotland’s that would unequivocally end this madness for good.   


But it’s not just the campaign for legislative change that will end fox hunting. The pastime will die from a thousand cuts coming at it from multiple angles. And I'm a firm believer that a mixture of finances, insurance issues, hunt arrogance and public pressure will be the perfect mixture.

Linda: Around where I live, in Oxfordshire, there are regular reports of hunts trespassing on roads, private property and even on railway lines, endangering the public as well as farm animals and domestic pets. I wonder if eventually it will be episodes like these, rather than cruelty to wild animals, that lead to a ban on hunting with hounds?

Rob: Specifically, hunts have long been running roughshod across the countryside, recklessly crossing roads, and killing hounds and endangering the public in the process.


Now this is where it gets interesting. The vast majority of hunts are businesses and should be subject to the same health and safety regulations as all other businesses. But up until this point the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) has refused to treat hunts like other businesses. 


But if they were to be, then a hunt would be held liable and senior members of the hunt could face huge fines and imprisonment if they caused an accident or injured a member of the public. Protect the Wild is leading the campaign to ensure hunts are treated as businesses by the HSE and this could be a game changer. These arrogant gangs have for too long gotten away with being treated differently to the rest of society. They’re not above the law or regulations and it’s about time they were reminded of this fact. 


Ironically the underlying preference towards human life over animal life may be what leads to the downfall of hunting. As much as moral sentiments are shifting, we need to focus just as much attention on the human impact too. If laws and mainstream thought is so centred around the value of human life and the human experience, we should utilise this to our advantage. We will use every single angle possible to achieve our aims and hunt havoc is a key one - it’s time for these hunts to be bogged down in paperwork and checks just like every other business. 

Linda: Are you attracting personal enmity through your campaigning, and do you see this as a risk? Chris Packham is regularly targeted on social media and even at his home in unpleasant and threatening ways because of his outspokenness on hunting and shooting. Have you experienced anything like this, and if so, how do you deal with it?

Rob: As a result of our determination and desire to say it how it is, I fully expect to encounter more personal issues. There's one incident I haven’t publicly spoken about before. About a year ago, police arrived at my home because someone had called in to say I was dead, an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Whether this was connected to my work I can't be sure, but it's more than probable. 


But when these things happen you know it's because you’re doing something right and this is how I remain firm in my convictions. There will always be personal risks with anything we do in life and I’m just happy that we’re on the right side of history. 

Linda: I'm glad to be interviewing you now, at the start of the 'autumn hunting' season, which as we well know is cub-hunting exactly as it was carried out before the 2004 Hunting Act. How do hunts continue to get away with this? Surely it gives the lie to the whole concept of 'trail-hunting', its purpose being to introduce hounds to the scent of fox. And well done for highlighting it!

Rob: ‘Autumn hunting’ or ‘cubbing’ season, from late July until the start of November, is a vile and barbaric activity. What’s even worse is how few people are aware it even goes on. It involves a hunt surrounding a wooded area or crop field, usually in the early hours of the morning and sending hounds in to seek out and kill fox cubs. This is done to train the hounds to kill prior to the main hunting season. And of course it completely dismantles the ‘trail hunting’ sham. If hunts were indeed following an artificial trail as opposed to a live mammal, this vile practice wouldn’t be happening.


The issue is that, for obvious reasons, it's so hard to film and capture evidence of cubbing, with hounds entering covered terrain. That's why we produced our video The World’s Worst Sport to shine a light on this activity. In the meantime hunts continue to get away with it. It’s hard to police and there's a lack of public knowledge of it happening, so fewer people are reporting suspicious activity. If we had a proper ban on all hunting with hounds, this would end cubbing overnight. 

Linda: Protect the Wild also campaigns against shooting, and here too the contentious issues are becoming more widely-known: the burning of vegetation to benefit grouse-shooting; the poisoning and baiting of birds of prey such as hen-harriers and eagles on shooting estates. The campaign here is up against power, wealth and vested interest and will possibly be a harder one to win. How and where do you see the potential for change?


Rob: When it comes to the shooting industry it’s almost a whole different ball game from that of ending hunting. Until a year ago we'd always been a single issue organisation and as such the vast majority of our supporters are anti-hunting but not necessarily anti-shooting. 


This poses us with a challenge of educating our existing supporters and the wider general public.  And this challenge is harder because the shooting industry is stronger, better funded and even more protected than the hunting industry. And speciesism means more people care about fluffy mammals than they do about birds and we need to acknowledge that. We first need to get people to care about birds and what happens to them before we can tackle the industry itself. 


Indeed we're on a major education drive to actually get across what is happening across the UK. Bird shooting involves millions of different birds being blasted out of the sky for fun, but it also has huge consequences for the environment and other animals. From pollution of water sources and the burning of grouse moors to the snaring of foxes and killing of birds of prey, these are issues that extend beyond the morally repugnant act of killing a bird. If we're to end shooting then we first need to ensure the public are aware of why it should be ended and the arguments we're putting forward. 


Logically our next step will be to slowly push our legislative demands to an audience that has a greater understanding of the issue. We will also ensure our Protectors of the Wild initiative makes it as easy as possible for members of the public to identify and report suspicious activity linked to shooting. Media campaigns will also prove vital in getting the message out there, something we did with considerable success at the beginning of the year. 1.6 million people have now viewed our animation exposing the victims of the shooting industry. And of course we'll continue to expose the realities of what happens on shooting estates - we’ve so far supported several undercover investigations. 

Linda: At just 24 you're at the beginning of your career. How would you like it to develop - what are your ambitions? (other than seeing an end to bloodsports, of course!)

Rob: My personal ambitions, aside from ending hunting, shooting and all forms of wildlife persecution (there are way too many!) are to make a difference and help those who can’t speak out for themselves. I’m a firm believer that anything can be achieved when you dedicate yourself to a particular goal. I’ll always be fighting for animals but I hope to see a day where I don’t have to. It’s hard to look too far ahead because I think I’ve only just started.  

Linda: Thanks so much for this, Rob, and for all you're doing to change attitudes and to eliminate cruel sports from our countryside. All power to you and your campaign!

The Great Big Green Week

I'd like to think that all my books have green awareness in their DNA, but for The Great Big Green Week, which runs from 10th - 18th June this year, here are four that I'd like to focus on.

Lob brings the timeless figure of the Green Man into the modern world - as Lob, the unseen garden helper of Lucy's Grandpa Will. Lucy longs and longs to be one of the special people who can see Lob - but when Grandpa's cottage is put up for sale, and Lob must take to the roads in search of his next place to stay, Lucy thinks she's lost him for ever ...


'A deep sense of the passage of the seasons .. a love song to imagining, understanding, breathing and living in harmony with the natural world.'  Kevin Crossley-Holland


For age 7+. Copies can be ordered here from



The Treasure House was inspired by my experiences as volunteer in a charity shop and my realisation that the shop served as a kind of sanctuary for some of its customers and volunteers.

When Nina's Mum suddenly and inexplicably disappears, Nina finds clues, solace and new friendships at the charity shop run by her great-aunts. There's much about community support, kindness and empathy - and the fun of upcycling!


"Linda Newbery vividly creates the atmosphere of a delightfully shabby second hand shop full of intriguing treasures and idiosyncratic customers, in this charming story."  Booktrust


For age about 10+. Copies can be ordered here from 

There's much more upcycling in Rubbish?  - a look at things we might throw away (but there is no away!) and what we could turn them into, with a bit of imagination, sharing and adult help. Join the children of Kingfisher Class as they turn pine cones into owls, old tyres into strawberry planters, socks into puppets and more. Charmingly illustrated by Katie Rewse.


For age about 3+. Copies can be ordered here from

Whether or not we think of ourselves as animal lovers, the choices we make every day - what we eat, buy, wear, use, waste and throw away - affect animals and the environment. Here are ways to make animal awareness part of our lives, and to reduce our impact on the planet's resources. Live kindly, tread lightly!


'This is the book we all need right now.' Children's Books Ireland


For teenagers and adults. Copies can be ordered here from

The Great Big Green Week is the UK's biggest ever celebration of community action to tackle climate change and protect nature.


From festivals to football matches, litter picks to letter-writing - there's something for everyone at the Great Big Green Week. What's going on near you? Find out more here!

Silent Earth: Dave Goulson

Dave Goulson is Professor of Biology at University of Sussex, specialising in bee ecology. He has published more than 300 scientific articles on the ecology and conservation of bumblebees and other insects. He is the author of Bumblebees: Their Behaviour, Ecology and Conservation; A Sting in the Tale, a popular science book about bumble bees; and other titles including The Garden Jungle and Gardening for Bumblebees. 


He founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and is a trustee of Pesticide Action Network and Ambassador for the UK Wildlife Trusts. In 2015 he was ranked at No.8 in BBC Wildlife Magazine’s list of the most influential people in conservation. (Picured: Dave Goulson speaking at The Big One at Westminster, April 2023. Photograph by Linda Newbery.)


“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds", wrote the American conservationist Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac. Not so much alone now as Leopold must have felt in 1949; 'climate grief'' and 'eco-anxiety' are now widely-used terms which have their own Wikipedia entry. 


Dave Goulson's book, subtitled Averting the Insect Apocalypse and referencing of course Rachel Carson's seminal 1962 book Silent Spring, won't exactly help sufferers to feel more confidence in the future of wildlife and biodiversity (how could it?) but is nonetheless appealing and informative. I both read and listened - the audio version is engagingly read by Goulson himself. I heard him speak at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival last year, where he related an anecdote that appears early in this book. Asked at short notice to be interviewed for Australian radio (from a men's loo - the quietest place he could find in the pub where he happened to be eating a meal) he was confronted with the opener: "So - insects are disappearing. That's a good thing, isn't it?" 


Unfortunately, that question reflects the view of a great many people who see insects only as bothersome pests, biters and stingers, unwelcome invaders of homes and gardens and spreaders of disease. But, as the biologist E O Wilson has written, "If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos." Even if we're incapable of valuing wild creatures for themselves and not merely for how they can serve us as pollinators, ecosystem managers or food, we're taking huge risks with our careless approach that creates such drastic losses. 


Goulson examines the complex relationships between insects and ecosystems and how drastically these can be affected by human interventions. The chapters on neonicotinoids and glyphosate are particularly shocking, revealing how university-based, peer-reviewed studies were challenged and in the end overpowered by the interests of Big Business.  I was dismayed, too, to learn that flea treatments readily available for dogs and cats (including Frontline, which I've been using for my cats) contain neonicotinoids.With dogs in particular, there's a risk that swimming in rivers can release neonicotinoids into the water, with dire effects on aquatic wildlife. Glyphosate is widely used by councils and elsewhere to suppress weeds, so even though the World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer stated in 2015 that it's 'probably carcinogenic to humans', most of us probably have it in our bodies. This conclusion was countered by safety evaluations commissioned by Monsanto, the manufacturers, which came to a different conclusion. Who would we rather believe, and who should we believe? "Allowing companies to evaluate the safety of their own chemicals remains standard practice around the world," Goulson writes, "despite the obvious conflict of interest that this creates." He also points out that chemicals are tested in isolation, it being impractical to run controlled experiments on the cocktail of pesticides insects and plants are regularly exposed to, to investigate what cumulative harm might be caused.


I share Dave Goulson's frustration that toxic chemicals are displayed in garden centres and supermarkets everywhere, with names like Bug Clear encouraging consumers to see all insects as dirty, dangerous nuisances and to spray their gardens indiscriminately. The campaign group Pesticides Action Network, of which Goulson is a trustee, pressures retailers to stop stocking harmful toxins,  with some success: in the UK, Waitrose and the Co-Op have made recent commitments to remove these products from their shelves; this April, the Royal Horticultural Society has just issued a statement that it will no longer refer to slugs, beetles etc as 'pests', and will stop selling insecticides in its shops.


Nonetheless, by the time you've read about the threats from neonicotinoids, glyphosates, excessive nitrates from fertiliser and the drastic effects of global warming, you might quite understandably feel that it's all over for the natural world. To offset this bleakness, chapters are interspersed with brief descriptions of particularly endearing or peculiar insects and their life-cycles: the pine processionary moth, the bombardier beetle, the suicide bomber termite. Briefly, Goulson almost takes to fiction as he describes the imagined future life of his son, ekeing out a living from the land and contemplating the folly of previous generations. The final chapters offer practical guidance on how we can do better: with farming, with government, with individual actions such as gardening for pollinators, joining campaigning groups and eating more plant-based food rather than intensively-farmed meat.


Natural scientists have a difficult balance to find: too much gloom is a deterrent to readers, while an over-rosy picture of hope doesn't reflect reality. Recently Goulson wrote critically in The Guardian about Saving Our Wild Isles, the final episode of  David Attenborough's Wild Isles which, unlike the rest of the series, was available only on BBC i-player. Like me, he'd expected something harder-hitting, aimed at driving home the message that we really are on our last chance to save the natural world. "Environmentalists have been saying 'it is not yet too late' for a long time. In reality it is already too late to avoid much worse damage than we have already seen, and whatever we do now the climate crisis will continue to worsen ... Saving Our Wild Isles is charming, and perhaps it will inspire a few more people to do more for nature, but I was hoping for something different, something that might really wake us up to the dismal state of our country."  


We certainly need that. Silent Earth can't give any guarantee that things will change for the better, but at the very least it's reassuring to spend time in the company of a influential and articulate expert who's doing all he can to urge policymakers to wake up and take notice.



Silent Earth is published by Vintage. This article was first published on Writers Review on 15th May 2023.


Animal Advocate No.6: Catherine Cannon

Catherine Cannon has campaigned for animals in various ways since she became vegetarian at the age of 14. Her work as teacher of English as a foreign language has taken her to various countries including Japan, India and Oman. Now back at home in Somerset, UK, she leads the campaign for Plant-Based Councils, which began during lockdown and urges councils to help make plant-based eating the norm, as part of their commitment to tackling the climate emergency.

LN: I know your mother grew up on a dairy farm. Did that lead to your interest and concern for animals as well as your decision to become vegetarian at quite a young age?  


Catherine: Yes, my mum's farming connection certainly had some influence. We lived very close to her old farm and often took walks there, and my parents had a small paddock that was let to a local farmer, usually for sheep. I remember spending hours in there one spring with some friendly lambs, who would climb all over me. On a visit to the farm of a family friend when I was 14, I was shown inside the large shed where pigs were kept. It was a shocking experience, and I didn't eat meat or fish after that. Around this time, I also read a lot about deforestation in the Amazon, and how the meat industry was directly responsible for much of it. 


LN: That must have taken some determination. Did you find yourself at odds with the rest of your family? (I think you're still the only vegetarian, now fully vegan.)  


CC: My family were actually very supportive, although I do remember my dad saying he thought it was a 'fad' that I'd grow out of!  My parents were traditional eaters - we were a 'meat and two veg' family - so for the first few years I usually ate what they did with a serving of kidney beans or chickpeas instead of the meat. As I got older, I began to cook for myself and sometimes for them as well, and soon my mum began to enjoy concocting veggie dishes. After graduating from university, I lived in various countries - including Japan and Spain - and yes, maintaining a meat-free diet in those countries required some effort! I remember one time ordering a salad in a restaurant in Japan, and it arriving with grated dried bacon on top!  I also spent time living in India and Oman where I adopted the habit of eating lentils and pulses with every meal. Although my cooking was mostly plant-based, unfortunately I didn't stop consuming dairy and eggs until I returned to the UK in 2019 (I find it hard to fathom why it took me so long), and since then my mum has enjoyed making vegan cakes, which I think she sees as a new challenge. My family still eats meat and dairy occasionally, but their diets are now largely plant-based. 


LN: What were the first campaigns you became involved with? Did you start by joining groups or organisations, or by campaigning on your own?  


CC: As a teenager, I joined WWF, Friends of the Earth and the RSPB. It was 'armchair activism', I signed petitions and wrote letters - this was all long before the internet of course. I spoke to people about the environmental impact of the meat industry and the cruelty involved, but as I spent almost 20 years living abroad, in countries with different cultures and languages, this was not always easy. For a long time, I think I was immensely frustrated with the world and with my own lack of action on the issues that I cared about most, but I just didn't know what to do.  When Extinction Rebellion came along I returned to the UK and began to devote most of my time to activism. 

LN: As animal advocates who use social media for our campaigning, we see horrible cruelty almost daily. How do you guard against feeling overwhelmed by that? 


CC: I do my best to avoid seeing graphic images and video - it took me several days to recover from watching Dominion. Knowing that I'm doing what I can to help shift society towards plant-based eating certainly helps guard against feeling overwhelmed and grieved by climate breakdown and biodiversity loss. 

LN: You became involved with Plant-Based Councils in its early days, and now work for the campaign with great determination. How did that come about?  


CC: The Plant-Based Councils campaign was started by a small group of people from Animal Rebellion in Hackney, London, in November 2020.  I saw a post online, went to an introductory talk and immediately saw it as something logical and achievable that had the potential to create a huge cultural shift, to transform what we see as normal. Originally, the campaign had the aim of encouraging local authorities to include more plant-based options in school lunches, but we learned that most local authorities no longer have control over school meals, and when they do, they are managed and contracted out in numerous complex ways. Additionally, ProVeg's 'School Plates' programme was already doing fantastic work in this area. So we shifted our attention to asking local authorities to opt for plant-based in their own catering, which is, of course, the logical next step after declaring a climate emergency. We are also asking local authorities to consider what else within their remit can be done to promote and normalise plant-based eating - such as including more plant-based options in leisure centres, council-run cafes, care homes and schools.  

LN: You're very good at inspiring, organising and encouraging others. Has your previous career helped with that?  


CC: I worked as a teacher of English as a foreign language for 20 years, and also trained as a primary school teacher. I've also worked as a Bikeability instructor and as a sustainable transport advocate for Sustrans.  I am lucky to be working alongside other dedicated people in the Plant-Based Councils campaign - we really do have a fantastic team. 

LN: What have been the most satisfying achievements of the campaign so far? What are your aims?  


CC: Oxfordshire County Council's successful motion, which you had a large part in, was certainly an early highlight. This created a lot of media interest, and I was heartened by the resolute attitude of councillors who were not deterred by the media backlash, knowing they had taken the right path and were showing true leadership. When Oxford City Council followed the County lead a year later, it was really encouraging to hear the overwhelming and unanimous support across the council.  Perhaps for me, the most satisfying achievement was when Exeter City Council voted to serve fully plant-based food at their internal events, developing further policy to raise awareness of the benefits of plant-based food and to increase and improve its availability throughout the city. I lived in Exeter for several years and worked with councillors on their motion, so it was wonderful to see the level of support from councillors across the authority and also from local NHS doctors. 


We aim to have motions debated in at least ten local authorities in 2023. We believe that all councils which have declared a climate emergency should be taking steps to encourage people to eat more plant-based, in the same way that they already encourage people to recycle and reduce energy use. Making a commitment to go fully plant-based in internal council catering sends a powerful message and is a great way for elected leaders to play their part in supporting the changes society needs to make. At the very least, we want to see councils discussing the impact of animal farming whenever they discuss climate and biodiversity loss.  

LN: Can you see a future in which we have very different attitudes to intensive farming and using animals for our own ends?  


CC: Yes. Call me an optimist but I believe that in my lifetime we will see the end of animals and their products being seen as a normal source of food - in the UK and western Europe at least. There are so many organisations working to achieve this, and the climate science and health advice is on our side. Companies are realising the potential of the plant-based food market and emerging technologies for meat alternatives will play a part. 


More importantly, it's clear that our relationship with animals and the natural world is broken, and our actions are not aligned with our values. I think that as a nation of animal lovers, we will be nudged into thinking about who we want to be as a society. I have faith in humanity to ultimately do much better. 

LN: You seem to me to work tirelessly. How do you unwind?


CC: I love to cycle and sleep under the stars. Whenever the weather is nice and I have time, I go on a bicycle tour - the simplicity of camping and cycling is a perfect way to unwind and enjoy nature. 

LN: Thanks so much, Catherine - all power to you, with your determination and dedication. The work you're doing is so important in changing attitudes towards sustainable eating. I hope, now that the Plant-Based Councils campaign is gathering momentum, many more councils will pass motions this year and that we'll all start to see plant-based eating as the norm!


If you'd like to find out more about Plant-Based Councils, visit our website. We have regular introductory talks, so if you'd like to persuade your local council to move towards plant-based catering, do come along and learn how!

My books of the year: 2022


There's a bit of a theme here, with the first four books looking at our relationship with the natural world and how we need to treat it with more respect. Merlin Sheldrake's Entangled Lives is a fascinating delve into the crucial importance of fungal networks to trees, soil and therefore to all life on Earth. In Regenesis and Sixty Harvests Left, two timely and important books, George Monbiot and Philip Lymbery respectively look at the ways in which animal agriculture is destroying the planet, and how the future of food needs to adapt.This is also important to Henry Mance in How to Love Animals and Protect our Planet, where he also looks at the cognitive dissonance of our relationships with animals and how we're trained by society to accept and ignore cruelty to animals reared for food.


On other subjects: I loved Katherine Rundell's brilliant exploration of the life of poet John Dunne, Super-Infinite - especially her close commentaries on the poetry. Like many others I'm fascinated by the doomed Franklin expedition, lost in an attempt to navigate the North-West Passage in the 1840s. Ice Ghosts, Paul Watson's compelling and wide-ranging account, takes us from preparations for the voyage and last communications from its crew to the many searches that followed, emphasising the importance of Inuit accounts and records, and bringing us up to date with modern technology and the eventual finding of the lost ships, Erebus and Terror. 


Patrick Gale's Mother's Boy is based on the life of Cornish poet Charles Causley, focusing on his childhood, adolescence and naval experience, his viewpoint alternating with that of his devoted mother, Laura. A poignant, absorbing read in which Gale draws on the poetry to explore Causley's inner life and sexuality. Alison MacLeod's Tenderness  is a tour de force, moving from D H Lawrence's death in Italy, back to his stay in a Sussex artistic community and forward to the Lady Chatterley trial, while another thread portrays Jackie Kennedy in the months leading up to her husband's election, and her interest in Lawrence. Colson Whitehead is another writer who always compels: The Nickel Boys depicts the harshness of life in a reform school in 1960s Florida, with Jim Crow laws still in effect. It sounds bleak but somehow isn't, thanks to the dignity and idealism of teenage main character Elwood. Finally, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is a long, absorbing read at 770 pages. Centred on an art theft with dramatic repercussions throughout the life of narrator Theo, it's part coming-of-age story, part thriller, and wonderfully written throughout.

Animal Advocate No.5: Gina Bates, activist, vegan crofter and rewilder

Welcome to Gina, who is, in her own words, “a lifelong Biophiliac, a lover of all life.”


Following Art college and a career in design, Gina left London for the far north of Scotland where she rebuilt a derelict watermill. For 18 years she lived in an even wilder part of Sutherland, miles from amenities and people. During this time she’s completed a permaculture design course, studying soil ecology and systems theory; she has also designed a Highland species identification booklet aimed at helping children to connect with nature and wildness.


In 2018 she bought the assignation of an 80-acre Highland croft along with 100+ acres of common grazing which will hopefully soon be reforested under a Native Forest Scheme. Named Highland Veganics, it’s being designed as the first vegan plant protein croft in crofting history.


Gina is one of the founders of Vegan Land Movement. This is a CIC (Community Interest Company) that aims to buy areas of agricultural land to restore to (and by) nature. The aim is to also eventually transform some parcels of land to produce food veganically alongside creating wildlife and animal sanctuaries, raising awareness of complex ecosystems and working with nature rather than against it under the vegan principles of least harm.


Most recently (last month, June 2022) the Vegan Land Movement’s crowdfunder appeal successfully bought a fourth 10-acre parcel of land formerly used for dairy farming. There are many other projects in their sights.


Here Gina kindly answers my questions about her life and work.


Linda:  You describe yourself as a “lifelong biophiliac”. Where did that early love of nature come from? Is it shared by everyone in your family?


Gina: I was a lucky child as my parents both had a love of nature, mainly of birds. We grew up on a council estate but had quite a good size garden where my mum always grew vegetables. There were areas of what we called waste land nearby, where we spent many school holidays catching lizards and collecting caterpillars. I remember my dad making a great cage out of an old fireguard to keep tortoiseshell caterpillars in. We fed them stinging nettles and watched them pupate and then set them free as butterflies. We had all manner of creatures living with us and hand-reared many that were either orphans or injured.


Linda: You made a drastic career change, switching from designing in London to living simply in the wilds of Scotland. Was this a long-held ambition or did something happen to prompt it?


Gina: There were several events that sparked this change. My Nan, who I adored, suddenly died and I hadn't seen her for several weeks due to working such long hours in London. It really shocked me. I used to design window displays for Libertys and one day I left by a concealed back entrance (this was not unusual) to see all of last month’s sculptural pieces all thrown into a skip. These two events were within a few weeks of each other. Both were about loss: the loss of a loved one and the loss and waste of all that time and creation. I felt bereft, and had some sort of an awakening. I was overwhelmed with just how shallow the fashion/acquisition industry was, and is. I already knew this as I'd always been a part time activist and a member of Greenpeace etc, but I realised that I just wasn't living my truth. I spoke to my partner, who felt the same, and we both decided to get out of London and search for a better life. My partner already had a love of the Highlands so we went looking for that new life there. We found it, but parted a couple of years after. I then moved to the wilderness alone and into a semi-derelict remote cottage owned by a sheep club. I would stop it from falling down in return for living there rent-free.


I knew nobody and soon realised that I didn’t really know myself either. Some incredible things happened very quickly - the first was being snowed in two miles from anyone for nearly two months. I was unprepared, with hardly any food or fuel. The snow was waist-high and I had dig under all of that to find the potatoes I'd had planted earlier that year;  I had to live on rations for weeks, as did my two dogs.  I also had to burn furniture and drag fallen branches through deep snow 200 metres from a woodland farther down the hill; it was a very difficult time.


Something clicked and I went into some sort of warrior survival mode. I'd always been practical and solution-based but this was new. I was on the edge and this was, I realised afterwards, one the biggest gifts of my life. I found two really important parts of myself and what it means to be human: my resilience and my resourcefulness. I will never forget this time - it was so life changing and life affirming. 

Linda: How did you cope with the change of surroundings, the distance from other people and the lack of amenities? Were there times when you regretted your decision?


Gina: There is something very strange about being in the Highland landscape. It is very hard to describe and I think there is some sort of primal pull there. It has a rugged untameable quality and the beauty is overwhelming. There's a saying about the English in the Highlands: some last for just two years some stay for four but in the end have to leave, and then there are those who stay for life. I appear to be the latter. 


After the survival experience I really got into Maslow's hierarchy of needs. What is it that we need? The basic ... food, warmth, shelter and if we are lucky companionship. I had begun to strip myself down. So I didn't miss other people at all because I'd started to go on a journey of working out what it means to exist. I was captivated by simplicity and what was really important.


Moving into this semi-derelict remote cottage I soon realised I was not alone. I shared it with wild creatures. The cottage was a hibernation place for hundreds of the same tortoiseshell butterflies I grew up with. It was also home to mice and birds. I decided early on to let them all share the cottage with me - after all, they were there first! So I immersed myself in their lives, letting the mice run over me and making sure they had enough food, too. I would re-hibernate the butterflies if they woke too early, and let the dunnocks and robins roost in the kitchen - the window was always open. 

Linda: Were you brought up to be vegetarian / vegan? If not, when and why did you make the change?



Gina: No, and I had no idea there was such a thing until I went to art college at the age of nineteen and met a vegetarian who I became friends with. I think I first became vegetarian when I was twenty-four or five. I was in my early forties when I became vegan, so around seventeen years ago. Like many others, I've no idea why I didn’t join all these dots sooner, and feel ashamed and sorry about that. 


Linda: A similar story for me. I've been vegetarian since my early twenties, but it took me far too long to take the logical next step of becoming vegan.  

Linda: How did the idea of Vegan Land Movement come about?


Gina: In 2017 a friend made me join Twitter and I was surprised to realise that there were hundreds of thousands of other vegans out there. I’d had no idea there were so many of us.


When I bought my croft I decided to try to create a veganic cobnut farm (hazels are native to the Highlands so it seemed sensible to grow orchards of cultivated cobs and filberts here) but there was no funding to help me, not even to grow basic vegetables. I then heard a shocking story on BBC Radio 4 about how the far right were funding hate blogs by crowd funding. It was awful, but it got me thinking about trying to crowd fund my nut orchards. I looked at the various crowdfunding platforms, realised that none were vegan, and thought: this is what vegans need! Their very own crowd funding platform. So a few of us on Twitter created the not-for-profit (GVCF) and my nut orchard was its first project. It took a while but vegans eventually donated from all around the world.


We then raised money for the 91 pigs saved from horrific cruelty by Beneath The Wood Sanctuary in Wales and globally built them a barn and a feed club.

The Vegan Land Movement CIC (VLM), founded by Kevin Greenhill, Sara Eloquin and me, is GVCF’s sister initiative and GVCF is the platform used to crowd fund the land movement’s buyouts. They also share a website and resources to keep down costs, as we’re all volunteers running both initiatives.


I’m surrounded by animal agriculture in the Highlands and because I’m a vegan environmentalist I realised very early on that the root of animal farming is the land itself. To end the suffering of farmed animals, to save species, to mitigate against climate breakdown and basically save life on Earth, we need to give the land back to biodiversity and the earth and do it under vegan principles. 


So The Vegan Land Movement came into being. The three of us had many discussions about the name, and the creation of something we could all become part of and work together on. The VLM is for us all. A vegan land movement to help create a vegan world acre by acre.  


We then looked into becoming a Charity but as an activist I found it too restrictive. A lawyer suggested that we should consider becoming a CIC (Community Interest Company). A CIC has something called an Asset Lock that locks assets away from humans gaining financially, and this seemed a perfect fit as this was not about any of us. We wrote a constitution that names the Earth and species as the CIC beneficiaries as well as the wider human communities, because we will all benefit from rewilded veganic havens. 

Linda: Did this seem like an impossible dream at first? How did you gather the support to make it reality?


Gina: I really had no idea of what would happen when we launched the fundraiser for the first plot of dairy grazing land. But it was amazing, people donated from all around the world and on the auction day when we started to lose, people donated even more money. Even so, we were outbid, and we were all devastated. Because of our transparency there was a lot of ridicule on Twitter by farmers at the time and in all honestly we feel they may have clubbed together to outbid us.


A few weeks later we went to another auction in secret and won easily.  

This first site has now been planted with various native saplings as has the second site. The third site we are planning planting a veganic community orchard this coming winter. The fourth, that we won on the 20th June, will become a 10-acre native woodland.


Linda: Have you met with more opposition from local farmers and landowners?


Gina: Not yet. Hopefully, if we do, we can talk to them about how important it is to try to save endangered species etc.


Linda: Your plan of non-interference, letting the land decide what it wants to be, is different from other rewilding projects I’ve read about, for example the Knepp Estate, where grazing animals are used to keep scrub in check. What made you decide not to have grazing cattle or sheep? Do you think you’ll ever have to intervene, for example if invasive plant species threaten to smother the native vegetation?


Gina: The Vegan Land Movement is a purely vegan initiative, so we’re opposed to grazing any farmed animals or any hunting and culling. I have always been puzzled by the idea of wild ‘land management’ as it is so anthropocentric. I say to people: Who do we think we are to feel that we might know best when, let’s face it, our track record is nothing but destruction? And what is an invasive species anyway? A species in the wrong place because of us. We have really messed things up and the whole planet has species in the ‘wrong’ places. We also attach human time onto everything when in reality if humans left the Earth tomorrow, nature would heal itself. Maybe that would be a mix of the wrong species in the wrong places but as nobody will be around to point that out then it really wouldn’t matter, nature would adjust. I often think of this: what if humans didn’t intervene at all. What would that look like? The land would go through several stages as it tries to revert back to forest. We need to just let it be and learn to not interfere. We need to observe and learn. We are such an arrogant species. We are very clever and inventive, but this doesn't make us wise. 

Linda: We’re increasingly aware that public consumption of meat and dairy produce has to be drastically reduced if we’re to have any chance of meeting carbon targets. Do you think we can make the changes in time? How can the Vegan Land Movement help raise awareness?


Gina: Sadly, I don’t. I actually think we're facing an apocalyptic future because of the way humans are. We are too greedy - I think everyone needs to get snowed in alone with little food and fuel. The picture is also different from what is being painted. We need a mass behaviour shift and this means moving away from relentless consumerism and acquisition. We must end the consumption of animals immediately because it is the biggest cruellest injustice there is. It is also why we've become so self obsessed. People talk about the loss of connection to the natural world and how we need to reconnect but in all honestly I feel that we have never been connected.


We are at a pivotal point now where we can choose what the future will be as a species. We carry on with business as usual to extinction or we change. That change has to be a huge education initiative. The pandemic gave people a taste of a different life, but sadly they all rushed back to business as usual.


My original dream for the VLM is for every vegan of Twitter to become part of it. For all of us to work together in creating the world that we want. We cannot and must not wait any longer for corrupt governments obsessed with growth. There is every profession on vegan Twitter, from lawyers to builders. We have everything we need to create an alternative compassionate ethical system. It really is that simple. I personally want to create an educational forum as part of the VLM too. so that we can all share ideas in how we go forward.


Imagine if all the animal and planet harmers disappeared, just leaving vegans behind! We wouldn’t need to send out graphic footage any more - but what we would need to do is create a veganic system that works. This is what The Vegan Land Movement is about. Creating the alternative.


We need to move away from protest and outrage towards creating that alternative.


This is one of my favourite quotes: 


“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”  Buckminster Fuller

Linda: You must have met with a number of practical problems in managing your croft and woodland. Can you always solve these in ways that don’t conflict with your principles?


Gina: I haven’t really met any problems because it’s really is a research site at the moment. The trees are only three years old and won’t produce for another five to ten years. I rarely go into the woodland lower down on the croft because every time I do I seem to scare the little sika deer and her fawn who live there. I did walk down there a couple of weeks ago but didn’t stay long because of the various alarm calls from nesting birds.


Linda: Do you keep rescued animals on your croft, or are they looked after elsewhere? 


Gina: I have three ponies who I’ve had as companions for twenty years. They are free to just be who they are and I am blessed that they seem to like me. They come and see me in my caravan and often knock on the window to say hello. They have around twenty acres of the croft and seem to keep the gorse in check. In three years there has been a remarkable difference since the previous owner’s sheep and cattle left. So much wildlife has returned. The croft is buzzing with life and every summer more arrives.


Linda: Finally: in your life and work, you really have followed the idea (mis)attributed to Gandhi of  being the change you want to see in the world. What advice would you give to anyone, particularly young people, who want to live as far as sustainably and compassionately as possible?


Gina: I’m not sure I can give advice but I think from my experience and journey, the answer would be one word ... simplicity. We also need to join so many dots. A while back Nestle launched a vegan KitKat. It’s wrapped in single use plastic and contains palm oil as do many other vegan products. Palm oil is not vegan because of the damage to old growth forests and countless species, and neither is single use plastic, millions of tonnes of which are ending up in the oceans killing marine life over and over again for around 500 years.


So with this in mind the questions I ask myself are these. What is this product made from? Where is each ingredient from? Was there ecological damage involved? Have animals been hurt, either directly or indirectly? Is this product ethical? Have humans been exploited too?


If the answers are yes, then boycotting the product will mean less harm for all life. But the biggest question of all is: do I need it to survive?  


Linda: Thanks so much, Gina, for answering my questions so fully. Your project is a really inspiring one which I hope others will follow! 


You can listen to Gina’s Off the Leash podcast, an interview with Charlie Moores at the newly-acquired Somerset site, here. (Off the Leash is a great podcast for all things animal-related.) 

Animal Advocate interview No.4: illustrator and author Mini Grey

Illustrator Mini Grey is well-known and loved for her highly distinctive style of pictorial story-telling – it’s energetic, colourful and full of witty detail, every bit as appealing to adults as to children. She worked in theatre and schools before studying sequential design at Brighton University, and has acquired a range of skills including puppet-making, welding, carpentry and set design.


When she entered the world of children’s books with The Princess and the Pea and Biscuit Bear, her talent was immediately recognised: she was selected as one of the Booktrust’s Best New Illustrators, going on to win the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal in 2007 for The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon.


Her new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, published this month, is a real tour de force – I won’t be at all surprised if it wins Mini the Kate Greenaway Medal for a second time, and I hope it will.


I’d known of Mini’s brilliant books for many years, but it was when I met, walked and talked with her on a youth climate protest in Oxford, and then read her article Fury at the Farm (more about that below), that I realised she’s an animal advocate and environmental campaigner. You can find out more on her blog, Sketching Weakly.


I don’t usually have the chance to meet my guests in person, but for this feature I met Mini, appropriately, in the Museum of Natural History in Oxford.

Linda: First of all, congratulations on your wonderful new book! How did the idea come about? How long have you been working on it?



Mini: About ten years! This Museum is a regular haunt for me and my son Herbie. When Herbie was about 5, we began wondering how to understand the concept of 4.6 billion years, the life of the planet, and started making a timeline. Later, Pollock’s Toy Theatre invited various artists to make toy theatres in the Victorian tradition, and with mine I had the idea of insects telling the story of life on Earth. This led to the idea of using the different parts of a theatre: the main stage (the scenes of life evolving), the wings, which give pictorial information, and the orchestra pit, which would be an unrolling tape-measure of time, each centimetre representing one million years. In that scale, it’s astonishing to realise that all of human life occupies less than the final three millimetres! When I made a dummy of a theatre book, my editor saw it and was keen, and it went from there.


Linda: Your books often have an unusual narrative standpoint, and here it’s insects who take us through the vast span of geological time. Why insects?



Mini: That was partly inspired by the great collections of insects – dead and living! – here at the Museum, and I thought of having insects as observers telling the story. Also I wanted to step outside our human point of view, and see what the story of life would look like from an arthropod viewpoint.


Linda: Your article Fury at the Farm looks at the idea most of us have, from childhood, of a picture-book farm: “a random collection of one or a few of several animals living together with a farmer – it’s a kind of animal sanctuary. No-one gets killed. The main danger is usually foxes or wolves. Old MacDonald had a picture book farm. Eee-i-eee-i-oh….”


It’s an excellent article, acknowledging the value of animal stories for the very young, but also stating that “The farm myth in picture books acts as a very useful screen.” It helps create cognitive dissonance about meat, letting people see themselves as animal lovers while ignoring the cruelty behind the meat on their plates. To counter this, you say that “the picture book superpower is to be able to put the reader into the place of someone else … Someone who might be a chicken,” and your story Doris, the Chicken who Changed the World was published in The Puffin Book of Big Dreams.  “You’ll never believe this, I know, but once upon a time, people used to eat animals...”


Have you any plans to write more stories in this vein?



Mini: I think the world need to hear about farming from a chicken’s point of view, and it’s time for a picture book with a brave chicken hero. (hint, hint!)

One of the ideas Mini suggests in that article, and in more detail on her blog, is for food to be properly labelled so that we know what we’re buying in terms of animal welfare and environmental impact. While we talked, we had coffee and cake at the Eat the Future café in the museum, where most of the meal choices are labelled in this way: A for least impact, E for most. Here are the illustrations from Mini's article and one more serious suggestion for food labelling. Food packaging is labelled for calorie content, vitamins, carbohydrates, etc.; shouldn't we also know what our food costs in animal suffering and carbon emissions?

Linda: Your son Herbie (to whom the book is dedicated, as well as to the Museum of Natural History) is now 15. As he’s grown up, how have you found a balance between informing and encouraging responsible choices, on the one hand, and giving a depressing picture of the future of humankind, on the other? With Herbie and his friends, do you see fears for the future / awareness of the situation we’re in / ambition to make things better for their generation?



Mini: I think he does feel that depressing picture of the future, and he has been on a few of the school climate strikes. But I think he’s not that keen to discuss because it’s just misery-inducing.


Linda: Your blog Sketching Weakly is almost a political manifesto – you introduce such detailed ideas for better, greener ways of living. It makes me think that you’d be a great County Councillor, politician or climate advisor!  Have you ever thought of taking part in public life this way? Or do you think you can make more impact through your art and writing, using that ‘picture book superpower”?


 Mini: I fear that being a councillor involves a LOT of tasks that aren’t being an eco-warrior. But I think it’s also very difficult for ordinary individuals to stand up to decisions that councils take – especially where to build. I think it’s time, especially in the light of Oxford having declared a climate emergency, to commit to only building in places that have already been built upon or that are biologically bereft. And that would mean not – not to build – as Oxford City are planning – on ancient meadows in the middle of Iffley Village, near my home. Here's the leaflet I've produced about that.

Linda: There’s a lovely post on your blog called If Sketching Weakly Ruled the World in which you find two reasons for hope, both derived from our experience of Covid and lockdown: Firstly, People will step up to a Big Ask, i.e. changing our behaviour quite drastically to meet the urgency of the pandemic, and secondly, People Love Nature – many people relished their local walks by rivers, in parks, etc., and found a new appreciation of the natural world and its wildlife. You ask whether we can use these two things to tackle climate change – and clearly you believe that yes, we can! 


Mini: Yes, I decided to try and write a post about what I would do if I was in charge of the world – as a way of finding out if there were a few things that stood out as possible solutions to our planetary problems.

Linda: You had the chance to take part in the Oxford Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change. What did you take from this? Did the whole experience give you hope? 


Mini: Changing behaviour was a theme that came up constantly, and that change is happening, but never fast enough. Some changes are down to individuals, such as changing our energy supplier or heating system, getting an electric vehicle or turning down the heat, but all these would happen faster with a nudge for behaviour change. A price on Carbon is the nudge the world needs. How can we make it easier to do the right thing, and harder to do the wrong thing? Pricing has a big impact on behaviour change.



There was one slot for biodiversity, called ‘Biodiversity and Offsetting’. It added up to a disappointingly brief part of the weekend with very little time to address the subject of using nature to help the causes and impacts of climate change. We need to think long-term, e.g. over the next 100 years, about what we want our local city and landscape to look like. The green areas around cities are the green space that’s the most used and valued of all. With the wider landscape, can we improve it to boost wildlife, sequester more CO2, and hold more water? That would be win-win-win!

Linda: What new projects are on the way?


Mini: Really, getting The Greatest Show into the World!



Linda: Thanks so much for answering my questions – and congratulations today on the publication of this very special book! I’m readers of all ages will love it.


Finally, these panels on Mini's website are so appealing that I couldn't resist including this one, to give you another taste of her distinctive and engaging style.

Animal Advocate interview No.3: John Oberg

Welcome to my first guest from the United States! John Oberg is an animal advocate from Michigan, who now lives in Richmond, Virginia. He’s devoted his entire career to campaigning for animals: after several years working for The Humane League and Vegan Outreach, he found that social media transformed the way he works, and launched his own independent, patron-funded programme in 2019. He now offers training in the effective use of social media for advocacy, working with groups and individuals around the world. He is, of course, a regular presence on Twitter, posting photographs, videos and information to encourage compassion and empathy for animals.



You can find out much more – tips, articles and links - from his website. Follow John on Twitter: @JohnOberg 

Linda:  Were you brought up to be vegetarian? If not, when or why did you make the connection between loving animals and eating them, and decide to stop?


John: I was not brought up vegetarian! My mom loved animals and instilled a real, deep sense of compassion and empathy for them from a very young age, but despite this, both of us didn’t make the connection between our love for animals and what (and who!) we chose to eat. Later in life, we did make the connection. I went vegetarian at age 21 and vegan at 22. Within a year or two, just as I had followed her lead for many years, she followed my lead and stopped eating animals as well. Our compassionate way of eating was a beautiful experience to share until her passing in late 2015.


Linda:  It was while you were at university in Phoenix, Arizona, that you started networking, which led to your first job with Vegan Outreach. What were you studying, and what had been your career ambition before you set off on this path?



John: I grew up in and near Detroit, Michigan, but it was a program offered at Arizona State University, a bachelor degree in Nonprofit Leadership and Management, that really sparked my interest in moving across the country. I knew that I wanted a career that made a difference in the world, I just didn’t know what that would entail exactly. After moving to Arizona, I became vegan and immediately got involved with local animal advocacy, which was largely comprised of handing out Vegan Outreach pamphlets at events organized by my good friend, Jeff Boghosian. As I continued volunteering and finishing up my bachelor degree, I was offered a position with Vegan Outreach to travel around North America handing out pro-animal pamphlets to college students. I began that in mid-2012. It was my dream job offer.

Linda:  In my own case, I became vegetarian and then vegan because of animal suffering – but now, environmental reasons for avoiding meat and dairy produce are equally powerful. Is this a part of your approach?



John: While there are many compelling reasons to give up eating animals, I find the most authentic approach for my own advocacy to be rooted in compassion for animals. Everybody loves animals and almost no one wants to willingly support animal cruelty, so it’s an easy sell.

Linda:  Where do you feel you’ve been most successful so far? Are there particular campaigns you’ve been involved with that have seen changes in legislation, or in public awareness?


John:  I’ve had the most success in getting hard-hitting content in front of the eyes of many. Posts of mine on my personal Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts have been seen hundreds of millions of times over the past three years since becoming an independent animal advocate funded by the graciousness of fellow animal lovers via my Patreon account. Through this increase in awareness, many have changed their ways and decided to eat and advocate in more compassionate ways.


Linda:  How do you try to get through the ‘blind spots’ of meat-eaters who maintain that it’s their right to eat whatever they choose / that slaughter can be humane / that it’s impossible to be healthy on a vegan diet? You have vast experience with this. What works best?



John:  As a vegan advocate for twelve years and interacting with hundreds of thousands of people in person (and tens of millions online), I’ve heard everything. Funnily enough, it’s usually the same 10-15 arguments I hear on a regular basis. I’ve found the best way to get through to meat-eaters is through being reasonable, rational, and relatable. By meeting people where they are rather than where I want them to be. By being encouraging and compassionate and as non-over-bearing as possible.

Linda:  The Veganuary movement is growing exponentially in the UK and I imagine that more and more people are becoming vegan in the States, too. How would you encourage people who are reluctant to commit themselves? (I feel the same as you – my only regret is that I didn’t make the change sooner!)



John:  The best way to encourage people is to let them know that it’s okay to go at a pace that works for them. They don’t need to go vegan overnight. It’s a marathon not a sprint. I’d rather have someone ease into veganism over a year or two and remain vegan forever than for them to go vegan overnight and give it up in two months or two years. I also try not to overwhelm them with resources. I give them one or two websites and maybe a few recipes to try along with some words of encouragement. I also encourage folks to try to find community (online or in person) as that will help them maintain their veganism.

Linda:  For all campaigners, and for anyone who follows animal matters on social media, there’s a risk of being overwhelmed and utterly sickened by the scale of cruelty and abuse, and that society in general seems to accept it – yet we have to keep going. How do you cope with this?



John:  You have to remember that you aren’t going to personally make the world vegan overnight. There will always be suffering, but it’s about doing what you can to reduce as much of it as possible. To make the world a better place than if you had not engaged in advocacy. You also have to remember that the impact you see will only be the tip of the iceberg in terms of the impact you actually make. For every person who tells you that you made them stop eating animals, there are likely dozens of others out there who you’ll never personally hear that from but who you undoubtedly made a massive impact on.

Linda:  What advice would you offer to any young person who wants to campaign for animals?



John:  Engage in a variety of forms of advocacy and see what speaks to you. Make sure to ask yourself if that advocacy seems effective for animals and isn’t just something that makes you personally feel good. Engage in this advocacy in a sustainable ways. It’s better to be a part-time activist for the next 20-50 years than an activist who is engaging in advocacy 24/7 but doesn’t take care of themselves and then burns out in a year or two. And if social media advocacy seems like something you love to do, consider enrolling in either or both of my online courses with Advocacy Collaborative, Mastering Instagram to Change the World, and Mastering Twitter to Change the World.

Linda:  Finally  - what’s your favourite dinner?



John:  My favorite dinner is vegan mac and cheese, which you can learn how to make yourself here! I love seeing non-vegans' reactions when eating this since it's just as good (or better) than the mac cheese they're used to!


(The link takes you to a film of John making it in his kitchen. I'm going to try that ... )

Linda:   Thanks so much, John, for taking the time to answer my questions, and best of luck in all you do to make the world a better place for animals!


John is the third guest in this series, following


Gill Lewis, author and campaigner


Cleve West, top garden designer and animal advocate

Animal Advocate interview No.2: garden designer and animal campaigner Cleve West

Photograph by Chaz Oldham

If you know of Cleve West as a top garden designer, you may be surprised to see him here! Cleve is very highly regarded in his profession, with six Chelsea Flower Show gold medals, two Best Show Garden awards and a People's Choice prize to his credit. The Horatio's Garden he made for Salisbury Hospital's Spinal Treatment Centre was the first of several such projects, all by acclaimed designers.


But alongside all that, Cleve is a passionate advocate for animals and a committed vegan – on social media you’ll find him talking about animal campaigns more often than about gardening. His recent book The Garden of Vegan covers a range of topics from food production and diet to wildlife-friendly gardening.


He is also famous for the delicious onion bhajis he makes for allotment open days, and another sideline is the entertaining Three Men Went to Mow sketches he films with fellow garden designers Joe Swift and James Alexander-Sinclair. 


Find out more from his website, and on social media: 


Twitter @clevewest 

Facebook Cleve West

and Instagram cleve_west

LN: You've been well known for years as a top garden designer. Now it seems that standing up for animals has become as important as your design career, if not more so. What triggered that change? 


Cleve: It was the shock of seeing the horrors of animal agriculture and the damage it’s doing to our health and the environment.  Not speaking out about it felt like complicity. 


I spent a lot of time wondering whether I should use different social media platforms to keep my advocacy for animals separate from work, but that felt like an apologist approach. I may have lost followers or clients as a result, but I’m only showing and speaking about the realities of animal agriculture and the threat it poses to life on Earth.  If people can’t handle the truth they can look away or keep scrolling until they find a photo of a pretty flower! 


What’s alarming is that, given the current circumstances and our awareness of how pandemics are almost certainly going to become more prevalent (and even more deadly) due to zoonotic spillover, there is still reluctance to engage with these issues that are making the future increasingly uncertain for our children.

Linda: Which campaigns have you been particularly involved in?


Cleve: I can’t compare myself to activists who spend a significant amount of their free-time campaigning for animals, but in the past I’ve been involved with raising awareness at some local slaughterhouses, particularly a chicken slaughterhouse near the Olympic Park in Stratford.  People often say they’re cutting down on red meat and eating more chicken.  If only they would take a minute to see the conditions these animals live in and how they meet their end, it’s the stuff of nightmares.  I don’t care what colour that animal’s flesh is, it still belongs to a sentient being that wants to live. 


The campaign to rid the world of fur is ongoing.  We banned fur farms in the UK back in 2000 but so much is still being imported and it’s depressing to see so much of it still being used as accessories such as fur trims and pom-poms. 


These days I’m trying to focus of encouraging horticultural organisations such as the Royal Horticultural Society and Kew to shift to plant-based menus at their establishments and events.  People are beginning to understand the negative effect that animal farming has on the environment, so sometimes it’s easier to focus on that than the moral argument against hurting animals unnecessarily. 


There’s also the Vegan Land Movement, a great form of crowd-funded activism.  Supporters help buy back land from the dairy industry for rewilding.  It’s in its infancy but has already purchased two plots in Somerset and looking to buy a third.  This is a fantastic way of giving land back to nature. Find out more from their website. 


Linda: Are there some areas where you’ve already seen change for the better?


Cleve: Well, for years the RHS hasn't engaged with me on the subject of plant-based catering, probably because I was too noisy and bombarded them with so many facts and figures that they clearly thought I’d lost the plot!  I’m delighted to say that dialogue has been resumed and it’s very positive, so we’ll see what comes of that and I’ll keep you posted. 


Elsewhere there's been a gradual shift towards plant-based food in supermarkets and other outlets, so the stigma attached to being vegan is quickly being eroded.  If you’d told me five years ago that I would be eating a vegan pie (and a good one at that) before a game at Brentford Football Club I’d never have believed you.


Linda: Could you tell us about the work you’re doing with primary school children on your allotment, and what you hope they will take from it?


Cleve: Yes, Christ Church CE Primary School is Battersea are pioneers in outdoor learning.  They have access to a walled garden near the school and I helped them with a veg plot within the school grounds.  The gardens are used for all lessons in the curriculum - the children learn about the natural world and gardening from their first day at school.  Most importantly they're taught about the importance of other life forms and that they shouldn't be harmed unnecessarily. Pre-COVID, a small group would visit the allotment each year to see how we garden veganically, but that’s been put on hold for now. 


There are also plans to hold cookery events at the school where children, parents and staff can learn how to cook fresh, organic, healthy and affordable food. I’m looking forward to seeing that work and picking up a few recipes.

Linda: With The Garden of Vegan, was your aim to reach people whose main interest is gardening?


Cleve: Indeed, the intention is to inspire gardeners to adopt a plant-based lifestyle. I realised that vegans and gardeners share the same USP … plants. As gardeners we all love plants. We love growing them and eating them, so if a plant-based diet can help us mitigate climate change, reduce the chances of future pandemics, feed an ever-growing population and relieve the pressure on the NHS by keeping us healthy, it’s a win-win situation on so many levels.


Linda: It seems that your allotment and the community there are very important to you – perhaps as a sanctuary, and as a contrast to the gardens you design for others? 


Cleve: Yes, our garden at home is small so the allotment is very precious to us and really did live up to its sanctuary status during the lockdowns.  Of course, there’s an element of design and intervention, but you’re right  - it does feel like a complete antithesis to the gardens I design, especially with our ‘relaxed’ approach letting nature have more of a say.  There’s a shady area under trees at the back, part of which we try not to disturb - just looking at it brings a sense of calm and fascination.  Having said that, nature has a way of taking back much more quickly than you think, so if we want the plot to be productive it has to be managed. If we wanted to be self-sufficient we’d have to be a lot more organised and efficient with our given space. 

Linda: What changes would you most like to see in the next ten years to the ways we treat animals? 


Cleve: Too many to mention!  Certainly a ban on hunting in the UK and the import of fur would be a good start, and with the way the hunting fraternity has shot itself in the foot lately it’s very much a possibility.  It would also be great to see the end of animal testing and the import of fur.


Getting Oxfordshire County Council to acknowledge the damage that animal agriculture is doing to the climate and the environment and shifting to plant-based food* was a landmark achievement that's got to happen on a broader scale if we want a real chance of providing a more secure and stable future for the next generation.  At the very least schools and hospitals should ditch animal products for the nation’s health and the health of our children.


Educating children about the value of life (from the ant to the elephant), the truth about how animals are farmed and the interconnectedness of all life forms will help future generations to understand and accept that their survival and the health of the planet depends on how we treat and respect others.  In the meantime we have to get politicians to accept that plant-based systems will give us the best chance of repairing some of the harm we’ve caused and figure out a way of helping farmers transition away from animal farming.  I’m not optimistic that this will happen within a decade but I think there will be a substantial increase in the number of vegans in the UK.


*This refers to the Feed Our Future campaign which is urging councils nationwide to commit to plant-based catering.

Killed at Newfields Abbatoir, December 2017: portrait by Christine Eatwell

Linda: Anyone involved in animal activism will inevitably come across gut-wrenching images of horrible cruelty. How do you strike a balance between keeping yourself motivated on the one hand, and on the other, becoming so sickened at the scale of brutality that you feel like giving up?

Cleve: Yes, the reality and scale of the oppression, violence and exploitation is beyond anything we can imagine - if you dwell on it too much it can break you. I limit the amount I look at these days, but use it to keep the fire stoked and help me remember that while using levers such as the environment and health to persuade people to go vegan, the main reason is to put an end to the unnecessary harm and suffering we cause to sentient beings.


Linda: Your wife Christine’s sketches of animals destined for slaughter were an excellent (but of course very sad) addition to The Garden of Vegan.  Do you plan to work on another book project together?


Cleve:  I don’t think so - mostly because I’m such a slow writer!  I wouldn’t mind updating The Garden of Vegan at some point, as it would be great to highlight the link between intensive animal farming and pandemics.  It'll never be a best-seller (a pity, as all my profit goes to animal sanctuaries and vegan organisations) but perhaps gardeners will find it useful as more of them make the connection.

Cleve's famous onion bhajis at an open day at Bushy Park Allotments - a fundraiser for the Disasters Emergency Committee's Nepal Earthquake Appeal. He made more than 600 bhajis that day, helping towards a total of £1100 raised and donated.

Linda: What advice would you give to any young person who wants to be a campaigner for animals? 


Cleve: I think be flexible to begin with.  Join some social media groups and maybe go to a few demos, vigils or outreach events to get a feel for the different types of activism.  There is no one right or wrong way, as everyone is different and the public responds in different ways too.  What might turn someone off might make another go vegan in a heartbeat. 


Of course it’s good to get out of your comfort zone from time to time but if you can apply some of your activism to your work or your interests (art, media, cuisine, etc) the more effective and satisfying your activism will be.

Linda: Finally – the Three Men Went to Mow sketches you’ve been performing with Joe Swift and James Alexander-Sinclair are very entertaining – I especially like the clever way of meeting the lockdown challenge in Digging a Hole! How did they start, and are you planning more of them? 


Cleve:  I can’t remember whether James or Joe came up with the idea first.  They’re both luvvies and very much at home in front of a lens whereas I tend to cringe in front of it.  Clearly though, I’m easily led!  My favourites are the ones with Alan Titchmarsh at Chelsea, another doing a bake-off at Mary Berry’s house and The Good the Bad and the Ugly spoof with Penny Snell, ex-Chair of the National Garden Scheme.


They take a fair bit of time to put together so once I started spending more time doing animal activism it sort of fizzled out, but as you mentioned, we did one for Horatio’s Garden during lockdown, so who knows what the future holds?  Ideally we could do a Clockwork Orange spoof where they go vegan after being tied up and forced  to watch the films Earthlings, Dominion and Land of Hope and Glory back to back - in fact, that’s such a good idea I'm  going to get some eye clamps fabricated just as soon as possible!

Linda: Thank you very much, Cleve, for answering my questions, and for everything you do to raise awareness of how we treat animals and how we could do far better! Let's hope that the coming year will see more steps forward. 


The Garden of Vegan is published by Pimpernel and is available from bookshops including those at RHS gardens, or you can order it here from 

Watch THREE MEN WENT TO MOW: the National Gardens scheme, in which Cleve, James and Joe attempt to make cakes to impress Mary Berry ...

Books of the Year!

Although some of these titles were published this year, others are older - these are my top choices from the books I've read in 2021.


Several of these have featured on Writers Review, so I've provided links to more detailed reviews there. Follow us for a great new reading recommendation every Monday, all by authors or independent booksellers.


Three of these were Reading Group choices: one my own (The Underground Railroad); two, which I was glad to read, by other members of the group.


So here they are. Jessie Greengrass's The High House imagines what happens if the support systems we rely on are suddenly eliminated by climate catastrophe. This isn't science fiction - it's all too believable. It's currently shortlisted for the Costa Novel prize, to be awarded next month. (Read my full review here.)


Rachel Joyce's Miss Benson's Beetle  is the story of two unlikely female companions who travel to a remote island in search of a golden beetle - told with all Rachel Joyce's customary warmth, insight and affection. (Read my full review here.)


Francis Spufford's Light Perpetual was longlisted for the Booker, and I was disappointed it wasn't shortlisted. It begins with the deaths of five children in a wartime bombing, then imagines their lives as they might have been lived. Virtuoso writing makes this a dazzling read.


I admired the Booker winner just as much - The Promise by Damon Galgut. It's structured around four funerals (no wedding) of members of a wealthy family in South Africa. As in Francis Spufford's book, we leap forward by decades, marking changes in government, leadership and the end of apartheid. A unique narrative stance adds humour and playfulness to what would otherwise be a bleak narrative.


In The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead imagines that the metaphorical escape route for slaves in the southern states to reach freedom in the north is an actual railway (given steampunk treatment in the TV dramatisation). This gives momentum and great originality to a harrowing story of suffering, bravery and determination. 


Finally, another Booker winner: Bernardine Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other, which with great energy follows the lives of twelve women and girls, all but one of them black, giving insights into attitudes, opportunities and changing perceptions. It's written as a kind of prose poem that tumbles down the page - this is surprisingly easy to get used to, and feels absolutely right for the distinctive voices Evaristo conjures. (Read Celia Rees' piece on Writers Review here.)


Matt Haig's The Midnight Library makes intriguing use of its premise - that our lives could branch off in various directions and that it's possible to follow any of those shoots, as Nora discovers when suicidal. With a nod to It's a Wonderful Life, it's a perfect read for this time of year, when we're all likely to be thinking of what has and hasn't happened and how things could have worked out differently. (Read Julia Jarman's review here.)


Finally: my friend and co-host of Writers Review, Adele Geras, has written Dangerous Women under the pseudonym Hope Adams. It's the story of a voyage of convict women, a murder mystery, and also a tale of possible new beginnings - all stitched together in a beautiful quilt made collectively by the women. (Read a Q&A with Adele / Hope Adams here.)



I listened to the audio version of How the World Thinksread very engagingly by Julian Baggini himself. I shall certainly have to listen or read again - there is so much to take in, in this great global overview of philosophy, tradition and belief.


In The Great Derangement, published in 2016, Amitav Ghosh wonders why climate change features so rarely in fiction - or, when it does, it's sidelined into the genre categories of scifi or fantasy. This is of course changing (see The High House above, but still it's a fascinating exploration of how we blinker ourselves to warnings of catastrophe. (Read Jane Rogers' review here.)


No one knows and loves C S Lewis's Narnia stories better than Katherine Langrish. In From Spare Oom to War Drobe she revisits the stories with her nine-year-old self, combining the rapture she felt as a child with the immense knowledge she has since acquired of fairy and folk tales. Critical where needed, but also defending Lewis against charges of misogyny, she will I'm sure send many adult readers back to Narnia to rediscover the delights of our first encounters and consider them afresh. (See Lesli Wilson's piece on Writers Review here.)

Children's Books

I read several of Gill Lewis's books before interviewing her for the blog (see below) and would highly recommend all of them. This, her latest, has been described as a modern Black Beauty for dogs. We accompany Pup as he adapts to life as a street dog. On the way, without being at all heavy-handed, Gill Lewis focuses on various welfare issues: puppy-farming, abandoning of pets and the horrible cruelty of dog-fighting among them.


The Song that Sings Us by Nicola Davies is a highly-charged adventure story with a deep love of the natural world at its heart. Ruthless Automators seek to control nature for power and profit, opposed by Listeners who are in tune with living creatures, and by a Gaia-like network of support. It's written with the knowledge of a zoologist combined with the eye and ear of a poet. My full review is below.


Author and illustrator Pam Smy has a unique combination of talents, used to the full in The Hideaway, where text and image combine to tell a compelling, haunting tale. Billy seeks refuge in a graveyard, running from domestic abuse; the story is also his mother's, and her need for help. It's traditional in feel but sharply relevant too.


Finally, James Mayhew's Once Upon a Tune is quite irresistible  It tells the stories of William Tell, the Swan of Tuonela, The Sorceror's Apprentice and others, with richly detailed illustrations collaged from fragments of musical scores and patterned papers. Colours, textures and shapes give each story its individual feel. Beautifully produced, it's a gorgeous book that must have been under many Christmas trees this week.




A Good News Round-up!

For anyone who campaigns for animals - or for anything else - progress can seem frustratingly slow. But several recent successes show that protesting does sometimes work, and that animal suffering will be reduced as a result. 


Here are some changes for the better:

Stop Ecocide Law aims to make ecocide - destruction of a habit - an international crime, regarded with the same seriousness as genocide, terrorism and other crimes against humanity.


This month the Belgian Parliament has adopted the legal resolution. It's to be hoped that other countries will follow.


What can you do? Follow Stop Ecocide to learn more. Join, to become an Earth Protector. Write to your MP asking the UK government to adopt the resolution.

Looking for easy ways to reduce your environmental impact? Greenpeace has produced this free guide, listing 101 ways you can change your habits to live more sustainably. Great for New Year resolutions!


What can you do? Download the free guide. Give yourself some targets - you probably can't do all 101 of the things suggested, but probably you are doing some of them already and can set yourself some new challenges. Find it here, and follow Greenpeace for news of their campaigns and actions.

Good news for octopuses, squid and lobsters - they are at last to be recognised as sentient beings. It must be recognised that they can feel pain, and must be treated as animals rather than objects. This will have implications for how they are kept, transported and killed. Compassion in World Farming has campaigned against octopus farms, claiming that confined conditions are entirely unsuitable for these intelligent creatures.


What can you do? Support and follow Compassion in World Farming - they do such valuable work to improve conditions for farm animals worldwide. 



The National Trust, following a vote by its members, will no longer issue licenses to foxhound packs on its land. Fox-hunting is already illegal, but 'trailhunting' is still allowed by law. However, hunts all over the country continue to flout this rule, with foxes killed every week during the hunting season. At least they won't be able to do it on National Trust land any more, and other land-owners are likely to follow.


Cheshire West and Chester Council is also banning trailhunting on its land, and there are campaigns to persuade other councils to do the same. 


What can you do? If you live in a country area where fox-hunting takes place, write to your council and ask them to ban it on the land they own. Follow, support or join the RSPCA,  the League Against Cruel Sports or Keep the Ban.

The European Union plans to phase out animal testing in laboratories. The vote comes after a study found 72% of EU citizens support bringing an end to the cruel practices of testing on animals. 

In addition to public support, cross-party members of the European Parliament voted by an overwhelming majority (667-4) in favour of “a transition from animal testing to ethical and effective alternatives.”


What can you do? Make sure that your cosmetics, shampoo, deodorant etc. and household products haven't been tested on animals by looking for the Leaping Bunny logo which guarantees that they are cruelty-free. 

Travel company Expedia has said that it will no longer sell tickets for attractions with captive cetaceans (aquatic mammals like dolphins and orcas). “We recently adjusted our animal welfare policy. As a result, attractions and activities that involve performances by or interactions with dolphins and other cetaceans will no longer be available on our sites.” This is excellent news - I hope other travel companies will follow.


What can you do? Follow and support campaigning organisations like the Marine Conservation Society. When on holiday, never visit Seaworld or any other 'attraction' that features captive dolphins or orcas.

Several fashion brands and companies have now said that they will stop using angora wool. Why? Because, although angora is a lovely soft fleece used for sweaters, scarves etc., it's cruelly produced - angora rabbits spend their whole lives in cages and their fur is roughly shorn or ripped from their bodies, many times during their lifetime. The Armani, Gucci, Burberry and Selfridges are among fashion houses that already don't use angora or are phasing it out, and others are sure to follow.


What can you do? Don't buy knitwear that contains angora. Support PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

And - read my book! There are many more suggestions there of ways to avoid cruelty and make kinder choices. 


What can you do? Buy a copy from your local bookshop or from, or order one from your library!

Review: The Song that Sings Us by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Jackie Morris

“When animals talk, it’s time humans listened.”


This beautiful book is the work of an ideal partnership – Nicola Davies, author of many picture and information books drawing on her zoology background and love of the natural world, and Jackie Morris, Greenaway-winning illustrator of The Lost Words among many other titles. Although Nicola Davies is best known for her picture books, she returns to longer fiction in this epic adventure with a strong environmental theme.


Set in an alternative world, the story centres on an issue that’s all too relevant to our own: the destruction of the natural world by those who readily sacrifice its beauty, diversity and wildness for power and wealth. The ruthless Automators aim to drive all citizens into cities, away from land, rivers, and farms, with the promise that consistency of life will be guaranteed, away from the vagaries of nature. “They (the people) must be made to understand that animals and plants are resources to be owned and used; that they have no rights. The Listeners and their filthy hocus-pocus stand in the way of progress.” This dislike of animal life is so great that those who are Listeners – able to tune in to animal minds and communicate with them – can be denounced, imprisoned, and brainwashed.


The Automators fail to realise the strength of a Gaia-like network in which all living creatures communicate through song and thought transference. Central to this are Harlon, Ash and Xeno and their mother Toren, linked to the resistance movement Green Thorn; the family lives peacefully on a mountainside until Automators burst in, setting fire to their home. Told by Toren to snowboard to safety, the three siblings become separated, each at some point in the story captured by the Automators. Their quest is to seek a remote island where they believe golden lines connect the entire living world. It’s this island the Automators plan to destroy with a quasi-nuclear weapon, and here all the main characters converge.


Both Ash and Xeno are Listeners, Xeno with an affinity with birds: “It fills her up: the shape of wind, the space between one wingbeat and the next, the wisdom of the flock … Eggs in nests of cliffs and trees, white in dark burrows, blue like the eye of the sky or mottle-blotched like captured bits of cloud.” Doada, the conflicted leader of the Automators, thinks his battle is won when Xeno is captured; but he underestimates the power and resilience of creatures of all kinds.


The Song That Sings Us is a captivating eco-fable with enough danger and action to please lovers of action adventure but also with the lyricism and wonder that comes from Nicola Davies’ deep love of the natural world; her writing often combines a zoologist’s knowledge with a poet’s eye and ear. Jackie Morris’s illustrations, in her unmistakable style, are the perfect match.


(This review was written for Armadillo magazine.)



Animal Advocate interview No.1: author Gill Lewis

I'm hoping to make this a regular feature here - interviewing people who campaign for animals in a range of ways. I'm delighted that Gill Lewis has kindly agreed to be my first guest.


Gill is a wonderful writer for young readers, many of her stories drawing on her experience as a vet and her travels to see wildlife in many countries. From her first novel, Sky Hawk, to her most recent, A Street Dog Named Pup, her books are thoroughly absorbing. There is always an animal ingredient, ranging from outrage at the poisoning of golden eagles on a shooting estate and the anxiety of following a tracked osprey on her flight to Africa and back, to the perils faced by the abandoned Pup on the London streets and the dependence of an exiled woman on her collection of birds. There's also a sense of wonder at the beauty of the natural world and its inhabitants. The humans in Gill's stories are equally important, with sympathetic portrayals of Eritrean refugees in The Closest Thing to Flying, the struggles of Scarlet to keep her family together against all odds in The Scarlet Ibis, and many more.


A Street Dog Named Pup  is already on my Books of the Year list! I haven't read all her books, but after reading several I know that she's an author you can depend on for a gripping story that will thoroughly involve you in her characters' worlds and the dilemmas they face.


Here she answers my questions about her writing and her campaigning for animals.

L: For A Street Dog Named Pup, did you consciously have Black Beauty as your model – I mean in terms of the episodic structure and the rise and fall of Pup’s fortunes depending on the people he comes into contact with?


G: I didn’t consciously have Black Beauty as a model for the story, although I did want the story to span the lifetime of Pup. That isn’t to say my subconscious might have been working very hard at this! I loved Black Beauty as a child, and as an adult I researched Anna Sewell for an essay about anthropomorphism and discovered that her story helped raise awareness about the welfare of horses. 


L: Through the various dogs Pup meets in the Railway Den, you introduce a range of topics of concern without being at all heavy-handed: puppy-farming, dog-fighting, ear-cropping, irresponsible pet-owning, ‘handbag dogs’. What would you like young readers to take from the book?



G: Ultimately, the story is one about the unique bond that we can have with dogs, about loyalty and trust and dogs’ unconditional love.  I hope the story enables young readers to see the world through dogs’ eyes, and to understand their physical and emotional needs. I would love young readers to understand the concerns of canine welfare and in doing so raise awareness of responsible dog ownership. 

L: I know that your work as a vet has made you particularly aware of the problems for dogs selectively bred to have flat faces (brachycephalic breeds such as pugs, bulldogs and French bulldogs like Frenchi in Street Dog) – these dogs often have serious breathing difficulties. Yet those breeds seem increasingly popular. Do you blame fashion for that – and if so, what can be done to discourage the trend?



G: The rise in brachycephalic breeds as pets and their associated health problems is the biggest companion animal welfare problem at the moment. Their popularity is driven by their cute face, which has much resemblance to a human baby – button nose and big eyes. Celebrities owning these dogs have increased the demand for them. But the grim reality for these dogs is that they are literally dying to breathe. They have shortened noses but have excess skin around their face and also excess soft tissue inside the nose and throat that obstructs breathing and eating. Many owners don’t recognise the signs of disease; such as excessive snoring, persistent tiredness and holding a toy in their mouth whilst sleeping to keep the airway open. Indeed, many of these signs of disease are seen as endearing. Dog food companies are changing the shape of the dog biscuit, so these dogs do not choke on their food whilst swallowing. We should be changing the shape of the dog, not the shape of the food. The British Veterinary Association runs a campaign to prevent the use of brachycephalic breeds in advertising. I believe we need to raise this awareness across society to enable children and adults to make informed choices. The pug breed is very commonly portrayed in children’s books, for the very reason that it is so childlike, but I believe publishers have duty to follow the British Veterinary Association guidelines and not use these breeds in children’s literature.  I did pose the question on Twitter and was met with tumbleweed silence from the publishing world. Maybe no one from publishing noticed, or maybe pugs are just too marketable as a money-spinner.  I would defy anyone to spend a day at a referral clinic for Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome and not change their mind. 

L: The dog-fighting scenes in A Street Dog Named Pup are particularly harrowing (even for someone of my age who already knows how cruel it is!)  Did you ever come into contact with victims of dog-fighting during your time as a vet? Did you find those scenes hard to write?



G: These scenes were really hard to write. As a vet I never came into contact with the victims of dog fights, because the people who run dog fighting would never consider taking a dog to the vet. However, I did speak to a friend who works in the police to find out about the criminal gangs who keep and breed dogs for fighting. I didn’t think I could be easily shocked but some of the cruelty is beyond belief. 

L: How can people (even, or especially, those who love animals) be discouraged from supporting tourist attractions such as dolphinariums, roadside zoos where visitors can pose with tiger cubs, and the like?



G: I remember when I was young, I was at Blackpool with a friend and we wanted to see the dolphin show. As an animal-mad child, I wanted to be up close and personal with such a charismatic creature. I’d watched Flipper on TV and harboured secret thoughts of swimming with dolphins. So, we paid to see the show. So I understand why people want tiger experiences, or visits to dolphinariums. It’s often a chance to see these incredible creatures close up and be in awe of them. But I remember that trip to Blackpool, and the reality of watching a dolphin in a tiny pool, going round and round and round. It had sores on its skin and it looked visibly depressed. My friend and I felt very sorry for it. I think if there had been a campaign at the time raising awareness about the dolphin, that we would not have paid our money and watched the show. Raising awareness is key, to show the mental and physical suffering and the impact on the environment of animals poached from the wild. Social media can help spread the work and raising awareness on some travel tourist sites like Trip Advisor can have a big impact. 

L:  When you began to write fiction, did you immediately see it as a way into campaigning with young people? Or has your work with Hen Harrier Day, Wild Justice and other organisations grown out of the writing, as people came to know and appreciate your books?


G:  When I started writing, I followed the advice about write what you love, and for me that was writing about animals and wild places and our human connection with them. My first book was Sky Hawk,, a story about an osprey connecting children in different countries. I didn’t intentionally start writing as a way into campaigning, but as my writing journey progressed, and I spoke with many people about concerns of the planet, I found my own voice to speak about these things. I feel privileged to know many other creatives: Jackie Morris, Nicola Davies, Lauren St John, Dara McAnulty and Piers Torday, who use art and story to raise awareness and empower others to make a difference too.



My involvement with Hen Harrier Action and Wild Justice is to be another voice calling for change. The UN has declared the next decade as the one of rewilding. We have to change our upland land use from   monoculture managed heather to a restored landscape of many habitats. 

L: Your books are critical of hunting and shooting, and the management of shooting estates that so often involves the trapping or poisoning of birds of prey, such as eagles and hen harriers. I liked your inclusion in Pup of Reynard, a foxhound who narrowly escaped being shot because he wouldn’t hunt foxes so was no use to the pack – one aspect of fox-hunting we don’t hear much about. Have you had any criticism from supporters of these ‘sports’?


G:  I have had criticism from the driven grouse shooting community, but I have researched this area so thoroughly from both sides of the debate that I can counter their arguments with facts and science. Most of the debate has been civil, although there are some abusive keyboard warriors out there who often seem to take umbrage, especially when a woman has something to say.


Some of the criticism has been from a minority of conservationists who feel some of my comments are outspoken about driven grouse shooting. I firmly believe that driven grouse shooting needs to be banned because it is underpinned by wildlife crime and by degradation of vast landscapes to produce heather for grouse production. We have seen many working examples where rewilding and restoring these landscapes is reversing biodiversity loss, mitigating climate change and boosting rural economies. However, for too long, a softly, softly approach has been taken by some in conservation seeking compromise and middle ground with some landowners, thus perpetuating driven grouse shooting. Some of this appeasement is preventing progress towards the wild restoration we urgently need. With some debates, especially those concerning human or environmental rights, there is no middle ground, although I believe that finding a way forward is to be able to show that everyone can benefit from change. Banning driven grouse shooting and restoring the landscapes will create more rural jobs with long term security for people and the wild.


L: You seem to have a special affinity with birds of prey. Were these birds and their habitats a particular love of yours before you began writing fiction?


G: When I was a child, I desperately hoped a golden eagle would land in my suburban garden. Of course, one never did, but I have always loved the elemental ferocity of birds of prey. Where I live in Somerset, we see many buzzards, but each time still fills me we awe, listening to their wild cry, reminding us that we are all part wild. 

L:  Did you always write stories, and / or want to be a writer, while you were training and working as a vet?


G: I loved writing stories as a child, but my handwriting and spelling were pretty awful and so I never considered being an author. However, when my children came along, I took them to the library and fell in love with books again. I saw the powerful impact they had on my own children. I loved making up stories to tell them at bedtime or on long car journeys and re-ignited my creative side.


L:  Have you any plans to write a non-fiction book about animals and the environment?



G: I would love to and have several ideas to pursue. If someone could find a way of expanding time, that would be great as there are not enough hours in the day! 

L:  As far as I’m aware, The Closest Thing to Flying is your only novel so far to be set partly in the past. Did you enjoy using a historical setting, and will you be tempted to do so again?


G:  I really enjoyed writing a historical setting. However, it meant much research into a time and era I knew little about. The Closest Thing to Flying is in part set in 1891 when women begin to campaign against the use of feathers in fashion. These women were the founders of the RSPB, yet they are only just being recognised now. I found it fascinating to see how ideas and attitudes have changed. I expected these progressive women to be part of the suffragette movement, but in fact some were vehemently anti-suffrage. I think reading and writing historical pieces helps us to revaluate our own belief and opinions. I wonder if they would have changed their opinions on suffrage with the benefit of hindsight. I would love to write a historical piece again and think it might be fun to go way, way back when Britain was joined to Europe by a land bridge.  



I have toyed with the idea of writing an imagined future story - a ‘sliding doors’ story to continue Sky Dancer:  one future where Minty, the aristocratic daughter of Henry Knight, the moor owner, decides to rewild the estate, and the other future where her brother continues driven grouse shooting. Or maybe there is the third option in the story where the community buys out the land and rewilds it, as has happened with the Tarras Valley Nature Reserve in Scotland.


L:  Your books are deservedly popular with readers, and I’m sure they change lives and attitudes. What are some of the best responses you’ve had from young readers?


G:  Hearing from readers is always a huge privilege. I’ve been particularly touched by young people who have had cake sales raising money from moon bears to ospreys or writing to MPs about the state of the seas. I have had emails from young people who have gone onto study ecology and marine science from reading by books when they were younger. One letter really moved me to read that because I had written from the perspective of a child with a parent with mental illness, they felt less alone knowing other children lived with that too. 


L:  And you’re an illustrator too! I loved the cameo portraits of all the dogs in A Street Dog Named Pup. Is this something you’d like to build on, with more illustrated books or even a picture book? 


G:  I really enjoyed illustrating Pup’s story. Drawing is always essential to my first drafts to find the characters and landscapes. I’m a very visual writer and have to see the story unfold in my head to write it. I’d love to do more illustration, and also find time to experiment with different mediums.

L:  What do you find most upsetting in the ways humans treat animals today? And what gives you the most hope for a better future?


G:  Turning a blind eye perpetuates many harmful practices. For example, choosing the ‘cute’ face of a dog over the potential life-threatening reality of a severely shortened muzzle, or to the fate of foxhounds that are no longer deemed ‘fit for purpose.’ Many people know that farmed salmon are kept in crowded sea cages, and yet may not pay any mind to the physical suffering and diseases of these fish.


We are more aware and open about addressing mental health issues in humans, but I think we should be more aware of animals as sentient beings. If animals are denied any of the five freedoms, they are prone to suffering mental distress. When someone buys a pup on a whim, and rehomes it a few months later they have failed to see the mental anguish of the pup. Watching dolphins perform for entertainment in small tanks is turning a blind eye to the mental and physical torture of captivity.



Hope for the future comes from knowing that we have many in the younger generation who are more engaged with welfare and environmental issues. More people are changing away from eating animal flesh and animal products to a wholly plant-based diet, hence reducing our reliance on the livestock industry.  

L:  Are you working on a new book now, and if so can you tell us a little about it?


G: I have just finished a book on beavers for Barrington Stoke.  Beavers are landscape engineers and change rivers, creating wetlands, improving water quality, increasing fish-stocks and reducing flooding.   The story is about a girl who realises that if a river can change its course, then she can change her life too.


The book I’m writing at the moment is very different. I think last year I felt a sort of ecological grief and after 10 years of writing conservation-based stories, I felt so despondent with the state of the planet and so I’m writing a sort of wild fantasy about rats – and these rats wear clothes! However, there are many parallels to human greed. I’m having a lot of fun writing it.


L:  Thank you, Gill - we'll look forward to those!



Find out more about Gill Lewis’s books and work, and also about the background to her stories and the various campaigns she supports, on her website:

Why my birthday is a bad day for wildlife

I was born on the 12th of August, a date known to shooting enthusiasts as 'the glorious twelfth', because grouse shooting starts today. From this day and for the next few months, these unfortunate birds will be driven from cover by dogs to be blasted at by people who take pleasure in killing as 'sport'.


As if killing for fun isn't bad enough, there are other evils associated with driven grouse shooting. The practice is inextricably associated with wildlife crime - to protect the grouse (until people want to slaughter them), birds of prey such as rare hen harriers are poisoned, snared or shot. This is illegal - but somehow shooting estates continue to get away with it. Foxes and mountain hares, too, are targeted - and of course snares and poisons kill indiscriminately. 


Then there's the matter of peat. A lot of 'game' shooting (quotation marks because I hate the term 'game', as if living creatures exist purely for human amusement) takes place on peat uplands. To keep the land clear from scrub and to promote the growth of heather, which grouse use for cover, peat-burning is a regular practice. This is highly damaging - not only does it endanger and kill wildlife, it destroys the peat which is a precious carbon store and should be protected. So it's needlessly adding to carbon emissions at a time when we urgently need to reduce them.


All this to make money and provide 'sport' for a wealthy minority.


It's time for a ban on driven grouse shooting. Support Wild Justice to learn more and add your voice.


I will enjoy my birthday far more when it really is the 'Glorious Twelfth' - when this barbarous, outdated, wasteful bloodsport is finally consigned to history.


Eat for the Planet!

Like many (or most?) vegetarians, my reason for stopping eating meat, long ago, was because I didn't want animals to suffer and die so that I could eat them. 


But now, even without considering the cruelty that goes into meat production, there are compelling reasons to cut down or stop eating meat and dairy products.


The IPCC report just out makes it clear that we HAVE to reduce our carbon emissions if the planet is to avoid dangerous levels of heating, with the severe disruptions to weather patterns that would result. Governments must act far more urgently than they have done so far.


But our individual actions and habits are important, too.


What's on your plate? is one of the sections of my book, and although I look mainly at animal welfare issues, I also look at the carbon implications of eating meat. The planet can't sustain meat-eating as the norm, yet many people still eat meat every day.


Why does meat cost the Earth? There are several reasons:


- land (including rainforest) is cleared of natural vegetation either for cattle-grazing or for growing crops which are then fed to animals


- feeding grain to animals isn't the most efficient way of using crops. It can take up to 10kg of grain to produce 1kg of beef, and up to 4kg of grain for 1kg of lamb. That grain could be used directly to feed people.


- cattle and sheep burp and fart methane, which is a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than CO2.


So by eating meat, especially beef or lamb, we are consuming far more than the planet can afford. 


By making individual changes, we can shift what's seen as 'normal'. Being vegetarian or vegan is common now, but in wealthy countries like the UK, the USA, Australia and others, those of us who choose not to eat meat are still in the minority. Can we think differently, and see plant-based diets as the norm? 


If going vegetarian or vegan is too big a step for you, can you at least eat less meat - perhaps by having #MeatFreeMonday or by choosing plant-based meals whenever possible?


Can you Eat for the Planet?

My books of the year

These aren't necessarily books that were published this year, though several were. They are books I've read, or in one case re-read, during 2020. It was hard to choose - like many people I've read more than usual during lockdown, and also I've begun listening to books on Audible, a new experience for me and one that now enables me to 'read' two books at once.


So: quite a few historical novels, a gripping thriller set in Oxford, one sci-fiction, six about the natural world and/or our relationships with it, one about reading and writing and one remarkable book about nearly everything! Three of the fiction titles are by good friends. About that I will say that I'd only choose books by friends if I thought they really were excellent reads, and these three most certainly are.


My Book of the Year, though, if I had to pick just one of these, is Maggie O'Farrell's brilliant HAMNET. That's the one I'm saving to re-read as a treat I know I'll enjoy just as much, and probably even more, on a second reading. It's such a superb imaginative feat, fleshing out what little is known of Anne Hathaway (or Agnes, as she is here), so utterly engaging and with rich detail of domestic life in Stratford and a glimpse of the London theatre. And a pitch-perfect ending. 




- a poem for my Dad, five years after he died


On family evenings the Scrabble came out.

Board on table, racks placed squarely,

Scorer poised with notepad and pen.

Tiles clatter in their bag as fingers grope.

We sit forward in chairs, frowning, plotting.

Eyes flick from rack to board. Serious business.

Letters form syllables or nonsense,

Furtively anagrammed, re-aligned.

A possibility? … if only … next go …

Our collaborative crossword reaches out

To tantalising Triple Word squares at the edge.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! Dad grumbles

When his letters won’t oblige;

He likes to win. But then

His attention quickens. An eager hunch,

Theatrical reticence in the placing of tiles –

Five, six - then a flaunted seventh.

All out, for an extra fifty. Fifty!

We trail behind, resigned to losing.


Inside the box-lid, fading pencil recalls

Best score:  Dad, 347.

He’s five years dead. We still play;

My own best score nudges close,


But no, no closer.  Dad’s record stands. 



Ronald Trevor Newbery, 1923 - 2015


My Book of the Year, 2019

A little late, but here it is at last. I read so many excellent books last year that it would have been hard to choose six or so, though I did post my favourites on Facebook as advent books throughout December. Here, though, I'm going for just one. What follows is the piece I wrote for WRITERS REVIEW in the autumn.


What a fascinating book this is! It covers so much, overturning several preconceptions along the way, that I hardly know where to start. So I'll begin at the end, where Isabella Tree comments on the benefits of natural surroundings for mental health, and the sad fact that many people nowadays have little exposure - through choice or circumstance - to wild nature. Readers of this blog probably know that Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris were spurred to work together on The Lost Words - a beautiful book which won Jackie Morris a well-deserved Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration - by news that the Oxford Junior Dictionary was ditching such words as acorn, bluebell, wren and otter to make space for  terms deemed more relevant to today's world: celebrity, blog, broadband and suchlike. Macfarlane and Morris's widely-acclaimed collaboration is a timely and important book, and so in its different way is Wilding. 

Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell, inheriting his family estate of 3,500  acres, at first continued the arable and dairy farming already established there, but found that their hard-baked clay soil did not produce good yields. Could there be a way of letting their land fulfill its potential - not for commerce, but for wildlife? Inspired by a Dutch project on land earmarked for industry but then abandoned, they learned how the presence of grazing animals - greylag geese, then large herbivores - had produced surprising results; close grazing kept the water fringes clear and tree growth in check, providing habitat for a wealth of insects, birds and small mammals. It's often assumed that any fertile land, if left untended, will become mature woodland; but, as Isabella Tree points out, this notion overlooks the presence of grazing herbivores such as the ancient aurochs, tarpan and bison which preceded human intervention, later replaced by deer, domesticated cattle and pigs. Perhaps, she thinks, we have the wrong idea about ancient forests. She quotes Oliver Rackham: "To the medievals, a Forest was a place of deer, not of trees. If a Forest happened to be wooded it formed part of the wood-pasture tradition."

Wondering if this minimal-intervention approach would work with their own land, Isabella and Charlie sought grants from English Nature (now Natural England), the government's advisory body. Unlike most applicants for funding they had no clear plan for what was in effect an experiment: their plan was, over twenty-five years, to see what would happen if they fenced their land to make it deer-proof, a major expense, and introduced Longhorn cattle, fallow and later red deer, and Exmoor ponies. As in the Dutch project, they chose tough, sturdy animals that could fend and forage for themselves and withstand all weathers.


Of course the Knepp project couldn't fully replicate natural ecosystems without including apex predators - lynxes or wolves - to keep the numbers of cattle, ponies and deer in check.The Dutch project, leaving weak and elderly animals to die from illness or starvation, had met with justifiable opposition; at Knepp, with the land crossed by footpaths, such a hands-off approach couldn't be justified on humane, aesthetic or even practical grounds. So the grazing animals are culled, and their meat sold. Apparently grass-fed beef is delicious, and pasture grazing is certainly the most environmentally efficient way of producing meat, although it's a luxury few can afford.


The Knepp experiment, now sixteen years on, has produced inspiring results. Iconic species such as turtle dove, nightingale and purple emperor butterfly have moved in; beavers have been introduced, their dams creating marshy wetland which supports wading birds, amphibians and bog plants. The softening of water edges is so important for flood defences, another re-think: rather than funnelling water into hard-edged channels, it can effectively be dispersed and soaked up, to the benefit of pasture and wildlife. Another keystone creature is the humble earthworm, whose importance has been underestimated to the detriment of soil health.


Few individuals will be able to replicate the Knepp experiment - Tree and Burrell owned a substantial swathe of land and were able to recruit expert help and funding. But I hope their findings will influence government and NGO policy on land management and conservation. Among many revelations, perhaps the most significant is that if we intervene less, nature can be trusted to restore itself. Whether there's time, in the face of climate breakdown, to attempt this on a wider scale, is impossible to know - we may be too far into our reckless uncontrolled global experiment with the world's climate and ecosystems.

I'd say that Wilding is essential, even exciting, reading for anyone interested in nature, wildlife, ecosystems and climate change - and I think most readers will find surprises and revelations to make them see the countryside, and our role in it, with fresh eyes. And I don't want to end without giving a flavour of the writing: although packed with information, comparisons and statistics, Wilding also has moments of lyrical joy, such as this description of a nightingale's song: "It throws the ear with unexpectedness ... florid trills, first rich and liquid, then mockingly guttural and discordant; now a sweet insistence of long, lugubrious piping; then bubbling chuckles and indrawn whistles; and then, suddenly, nothing - a suspended, teasing hiatus before the cascades and crescendos break forth again ... these pulsating strains issuing from tiny vocal chords belting out like organ pipes, throwing the music of the tropics into the English night air."

Copyright Knepp Wildland

Copyright Knepp Wildland

Copyright Knepp Wildland


Fly me to the Moon

It’s been a pleasure to revisit this story, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing and relive the excitement of those days. Girls on the Up, first published as Andie's Moon, is set in the exhilarating summer of 1969, when Andie’s family comes to Chelsea to flat-sit and cat-sit for her father’s boss. They’re staying just a few minutes away from the King’s Road – which, to Andie’s fashion-mad sister, Prune, epitomises the heart of Swinging London and her dreams of becoming a model. But Andie’s thoughts are on the moon, especially when she meets Ravi and his telescope and learns the joy and wonder of ‘skyhopping’. As I’m old enough to remember those days – like Andie, I was in Hyde Park for the free Rolling Stones concert – it was nostalgic to revisit 1969, the music, clothes, attitudes, expectations and excitement.


Of course we know now that the lunar astronauts would return safely and that others would follow, but then: their chances of a safe return were estimated by Michael Collins to be 50/50. Those are daunting odds!


Oh yes, Michael Collins. Often in schools I show a photograph of the three Apollo 11 astronauts and ask who can name them. Neil Armstrong, someone says. Buzz Aldrin. Then there’s a silence and a pause: or maybe one person can name the third, Michael Collins (in the middle of the photograph above). The reason he’s less well-known is, of course, that he didn’t walk on the moon like the other two. But what he did was just as astonishing and brave – alone in the command module, he orbited the moon. When the module swept round to the far side of the moon, he was out of touch with his colleagues and with mission control. Can you imagine being more alone than that? And his role was crucial to the mission. Just as much as the other two, he deserves to be remembered.


Our view of planet Earth, its atmosphere and ecosystems and what we’re doing to them, has changed drastically since those days – and needs to change. Given the chance to update the Author’s Note for the book, I wrote this:


‘No astronaut has set foot on the moon since 1972, though early this year a Chinese mission landed a spacecraft on the far side: another first. Back in 1969, it was confidently expected that the first exciting steps on the moon would lead to great advances in space travel for humans – but, so far, no habitable base has been set up on the lunar surface. I like to think, though, that during my lifetime we’ll see the first woman on the moon. Who will she be, and where will she come from? She may be a child now, growing up with no idea that she’ll make history.


The Apollo missions produced, almost by accident, a beautiful photograph that’s come to symbolise how precious and fragile our planet is. It’s the photograph called Earthrise, taken by astronaut Bill Anders on Christmas Eve 1968 while orbiting the moon. There’s our planet seen as never before, a small blue traveller in the vast silence of space. In the fifty years since Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon we’ve done serious damage to that vital atmosphere on which all life depends, through pollution and deforestation and by simply failing to realise the dangers of interfering with ecosystems. All this damage has been done in a frighteningly short time, and we know now that we can’t go on ignoring it.


In those years, too, there’s been increasing evidence for the likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe. But I hope we won’t send humans to live on other planets until we’ve learned to respect and care for our own. 


Meanwhile, I hope you’ll enjoy visiting 1969 and the heady excitement of those first footsteps on a place beyond Earth.’

Books of the Year 2018

I'm a little late with this, but here are my best reads from last year - fiction, children's books and non-fiction - not necessarily published in 2018, though several were.


Quite unintentionally I've hit a run of historical fiction - I did read a great many novels with more recent settings, but here are the six that made my top list, of which only the Patrick Gale has anything to do with the present day.


No apology for including friends here; I hope you'll believe me when I say that I wouldn't include books by friends unless I genuinely thought they were worth recommending, and these most certainly are! In Lydia Syson's brilliant Mr Peacock's Possessions, a family takes up residence on an uninhabited island - a new Eden, possibly, but human nature dictates that they bring their own serpents. (Read my full review here.) In The Poet's Wife Judith Allnatt gives an engrossing portrayal of rural life and the difficulties of coping with a delusional but highly gifted husband - the viewpoint of Patty, loyal but struggling wife of the poet John Clare. Cynthia Jefferies' moving and ambitious first novel for adults, The Outrageous Fortunes of Abel Morgan, is set in the seventeenth century and concerns a father and son separated for decades, taking us from Dorset to Istanbul and the West Indies. There's more on WRITERS REVIEW. 


In The Purchase, by Linda Spalding, set in late eighteenth century Virginia, abolitionist Daniel Dickinson impulsively bids for a slave boy to help his small Quaker family to settle on uncultivated land in Virginia. The fate of this boy sets in motion a dramatic and terrifying chain of events.  Patrick Gale's Take Nothing With You gives a wonderful picture of education in music, sexuality and life from the viewpoint of adolescent Eustace, interspersed with his cancer treatment in the present day which coincides with the start of a new and exhilarating relationship. (More here.)Thin Air is the second of Michelle Paver's ghost stories I've read - both excellent. Here she takes us on a Himalayan expedition in the 1930s, dogged by ill omens from the start.  


Children's Books

The Skylarks' War is in everyone's roundups just now as well as on the Costa children's shortlist, and no wonder - it's a First World War story with all Hilary McKay's hallmark economy, wit and warmth, with even the minor characters fully individualised. Adam and Lisa Murray's Corpse Talk is a brilliant idea for a series - various significant characters, in this case all female, are 'dug up' to take part in chat show interviews about their lives. Alongside Elizabeth 1, Joan of Arc and Emily Pankhurst we meet less well-known characters including the Princess Caraboo, resistance fighter Granny Nanny and female Pharaoh Hapshetsut - a great way to introduce children to notable lives.


Finally, another friend. Celia Rees' stories are always clever, inventive and packed with incident, and Glass Town Wars is particularly striking. In the anniversary year of the publication of Wuthering Heights, Celia draws on Emily Bronte's juvenilia, pairing it with gaming technology: Lying in a coma in hospital, Tom is used by unscrupulous 'friend' Milo in an experiment which sends him as avatar into a dangerous game based on Bronte's fantastical Glass Town. Dazzling!  


Henry David Thoreau's Walden was published in 1854, but contains so much of relevance to today: from mindfulness and the importance of natural surroundings for mental health to the benefits of not eating meat. My WRITERS REVIEW piece looks at this in more detail.


2018 saw the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, and after hearing Fiona Sampson speak at the Oxford Literary Festival I was keen to read this biography. I knew something of the circumstances of the conception of Mary Shelley's influential masterpiece but had not realised how extraordinary her life was, marked by grief, domestic turbulence and constant travel and relocation. It's a wonder she found time to write at all ... and Percy Bysshe doesn't come out of it well.


Head Gardeners, by Ambra Edwards, is a lovely book to dip into. The gardeners featured include well-known figures such as Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter and Troy Scott Smith at Sissinghurst, inheritors of the work of Christopher Lloyd and Vita Sackville-West respectively, each nurturing their garden's spirit without maintaining it as a museum. What makes this book so appealing is the range it covers, from National Trust properties to semi-wild estates where minimal intervention is the rule, and a South Bank community garden cared for by former drug addict Paul Pulford. Leisurely interviews convey the passion (and that's no exaggeration) of each gardener, and gorgeous photography by Charlie Hopkinson makes this a book to treasure.

Helen Dunmore - winner of the Costa Book Award 2017

When Helen Dunmore died in July last year, WRITERS REVIEW posted a joint tribute by Adele Geras, Celia Rees and myself. This week I was delighted - as were countless other admirers - to hear that this much-loved writer had won the Costa Book Award for her poetry collection INSIDE THE WAVE, following Ted Hughes as the second posthumous winner of this prestigious prize. So I'm re- posting my piece here. You can read the full post, with several comments from others, here. 




I never met Helen Dunmore or heard her speak, but somehow feel that I have, through the impact her books have made on me as both reader and writer. 


She died just two days before the announcement of the Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction, of which she was the first winner (in its original incarnation as the Orange Prize) for A Spell of Winter. In her last few days she wrote a poignant poem about the approach of death, Hold Out Your ArmsShe was a poet as well as a novelist, and it showed in everything she wrote: in the precision and sensuousness of her language and the seductiveness of her rhythms.

Her first novel, Zennor in Darkness, was widely praised for its freshness and immediacy and the luminosity of its prose. I read that on publication and have read most of her books since. Her subjects were wide-ranging: the First World War and its aftermath, the Siege of Leningrad, the French Revolution seen from England, domestic life with its tensions and rivalries. The Greatcoat was a novella for Random House's Hammer series in which a haunted figure brings back the terrible losses of aircrew in the war (a subject which resonates with me, as my father was a navigator in Bomber Command). She could be deeply unsettling, as in the relationship between brother and sister in A Spell of Winter and between sisters in Talking to the Dead. Everything she wrote had her distinctive stamp of honesty, insightfulness and lyricism. 

She wrote wonderfully about landscapes and weather, especially in the coastal settings she loved. Here is Daniel, in The Lie, looking down from a cottage roof. "There was the brown, bare, sinewy land running down to the cliffs. There were the Garracks, and Giant's Cap, and the Island. There was the swell, like a muscle under the sea, moving in long, slow pulses to Porthgwyn. I looked west and saw rainclouds, damson-coloured and making a bloom of shadow on the sea." She was always good on food, as here, when Nina in Talking to the Dead makes a tart: "the apples must be cut evenly, in fine crescents of equal thickness, which will lap around in ring after ring, hooping inwards, glazed with apricot jam. The tart must cook until the tips of the apple rings are almost black, but the fruit itself is still plump and moist. When you close your eyes and bite you must taste caramel, sharp apple, juice and the short, sandy texture of sweet pastry all at once." It's enough to make you salivate. Food is abundant in this novel, while in The Siege she wrote powerfully and unforgettably about hunger and cold, desperation and survival.


Completing her final novel, Birdcage Walk, she knew of her terminal cancer. In its Afterword, she wrote: “The question of what is left behind by a life haunts the novel. While I finished and edited it I was already seriously ill, but not yet aware of this. I suppose that a writer’s creative self must have access to knowledge of which the conscious mind and the emotions are still ignorant, and that a novel written at such a time, under such a growing shadow, cannot help being full of a sharper light, as a landscape becomes brilliantly distinct in the last sunlight before a storm.”



I’m glad now that there are Helen Dunmore novels and poems I haven’t read yet. I will ration them out to myself, in order not to use up the new reading experience too quickly. She was an exhilarating, generous talent whose words sing from the page and will ensure that she is remembered.

Children's Books of the Year

Four really special books here!


Katherine Rundell has quickly made a name for herself with ROOFTOPPERS and THE WOLF WILDER, but this one, THE EXPLORER, is the first of hers I've read. Here she takes us to the Amazon rainforest in the company of four children, survivors of the crash of a light aircraft. With no way of summoning help they must rapidly adapt, finding shelter and food. What starts off as a traditional adventure story takes on a wider environmental significance when the children meet the Explorer of the title, living alone in a ruined stone city. At first indifferent and even hostile, he teaches them the ways of the forest and later, when one of them needs urgent medical treatment, helps them to find their way out - but is adamant that they must never tell anyone about their encounter with him and the ruins, for the sake of the forest and its inhabitants. There's humour alongside the seriousness in this absorbing story.


I've posted separately about Pam Smy's brilliant THORNHILL, which she's both written and illustrated. High production values make the book an object of beauty, words and artwork coming together to mesmeric effect as two stories, centred around an old deserted house, alternate. Mary, unhappy resident back in the eighties when Thornhill was a children's home, communicates with the reader through her journal, while remaining silent; Ella's story, in the present, is told entirely in black-and-white illustrations. So we are following two silent stories. As they merge, the creepy, almost cinematic effect will have you holding your breath as you turn the pages.


Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris have created a treasure of a book in THE LOST WORDS. Taking one creature or plant at a time, they've created 'spells' (Macfarlane) and gorgeous images (Morris) in a book for all ages to hold and wonder at. The 'spells' demand to be read aloud, and are full of vitality, sharp observation and verbal delight: "Should green-as-moss be mixed with / blue-of-steel be mixed with gleam-of-gold / you'd still far short by far of the Tar-bright oil-slick sheen and gloss of starling wing ... " This book has received wide coverage and rightly so, for its celebration of the natural world and its urgings to all of us to look at and appreciate the other lives around ours, whether we live in countryside or city.


Start reading Philip Pullman's LA BELLE SAUVAGE and you'll know at once that you're in the hands of a master storyteller. It's hard to see quite how he does it, but it's the kind of writing that welcomes you into its world with complete assurance. We're in the likeable company of Malcolm Polstead, whose parents own the Trout Inn on the edge of Oxford, and who becomes intrigued by the infant Lyra, who's being looked after by the nuns of Godstow Priory. Someone's trying to steal Lyra - why, Malcolm doesn't know, but soon he, reluctant companion Alice and baby Lyra - and their daemons, of course - are in danger as floodwaters rise and their pursuers close in. A perfect read for long winter evenings.

Thornhill, by Pam Smy

I’ve loved and admired Pam Smy’s work since I first saw it several years ago when she was engaged to illustrate my children’s book Lob. Her reputation has grown since then and her style has matured; she went on to provide beautiful illustrations for my next book The Brockenspectre, Siobhan Dowd’s The Ransom of Dond, and a Folio Society edition of Penelope Lively’s The Ghost of Thomas Kempe.  Following publication of this new book, someone ought to commission her to illustrate The Secret Garden – an inspiration behind Thornhill which is referred to in the book.


Pam Smy’s style combines a classic, timeless feel with a way of drawing the viewer into her worlds. She excels at portraying natural surroundings, especially wild and possibly threatening places, but also domestic interiors rich in detail. Her human figures – of all ages - are expressive, endearing and recognisably ordinary.


But this book is a breakthrough, for Pam and possibly for children’s fiction too. It’s the first she has both written and illustrated, and combines two stories: that of Mary, an unhappy resident of Thornhill Institute for Children in the 1980s, and the wordless illustrated viewpoint of Ella who moves into a nearby house in the present day. Exploring with Ella, we’re drawn into an unsettling story of bullying and negligence, gradually realising that Ella too is a neglected child – living with her preoccupied father and spending long hours alone. Her situation echoes that of Mary, waiting to be fostered, selectively mute, and bullied by another girl in the home who charms everyone into believing that she is guileless. Unable to confide in anyone as her situation worsens, Mary takes comfort in making puppets to provide her with company, and these are used in the illustrations to eerie effect.


What is quite wonderful and brilliant here is the suspense Pam Smy achieves in Ella’s wordless sections, divided from the text by plain black pages. The feeling is cinematic, the tension crackling from the page as we move closer to Thornhill’s garden and then inside the abandoned house. And there are surprises which will make you catch your breath.


I’ve always thought that Pam Smy deserves to win the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration. With this moving and strikingly innovative book, she ought to be in contention for the Carnegie Medal as well.


See more, including sketches and insights, on Pam Smy's blog.

Longbourn, by Jo Baker


Subtitled Pride and Prejudice - the servants' storyJo Baker's captivating novel takes us behind the scenes of Jane Austen's world to the routines of toil and effort which allow the Bennet family to live in leisure and comfort. To Mrs Hall, the housekeeper, the arrival of Mr Bingley at Netherfield Park, which gives Pride and Prejudice its famous opening sentence, "meant a flurry of giggly activity above stairs; it meant outings, entertainments, and a barrowload of extra work for everyone below." Elizabeth's boldness in crossing the fields to Netherfield to visit her stricken sister is seen in Jane Austen's novel as demonstrating her lively independence: here, to Sarah, the housemaid, suffering from painful chilblains that flare and crack at every exposure to cold and wet, "If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats ... she'd most likely be a sight more careful with them." The smooth running of the household means that housemaids must be up before first light, emptying slops, fetching water and lighting fires; an evening out requires the footman, James, to wait out in icy weather with horses harnessed ready to convey the ladies home.


If you read this hoping for romantic encounters between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, you'll be disappointed; Jane Austen's key players are in minor roles here. Mr Darcy barely appears in person, and he is certainly not Colin Firth. We see the Bennets' acquaintances only as they affect the servants: Mr and Mrs Hall, Sarah, and the younger, pre-pubescent girl, Polly. When Mr Collins arrives in search of a likely wife, we see the insecurity of the servants' livelihoods, for it will be in his power to dismiss them all, should he wish, when he takes ownership. Mrs Hall is relieved when he settles for the homely Charlotte Lucas. A servant like Sarah - an orphan taken in by the stern but kindly Mrs Hall - has nothing to call her own beyond the wooden box in which she keeps her few possessions; not even space, as she shares a room, and a bed, with Polly. Moments of privacy can only be snatched between chores. When she and Mr Bingley's footman are mutually attracted, she's surprised at "the dawning revelation that pleasure was possible for her."


The plot hinges on the arrival and later disappearance of a young manservant who joins the household, James Smith. The secrets of his past are revealed partly through the machinations of George Wickham, the predatory charmer. Jo Baker picks up on the small detail in Pride and Prejudice that a soldier of the visiting militia has been flogged; here Sarah witnesses the brutal act while on an errand to Meryton, later connecting it with James's story. A middle section takes us back to his army service during the Napoleonic wars, and into territory which ranges far from Longbourn and middle-class Hertfordshire. Mrs Hill, too, has a back-story which throws an intriguing - and plausible - new light on the Bennets' marriage.


While this is a compelling novel in its own right, it closely parallels the events of Pride and Prejudice, with the fairly safe assumption that readers will be familiar either with the novel or with one of the many adaptations. But there is no attempt to imitate Jane Austen's style. In fact readers may find more similarities to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, in Sarah's passionate love for James, her fierce loyalty, and in particular in the descriptions of landscape and weather. Here is James, alone on a beach (you'll never find anything like this in a Jane Austen novel, where landscape is seen only as evidence of status, taste and good management). "He slipped away to the shore, and walked across the low headland; it fell away into a spit of sand, the grasses thin and fine as old men's hair, the sand drifting and scattering and settling; and white shells and then bleached bones, and then a sheep's skull, picked white, which made him catch his step a moment, not at what it was but at what he thought it might have been. Then skipping sand-fleas, and trails of dried seaweed, and he was out to the edge of the world."


Jo Baker writes with complete assurance, bringing her characters and settings vividly off the page. Her story isn't unique in being a spin-off from Pride and Prejudice - Emma Tennant, in Pemberley, and P D James, in Death Comes to Pemberley, have also drawn on this much-loved classic. But in my view Longbourn, with its shift of focus, outshines both.







Release, by Patrick Ness

I hold a small grudge against Patrick Ness. As a child, when I dreamed of being an author I used to imagine a book with my name on it on shelves in bookshops and libraries, rubbing shoulders with the great E. Nesbit. Occasionally that does happen; more often Patrick Ness is in between, taking up a lot of space. But my new next-door neighbour is as illustrious as his predecessor.


His latest book acknowledges its debts to both Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Judy Blume’s Forever: the former, because the novel follows the events of a single day; the latter because of its frankness about teenage sex. 


Adam Thorn, a gay teenager from a deeply religious family in Washington State, is instantly engaging: an immensely likeable blend of boldness and vulnerability, loyalty and cynicism, certainty and self-doubt. This decisive Saturday is to end (echoing Mrs Dalloway) with a lakeside party to see off Adam’s former lover, Enzo. But before the evening is reached, Adam is jolted by revelations from best friend Angela, brother Marty and his predatory employer, while his new boyfriend Linus seems likely to end up being hurt. Adam’s father, a small-town evangelical preacher, hasn’t yet managed to move into the twenty-first century where LGBT matters are concerned; it’s with good reason that Adam has so far kept Linus as a secret. When he does risk confiding in his father about the uncomfortable situation at work there are shocks and let-downs for both. The witty but searching banter between Adam and Angela shows that she is the one person he always trusts, but she too is about to leave.


When it comes to sex, Patrick Ness is emphatically not a writer to duck out with a coy row of dots and an evasive “Afterwards … “ He is quite clear about what and how. Enzo, with whom “there were moments of what Adam could only describe as desperation. They had to do it …” is compared to the endearing Linus, who was “enlisting Adam in the funniest, funniest thing two people could do together.” A bedroom scene with Linus is tender and touching as well as explicit, but Adam, while aware of the contrast to the more assertive Enzo, hasn’t yet recovered from the hurtful end of the earlier relationship.


Patrick Ness excels in portraying teenage friendships, passions, fears and doubts in a way that doesn’t in the least write down to his readers but carries the intensity of real experience. In this he reminds me of Aidan Chambers, a pioneer of fiercely intelligent young adult fiction. I was far less engrossed, though (in fact not at all) by the alternating supernatural sections, in which a girl recently murdered by her boyfriend at the lake haunts the place in a kind of limbo, accompanied by a giant naked faun. The two stories do eventually come together in a moment of release for both characters, but I felt that this strand was simultaneously too much and not enough, and am unsure what it adds to the novel. Perhaps I’ve missed something.


Release is published by Walker. This review is a slightly adapted version of a piece written for Armadillo online magazine.


Helen Dunmore, poet and novelist, 1952-2017

I never met Helen Dunmore or heard her speak, but somehow feel that I have, through the impact her books have made on me as both reader and writer. 


She died just two days before the announcement of the Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction, of which she was the first winner (in its original incarnation as the Orange Prize) for A Spell of Winter. In her last few days she wrote a poignant poem about the approach of death, Hold Out Your ArmsShe was a poet as well as a novelist, and it showed in everything she wrote: in the precision and sensuousness of her language and the seductiveness of her rhythms.

Her first novel, Zennor in Darkness, was widely praised for its freshness and immediacy and the luminosity of its prose. I read that on publication and have read most of her books since. Her subjects were wide-ranging: the First World War and its aftermath, the Siege of Leningrad, the French Revolution seen from England, domestic life with its tensions and rivalries. In The Greatcoat was a novella for Random House's Hammer series in which a haunted figure brings back the terrible losses of aircrew in the war (a subject which resonates with me, as my father was a navigator in Bomber Command). She could be deeply unsettling, as in the relationship between brother and sister in A Spell of Winter and between sisters in Talking to the Dead. Everything she wrote had her distinctive stamp of honesty, insightfulness and lyricism. 

She wrote wonderfully about landscapes and weather, especially in the coastal settings she loved. Here is Daniel, in The Lie, looking down from a cottage roof. "There was the brown, bare, sinewy land running down to the cliffs. There were the Garracks, and Giant's Cap, and the Island. There was the swell, like a muscle under the sea, moving in long, slow pulses to Porthgwyn. I looked west and saw rainclouds, damson-coloured and making a bloom of shadow on the sea." She was always good on food, as here, when Nina in Talking to the Dead makes a tart: "the apples must be cut evenly, in fine crescents of equal thickness, which will lap around in ring after ring, hooping inwards, glazed with apricot jam. The tart must cook until the tips of the apple rings are almost black, but the fruit itself is still plump and moist. When you close your eyes and bite you must taste caramel, sharp apple, juice and the short, sandy texture of sweet pastry all at once." It's enough to make you salivate. Food is abundant in this novel, while in The Siege she wrote powerfully and unforgettably about hunger and cold, desperation and survival.


Completing her final novel, Birdcage Walk, she knew of her terminal cancer. In its Afterword, she wrote: "The question of what is left behind by a life haunts the novel. While I finished and edited it I was already seriously ill, but not yet aware of this. I suppose that a writer’s creative self must have access to knowledge of which the conscious mind and the emotions are still ignorant, and that a novel written at such a time, under such a growing shadow, cannot help being full of a sharper light, as a landscape becomes brilliantly distinct in the last sunlight before a storm."

I'm glad now that there are Helen Dunmore novels and poems I haven't yet read. I will ration them out to myself, in order not to use up the new reading experience too quickly. She was an exhilarating, generous talent whose words sing from the page and will ensure that she is remembered.


(This is part of a joint tribute posted by Adele Geras, Celia Rees and myself on Writers Review.)


Struck by a Duck

Yesterday I went into the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to look for something that proved to be less interesting than I'd expected. But as I wandered into the Mughal India section I saw this duck painting across the room, and had to take a closer look.


It's one of several bird paintings by a Mughal artist called Shaikh Zain ud-Din, who apparently lived in Calcutta in the 1780s. He was commissioned by Lady Mary Impey, who moved to Bengal with her husband Elijah when he became a Chief Justice there. Interested in natural history, she appointed artists to paint various creatures, including those in her own menagerie.


In the Ashmolean, this Male Nukta or Comb Duck is one of four paintings by Shaik Zain ud-Din, who is described there as the most gifted of the artists employed by Lady Impey. All four are engaging and endearing, but it was the duck that caught and held my attention.


This reproduction really doesn't do it justice, though you can see the realism of the pose, the heavy tread of webbed feet and the intent gaze on (probably) something interesting to eat. The original - gouache on paper - shows the texture and iridescence of the plumage, the plump featheriness, the purposeful, busy duckishness. Almost you can feel what it would be like to stroke those back feathers and feel their firm springiness, or to pick the bird up and feel its weight and the sway of its neck as it turns to look at you.


I like the thought of Shaikh Zain ud-Din watching this duck so closely, observing its behaviour, and focusing closely on his painting. His nose must have been positioned precisely where mine was as I looked. He must have worked and paused and stood back to assess, wondering if he had captured the essence of this duck, and surely - justifiably - he felt pleased that he had. There must have been a moment when he put down his brush and thought, "Yes, that's it. Got it." Maybe he was anxious that his patron should approve, and surely she did. And also there's the duck itself - this duck that lived and pecked and bred and died almost two hundred and fifty years ago, full of life and presence in an Oxford museum today. That freshness of vision has survived into the twenty-first century.  


It's the week of the Manchester bombings. (This week, too, with far less press coverage, eleven refugees drowned in the Aegean Sea.) In response an acquaintance posted this Tennessee Williams quotation on Facebook, and it was widely shared:


"The world is violent and mercurial - it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love - love for each other and the love we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love."


Those words were in my mind as I looked at Shaikh Zain ud-Din's characterful duck. Art and love. The giving of devoted attention, which is perhaps what love is. Art, love and lives that have somehow reached across the centuries and across continents.


Natural Selection, by Dan Pearson


This piece was written for Writers Review, and published on 1st May 2017.


Speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival in March, Dan Pearson said that his love of writing developed alongside his passion for gardening from an early age, and he illustrated his talk with some of the lists and stories, journals and notebooks he has kept from childhood. Now one of the most influential garden designers working today – his Chatsworth garden at Chelsea in 2015 won both a gold medal and Best in Show, and his design studio has worked on prestigious projects in Japan and Italy and many others including Maggie’s Centre in London and Lowther Castle – he somehow still makes time for writing alongside the many other demands of a busy career.

Until 2015 he wrote weekly pieces for the Observer magazine (where his page was the first I’d turn to, and still miss …) and his new book, Natural Selection, brings many of those articles together as a year-book companion, following the seasons’ progress. But while progressing through the months we move back and forth in time and through many different settings – his own plots in Peckham and now Somerset; his childhood home; deserts, forests and coasts he has studied on his travels; a memorable visit to George Harrison's garden at Friar Park – while other sections compare the merits of various roses or magnolias or planting combinations, or simply look at the joys of a particular season or day: “The garden is a sanctuary of sorts and one that allows me to combine mindfulness with the purely physical.” Although there's a fair bit of dirt-under-the-fingernails detail on semi-ripe cuttings, seed harvesting and growing salads for succession, this isn’t a how-to gardening book so much as an appreciation of plants, landscapes, seasons and the effects of light and shade.

Dan Pearson credits both Christopher Lloyd and Vita Sackville-West as his writing mentors, and yes, his writing gives the sensuous pleasure he admires in theirs. This is a book to relish for the eloquence of its description as much as for the information it imparts. Here’s a camellia he saw in Japan: “… There it was in the gloom, a white, autumn-blooming Camellia sasanqua. Its delicate branches had formed a perfect dome four metres high and swept down to knee height to fan out as if it was doing a curtsy. Each leaf, a slim twist of the darkest, most lustrous green, reflected what light there was left in the afternoon, and along its branches was the peppering of flower. Pale and pure glistening white, the five-petalled blooms flared informally away from a golden boss of stamens.” Walking in Greece, “I found a bowl-shaped valley giving way to oaks with juniper clinging to the cliff faces. The dark shadows at their base were lit by a surf of moon daisies, and a hush descended for a moment as my ears adjusted from the waves to a roar of bees feeding in a sea of Lavendula stoechas.” At home, on writing days, he brings a posy of flowers indoors, to notice “the way a flower is put together and how it sits on the stem …  You can witness the passage of bud from opening to demise, see how the colour is infused and then diluted, or in some cases intensified by ageing. The seed and the berries and even the skeletons, come the winter, are of just as much interest.” 


The hallmarks of Dan Pearson’s designs are the subtlety of his response to place and atmosphere. and the inspiration he takes from wild landscapes. Beth Chatto was an early influence, from whom he began to learn the art of “achieving a delicate balance between steering nature and being part of it rather than trying to dominate,” and “gardening with wild plants rather than overworked cultivars”. He knows the importance of quiet moments of appreciation, whether in exotic locations or in his own garden. Of his planting for Maggie's Centre for cancer care, he writes: "I have always instinctively known that intimacy, sensuality and sanctuary in a garden are key to creating a sense of wellbeing, but it has been made so much more vivid seeing it through the eyes of someone who is seizing life with a new intensity."


Natural Selection is a beautiful object to hold, printed in dark green rather than black ink and with endpapers, cover design and an illustration for each month by Clare Melinsky. It’s a book to read twice at least: first to devour the lot in one go, as I’ve just done; then returning to each section in its own month. And I recommend keeping a plant encyclopaedia or i-phone handy as you read, as you’re sure to want to look up the plants and gardens mentioned - and, more than likely, to place orders.


To keep in touch with Dan Pearson’s journal, and the development of Hillside, his Somerset smallholding, you can follow his regular blog and newsletter, Dig Delve.


Natural Selection is published by Guardian Books / Faber.



The Facts of Life by Paula Knight

I don’t have children, and am sometimes expected to account for that to inquisitive strangers. “Oh? Is that from choice, or …?” is a frequent response to what seems to be taken as an admission, rather than a statement, of my childless state. These casual questioners seem unaware that that innocuous “or … ?” might possibly plumb depths of grief or loss (though not in my case) which no stranger has any right to probe. As for the idea of choosing not to have children … such a decision is often viewed as peculiar or selfish. Last year, indiscreet remarks from Andrea Leadsom, then a contender for the Conservative party leadership, prompted explanations from her rival Theresa May about why she’s childless: explanations which no male politician would ever be required to give. Yes, we’re in the 21st Century (where, as Paula Knight points out, the world hardly needs more inhabitants) but still it seems that women are required to be wives and mothers by default; or, if not, to have some good excuse ready for those demanding to know why not. 


The Facts of Life confronts this head on. I met Paula years ago on an Arvon course and have tracked her progress since as a successful illustrator of children’s books.  This is a new departure: a memoir told and shown in versatile comic-strip form. Referring to herself as ‘Polly’, though it’s clearly her own experience she draws on, Paula traces her early and adult years, from her awareness of bodily functions and sex, on through career opportunities, relationships and friends’ pregnancies (exclamations and congratulations followed swiftly by a sense of inadequacy – this shown so neatly in talking heads and speech balloons, no commentary needed) to conception, loss and finally resignation and adaptation. It’s striking how little the Swinging Sixties and the arrival of the contraceptive pill affected the advice given to teenage girls in the 1970s: ‘Polly’, born in 1969, got from parents and teachers the clear expectation that marriage and motherhood were to be her destiny.


Post-viral fatigue syndrome and the break-up of a relationship take Polly into her thirties, when a new man, Jack, offers a new chance. Flexible page layouts animate her dilemma. While an hourglass trickles down the centre of one page, two Pollys face each other from either side: one a paint-spattered artist, the other smugly pregnant, her baby-bulge counterpointing the inward curve of the glass.  On another page, a Janus-headed Polly looks left and right at the pros and cons of being a mother. “’Sometime later’ was here now … “  While examinations and tests continue, a well-meaning acquaintance tells her, “You’ll never know love quite like it unless you have children,“ – a familiar statement that pushes other kinds of love into second or third place. The excitement of conception is followed swiftly by miscarriage, more than once, and we accompany Polly as she cocoons herself against the platitudes offered so kindly by friends. The graphic approach works brilliantly here, as we see her assaulted by music, noise, words and visions. Finally, when the barrage of tests and the whirlwind of expectation and disappointment become too much, Polly and her very supportive Jack begin to examine their future without children.


In one drawing a crack in the wall behind two talking heads widens and splits as Polly counters the assumptions of a former friend preoccupied with childcare. Facing a campaign poster image of the clichéd ‘hardworking families’ beloved of politicians, Polly reflects, “As a person without kids, you must prepare to be effaced in a society where ‘family’ means ‘children’.” But compensations are to be found in the natural world and in new friendships – and, self-evidently, in art. The decision not to persevere is not an ending, but the start of new explorations and a reassessment of values.


There’s quite detailed medical information throughout, but also humour and a light touch. In one drawing, a deceased Polly sits upright in her wicker coffin to ask, “Um, do you have ‘Farewell Regality’ by Rachel Unthank and the Winterset?” If she doesn’t have children, who will be around in her old age to take care of such things? The charm, skill and wit of the drawings, recalling Posy Simmonds, and the cleverness and variety of page design, fully involve the reader in a tale that is very personal but never self-pitying. This is a tricky balance to strike, and Paula Knight is to be congratulated for producing a book which will be of particular value and comfort to people of both genders whose experience is similar to Polly’s and Jack’s, but should also have wider appeal for its insight into the lives of others and for its exploration into the big questions of life: why are we here? What difference can we make in the world? 


My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You: Louisa Young


(This piece also appears on WRITERS REVIEW.)


I can't think why it's taken me so long to get round to reading Louisa Young's engrossing First World War novel. It was widely publicised, having been shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and also chosen for Richard and Judy's Book Club, guaranteeing a wide readership. This thoroughly involving story includes an area of the war and social history which isn't - as far as I'm aware - much covered in fiction, namely the pioneer work in facial reconstruction undertaken by Major Harold Gillies. It stands alongside Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy as a powerful exploration of the physical and psychological effects of injury and trauma.


We first meet Riley Purefoy as a boy of eleven, when he's hit by a snowball in the face (neatly prefiguring the far more serious injury he'll receive ten years later while fighting in the Ypres Salient). This incident introduces him to the bohemian Waveney family, including daughter Nadine, and through them to an elderly pre-Raphaelite painter, Sir Alfred, who promptly recruits the boy as a model and then general assistant. Thus the clever, enterprising Riley is introduced to the artistic middle class of Kensington, and begins to see a future for himself beyond the more limited expectations of his working-class parents.


By the time Riley joins the Army, still only eighteen, he is in love with Nadine, aware that her French mother discourages their association because of his lowly origins. His wit and adaptability soon lead to him being commissioned, however; and Nadine herself, loyal and spirited, scorns her mother's doubts. Their growing love is set against the decline in trust between Riley's Commanding Officer, Peter Locke, and his beautiful but vapid wife Julia. Julia wants nothing but to be a good wife to Peter, but finds him increasingly remote from her, both in his letters and in person when he comes home on leave. Longing to receive and offer physical solace she is dismayed by his perfunctory, almost brutal, embrace in bed. Lacking much purpose, even after giving birth to a son, Julia becomes obsessed with the need to preserve her looks. Her experiments with eyebrow tattooing and facial peeling treatments are set against the more drastic remodellings being attempted at the nearby Queen's Hospital, in Sidcup, where her VAD sister-in-law Rose works under the supervision of Harold Gillies. (Alongside Gillies, another real person we glimpse here is Kathleen Scott, Louisa Young's grandmother, a former student at the Slade School of Art who assisted the surgeon by making models and casts of patients' disfigured faces.)


Inevitably, Riley Purefoy arrives at Queen's for treatment. "The young man who had been the arrowhead of the system of destruction now became the epicentre of an industry of reconstruction. He who must destroy had become he who must be mended.' Some writers, describing terrible injuries like Riley's, veer too close to sensationalism and even relish, but Louisa Young strikes just the right balance: there's enough stomach-turning detail to make the reader aware of the huge and painful adjustments faced by Riley and his fellow patients, but not so much as to seem gratuitous. 


The relationship between Riley and Nadine - now a nurse herself, serving in France - has till now been characterised by openness and honesty, which makes the letter that gives the book its title all the more heartbreaking. Two letters from Riley to Nadine begin in this way: the first sent from the Casualty Clearing Station on a standard form; the other from the Queen's Hospital, enlisting the help of Rose Locke. Both letters include lies. The first is understandable and probably not unusual. The second is devastating. 


The Armistice comes before the novel ends, and we see the uncertainties it produces. 'No one ever wins a war, and wars are never over.' For Riley, 'Before, while it was still on, I was Captain Purefoy, wounded soldier. Who am I to be now? Mr Purefoy, disabled ex-serviceman? His age rang through his head like the tolling of a bell. Twenty-two, twenty-two, twenty-two. There was an awfully long time ahead of him.'


What sort of life can these characters rebuild? Where has the war left them? These questions clearly intrigue Louisa Young, as she has gone on to explore them in a sequel, The Heroes' Welcome. I hope that among other things there will be a fulfilling role for Rose, who is pivotal in the plot of this first novel, supporting all the other main characters and even keeping her patience with the exasperating Julia, while assuming that she'll never find a loving relationship of her own. Maybe she'll be proved wrong.



Until We Win: Donald Trump, Votes for Women and the power of protest

This is a slightly edited version of an article written for The Bookbag, published on 26th January 2017.


Last weekend, following the inauguration of Donald Trump as US President, there were marches on a scale the world has never seen before – the Women’s Marches, protesting against Trump’s hateful attitudes and disgraceful conduct. Among the London marchers was a group dressed as suffragettes, wearing VOTES FOR WOMEN sashes, to remind us how hard women fought for the vote, more than a hundred years ago. Against a patronising misogynist like Trump, that fight still needs to be fought – no longer for the vote, but for equal rights with men, equal opportunities, equal dignity.


It wasn’t only women who marched. News coverage showed a sizeable proportion of men who know that women’s rights are everyone’s rights; there were children, babies, dogs wearing slogans. Those marchers stood up for fairness, consideration and respect for everyone. They were making a stand against racism and homophobia and hatred.


My latest novel, UNTIL WE WIN, is about Votes for Women, and the involvement of one teenage girl, Lizzy. My first published book, RUN WITH THE HARE, was about animal rights; and in both stories, my main characters – Lizzy and Elaine respectively – are campaigning against something they see as wrong, something that must change. Having done a fair bit of animal rights campaigning myself over many years (I support the League Against Cruel Sports, Compassion in World Farming and PETA – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) I know how easy it is to feel overwhelmed and despondent at the scale of the problem. Things change so slowly / the world doesn’t care / what can one person do, anyway? Thoughts like those, at low points, can make you feel like giving up – almost.  


But the question “What can one person do?” feels irrelevant when you look at the coverage of those marches. It’s never one person. The suffragettes were powerful because they acted as a group – (even if, as in my story, opinions differed as to how best to make their points). The animal rights organisations I support work by raising awareness and appealing to the sense of empathy and fairness everyone has to some degree. Attitudes do change, even if very slowly. A hundred years ago, women didn’t have the vote. Forty years ago, few people bothered about whether their cosmetics had been tested on animals, coats made from the fur of exotic animals were considered fashionable and glamorous and it was seen as a bit peculiar to be vegetarian. Things change. Maybe, forty years on, the idea of eating the flesh of dead animals will be viewed with revulsion.



So, in a way, writing UNTIL WE WIN took me right back to my first novel. Something is wrong: unfair, unjust. It’s got to change. Both Lizzy and Elaine feel a burning sense of injustice, and both find purpose in life through their determination and commitment. I called my new book UNTIL WE WIN - partly because we know, of course, that the suffragettes did win, though not until after the First World War; and partly because of their fierce determination. They would never give up until women got the vote. 


What a weekend of contrasts it was – arrogance, threats and empty promises from the new President in Washington; hope, defiance and solidarity demonstrated most emphatically by the marching millions. Even the blinkered Mr Trump can’t ignore it. That stand for fairness isn’t going to shut up and go away. Hatred and bigotry will not win.

On Writing, by Stephen King


I have to confess that I've yet to read a complete Stephen King novel. Trusted friends have recommended CARRIE, MISERY and others, and after being so impressed by ON WRITING, which I first read a few years ago, I did embark on MISERY. But ... no. I read only two or three chapters before concluding that Stephen King's fiction just isn't for me. It was gripping, undoubtedly, but perhaps I'm just too much of a wuss for such meaty stuff (and also vegetarian).


This, though, I highly recommend. It's part memoir, framed by King's early days as solitary writer of stories, contributor to a school magazine and journalist - always with a hunger for writing, and tireless energy - and, at the other end of the book, an account of the traumatic accident which he was lucky to survive (he was hit by a truck driver while walking alone on a country road) and his slow recovery, during which resuming the writing of this book was a significant stage.


There is so much to like here, not least Stephen King's devotion to his wife Tabitha (also a writer) and his gratitude for her support throughout his career, especially after the accident. His sales number hundreds of millions, he has published more than 50 novels, won a barrowload of prestigious awards and his current novel END OF WATCH is a New York Times bestseller; yet here he comes over as assured but not conceited, generous with his advice, genuine in his desire to pass on the joy he finds in writing.


I've always disliked the nuts-and-bolts approach to writing which suggests that if you follow the rules and work hard you'll end up with a publishable novel. Although King does look at aspects of style and technique, he is clear that writing well is more than that. "At its most basic we are only discussing a learned skill, but do we not agree that sometimes the most basic skills can create things far beyond our expectations? We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style ... but as we move along, you'd do well to remember that we are also talking about magic." Yet he's good at debunking ivory tower notions of writerly preciousness, stressing that the most important thing is simply to get on with it. "There is a muse, but he's not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station." (In a footnote, King explains "Traditionally, the muses were women, but mine's a guy; I'm afraid we'll just have to live with that.") Like many writers, he finds his 'muse' mainly by turning up for work and putting in the hours.


He stresses the need for truth in what you write, dismissing a cynical market-based approach which puts sales and profit ahead of honesty. "It's morally wonky, for one thing - the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story's web of lies, not to commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck. Also, brothers and sisters, it doesn't work." In terms of his own love of the horror genre, "If you disapprove, I can only shrug my shoulders. It's what I have," fed by his early love of horror movies and comics. Interestingly, King is a writer of suspense thrillers who does not give foremost importance to plot: "I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story."


This isn't a writing textbook and there are no exercises, but there are plenty of examples (good and bad), a section of text which is then revised, with explanations, and one exhilarating what-if masterclass in which King takes a simple, familiar situation as the basis for a story and then plays with expanding it in ways that tighten the tension. It seems that his prodigious output since the publication of Carrie, his first novel, in 1974, has done nothing to dull his enjoyment in writing and creativity. "In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy."


Reading this book for a second time, I like Stephen King every bit as much as I did on my first reading. So: should I give his fiction another try? What would you recommend?


This account of The Dead Zone (published in 1979) has a particular, prescient resonance now; King's initial idea "called for a dangerously unstable politician ... a fellow who could climb the political ladder by showing the world a jolly, jes'-folks face and charming the voters by refusing to play the game in the usual way." Thinking about his other narrator, King wonders: "Can a political assassin ever be right? And if he is, could you make him the protagonist of the novel? The good guy?" 


I might have to read The Dead Zone to find out if he did.




The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain




Like a sonata, this novel has three sections, the central one introducing a different key – present-tense, and moving back in time. This story of loyalty, betrayal and forgiveness is set in Switzerland, at first in the years immediately following the second world war, then shifting back to the 1930s.  The main viewpoint character, Gustav Perle, is dutiful and self-effacing, sublimating his own loves and desires from boyhood until late middle age. His father, Erich, died suddenly while Gustav was still an infant and he is brought up in poverty by his coldly grudging mother, Emilie. Aged five, he meets Anton Zwiebler, who will be a significant throughout his life; but Emilie resents Anton for being Jewish, and discourages friendship with the affluent, cultured and middle-class Zwieblers. “The Jews,” she tells Gustav, “are the people your father died trying to save.” In this section Tremain is particularly good on small details of childhood toys and games which will recur in later sections: the painted faces on the sides of Gustav's toy train carriage, the doctor and nurses game the two boys play in a deserted sanatorium, and the blood-pact they take, cutting their arms with the blades of ice-skates. 


It’s in the middle section that we learn of the dilemma facing Erich Perle, and in which he showed compassion beyond his wife’s more limited emotional understanding. In the late 1930s the country faces an influx of Jewish refugees from Austria, France and Germany, a situation with contemporary resonance for readers. Erich, an Assistant Chief of Police, finds it hard to look at these desperate people; as his colleague says, “It could be us on those hard benches. And that’s what we’re most afraid of – to look out there and see ourselves.” In the summer of 1938 an order is given that all Jews attempting to enter Switzerland must be sent back. Soon Erich is moved to compromise his sense of duty – at the risk of his job - by falsifying records, knowing that otherwise the Jewish people seeking help will face suffering and death. It’s an illuminating picture of an aspect of the war with which I, for one, was unfamiliar – the fears of Swiss people that neutrality would not be honoured by Germany and that their country, like Poland or Czechoslovakia, would be invaded. Emilie never forgives her husband for what she sees only as betrayal. “He put Jewish lives before mine. He cared more about helping strangers than he cares about me.” Yet Tremain allows us to feel some sympathy for Emilie by giving glimpses of her childhood with her own mean-spirited mother.


In the final section we return to Gustav, now in his fifties, running a mediocre – and soon struggling – hotel in the same unremarkable town in which he grew up. His friendship with Anton has endured, but is threatened when Anton, a talented pianist whose nerves have always prevented him from performing in public, is given a new opportunity, taking him to Geneva. Anton is careless of Gustav’s devotion, and after he leaves – excited about his prospects, heedless of deserting his closest friend - it seems that Gustav is destined to spend his mature years as “a sad, grey donkey” in the company of elderly people – his mother (as grudging now as she has ever been), Anton’s parents, a regular hotel visitor from England, and the voraciously sexual wife of his father’s former colleague. 


It’s a long, patient wait for the fulfilment the reader will surely feel he is due. “We have to become the people we always should have been,” he is told, in a moving, perfectly-pitched ending which brings back motifs from the first section.





Children's Books Round-Up

Since becoming Patron of Reading at Great Chesterford Primary Academy, near Saffron Walden in Essex, I'm always looking out for books to recommend to the children. The Boy in the Tower came to my attention as one of the selection used by the Essex booksellers and consultants Just Imagine for their Reading Gladiators scheme. From a strong range of novels, this was the Year 4 children's favourite by far. It's an inventive and unusual first novel by primary teacher Polly Ho-Yen - a kind of Day of the Triffids for juniors. Ade, who lives in a London block of flats, has to look after his mother, who won't go out. When nearby buildings start to collapse, it seems to be the work of the strange blueish-green plants that are sprouting everywhere, yet for some reason Ade's own tower block is untouched - so far. Ade's survival is soon dependent on the small community remaining in the flats, with dangers increasing by the day.


I enjoyed meeting Rebecca Stevens recently at a Moray Libraries event, Great War Great Reads, and after hearing her talk about her novel Valentine Joe I wanted to read it myself and pass it on to the Year 6 children. It's based on the true story of Valentine Joe Strudwick, one of many boys who lied about his age in order to join the army. Rose, a young teenager visiting Ypres with her grandfather, comes across Joe's gravestone. Finding herself transported back to wartime she is desperate to change Joe's fate; yet, as she's seen his gravestone, his death is inevitable. It's a poignant but uplifting story with a ghost element sure to appeal to young readers.  


Moving up to lower secondary, there's more ghostliness in Jeremy de Quidt's linked stories, The Wrong Train. A boy travelling alone late at night realises that he's on the wrong train, and gets off at the next station - but is it really a station? An old man appears (shades of Dickens' The Signalman) and starts to tell very creepy, unsettling stories, none with a reassuring ending, to his unwilling listener. And there's a final, clever twist. Readers who fall under Jeremy de Quidt's spell should look out for his two novels, The Toymaker and The Feathered Man. 


There's a ghost again, a surprising one (I didn't set out to look for ghost stories, but several have come my way), in Mary Hoffman's Shakespeare's Ghost, which shows us the development and staging of Shakespeare's plays from the point of view of a young actor, Ned. Ned is caught between the real world and the realm of faery when he catches the attention of the bewitching Faelinn, who has her own plans for him. Mary Hoffman, best known for her Stravaganza series and the picture book Amazing Grace, has recently set up her own publishing company, The Greystones Press, and this was one of the launch titles. Mary and I both live in Oxfordshire, and it's pleasing that a key scene takes place at the Rollright Stones, which are shown on the cover.


Finally, for teenage readers, Sarah Dessen's Saint Anything. American author Sarah Dessen is like Anne Tyler for young adults - an accomplished writer who always conveys acute emotional insights with a light touch. Here, teenage Sydney is trying to cope with the aftermath of a drink-drive incident in which her brother Tyler caused serious injury to another boy. Her parents' unquestioning support for Tyler prevents them from acknowledging that he was to blame; it's Sydney who has to question their values and her own, while forging new friendships that help her towards independence. You can read my full review here.  











Pick of the Year

This post also appears on WRITERS REVIEW, together with Pick of the Year choices by my fellow bloggers there, Adele Geras and Celia Rees. If a title is highlighted, you can read my full review by clicking on the link.

In 2016 I finally read War and Peacespurred to do so by the Andrew Davies BBC version. I was sometimes ahead of the dramatisation and sometimes behind, boring anyone within earshot with a refrain of "It's not quite like that in the book ... " I found that simultaneous viewing and reading worked well, the TV drama helping me to identify the huge cast of characters; I enjoyed BBC's sumptuous production values and superb acting (especially Paul Dano, so endearing as the well-meaning but often misguided Pierre Bezukhov, Jessie Buckley as Marya Bolkonskaya and Ade Edmundson as Count Rostov), while for epic scale and sweep the novel can't be rivalled. I'd happily both watch and read again. 


   New novels that impressed me this year were Tracy Chevalier's At the Edge of the Orchard, Sarah Moss's The Tidal Zone and Sarah Perry's deservedly-praised Victorian Gothic The Essex SerpentI'd already read several of Tracy Chevalier's titles (including the excellent Remarkable Creatures, reviewed here) while Sarahs Moss and Perry are both authors I'll be looking out for in future. I shall certainly re-read The Essex Serpentand the same goes for Ali Smith's dazzling How to be Both – two linked but very different stories, one of a modern teenager undergoing therapy, the other of a Renaissance frieze-painter - which can be read in either order, with links and overlaps gradually revealed. In this ingenious jigsaw puzzle of a book, there's more than can easily be picked up in a single reading. 

It was thanks to my Reading Group that I read Katherine McMahon's 
The Crimson Rooms, set in the immediate aftermath of the First World War: a murder mystery, seen through the eyes of a young female lawyer, but also a poignant and realistic portrayal of the effects of war on participants and others. My final fiction choice is Trioby Sue Gee, which has all her hallmarks: powerful emotion rooted in realistic situations, wonderful sense of place and time (Northumberland, in this case, in the late 1930s), acute observation of weather, seasons and human behaviour. There's music too, in this latest novel; descriptions of performances by the Trio of the title will have you searching YouTube or your CD collection so that you can listen as they play. And reading Sue Gee always makes me want to write, which is a bonus. 


William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives went with me on my first trip to India, two years ago, and this year City of Djinns: a Year in Delhi was the perfect companion – informative, personal and anecdotal - for my visit to the city in February. I’ve included Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica because it’s a favourite non-fiction choice for not just this but every year, with its mix of botany, natural history and folklore – I always dip into it around the winter solstice. Finally: Fingers in the Sparkle Jar is part natural history, part memoir, by naturalist and Springwatch presenter Chris Packham. I greatly admire Chris Packham for his vast knowledge of wildlife and his ability as a communicator, and also for his outspokenness on matters of animal abuse and the environment. This was a revelation – a highly personal account, with striking literary echoes, of his teenage years, his close observation of - and even identification with - birds and animals, and the therapy he underwent later when suffering from depression. I wonder what he’ll write next?

Quick links to 2016 reviews

Quick links to older reviews:


TRIO by Sue Gee


NATURE CURE by Richard Mabey




THE HYPNOTIST by Laurence Anholt


THE LONEY by Andrew Michael Hurley


THE TIDAL ZONE by Sarah Moss


Gardener's delight: EARTHLY JOYS by Philippa Gregory


A FATAL INVERSION: Barbara Vine's masterclass in psychological tension












THE CRIMSON ROOMS by Katharine McMahon


SAINT ANYTHING by Sarah Dessen





Trio by Sue Gee

I’ve enjoyed several of Sue Gee’s novels since reading The Hours of the Night many years ago. That’s still my favourite, though this one, her latest, comes close, and shares similar ingredients: rural life, loss and recovery, the tentative beginnings of a new relationship, music, social conscience.


The setting here is Northumberland in the three years before the outbreak of the second world war. Steven Coulter, a young history teacher, loses his wife to tuberculosis, and stays on, bereft and alone, in the remote moorland cottage that was their home. A charismatic colleage, Frank Embleton, from a far more affluent background, draws Steven into his social circle: the trio of the title, comprising Frank’s beautiful sister Diana, who plays the cello; violinist George, who nurtures a secret love; and aristocratic Margot, the pianist, who has lived all her life at Hepplewick Hall, which she now shares with her widowed father. Knowing little about music, Steven is drawn in, finding an appreciation that helps him through his grief and attracts him to Margot. The two have little in common apart from bereavement – Margot’s mother died when she was a little girl – but the attraction is mutual. Sue Gee excels at portraying the first flare of attraction, its growth into love and the flashes of insight, understanding and tension that pass between people who know each other well, as these musicians do.


Her writing about music will have you searching YouTube or your CD collection so that you can hear what Steven hears, as he begins to understand “that the whole piece was a conversation between their instruments, a move from question to answer, from gentle enquiry to passionate response … when he watched Margot’s slender body half lift from the stool in a fast, dramatic passage, as if she couldn’t stop herself, he began to wonder at what it must do to you, to play like this. And at who you must be, to want to make it your life.”


Always in the background, becoming more evident as the months pass, is the threat of war: Guernica, the Spanish Civil War, the Anschluss. Steven worries about Frank, who is secretive about his political activities, and about the adolescent boys he teaches who will soon be of age for military service. The school scenes are particularly well done, showing us Steven’s regard for the boys, his diligence, the staffroom exchanges and the solace he finds in work. Sue Gee also has a wonderfully easy way of making readers aware of weather, the seasons and the natural landscape, contrasting the wild moorland scenery with the elegant landscaping of the grounds at Hepplewick Hall, with its cedar tree and ha-ha.


A coda, a short Book Two which brings us into the present and the viewpoint of Steven’s son, now elderly, comes as a jolt, and introduces maybe too many new characters, but is a clever way of leapfrogging the war while showing us what happened in the lives of the main players, then and since. And, just as importantly, to the places.


I suspect that some readers will find Sue Gee’s careful evocation of character, relationships and social settings rather too slow; others will find it poignant and engrossing, as I did.


Nature Cure, by Richard Mabey


A slightly longer version of this review first appeared on Normblog as part of a Writer's Choice feature hosted by the late Professor Norman Geras.


A chance hearing of Radio 4’s Book of the Week first alerted me to this wise and compelling account of Mabey’s decline into depression, and re-emergence.   Shortly afterwards a writer friend and I, by agreement, exchanged copies on our respective birthdays.   


Mabey’s book strikes many chords with me, from page 2 where he describes the finding of a grounded swift.   I had the same rare experience when one of my cats somehow caught one and brought it indoors through the cat-flap.   Handling the bewildered but unharmed bird, I saw the perfection of its aeronautical design – strong, swept-back wings, wide gape, tough eyelids with bristly lashes.   Like Mabey, I realised that the only way to return it to the  air was to launch it like a paper aeroplane, and watched in amazed delight as it skimmed the grass before soaring high to rejoin the flock. 


Swifts, epitomising English summer with their screaming flight, hold a special significance for Mabey, echoing Ted Hughes for whom their return each May proved that “the globe’s still working”.   So it was a sure sign of the depression he’d sunk into that he lay in bed too lethargic to turn his head while the swifts whizzed and screamed outside his window.  Many writers will recognise the odd, bereft feeling of completing a book.   For Mabey the work had been a massive one, Flora Britannica*, and the sense of loss was compounded by the death of his mother from Parkinson’s disease, through which he and his sister had shared the nursing.  


His home for most of his life had been in his parents’ house in the Chilterns. There, he owned a piece of woodland, from which he banned the local hunt (hurrah!) while encouraging neighbours to wander and collect wood. Debilitated and purposeless in his illness, he was encouraged by friends – and a new lover - to resume his absorption in the natural world and in writing, the twin passions which had always sustained him.   Acknowledging that he’d never really “fledged”, and that the process of maturation demanded a move, he decamped with three cats to the Norfolk Breckland, as lodgers in an isolated seventeenth-century farmhouse.  Here, through a solitary but cathartic winter, he finds new bearings and rediscovers his connection with the land.  He examines maps, he ponders over interesting names, he reflects on the shaping of the landscape by human intervention and the enclosure of the commons, he becomes fascinated by “westing” – what seems an instinctive alignment of buildings and field boundaries towards the setting sun.


This isn’t only the story, though, of Mabey’s illness and recovery.   There are frequent digressions – into the effects of the Enclosures Act on Norfolk life and landscape, glaciation and land-forms, language and folklore, flora and fauna.   The Northamptonshire poet John Clare, like the swifts, is present throughout.   Mabey feels a strong affinity with Clare, “ecological minstrel”, not only because of Clare’s mental illness and shared habitats, including the same Northampton hospital, but for Clare’s deep empathy with wild creatures and his skill in capturing their “jizz” (to use the concise term coined by birdwatchers).  


Mabey’s exile took place during the winter of 2002/3, with the Iraq war looming.   Tony Blair’s case for invasion echoed, for Mabey, the worst aspects of man’s assumed position at the top of the natural hierarchy.  The assumed rights of “head-prefect nations” are linked to Lewis Thomas’ observation that humans are still “walking bootshod over the open face of nature, subjugating and civilising it”.   Mainstream environmentalism, as opposed to the Gaia-like philosophy Mabey prefers, “is unashamedly utilitarian and human-centred.   It’s based on enlightened self-interest: we want a healthy, unpolluted, species-rich ecosystem because our material future depends on it,” but also we assume “the right, or the duty, to determine every other species’ share, too.”


The conventions of nature writing demand that personal experiences are not admitted, as if enjoyment of nature is a sideline or diversion from the real business of life.   But our connection to the natural world, as Mabey sees it, is essential to our spiritual and physical well-being.   In the worst slumps of depression, he had become, like the grounded swift, “the incomprehensible creature adrift in some insubstantial medium, out of kilter with the rest of creation.   It didn’t occur to me at the time, but maybe that is the way our whole species is moving.”   To read Nature Cure, at least, is to slow that progress.


Perhaps the fear of losing drive and purpose is especially potent for writers, who must find their own motivation, their reason for sitting down to work each day, their urgent desire to make sense of the world in words.   If that compulsion vanishes, what’s left?   But, as well as the honesty of Mabey’s self-revelation and the range of his knowledge, it’s the quality of his prose – the Ruskin-like attentiveness to shifts of light, patterns of growth, and behaviour of even the most common bird - that makes this book so memorable.


* Flora Britannica is another of my treasures, joined now by Birds Britannica (by Mark Crocker and Richard Mabey) which similarly combines natural history, folklore and anecdote.





The Crime Writer, by Jill Dawson

The inside of Patricia Highsmith’s head, in this semi-biographical novel, is an  uncomfortable place to be. Even before the main events start to unfold, we’re in uneasy company, sharing ‘Pat’s’ restlessness as she takes nocturnal walks, dressed in brogues and a man’s dressing-gown, always sensing that she’s being pursued. Highsmith’s fascination with snails is apparently well-documented, and Pat usually has one or two in her pocket for company, as well as many more kept in saucers and dishes around the house.


She’s come to this rural Suffolk village in order to work, but is also preoccupied with thoughts of her lover, the glamorous Sam, who may or may not escape from her unpleasant husband (the Problem) for a night or a weekend. Pat’s obsession with Sam – her clothes, her scent, her mannerisms - recalls the central relationship in The Price of Salt, recently filmed as Carol; she thinks of Sam’s “tremendous grace and poise, like the calm surface of a dangerous lake, with the promise that trembled within it of something utterly unruly.” Meanwhile there is interest from another young woman, a journalist who Pat suspects may have more than professional interest; while Pat’s supportive friend, Ronnie, is a portrait of the writer Ronald Blythe (as I was slow to realise), at that time working on his classic account of rural life, Akenfield


The story is told at first in third-person from Pat’s viewpoint, later alternating with first-person present-tense – confounding the reader’s expectations, as we can’t initially tell whether the events narrated are real or imaginary, or if we’re moving into fiction either written or imagined by Pat. “Like the moments when plots form,” she thinks at a critical moment; “my fingers on keys flying through something fast, something they do of their own will; but somewhere else, just at the corner of my eye, beside me or close to me, something shaping by itself, with the energy and volition of a livid dream.” This haunting something at the corner of the eye carries her back to childhood, and to her unkind treatment at the hands of her stepfather, Stanley. Dawson makes good use of Highsmith’s complex relationship with her mother, who abandoned her as an infant to spend a year with her grandmother, and at one point casually tells her daughter that she tried to abort her by drinking turpentine. Pat frequently recalls such childhood incidents at moments of crisis or doubt.


When Sam’s husband Gerald pursues her to the cottage, Pat’s physical repugnance for the man escalates into a violent outburst. The Problem becomes a more pressing one, and she finds herself enacting a scene which could come from one of her own novels. Jill Dawson shares Highsmith’s knack of making the reader feel implicated in furtiveness and guilt as we accompany the two women to the Aldeburgh coast in an attempt to fabricate evidence – an attempt which, in spite of Pat’s knowledge of crime and criminals, feels bodged and clumsy.


It’s a book that demands close attention. Dawson must have immersed herself in Highsmith, and fans will pick up more references than I did to Highsmith's own novels (the acknowledgements provide enlightenment). But I did especially enjoy ‘Pat’s’ reflections on writing, and crime writing in particular. In fact the title is ironic, given her dislike of being classed as a ‘crime writer’; she prefers to say that she writes suspense novels, and is contemptuous of the ‘Golden Age’ detective story, in which “everyone in the parlour is equally capable of committing a deadly murder, whether an eight-year-old duchess or a sweet-natured stable boy.” She scorns motives in fiction: “How rational, how thoughtful. For Christ’s sake, is this what murders are about? Victims are just the people in the way, the girlfriend or wife or guy at the receiving end: there’s no design. Murders are about one thing: they come out of murderous feelings.”  All her relationships, possibly excepting her friendship with Ronnie, are prickly and difficult; writing is her sanctuary. In the midst of a crisis she acknowledges that “only work, the austere servitude of words, the thoughtful peck of fingers on keys, only that will save me.”


This fictional Pat is an intriguingly complicated, tricky character. I don’t think I’ll be the only one to part from her with some relief – but with the definite urge to read more Highsmith novels and more Jill Dawson, too.




The Hypnotist, by Laurence Anholt

(This review first appeared in Armadillo magazine.)


Laurence Anholt is well known for his picture books, which include joint productions with his wife Catherine. This, his first young adult novel, is a new departure, and certainly a striking one.


Set in 1963 in the American Deep South, The Hypnotist tells the story of Pip, a black boy taken to work for a slovenly, gruff but not unkind farmer, Zachary, and his bed-bound, tender-hearted wife Lilybelle. There Pip meets two people who will become companions and allies: Hannah, a beautiful Native Indian girl, and Irish neighbour Jack Morrow, a university lecturer in Neurology, the hypnotist of the title. Also resident at the farm is the fearsome Erwin, irreparably damaged by his experiences in Vietnam.


Strange goings-on in a barn close by are revealed to be meetings of the Ku Klux Klan, of which Erwin is a local leader. Spying, Pip is horrified by the ghostly pointed hoods, and even more by the rhetoric: “We’re here to defend our country ‘gainst the invasion o’ Negroes, Mexies, Injuns, Jews an’ all them … non-Whaites who’s tryin’ t’ steal it from our hainds …” (Now who does that remind you of?) Discovery leads to a terrifying ordeal for Pip from which he’s lucky to escape alive.


The structure alternates between Pip’s third-person viewpoint and Jack’s first-person narrative, separated at intervals by the poems or songs created by the silent Indian girl, Hannah, with whom Pip falls in love. From Jack’s adult perspective we see the hold exerted by the Ku Klux Klan on policing, law and even the university. At first pleased with the prospect of promotion, he’s dismayed when he learns that advancement is conditional on joining the Klan.


The Hypnotist is a powerful evocation of a period of prejudice and injustice rarely covered in fiction for young readers, with a touching three-cornered relationship at its heart. Echoes of Great Expectations (Pip is named after its hero, and carries the book with him) run throughout, but are not overdone. By the end, though, I felt that Morrow’s ability to mesmerise is, in effect, a get-out-of-jail-free card, used rather illogically. Given the chance to influence the murderous Erwin for a second time – and after realising the threat he poses to Hannah - Morrow sets up a lurid, melodramatic dénouement when he could simply have persuaded Erwin not to go near the girl and never to harm anyone again. Indeed, I think that the hypnotism plot device detracts from the all too horribly realistic portrayal of white supremacy and the terrors facing people of colour – but other readers will no doubt disagree.


An Author’s Note about Laurence Anholt’s family history (far removed from the Deep South of America) is just as fascinating as Pip’s story. I wonder if he will, as he first intended, go on to write about that.




Recent talks and events:

Recent talks and events:

Find me here in the Reading Corner - talking to the excellent Nikki Gamble of Just Imagine about my new book, about attitudes to animals and what one person can do to avoid cruelty and reduce carbon emissions.

I was delighted to take part in the YALC conference, talking to the excellent Gill Lewis - author of such great books as Sky Dancer, Scarlet Ibis, Eagle Warriors and more recently A Street Dog Named Pup (which is already one of my Books of the Year). Here we talk about the issues we raise in our books, how animal awareness can become part of everyday life and the small or larger changes everyone can make to improve conditions for animals. You can listen to our conversation here, on YouTube.