I MADE A CHAIR!

I cannot knock a nail in straight. If I put up a picture, either the hook comes out of the wall with a lump of plaster, or the picture hangs squiffy, or I sustain an injury that leaves blood on the paintwork. Usually, a combination of all the above, plus a great deal of bad language.

But I am beguiled by the thought of being able to make things. I spent my entire childhood bodging and inventing things, puppets, painted owls, weird little figurines, peculiar clothes and costumes. Making things feels sort of essential to me. Quite often, at the end of writing a book, I’ll have a clothes-making day and turn out some badly sewn item that would only fit the hunchback Notredame, but I’ll have satisfied my need to make an object. 

Which is probably why I allowed my dear friend Jackie Morris to sign me up for a chair making course, with legendary wood-worker and chair-maker extraordinaire, Mike Abbott. It was far on the distant time horizon when I agreed to it, but as the date of the course approached, I became more and more convinced that I would come home with fewer fingers and nothing more than a doorstop.

In Mike’s garden the night before starting work on my chair

Well dear reader, that’s most definitely not how it turned out. I have a chair! It’s not squiffy or rickety, it looks rather nice and YOU CAN ACTUALLY SIT ON IT. Of course I should have known that Mike is a skilled enough woodworker and genius enough teacher to steer even bodging idiots like me, successfully, through the whole process.

  Mike Abbott demonstrating how to shape chair components

I found it all fascinating and entirely (well almost entirely, slight sense of humour failing during the  process of weaving the chair seat) enjoyable. We,( me, Jackie Astrid de Groot and Jackie’s partner, Robin Stenham) worked in an open sided workshop in Mike’s wonderful sloping garden, immersed in luscious leaves and trees, so that at all levels were were in conversation with plants and wood: with our hands, as we split and shaved and shaped and sanded; with our ears and eyes as we looked at the hedges and apple trees around us and felt their shade and heard the breeze speaking in their branches.

The workshop

Cabinet maker and wood turner Astrid de Groot splitting logs with great skill

Writer and bodger Nicola Davies failing miserably to split anything (maybe a fingernail)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

spoke shavers for small shape adjustments

everyone’s favourite tool, the draw knife

No body’s favourite, the push knife

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mostly, we made this

I loved this bit, wood wedged in the shaving horse to be shaped

almost everything was collaborative, especially making sure our drills were straight

drilling for a bodger is very stressful…

…and very hot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mike’s skill is what did it. Here he is manipulating the chair as it is squeezed together. The natural flexibility and tension of the wood makes the chair strong

I could hardly believe it when all the bits really made a chair

 

Jackie and Robin sharing the delight of an almost finished chair

 

I got sooo grumpy weaving the seat that I didn’t take any pictures. But here we all are with our finished chairs at six pm on Friday evening. From the left, Astrid, Jackie, Mike, me and Robin

It was a beautiful week. Huge thanks to Mike and to co collaborators in chair creating Astrid de Groot, Jackie Morris and Robin Stenham.

The experience of turning recently wild ‘ tree’ into  useful and attractive ‘object’, is profoundly grounding, humbling and empowering. It’s an experience I’d like all young people to have. It’s an experience that I think would be wonderful for young people who have been through the trauma of losing home and family and coming to live in a new, and sometimes unwelcoming place. I’d like young refugees to do Mike’s course, and feel the calming touch of trees and wood, learn new skills that might open up new opportunities, whilst creating that great, simple symbol of human kindness, help and sharing, an empty chair, on which to rest. Mike is keen to teach such students so I’m going to see if we can make it happen.

My chair finished (except fro a little bit of carving as decoration) at home in my garden with The Day War Came

In the meantime,  The Day War Came will receive its official launch at Foyles on September 3rd. in collaboration with the charity Help Refugees (whose slogan is CHOOSE LOVE). Rebecca Cobb and I will be talking about our work for the book and pictures of chairs done by writers, illustrators and artists of all kinds (including Astrid and Jackie but also Sean Tan, Peter Horacek among many others), will be exhibited. Some of these artworks  will be available on the night in return for a donation to Help Refugees, other will auctioned on line later in the month, with all profits to Help Refugees. If you’d like to come on September 3rd please get your free ticket here.    And there will be an auction for my chair, which will by then have some little additions carved into it. Feel free to bid large amounts.

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Dreaming of the rainforest. Khe Nuoc Trong, Vietnam

Looking over plantation and cleared forest to distant ‘proper’ rainforest

A dream landscape fills the space between me and the horizon; layer upon layer of green, tree-clothed hills whose shapes could have been crafted by a movie director seeking to represent paradise. It’s almost too lovely to be true, and yet it’s real. This is Khe Nuoc Trong 20,000 hectares of lowland rainforest in the Annamite Mountains of N central Vietnam. Somewhere in those hills rare creatures with names that sound like magic spells- white cheeked gibbon,, saola, sunda pangolin and red shanked douc, hatinh langur.Somewhere. 

I know I won’t see the shy herbivores or the pangolin, but I’m hoping for primates – especially red shanked douc and gibbons. In fact, I’m more than hoping, I’m not feeling like the very grown up World Land Trust Trustee I’m supposed to be, and more like an excited six year old before a birthday party – GIBBONS SINGING!!!! RED SHANKED DOUC!!!!! YAYYY!!

sandals over socks followed by sandals over leech socks

Right now though, there are immediate realities to deal with: the heat and the weight of my back pack; the plastic sandals over leech socks, I’m advised to wear. It’s like walking with a pair of cloth shopping bags on your feet. Seeing my dubious expression Viet Nature director Pham Tuan Anh explains that these are the shoes in which the Vietnamese army defeated the might of the US. They are, she says, very good for river crossings, and we’ll be doing a lot of those.

One of many, many river crossings…I mean reeellly many

Khe Nuoc Trong is laced with waterways, and is a ‘Watershed Protection Forest’, its purpose to safeguard those clean waters. As such, it receives a measure of legal protection; the extraction of some forest products is allowed, but hunting and logging are, in theory, illegal. However, the evidence of exploitation of the forest are easy to see beside the trails we follow -the tracks and dung of water buffalo and the ruts left by the logs they’ve  been used to haul out.

Buffalo in the forest, just waiting to be used to extract illegally logged trees

village shops are a lifeline for locals but they are also a route for the sale of bush meat and other forest products

As we walk along increasingly steep and narrow paths, the signs of human use recede a little. The rubber and acacia plantation are replaced by disturbed, but more diverse forest, which begins to show signs of animal life; cicadas chirr and, along a stream bed, there are frogs calling invisibly from right under my every footfall. It’s a very odd and particular sound, that of a muzzled chihuahua barking in a box in a tiled bathroom. As no one knows what the frogs are actually called, I name them the ‘chihuahua box frogs’.

Forest ranger station

After an hour and a half of walking we reach a forest ranger station, not much more than a garden shed with hammocks, on a wide bend of the river, where two forest rangers are stationed. A structure that looks like a failed attempt at a bridge marches the width of the water, “It stops people floating logs downstream.” Tuan Anh explains.

bridge like structure prevents loggers floating their cache downstream (there were masses of diddy tadpoles in the shallows and loads of fish)

Viet Nature works closely with the Forest Rangers providing them with training and equipment to help move biodiversity up the agenda of the Forest Protection Service. 

“We work with local people too, “ Tuan Anh explains “to encourage them to use the forest in more sustainable ways.” This means education and providing villagers with ways to make a living that don’t hurt the forest, such donating 4000 fruit trees to grow and crop in and around settlements, and rattan plants to grow on the margins of the forest and provide a lucrative and sustainable forest crop. Gradually, local people are learning more about Viet Nature’s work and are increasingly supportive and proud of the diversity of their forest.

Village on the edge of Khe Nuoc Trong

We follow a path along the river and the opposite bank rises in a smooth, green curve. It looks gibbony to me, but my excitement will have to go on hold for the time being: there are patches of scrub where trees have been felled and gibbons need unbroken canopy to swing through. Red shanked douc too are very discerning and like undisturbed forest, designated as ‘rich’. In spite of its promising look to my eye Viet Nature co founder Le Trong Trai  (Mr Trai) tells me it is the lowest of the three categories of rainforest, ’poor’. Definitely not fit for gibbons. 

me and legend-of-conservation, Viet Nature Goddess, Tuan Anh

By sunset we are four hours walk from human settlement, and yet the forest here is still obviously under pressure. There are still signs of buffalos and humans, occasional tracks and sweet wrappers, and Mr Trai tells me its only of ‘medium’ diversity. All the same, it is beautiful; I notice there are a lot more chhuauhua box frogs and I count five different kinds of butterflies in combinations of orange, sky blue, neon green, patrolling the river banks. 

Butterflies feeding (probably something yucky)

Viet Nature rangers Tran Dang Hieu, Le Van Ninh and Le Cong Tinh make a perfect camp from branches and polythene sheeting, beside another ravishing river bend.

Brilliant tent made of bound logs and poly sheeting

 

 

 

 

They cook a wonderful meal, a ‘phoo’ of chicken, and vegetables from Ninh’s garden.

 

 

 

so many insects flew into the lamp light, I’ve promised Tuan Anh to come back with a mouth trap next time

They chat and laugh in the firelight and I’m filled with admiration for these young people, who live for weeks on end deep in the forest, two or three days walk from the nearest track, separated from their families. Their tireless work, setting up camera traps, scientific monitoring and keeping track of human activity in the forest is the backbone of Viet Nature’s work in Khe Nuoc Trong and has helped to prove the presence of a treasure trove of endangered and rare species. Tuan Anh has the camera trap footage on her computer and, balanced on round rocks for stools, she shows me one delight after another but my favourites are an annamite striped rabbit, like Peter Rabbit in prison fatigues, and a fantastically busy Asian short clawed otter, which seems to be searching for a river under the leaf litter.

“We’re adding new species to our list all the time.” Tuan Anh tells me with a big smile.

A lot more comfy than they look

We sleep in hammocks – ex US army I’m told gleefully – with in built mosquito nets. It’s like being a caterpillar in a cocoon; I sleep like a baby.

what? morning already?

In the morning we continue our journey in to the forest. It’s magical:  frog and  butterfly counts rise steadily with every river crossing. Mr Trai keeps a up a quiet labelling of every new bird sound we hear, some like aural newsprint, some like poured gold ‘Red vented barbett, laughing thrush,’. I stop keeping a tally of the river crossings and simply enjoy the moments of coolness. 

idyllic spot for a camp (I swam here, it was lovely)

At last, we are standing on the edge of Viet Nature’s reserve: 768 Ha leased from the government, who own the whole of Khe nuoc Trong, and designated for scientific research. No logging or hunting are allowed here, and even in the short time since their lease period began, the impact is obvious, with fewer signs of human encroachment and a measurable rise in species diversity. It is Viet Nature’s plan to manage the whole of Khe Nuoc Trong’s 20,000 ha in this way and their proposal to designate the whole of forest as a nature reserve is supposed by the provincial government 

At last Mr Trai looks happy. ‘This ’ he says with a beaming smile, is ‘rich’ forest.

from left one of the forest rangers, Tran Dong Hieu,Pham Tuan Anh, Tran Van Hung, Le Trong Trai (Mr Trai) on the edge of ‘rich’ forest

It certainly seems very different from the forest where we began our journey – no two trees are the same, the canopy is closed and the whole feel of the place is more alive but its hard to get a picture of a forest as a forest, when you really can’t see the wood for the trees. So, it’s not until the next day that I get a real sense off the scale and diversity that Khe Nuoc Trong holds and why its so important that Viet Nature get their wish of managing the whole area as a nature reserve.

looking over rainforest covered hill towards Laos

At five am, I stand on the great, concrete highway that slices through Khe Nuoc Trong. Behind me is the 768ha of the Viet Nature reserve and the disturbed forest surrounding the farms and villages that encircle it. In front, layer upon layer of almost untouched rainforest stretching from here and over the border into Laos. As the sun comes up and replaces the splashed, silver moonlight, its diversity is immediately apparent. The variety of tree shapes and colours takes my breath away. So far, Viet Nature has counted 1500 different tree species in Khe Nuoc Trong – more than in the whole of North America.  There are no holes in the canopy here, this is gibbon country and my excitement levels are once again off the scale.

Le Van Ninh, the resident gibbon expert, who has surveyed these forests and found 300 families of gibbons, whizzes up the road towards me on a motorbike. His beaming smile is enough to tell me what he’s found, so I jump on the back and we fly down the highway into the green dawn. This road may have sliced the forest in two, but it has allowed tourists to appreciate its wonders from the back of a bike. More come every year and contribute to the economy, enhancing the value of unspoilt forest to local communities, who can augment their income by providing facilities for tourists.

Right now though, I’m simply in heaven because I can hear gibbons calling. A male’s lonesome wail floats over the mist that gives away the path of the river, somewhere under the green, and is answered by another call from up the valley. Ninh points out the position of three gibbon families  in the valley and hills before me. A female joins her mate, whoop, whoop, whooping. I imagine them sitting, side by side on a branch, letting their voices reach out over the tree tops, sharing this moment together, like a human couple with their morning coffees. What do they see? What do they feel these little apes, our cousins?

No time for more philosophical speculation, because the rest of the Viet Nature team are here and there are furious bursts of Vietnamese and lots of pointing: two hundred meters away, right beside the highway, a little party of red shanked douc are making their way through the trees. The views I get are brief, just glimpses really; those pale geisha faces with their almond eyes and frame of lemon curd fur, the flash of the white tails and the flare of the red ‘shanks’. But those micro moments gleam in my eye, and are instantly imprinted on my heart forever. 

At that moment, with the gibbon voices still in my ears and the red shanked douc faces still in my eyes, the forest seems endless, but later that day I see how truly vulnerable it is. We cross into the next province and see the forest end shockingly abruptly.

recently cleared forest

Trees and trees and then, bare hillside. Nothing. Fifteen hundred tree species, frogs, birds, insects, monkeys, gibbons, pangolins simply gone. As if they had never existed. Of course I know this happens all over the world, but to see it is incredibly shocking. Some of the destruction is old, the result of agent orange in the war, but some of it is new: rural poverty drives people to clear forest to grow crops or graze animals, even though they know that the soil will not support more than a few seasons of productivity.

hillsides denuded of biodiverse forest by agent orange still almost barren

Viet Nature, their scientists, their conservationists, their rangers, are all that stand between the voices of gibbons, the quiet twirling of pangolin tails, the almond eyes of monkeys and these barren hillsides, with no clear flowing water, with no deep locked store of carbon and without a fat slice of the worlds most precious treasure, biodiversity.

on some forest trails its possible to get about on motorbikes Viet Nature rangers could give Barry Sheen a run for his money

A seven year old once asked me ‘where is the rainforest?’ in the same way she might have asked’ where is Narnia?’ The idea of ‘the rainforest’ has entered into our collective psyche and it does a powerful and important job there, keeping alive the magic and wonder of the big wild. But we must always remind ourselves, and others, that the rainforest is not one thing, it is many real forests around the globe, each with their own particular mixture of species, each infinitely precious, and in need of the very realest kind of protection we can give them. 

SUPPORT THE WORK OF THE WORLD LAND TRUST , VIET NATURE AND OTHER ORGANISATIONS AROUND THE WORLD  

ravishing forest dripping with diversity

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KING OF THE SKY AND NEW YORK CITY

 

Something wonderful has happened. It’s a long way from here, where I stand at my desk looking out over the heads of green fennel, the last sweetie blossoms, to the field, the sheep and the hill top crowned with russet bracken. Far to the west of all that, the book that Laura Carlin and I created with the excellent midwifery skills of designer Liz Wood and editor Cas Royds, has been taken to the heart of New York City. Our story of the Italian child finding a new way to feel at home in a South Wales mining town, King of the Sky, has been picked as one of the Best Illustrated Books of 2017 by the New York Times. It’s the second time that Laura and I have been recognised in this way (first time was for The Promise back in 2014) and it feels wonderful.

Laura and I are in such good company, as the NYT wisely chooses ten books each year, and doesn’t pick out any one: they are all equally valued. I would recommend taking time to look at every single one of the others, all with strong, passionately told stories carried in poetic language and startlingly beautiful images. For anyone unfamiliar with the extraordinary power of this most underrated of art and literary forms, looking at present and past winner of the NYT Best Illustrated is the perfect primer. The variety of stories carried in this year list will astonish you, and you’ll see that the range of subjects, emotions, information and dreams that can be portrayed in a picture book is limitless. You’ll be struck too by the relevance and resonance of these books – how they strike chords on a personal and a political scale.  Our story is one from the historical past of my homeland, but it has particular power today when the world is once again flooded with people fleeing all manner of hardships, and meeting with a mixed reception in their new countries. Just yesterday the UK government refused entry to the UK to refugee children who have no one and nothing, and the US government threatens to judge all immigrants by the standard of just one misguided, insane murderer.

Our story and the others on this Best Of 2017 List have important things to say. The fact that they are picture books should not diminish the value of their diverse messages, but increase it. Picture book authors speak to everyone in a way that is accessible to all ages, and via a multiplicity of routes- emotional and intellectual, visual and verbal. Pictures books work by an alchemic layering that is quite unique.

The book world is a harsh jungle and the NYT list is an opportunity to make a pathway through that tangle and bring these stories to the attention of as many people as possible. Sales matter, not just because its how people like Laura and I make our living but because good sales mean that we may get another opportunity to create something new. So I’m preparing for doing lots of tweets , sending e mails, hoping that among the NYT’s many readers King of the Sky and its nine wonderful companions will find new friends. King of the Sky has already been a theatre production so another dream is that if some wonderful NY theatre producer saw the great theatrical potential of the story and revived and expanded our production of the book as theatre.

But aside from those ambitious dreams I have another which is that the NYT Best of 2017 will bring readers to these ten stories, and perhaps the readers of our story King of the Sky will be drawn to the conclusion that refugees are not a new phenomenon, and the best thing to say to them is ‘WELCOME’ .

HOWEVER  if by some miracle you are that theatre producer …these pictures from the stage version of King of the Sky are just for you!

The most amazing cast Tessa Bide, Huw Novelli, Sonia Beck and David Prince and director Derek Cobley

 

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THE LOST WORDS AND WHY WE NEED THEM

Conkers by Jackie Morris from The Lost Words

Often the first to be in full leaf, the horse chestnut trees are already looking rusty and worn, as if they simply haven’t got the energy to go on. No wonder really, considering what they’re making: thousands of spiked, green cannonballs with mahogany works of art inside.

Conkers! I still get excited about conkers. The silky sheen, the subtle rippling of deep purplish brown, like muscles moving under the skin of a racehorse. And that smell. Is any scent cleaner, greener, more distinctive than the inside of a conker shell? Breaking in to witness the way the nuts fit inside that pale interior, is like being told a great secret, a spell of happiness.

When I was little, six, seven, eight, I was obsessed with conkers. I dreamt of finding giant, perfect specimens, and I would open one spikey shell after another, always hoping that this would be the one. The truth was of course that they were all the one, each miraculously perfect. I tried every way I could to preserve the plump sheen, pickling, varnishing, drying in the oven, painting with oil. Nothing worked. The beauty and delight of conkers was transitory. They withered and shrivelled and for a while I mourned over the bowls of faded loveliness. And then I threw them out on to the compost heap, and turned my attention to the next round of seasonal delights: kicking fallen leaves; frost on spider webs; ice.

Where did I learn my conker obsession? I’m not sure. I didn’t grow up with siblings or friends but I did have a grandfather and a father who were passionate gardeners and who were always outside. I tagged along. I think my Dad was as mad about conkers as I was. He was the one who helped try to preserve them. As a kid I think he’d played ‘conkers’ and, now I think of it, I remember him stringing one for me, making a hole with a meat skewer on the kitchen table. It seemed like mutilation to me, and I had no interest at all in bashing things.

My awareness of nature was partly learned and partly acquired simply because I was outside all the time and curious, like all children; I looked, I touched, I sniffed I poked things with sticks (not the same as bashing).

Conker obsession was the norm back then. Come late September and October any conker tree was a magnet for children. Trees in parks were surrounded, the way lamps were crowded with moths. Kids gleaning amongst the leaves, kids throwing sticks to bring down the big, tantalising, out of reach fruits, high up. Even trees in the middle of nowhere would magically acquire a little tribe of worshiping children.

But not now. My last house was in a town and set in parkland. Seven or eight huge conkers trees stood on the edge of the paths or in the middle of the lawns, freely available to the many children who lived on the estate. In five years I saw two boys, once, collecting conkers. They kicked around in the leaves for ten minutes or so then gave up and drifted off.

What’s happened? Why can’t kids feel the conker magic any more?

There are a lot of answers to that question. Screens and perceived danger are some of the story: adults like their kids to be inside where they can easily keep an eye on them and still pursue their own screen obsession. A lack of un-structured wild space is another – there are sports grounds, there are play areas but there are fewer bits of long grass and bramble, trees that don’t belong to anyone – the liminal, un-used spaces, that have in the past been the territory of children.( see Julia Green’s wonderful The Wilderness War for a novel about this)

It’s not that children have lost a taste for nature. It’s what I write about and I’ve never been into a school where my subject matter wasn’t received with huge enthusiasm. Kids know and love elephants and lions, orang utans and giraffes. They can tell you how big a blue whale is. But they haven’t a clue what a conker is, or what a wren sounds like. And mostly these days, neither have their teachers.

The problem, I think, is a kind of collective forgetting. It only takes one generation of parents forgetting their own childhoods, forgetting dens and tree climbing, acorn gathering, puddle splashing and leaf kicking, bramble picking, for the cultural transmission of nature-delight to be lost. And with that forgetting comes a loss of the language we use to describe those experiences. How do you point out an oak tree to a child, if you don’t know the word ‘oak’ or ‘acorn’ or even tree? How do you even notice an ask or an ash, a pine or a willow if the only word you know is tree?

Imagine that no one in your family had ever made a birthday cake. Your grandmother made one with her dad once, but your parents never did. They don’t know how to do it. They don’t even know the words to describe what goes into a cake. So cakes drop out of the world because no one knows the words, ‘butter’, ‘sugar’, ‘eggs’, ‘chocolate’ ,‘candle’, ‘icing’ ,‘mix’, ‘bake’.

That’s what we are on the brink of. Losing touch with our ordinary, everyday, infinitely precious back yard wild, because we are losing the language to name it. Many adults and children no longer know words that specify anything more particular than ‘plant’ or ‘bird’.

This matters. The evidence is mounting that this loss of connection, this loss of ability to articulate to ourselves and others the detailed, particular experience of the natural world is damaging us. Is damaging our children. Development and long term mental health are at risk without contact with nature. Disorders like ADHD, depression and anxiety are all healed by nature, by willow and ivy, by acorn, bluebell and bramble, by wren and starling, heron and kingfisher.

Which is why, back in 2015 I was signatory to a letter, ( see below) written by Lawrence Rose to OUP protesting that the new edition of the junior oxford dictionary had removed many words for features of the natural world, words like acorn, and willow and wren. OUP’s response was merely to repeat a description of what they do and to say that they were just reflecting the word usage of modern children. But the tone of their response (which you can also read below) was very much that of responsible moral and cultural educators. If that’s what they are, then they are duty bound not to rob children of words which can describe common features of the world around them. Removing these words removes children’s ability to recognise and take ownership of common plants and animals that are their natural and also their cultural heritage. Every child in Britain deserves to know, and to see bluebells, as much as they deserve to know about the science, the art, the technology and the history that has made us all who we are. And they can’t do that without the language to do it.

In my work, it’s hard for me to write about the nature that surrounds me here in Wales, the plants and birds, mammals and reptiles that I’ve loved all my life living in the UK. I write picture books mostly and they need foreign co -edtions. Much as I’d love to write about rooks and slow worms, the perception of editors is that those books wouldn’t sell in the USA or China. So, the nearest I’ve come to helping with reconnecting kids and their parents with the nature on their doorstep is A First Book Of Nature a collection of poems illustrated by the quintessentially British images of Mark Hearld. I’ve done a little to help with the issue of the importance of naming species to maintain biodiversity, with a new book for Hodder, illustrated by Lorna Scobie the Variety of Life (which I’ll blog about soon).

But prompted by OUP’s editorial decision to remove some essential words for nature, my great friend and mentor Jackie Morris, together with writer Robert MacFarlane, have done a much better job. They have struck a resounding blow in the battle to maintain the richness of our nature language and our right to access and describe our experience, with their book ‘The Lost Words’. Robert’s poems create spells and charms to conjure and celebrate each of the animals and plants whose names have been lost from the junior dictionary. Jackie’s ravishing pictures show each species in beautiful detail and in context of their habitat, eloquently representing what each loss would mean.

It’s an extraordinary book. I’ve adored watching it grow over the last two years, but its more than a publishing phenomenon, it’s going to make a difference. I think could prove to be a landmark in the rewilding of parents, children, childhood and lives. We need the wild, and, we need the words to hold it like a heartbeat inside us all the time. As Yeats said, in my father’s favourite poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree we need to hear it ‘in the deep heart’s core.’

Jackie and I will be talking about The Lost Words at the Crickhowell Literary Festival on Saturday October 7th, do join us!

THE LETTER TO OUP

Oxford University Press as e-mail attachment 12 January 2015
Reconnecting kids with nature is vital, and needs cultural leadership
We the undersigned are profoundly alarmed to learn that the Oxford Junior Dictionary has systematically been stripped of many words associated with nature and the countryside. We write to plead that the next edition sees the reinstatement of words cut since 2007.
We base this plea on two considerations. Firstly, the belief that nature and culture have been linked from the beginnings of our history. For the first time ever, that link is in danger of becoming unravelled, to the detriment of society, culture, and the natural environment.
Secondly, childhood is undergoing profound change; some of this is negative; and the rapid decline in children’s connections to nature is a major problem.
This is not just a romantic desire to reflect the rosy memories of our own childhoods onto today’s youngsters. There is a shocking, proven connection between the decline in natural play and the decline in children’s wellbeing. Compared with a generation ago, when 40% of children regularly played in natural areas, now only 10% do so, while another 40% never play anywhere outdoors. Ever. Obesity, anti-social behaviour, friendlessness and fear are the known consequences. The physical fitness of children is declining by 9% per decade, according to Public Health England.
For the first time ever, children’s life expectancy is lower than that of their parents – us.
When, in 2007, the OJD made the changes, this connection was understood, but less well publicised than now. The research evidence showing the links between natural play and wellbeing; and between disconnection from nature and social ills, is mounting.
We recognise the need to introduce new words and to make room for them and do not intend to comment in detail on the choice of words added. However it is worrying that in contrast to those taken out, many are associated with the interior, solitary childhoods of today. In light of what is known about the benefits of natural play and connection to nature; and the dangers of their lack, we think the choice of words to be omitted shocking and poorly considered. We find the explanations issued recently too narrowly focussed on a lexicographical viewpoint without consideration for the social context.
In all, the names for thirty species of common or important British plants and animals have been removed – such as acorn and bluebell – along with many words connected with farming and food. Many are highly symbolic of our cultural ties with the land, its wildlife and produce.
This is what the National Trust says in their Natural Childhood campaign: Every child should have the right to connect with nature. To go exploring, sploshing, climbing, and rolling in the outdoors, creating memories that’ll last a lifetime. Their list of 50 things to do before you’re 11 3?4 includes many for which the OJD once had words, but no longer: like playing conkers, picking blackberries, various trees to climb, minnows to catch in a net and so on.
The RSPB has commissioned a great deal of research on this. Among many findings is the fact that outdoor activity in nature appears to improve symptoms of ADHD in children by

30% compared with urban outdoor activities and 300% compared with the indoor
environment.
It is no surprise that these and other organisations, including the NHS and Play England,
Play Scotland and Play Wales have come together to create The Wild Network dedicated to
reconnecting children and their families to nature – and to each other.
Will the removal of these words from the OJD ruin lives? Probably not. But as a symptom
of a widely acknowledged problem that is ruining lives, this omission becomes a major issue.
The Oxford Dictionaries have a rightful authority and a leading place in cultural life. We
believe the OJD should address these issues and that it should seek to help shape
children’s understanding of the world, not just to mirror its trends.
.
We believe that a deliberate and publicised decision to restore some of the most important
nature words would be a tremendous cultural signal and message of support for natural
childhood, and we ask you to take that opportunity, and if necessary, bring forward the next
edition of the OJD in order to do so.
Margaret Atwood
Author
Simon Barnes
Author and journalist
Terence Blacker
Writer and songwriter
Mark Cocker
Author and naturalist
Miriam Darlington
Author
Nicola Davies
Children’s author
Paul Farley
Poet, writer and broadcaster
Graeme Gibson
Novelist
Melissa Harrison
Writer
Tony Juniper
Writer and ecologist
Richard Kerridge
Nature writer
Gwyneth Lewis
Former Welsh Poet Laureate
Sir John Lister-Kaye
Naturalist and author
Richard Mabey
Writer and naturalist
Robert Macfarlane
Writer and academic
Helen Macdonald
Writer, illustrator and historian
Sara Maitland
Writer
Mike McCarthy
Nature writer
Hilary McKay
Children’s writer
Andrew McNeillie
Academic, former OUP Literature Editor
Sara Mohr-Pietsch
Broadcaster
Michael Morpurgo
Author, former Children’s Laureate
Jackie Morris
Children’s book illustrator
Stephen Moss
Naturalist, author and TV producer
Sir Andrew Motion
Former Poet Laureate
Ruth Padel
Poet and conservationist
Jim Perrin
Travel writer
Katrina Porteous
Poet, historian and broadcaster
For correspondence:
Laurence Rose laurence@naturemusicpoetry.com

 

…AND OUP’S RESPONSE

Editor, NATURAL LIGHT
Statement from Oxford University Press – 13 January 2015
“Oxford University Press (OUP) is renowned around the world for its high quality educational and scholarly publishing. Our children’s dictionaries, of which there are 17 in the UK alone, are structured by age, with each dictionary specifically written with a certain age group in mind, and with headwords and levels of definition varying according to what that child will need most at any given age.
“All our dictionaries are designed to reflect language as it is used, rather than seeking to prescribe certain words or word usages. We employ extremely rigorous editorial guidelines and word selections are based on several criteria: the current frequency of words in the daily language of children of that age; children’s culture including their reading of fiction and non-fiction; corpus analysis* and commonly misspelled or misused words. We also take current curriculum requirements into account. These criteria then need to be balanced against the appropriate length of any given dictionary, to create accessible resources appropriate for the age of the child the particular dictionary is aimed at.
“The Oxford Junior Dictionary, which was last updated in 2012, is aimed at six to seven-year-olds with 288 pages and approximately 4,700 headwords. As such it is very much an introduction to language. It includes around 400 words related to nature including: badger, bean, bee, berry, branch, caterpillar, daffodil, dragonfly, duck, feather, field, fox, grasshopper, hay, hedge, hedgehog, hibernate, invertebrate, meadow, mouse, nut, oak, owl, pear, plum, robin, seed, shell, sheep, snowflake, squirrel, stag, stone, straw, sunflower, tadpole, vegetation, and wool.
An example entry is:
hibernate verb, hibernates, hibernating, hibernated
When animals hibernate, they spend the winter in a special kind of deep sleep. Bats, tortoises, and hedgehogs all hibernate.
“As children get older they will progress to the Oxford Primary Dictionary aimed at eight to eleven- year-olds. This has 608 pages and 12,000 headwords and it contains all of the words that have been recently highlighted and many, many more.”
“We have no firm plans to publish a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary at this stage. However, we welcome feedback on all our dictionaries and feed this into the editorial process.”
ENDS
*The Oxford Children’s Corpus is a unique database of over 150 million words used in reading and writing for and by children. Our dictionary team uses the Oxford Children’s Corpus to research how children read and use language and to ensure our dictionaries are age-appropriate and up-to-date as language usage changes. It also helps us identify new or re-emerging word trends, words they find tricky to spell, and common issues with grammar and punctuation.

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THE LEVIATHAN OF PARSONSTOWN

More than a decade ago, actually a lot more than a decade, I went to Ireland on holiday. The aim was mostly to wander about the Burren and look at gentians, but somehow I found myself in Birr, a lovely little town in county Offaly. We, my then partner and I, wandered into the Park of a great house, Birr Castle without knowing the first thing about the place, and found a giant telescope, built in the 1840’s by the Fourth Earl of Rosse.

The story of the Telescope – the Leviathan Of Parsonstown as it was known – got into my blood. I returned to Birr, where the current Earl and his wife were totally welcoming and helpful. I was given access to the family archives in their library and spent several days poring over letters and texts, swimming in long gone lives. I came home and over one, mad weekend wrote 10 thousand word proposal for a US publisher. It was intoxicating to be so possessed by a story of a kind I’d never thought about before.

For a while it looked as though the idea for the book had sold for enough money to actually allow me to write and research it. But, as is the way with publishing, the enticing bubble burst. Yes, I could still write it, yes, it would probably be published, but no there was not an advance that would allow me to pay my mortgage and keep my kids fed and clothed.

I admit, I gave up. I had other things to write, students to teach, kids to worry over and life at the time was generally rather an uphill struggle.  The story got carried from computer to computer, even though the files would no longer open. But it haunted me. Every time I heard of some event or person in public life in the 1840’s I found myself thinking did my Earl know about this?

Now, I have reopened the file and the story is buzzing in me again. So dear reader, if you have a little time, read on….
In the Leviathan’s Eye
The story of the Great Telescope at Birr

by
Nicola Davies

The Romance of the Leviathan
WHAT MAKES A ROMANCE? A real, old style Romance? A story with substance and drama, fantastical perhaps, but holding before us a vision of human glory that illuminates and enobles the small truths of our own lives. The ingredients of this sort of Romance are part of our collective unconscious, the emotional landscape that lies in the realm of our dreams, in the undercurrents of our lives that flow deeper than words.
A hero and a heroine are the first ingredients. The hero need not be handsome, but he must be bold, resolute and determined, undeterred by any variety of adversity. He may be misguided, he may be misled, but his moral stature is never in doubt. His heroine must be beautiful, but simple physical beauty is not sufficient. She must be wise, strong, faithful. She must above all endure — all separations, all griefs — with a pure spirit and a loving heart.
There must of course be a quest. It should be noble and it must be selfless. It need not be successful, in fact ill fated or even hopeless quests display the moral quality of the hero and the endurance of the heroine to best effect.
There has to be tragedy — death after all is the ultimate definer of human stories. And there should be a Magical Object, imbued with power and significance.
There are few myths or great fictions, fewer still stories drawn from real lives, that manage to gather together all these ingredients, but the true story of the Birr Castle telescope, the Leviathan of Parsonstown, has every one.
THE HERO: William Parsons, the Third Earl Of Rosse. Astronomer and engineer. Portly, plain and shy but acutely intelligent, almost pathologically determined, and unfailingly kind.
THE HEROINE: Mary Wilmer Field, Third Countess of Rosse. A noted beauty and a pioneering photographer, with a gold heart within an iron will.
THE QUEST: To build the world’s largest astronomical telescope, the Leviathan of Parsonstown. This giant would look deeper into the universe than had ever been possible before and reveal the almost unimaginable depths of time. It was a quest that was both gloriously successful, and fatally flawed.
THE TRAGEDY: William and Mary were shaped by it. John Parsons, William’s dearest brother, died on the threshold of life at twenty six and Mary’s mother died in childbirth, when Mary was small. All their lives grief was a companion for both our hero and heroine, as they lost seven of their eleven children before adulthood.
THE MAGICAL OBJECT: the Leviathan itself, and most particularly the vast metal mirror (four tons of bronze) that was its eye onto infinity. When polished bright, the eye’s vision was unsurpassed, but when tarnished it was almost blind, calling down scorn upon the Leviathan’s reputation, and tainting William’s quest with failure.
THE SETTING: William’s beautiful Castle, Birr, County Offaly, now in Eire, at the time of the potato famine that killed a million people and exiled a million and a half more; British Society at a time of social unrest and on the verge of overturning the Universe created by God.

The Leviathan Of Parsonstown … once upon a time in Ireland
On the edge of Parsonstown, a little farming settlement in Southern Ireland, on the very eve of the potato famine, a window onto the depths of space and time was opened: The vast spirals of other galaxies, separate from our own, became visible for the first time, and the immensity of the Universe gaped wide under human gaze.
This window was a new telescope, a giant reflector, with a mirror six feet across, mounted in a barrel fifty eight feet long. It was the biggest telescope that had ever been made and, soon after its official opening in 1845, was nicknamed affectionately by the local people ‘The Leviathan of Parsonstown’. The observations it made were ground breaking, and were only bettered by modern telescopes and photo astronomy in the 1950s. Its huge mirror, like a giant eye, could see what other smaller telescopes could not: That some nebulae – bright amorphous patches in the sky – were made of stars, drawn into spirals and discs as if by some invisible cosmic whirlpool. It saw that our galaxy was not alone, that there were many others populating infinity.
The ‘Leviathan’s’ creator was William Parsons, Third Earl of Rosse, an engineer and astronomer with a determined taste for problem solving. He built a world-beating astronomical instrument, using only those resources available to him in the surrounding countryside: Peat from the bogs fired the forges to smelt the alloys for the telescope’s mirrors; coopers adapted their expertise to work on the large scale of the monster barrel; the minds, hearts and hands of local workmen were fired by William’s enthusiasm to learn new skills, and to become a part of the Great Telescope project. William was no revolutionary Irish nationalist, but he did have a quiet belief in the independent potential of the Irish Nation that the making of the Leviathan eloquently demonstrated.
William Parson’s home, the seat of the Earls of Rosse, was Birr Castle. It still stands on the edge of Parsonstown, now known by its original name of Birr. Birr has been a settlement since seven hundred years before the birth of Christ. Its name derives from the Irish word meaning ‘abounding in wells’, or from ‘biolair’, the word for watercress, a favourite food of St Brendan. Whatever the precise meaning, Birr has a watery connection fixed in its name from the rivers Camcor and Little Brosna, that flow though it and around it. Nowadays the Camcor skirts the town centre. On hot days you can stand on the little bridge opposite the Catholic church and watch the trout flapping their tails lazily against the speckled bottom. Small children shriek as they splash in the cold water in their vests and pants, and old ladies in support tights and cardigans natter on the park benches there. The Camcor winds round the back of the new Technology Centre and the Tourist Information Office, past the old Maltings, now a smart hotel, and into the grounds of the Castle, right below the beautiful gothic windows of the music room built by the Second Earl. It continues into the Demesne where it joins the another stream, the Little Brosna. Both rivers still seem clean enough to provide the best watercress for any passing Saint.
The main part of the town centre is roughly Georgian, built mostly in William’s father’s and grandfather’s time. The streets are wide with tall shop fronts painted in bright colours. It has that relaxed but vital feel you get in all Irish towns, unselfconsciousness about mixing past and present. Half way down the main street there are two 50s petrol pumps, quite disused, standing opposite a shop that’s pandering to the latest craze for body tanning products. There are chic glass payphone booths with instructions in several languages, and a deli advertising sun dried tomato bread. There’s a great to-ing and fro-ing of young people in the Square this evening (it’s suddenly clear to me why Birr supports five hairdressers). But the place where they’re all going to to ‘hang out’ is Dooley’s Hotel, which looks the same now as it did a hundred and fifty years ago. Birr seems to be thriving, but it still has its individuality. It has a definitely rural feel, so that on a warm June evening, swallows swoop down the main street, rather than the more urban swifts, and jackdaws converse on the rooftops. There’s a quiet, too, behind the bustle of passing cars and giggling adolescents. It’s the quiet from the lush, even landscape all around the town, with the hay new cut in blue-green rows, and the barley ripening, just the way it has for centuries. The local news on the radio trickles out of an open window, including a full five minutes of farming reports on the state of cereal crops. The advice to check for aphids and spray your wheat in time for harvest is entirely modern, but the place of agriculture in the lives of the people of Birr isn’t, it’s as central now as it was in William’s time.
That sense of integration extends to the relationship between the Castle and the town. There’s no separating acreage of park land between the Parsons and their community. It’s true that Birr Castle is behind a huge stone wall, but only just behind it, and the wall itself stands unceremoniously at the top of the streets on one side of town. Sitting with a drink outside Kelly’s Bar, I can see the upstairs windows of the Castle, at the other end of the street, with some rather ordinary-looking curtains blowing in the breeze. The wall is no more of a barrier between Baronets and commoners than the sort of high fence a shy neighbour might erect: You can still see his face at the window and hear if he swears at the cat.
Both Laurence, William’s father and William himself could have changed the location of the Castle and built new accommodation further into the Demesne, away from the town. They could so easily have lived elsewhere — other Irish nobles did — as the family had property in Dublin and in London. But Laurence, the Second Earl, was scathing about absentee landlords who took from their tenants and communities but gave nothing back, as he shows in this poem ‘The Absentees’ which he wrote in 1801, when William was a year old,
Nobles when your country you thus forsake
Say what return is made for what you take?
For inequality what’s the defence?
The evil glance? But what’s the recompense?
Shall you the pillars of the realm at home
Mere useless emigrants in England roam?
Shall you live idly there from year to year
Designed for noblest duties here?
All things derive their value from their place
Position constitutes their use and grace
The smallest atom that compounds a fly
Is not misplaced without an injury
— Laurence Parsons, Second Earl of Rosse
Laurence’s commitment to Birr wasn’t only a matter of personal morality, it was a statement of political belief too. Laurence was a friend of Irish Nationalist, Wolfe Tone, who committed suicide whilst in a Dublin gaol on a charge of treason, after the Irish Rebellion in 1798. Tone wanted to replace the separate identities of his countrymen as ‘Protestant’ or ‘Catholic’, with the common identity of ‘Irishman’. Laurence didn’t share Tone’s revolutionary beliefs, he certainly didn’t hold with democracy and universal suffrage, but he did believe in land. Land ownership was important, and landowners should be allowed to decide how the land as a whole was run. That meant the right to vote and to take political office for landowners, no matter what their religious affiliations. Although the Parsons were Protestant, Laurence attempted to treat both Catholics and Protestant alike. It was a tricky line to walk and he risked suspicion from both sides. In post rebellion Ireland, Independence had become a Catholic creed, and Protestants were expected to to support the Government in England. All the same Laurence determined to bring William up in accordance with what he believed. So William’s first public duty, as the heir to the Demesne, was to lay the foundation stone of the new Catholic church in Birr, when he was just seventeen.
Laurence strongly opposed the Act of Union which abolished the Irish Parliament. He left the Commons in disgust when it was passed in 1801. But that was the year after William was born, and perhaps Laurence’s decision was motivated partly by a desire to be at home more often than sitting in the English Commons would allow. In any case, he detested being in London, and whenever he was there couldn’t wait to be home,
‘..my cage will soon be open and I will not delay a moment in taking advantage of it…’
Laurence wrote from London on a visit to the Lords in 1805.
Whatever Laurence’s disenchantment with politics, William entered the English Parliament representing an Irish Constituency, when he was just twenty three. Laurence’s convictions seemed to have rubbed off on William, who was a Whig not a Tory, and supported the Irish Emancipation Bill, that gave political representation back to Irish Catholics. Like his father he didn’t stay in politics. When the choice came between astronomy and the Commons, he voted with his feet and left, keeping only his seat in the Lords.
Although both William and his father had strongly held convictions about Ireland, they were neither of them career politicians. Ultimately it was more important for them to be home, at Birr. For both father and son, being a part of Birr was the backbone of their lives and lay at the core of who they felt themselves to be.
*
The street lights of Birr town leak a little over the walls of the Castle but still the Demesne is very dark at night. The lake that William had made shows its place only by the faintest glassy glitter, and the parkland of meadow, trees and gardens that draws the attention by day, lies low in the shadows. Look down and there’s nothing but featureless dark, but look up and the sky is suddenly big. A vast stage of limitless possibility, arching from the battlements of the Castle to an horizon that seems a thousand miles away.
William spent almost all the nights of his childhood under this sky, at Birr. He was never sent away to an English public school, as the children of the Irish nobility usually were. Laurence and his wife Alice wanted their children at home and engaged tutors to educate William and his younger brother John. So there would have been plenty of opportunity for William to look at the stars and wonder.
Astronomy was creating quite a stir in intellectual circles of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Observatories at Armagh and Dublin were established in the last decades of the eighteenth century and were increasingly active in the first decades of the nineteenth. As a prominent public figure and a man of considerable intellect, Laurence would have been aware of developments in all cultural spheres and would have shared what he could with his growing sons. As William got old enough to accompany Laurence on trips to London he was exposed to the scientific life of the times. . He joined a number of newly established Societies — the Royal Horticultural Society, the Geological Society among them. But the most significant was his membership of the The Royal Astronomical Society, begun when he was twenty four and the Society itself was just four years old.
The star of the stars at that time was William Herschel, a career musician turned astronomer and telescope maker. Herschel, together with his sister Caroline, were at work and making exciting discoveries: binary stars, new comets, infrared radiation, moons of Saturn and of Uranus (the planet Herschel had himself discovered). The telescope that Herschel completed in 1780 was the largest so far, with a forty nine inch diameter mirror and a forty foot barrel. With it he began to examine ‘nebulae’, mysterious blurs of light, like clouds of glowing mist in the sky. These nebulae, he felt, were all part of the evolutionary processes that gave rise to new stars and planets. With so many nebulae visible to his new telescope, Herschel felt that all the stages in the birth of solar systems taking place over vast eons of time, could be viewed in the tiny span of a human life. Herschel’s theories were added to by a French astronomer, Laplace whose wonderfully titled paper ‘The System of the World’, published in 1796, stated that nebula must spin slowly over time to form planets from the the eddies of that spin, and stars from the central core.
It was all very exciting in a world which was beginning to suspect that God might not have created everything four thousand years ago last Monday. And it was all happening right above William’s head in the dark over County Offaly. Up there new worlds were forming, stars and planets being born. All William had to do to see it all, was find a way to look. It must have made the night sky seem full of the possibility of adventure and discovery.
William certainly had the right natural talents for astronomy. Both William and John were very bright boys, with a special aptitude for mathematics which they drew from their mother, Alice. John, though two years younger than William, kept up with William in his studies every step of the way. They both went up to Trinity College Dublin to study and then very soon transferred to Magdalen College Oxford, graduating with first class honours in mathematics in the same year.
There was a practical side to the boys’ intelligence too. Laurence was a skilled architect and amateur engineer, and the boys had grown up watching their father design and have built innovative extensions to the Castle. At about the time they both came down from Oxford an extraordinary suspension bridge was built over the river Camcor beside the Castle. It is like a spider web of white painted wire, stretched elegantly between stone pillars. It is perhaps two feet wide and twenty long. You can still cross it, one at a time and carefully (I did so in bare feet) and stand over the river below, looking up at the most ravishing aspect of the Castle. To an untrained eye it seems merely magical, but to historians of architecture and engineering it is a place of pilgrimage. It was the first of its kind in Ireland and predated Brunel’s work in England. Did Laurence set the new graduates a practical challenge to test their mathematical and engineering skills? ‘Build me a bridge boys, let’s see if your mathematics is useful for anything!’ All the circumstantial evidence suggests that he did, and that the bridge is there to show that the boys rose to meet their father’s challenge in great style.
The scientific climate of the time primed William to astronomy and his education and natural talents trained him for it. But from where did William draw his passion for looking further and further into the eye of infinity? It seems very likely that it was at least in part, from the work of William Herschel, and in particular one of the last papers he read to the Royal Society in 1817.
William was a serious student of Mathematics by then, and as such he would certainly have read Herschel’s papers. In 1817 Herschel was 78 years old and unlikely to be giving many more public appearances. William was making regular visits to London with his father by that stage, and attendance at Royal Society Lectures was a standard of Laurence’s London itinerary. Would William have missed the chance to see the great man Herschel, and hear his new theories? Very likely not.
This latest paper was extraordinary, it attempted to measure the depths, the great unimaginable depths, of space. Herschel at first pointed out the fact, well known to astronomers of the time, that the brightness of a star is inversely proportional to its distance from the viewer. So, a star will be four times as bright as a similar star that is twice as far away. By meticulously comparing the brightness of stars with a standard bright star (Arcturus in the constellation Bootes) Herschel mapped the relative distances from Earth of a sample of stars in all parts of the sky. He called this measure Profundity. He measured stars with the smaller of his telescopes that were up to the nine hundredth order of Profundity away, and postulated that with his bigger telescope (which he hadn’t used for this) he would see stars that were of the two thousand three hundredth order of distance from Earth. Using his measurements he was able to make a rough map of our position amongst the stars in our part of the Milky Way, but wasn’t able to see to the end of it and in some directions the mass of stars at great distance was just a blur of light, too far away to distinguish one from another.
The ‘map’ was really the roughest of diagrams and Herschel was disappointed that it wasn’t better. In addition he knew that his method was flawed as it relied on stars being of a single standard luminosity. In fact, that property can vary by ten thousand fold (although as a very rough measure of distance Herschel’s method is still used by amateur astronomers today).
In spite of the problems inherent in the paper, it communicated something important to the youthful William. First, that space was very big indeed. If Herschel had seen to the two thousand three hundredth order of distance and that still wasn’t the end, then what might there be out there to be discovered? Second, that with a telescope bigger than Hercshel’s forty nine inch reflector, it might be possible to see what lay out there, beyond the Milky Way; to resolve the blurry mass of far off stars, the shapes of the faintest and most distant of nebulae, into constellations, planets, worlds. Out of the memories of stary nights at Birr, of the web of astronomical formulae he had read, of the dawning aspirations of a young heart, William’s life-long love of infinity was born, like stars condensing from a cloud of glowing dust.
Although William was the heir, John was considered to be the brightest, and great things were expected of him. When William entered Parliament in 1824 John went to London too, to continue his studies in law. Their letters home show their contrasting personalities and the teasing and rivalry, usual between brothers:
‘William has caught a slight cold’ reports John from London in 1826,
‘I believe by walking at a rapid rate while he is thinking of political economy, getting into a heat and then loitering.’
And a few days later John is openly ‘telling tales’,
‘William’s cold is much better, he has not however resumed his attendance at the House.’
John’s letters are warm and chatty, full of gossip,
‘Boscha is accused of bigamy. However he thinks himself in no danger as his first marriage took place in France …’
and details of parties,
‘… cakes, blancmange, jelly, fruit tarts, lemonade, wine etc with a few cold cuts. William had an invitation, but of course did not go!’
William’s letters are much more sober, full of political questions for his father and big brotherly concern for John who had never enjoyed William’s robust good health:
‘My official reason for returning home is to withdraw him [John] from the most eminent dangers to which he exposes himself … returning from his club at one or two in the morning …’
Whatever the slight frictions that may have been between them, they were very close, and John’s sudden death from rheumatic fever in 1828 changed everything. Their father, Laurence, was devastated. He wrote:
‘…everywhere I go, every object I see, every word that is spoken, every book that I read in some way or other reminds me of him…’
Friends and family recognised what a terrible loss John’s death was: A chest six feet long and two feet deep was required to hold all the letters of condolence the family received at the time. It stands on the first floor landing at Birr to this day, with a marble bust of John on top of it. Not only had William lost his closest companion but the burden of having to become what John himself might have been fell upon him. He was expected to console his father for the loss of the favourite. As a friend wrote to Laurence,
‘How happy it is for you to have such a son as Lord Oxmantown [William]. Consider how few parents have such a blessing, an eldest son distinguished among men of literature and science….’
The shadow this cast on William’s life was still apparent eight years after William’s own death, when his son addressed the crowd assembled at the unveiling of the memorial to William, in Birr town square, in March 1876,
‘Unhappily John Clere Parsons was cut off before his time, but his brother who was longer spared employed a good part of his time.’
From the time of John’s death there was another source of William’s resolve to achieve great things in the stars: He was living now for John as well as for himself, and perhaps he knew he must make a life good enough for the two of them.

*
Walk into the grounds of Birr today and at first sight the Leviathan will take your breath away. A vast, black tube between monumental walls, it seems somehow alive, just waiting to act. It is out of scale with the landscape, too big and strange to belong on Earth at all. Its vital statistics are astonishing: A speculum made of four tons of bronze, a barrel fifty eight feet long, of pitch pine and iron castings and weighing more than one hundred and fifty tons; held between stone walls, seventy feet long, and fifty feet high, controlled by a complex system of pulleys and chains. All of this is the more breathtaking and astonishing when you remember that it was made using nothing more than human ingenuity and muscle: No cranes, no hydraulic lifts, no computers, no scientific committees or government grants.
By the time William joined the Royal Astronomical Society in 1824, the great Herschel was dead (in August 1822), and his forty nine inch diameter telescope in disrepair. There was little immediate hope of exploring depths of the Universe or of finding the true identity of the two and a half thousand nebulae that Caroline Herschel had mapped. William must have felt from his early twenties that building a big telescope was the way forward for astronomy. William had begun experiments in astronomy in 1827, but the pace and intensity of the work grew after John’s death. This work wasn’t that of a star gazer, no long, lonely midnight vigils with a telescope. William’s astronomy began with the practical problems of designing and building a large reflecting telescope. The first stage in that process was the casting and polishing of a metal mirror, or speculum. William spent much of the time he wasn’t in Parliament in a forge he had built next to the castle, casting specula of various designs and in a range of different alloy mixes, and devising ways of polishing them. Weeks and months of experimentation and hard work went into every trial of a new allow, a new mirror design, or new method of polishing. The setbacks were constant: Alloys proved too brittle, causing mirrors to shatter, even as they were nearing completion after weeks of careful cooling and further weeks of polishing; Polishing methods turned out mirrors that were the wrong shape by a thousandth of an inch. To describe the work as painstaking is not enough: It was draining, emotionally and physically. Every time something went wrong William had to come with a new idea, his hope undaunted, and his enthusiasm undiminished. But he wasn’t merely emerging from his study to give orders, William laboured alongside the men he trained to help him. A visitor to the Castle, watching him rolling his sleeves up over his muscular, blacksmith’s arms, mistook him for an ‘intelligent foreman’.
William had been trained for precision, scientific thinking. But his mind was flexible too, so he had the ability to come up with innovative and creative solutions to the problems he encountered in building the telescopes. But even these gifts weren’t so unusual; what really set William apart was that his response to every setback, failure or problem was simply to work, and find a way around whatever was in his way. He achieved so much because of a quiet and invincible determination. Perhaps he felt John’s ghost at his shoulder urging him on, helping him keep his ultimate goal before him in his mind’s eye. Whatever it was, William was nothing if not focussed. He had read Herschel’s work on nebulae and how their form might relate to the evolution of stars and planets. He knew that only a very big telescope could look far enough into space to expand Herschel’s vision. And a very big telescope was what he was going to build.
As he wrote in 1830:
‘…there can be little doubt that discoveries will multiply in proportion as the telescope may be improved. It is perhaps not too much to expect that the time is not too far distant when data will be collected sufficient to afford us some insight into the construction of the material universe.’
William’s desire for ‘insight into the construction of the material universe’ was not an ego centric quest. Other telescope builders before him had sought to use their discoveries as a means to self aggrandisement. Those men kept secret the details of their lenses and mirrors, their alloys and their polishings. William published everything he discovered and opened his workshop to anyone who showed interest. As Romney Robinson, Director of the Armagh Observatory wrote of him:
‘It was not the mean desire of possessing what no other man possessed, of seeing what no other had seen, that induced him to bestow so many years on this pursuit; had such been his motives, he would have kept to himself his methods, instead of opening his workshop to all who had the slightest desire of following in his steps…his sole object is to extend the domain of astronomical knowledge.’
The Leviathan wasn’t born in a hurry, the child of one great explosion of energy and creativity. It was the result of nearly two decades of patient labour and meticulous experimentation by William and the team of workers he had assembled around him. There had been many steps and setbacks along the way, and William had patiently worked on every part of the process: The composition of the alloy, the methods of smelting, casting and cooling the speculum. He had even invented a new variety of steam engine just to drive the high precision polishing machine. All the skills he and his team needed to build the Leviathan were practised on the a smaller telescope with a three foot reflector that was completed in 1839.
The great telescope project was a strange mixture of exacting engineering science — the grinding of the mirror surface, for example, had to be done to tolerances of one ten thousandth of an inch — and construction on an heroic scale. The furnaces used to melt the bronze required two thousand cubic feet of turf, and ten hours burning to get them to the required temperature. The molten metal was held in three great crucibles each twenty four feet across and weighing half a ton when empty. It was very dangerous work, and only someone with William’s cool head for planning and forethought could have done it. All the same it wasn’t without its romance: On the night the Leviathan’s mirror was cast in April 1842 every one on the Demesne and many in the town must have been standing spectator. William’s enterprise was already injecting a special magic into their lives, as Romney Robinson, showed in his description,
‘The sublime beauty can never be forgotten…the sky crowded with stars and illuminated by the most brilliant moon, seemed to look down auspiciously on their work. Below, the furnaces poured out huge columns of nearly monochromatic yellow flame and the ignited crucible during their passage through the air were fountains of red light, producing on the towers of the castle and the foliage of the trees, such accidents of colour and shade as might almost transport fancy to the planets of a contrasted double star….’
William himself never gave in to outbursts of such purple prose, but his careful approach sometimes gave rise to moments of equal enchantment. The mirror was polished by William’s ingenious machine in the workshops just outside the Castle’s ‘back door’. Above the machine, trap doors opened to the sky, and a view of the adjacent tower and flagpole. The means of testing the quality of the mirror’s surface was by hoisting William’s watch to the top of the flagpole and examining its reflection in the mirror. Imagine after hours or even days of polishing, the trapdoor flung open to the sunlight, and a ring of anxious faces bent over the brilliant surface of the mirror. Some young apprentice is dispatched to run up the Tower steps with His Lordship’s pocket watch, and everyone stands anxiously awaiting the verdict, will the watch face be clearly readable in the speculum’s bowl of light?
Details of the Leviathan’s construction and the great hopes for its abilities were published in an article in the Illustrated London News in 1843. It was a tremendously bold move on William’s part, as he had no way of knowing in advance that the Leviathan really would be able to show anything of value. But within a a year of the article, he had the first indication of the telescope’s capabilities. The polishing process was complete and the mirror, the speculum, was ready. Its housing was not so it was given its first try propped up on a slope outside the Castle . This makeshift try-out was rather contrary to William’s usual painstaking careful approach, but it indicates the level of his excitement, and perhaps anxiety. How many assistants must it have taken to get the almost four tons of bronze manhandled into position and pointed at the sky? The results were better than William could have hoped; the Leviathan made its first discovery, a bright star, previously thought to be one object revealed itself clearly to be two.
The Leviathan was finished and ready for use in February 1845. William invited Dr Romney Robinson and Sir James South to Birr to give the telescope its first real trial. They waited round in the drizzly dusks, looking out anxiously for a break in the cloud cover, but it didn’t come until the fifteenth. Dressed in heavy overcoats and stovepipe hats the three men walked the five hundred yards from the castle to the telescope, and mounted the series of wooden staircases that took them to the viewing platform, a few feet from the Leviathan’s mouth. They stood suspended almost sixty feet above the ground and shouted instructions to the team of helpers who winched the barrel into place, like a giant gun taking aim. Sir James was very deaf and all conversations with him had to be at maximum volume, so the first use of the Leviathan wasn’t a peaceful contemplative experience. However they did make good observations of the double star Cator and the nebula M67. Then the weather closed in again and in the next few wet weeks the speculum sat idle in the damp, and tarnished . It had to be repolished, which meant dragging it across the estate to the workshops by the back door of the Castle, on a set of specially constructed rail tracks.
In March the telescope was officially opened. The ceremony included the Dean of the Church of Ireland walking the length of the barrel in top hat and raised umbrella. It wasn’t until April that the weather was clear enough for William to make continued observations.
At the start of his telescope building career fifteen years and more earlier William had not been a skilled observer. He was just a beginner, a mathematically gifted engineer still, rather than an astronomer. But he’d learnt through doing, making meticulous observations with his smaller telescope, and taking counsel from Robinson and South. By the time he stood on the Leviathan’s lofty perch on an unseasonably cold clear night in April 1845, he was one of the finest astronomical observers in Europe. He was ready, the man and his machine converged on their goal.
William, calling instructions to his assistants, went straight for one of the nebula that had fascinated him from the start. He looked at the nebula M51, first described by Herschel. He had worked and waited a long time for this moment, and he was rewarded immediately with a startling discovery, that would have been impossible without the huge, light-grabbing ability of the Leviathan. M51 wasn’t a cloud of glowing gas or mysterious ‘nebula material’ it was made of stars and what was more those millions of stars were arranged in a spiral , a form suggesting the motion of a whirlpool. William knew from the first moment how important the image he saw in telescope was. But with success now assured, his calm and caution returned. Over many clear nights in the Spring of 1845 he made drawings of M51. This was incredibly difficult. He was working in the dark, so his eyes would be at their most sensitive to the pale glimmering, ghosts in the telescope, and he had no means of measuring the proportions of the image. His only solution was to draw the M51 over and over again, until the image he had seen in the eye of the Leviathan matched that he made on the paper. The beauty of the resulting drawing is undeniable. Something of William’s own quiet, determined nature shows in it, there is a kind of tenderness with which he’s rendered its swirl and sweep. There’s no exaggeration in his picture, no ego. He felt himself to be a humble and privileged observer, his duty solely to bear honest witness to the wonders that he saw.
He showed his drawing at the June meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science that year. It created a sensation. The spinning aspect of Laplace’s theory seemed to have some truth, but M51 was clearly made of stars, not glowing ‘nebula material’ that might give rise to just a few planets. Some could not believe that such detail could be seen through any telescope, and said William had drawn an instrumental artifact. It was fifty years before William’s observations could be put beyond any speculation by the photographs of the astronomer Isaac Roberts. Only modern photographs of M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, show how perfectly accurate William’s observation and record were. We now know that the Whirlpool is in fact two spiral galaxies turning around each other in a long orbit of a hundred million years, and William’s work was the foundation stone for that discovery. At the meeting President of the Association, John Herschel, the great astronomer’s astronomer son, knew the value of what William had done,
‘…an achievement of such magnitude that I want words to express my admiration for it.’
That achievement is is still recognised today as a milestone in astronomy,
‘He succeeded in an almost impossible task…the Birr Telescope is a tribute to the Earl’s skill in engineering and optics: results he obtained with it are such a remarkable tribute to his observational skill and insight that such a device would record more of the depths of the Universe than man had yet conceived…It is to the everlasting credit of Lord Rosse that he discovered the spiral nature of the nebulae and thereby opened an avenue of exploration which today has lead us into the inconceivable depths of space and time.’
— Professor Sir Bernard Lovell
It was the biggest and best discovery the Leviathan would ever make. Two months later the telescope was lying idle, the speculum’s bright eye was clouded with a fog of tarnish. At the very point at which his reward for years of work and planning was lying in William’s hands, it was snatched away. The Potato Famine, which William had warned of and predicted for three years and more, had hit. William couldn’t sit on his high platform searching the sky, whilst the people of Parsonstown were starving. He set astronomy to one side for three years and applied his determination to finding jobs and food for his desperate country men.
It was typical of William that the gap in consistent use of the Leviathan didn’t defeat him. As soon as the worst of the famine was over the mirrors — the main one and a spare — were repolished and the telescope was ready for action again in February 1848 and systematic observations could begin again. William engaged a series of astronomers to work at Birr and make observations over the next few years, so when he was otherwise engaged work could continue. William and his helpers concentrated their attention on the nebulae. They found other spiral galaxies amongst the list of nebulae, they found nebulae that resolved into starry galaxies that weren’t spirals and they found nebulae that didn’t resolve into stars at all and seemed to be truly nebulous clouds of brightness. William made beautiful and meticulous drawings of many of these objects which can can be seen today in the Birr archive. But he was of course cautious with his conclusions. Whilst Romney Robinson ran away with the idea that all nebulae were in fact masses of stars, and merely required ever larger telescopes to prove it, William formulated a view close to our modern knowledge of ‘nebulae’. We now know that some are clusters of stars within our own galaxy, some are true ‘nebulae’ clouds of dust and gas, some are single stars with a halo of gas, and some really are other galaxies. William made meticulous observations and drawings of all types such as: The faint hot star and its veil of gas called the Owl Nebula; the Orion nebula, a strange and complex patch of bright gas, birthplace of stars within our own galaxy; Messier 13, a bright patch in the constellation Hercules which emerges in the Leviathan’s eye as a cluster of stars; the Andromeda Spiral — which William guessed correctly was a ‘whirlpool’ galaxy which we were viewing edge on. What William couldn’t know at the time, without a means of measuring distance better than Herschel’s rough comparison of starlight, was that his telescope was reaching deep, deep into space and time. Just one of the many spiral galaxies he described is M77, the ‘blue spiral’ in the constellation Cetus. It is fifty million light years away.
*
In the years following the famine, Birr became the astronomical phenomenon of Europe. The Leviathans’s fame spread from Petersburg to Paris, and the name of Parsons with it.
Brendan Parsons, the present (7th) Earl of Rosse, told me that ‘Parsons’ marriages are made in Heaven’. But marriages made in Heaven must be maintained on Earth, and having a good example of marriage is always a helpful start. William certainly had that. His parents Laurence and Alice had adored each other. Laurence’s letters home from London are sweetly tender
‘…adieu my ever dearest of beings…’
‘…ever dear and adorable wife…’
‘…take care of yourself and take care of the children. When you are well, and they are well, all is well….’
So when William married Mary Wilmer Field in 1836, he had a good idea of what he was aiming for in married life.
Mary was thirteen years his junior, the daughter of generations of well-to-do country squires. She was by no means William’s social equal, but she had been well educated and had a fortune worth more than eighty thousand pounds. Right from the start, she showed that she was not going to be a shrinking and subservient wife. She redesigned the interior of her bedroom at Birr, and refused to move in until it was completed. She was a tartar with the servants, laying out their duties in meticulous detail, right down to the daily time table for the kitchen boy.
Mary wasn’t a spoilt brat or a monster. She’d lost her mother early on, following the birth of her sister Delia, and had been brought up by a governess, Susan Lawson. Miss Lawson remained a lifelong friend and she instilled in Mary an unshakeable belief in the value of discipline, hard work and order as the route to happiness and fulfilment. Mary quite simply wanted people to be happy, so she guided them to it the only way she knew how. She was bossy and controlling but she was also warm and loving. Her correspondence with her beloved Uncle Richard Wharton Myddelton, and her relationships with friends and family over the years show that there was big heart beating inside the iron determination. The Illustrated London News article that lauded the forthcoming Rosse Telescope took time to praise Mary’s talents,
‘She has with the most exquisite taste improved the grounds of the castle and freely opens them for their [the people of Parsonstown] accommodation … she has taken a lively interest in the poor and is constantly improving and changing to afford them work … the consequence of this conduct is that she is universally esteemed and looked up to, and that her town is almost free from the discontent and distress that is so rife in other places …’
Her intelligence and her strength made her a success in her formal role as the Countess of Rosse, and they also contributed to the success of their marriage. But the real secret of the ‘heaven made’ union was that she was interested in William’s work, excited by his astronomical ambitions. It was part of what had attracted her to him. Not only did her money help to finance the Leviathan, her enthusiasm helped to drive the project forward, not as a passive help mate, but as co-worker with projects and passions of her own. When William’s forges lay idle Mary stepped in and used them to make iron gates for the new stone Castle Keep that she had designed. When William abandoned photography as unsuitable for use with the Leviathan, she took it up and became an award-winning photographer. Her photographs won her the Photographic Society of Ireland’s Silver Medal in 1864, and a place in the Dublin International Exhibition in 1865. Many of her photographs still survive and open like a window onto the life of the Castle in the 1850s and 60s. There are her children in their best clothes staring solemnly into the camera, with her son Randal always blurred because he simply cannot sit still for the ten second exposure. Here are her friends, the natural historian Mary Ward, astronomer Romney Robinson, the explorer Captain Knox. There is the stable block she designed and had built, with ladies and gentlemen appropriately posed. You can imagine her standing behind her heavy wooden camera, calling to them to stand just so, and to keep absolutely still. And here is the glorious Leviathan itself, at the height of its fame, with two of her children and their governess posed cheekily in the mouth of the barrel.
I was shown Mary’s personal cabinet, an elegant and elaborate piece with many tiny ivory-fronted drawers, with her little treasures still stowed away inside it. Looking through all its drawers and crannies, I was struck by the some of the things she’d preserved as her most precious. They include a selection of musket balls and ancient coins found when the moat was re-dug and some little fossil collections, meticulously pasted onto the painted backs of her calling cards. There are tiny scale models of her building designs, made, once again, from her calling cards and painted with watercolours. They are the sort of things I’d expect to find in the treasure box of an bright, studious ten year old, the sort of things in fact I hoarded myself as a girl. That youthful core which had the capacity to be newly fascinated by the world and all that was in it, was I’m sure what bound her so closely to William.
They became a good team, Mary compensated for William’s rather shy manner, as Frances Power Cobbe spotted on a visit to Birr in the 1840s,
‘Lord Rosse is a heavy red faced, tow wigged man with a nervous twitch and awkward, though thoroughly obliging manners. Lady Rosse is a beautiful, gay, clever woman. She amused me greatly after dinner by saying that he was so terribly matter of fact that she could never make him understand punch…
‘They were’ she added later, ‘a very happy and united couple.’
They worked together to run the life of the Castle, to raise their children and, during the Famine, to save the people of County Offaly from its worst effects. During the famine William as Lieutenant of the County had to organise and distribute aid to the poor and starving. This involved raising money locally and generating work for small farmers who had left their land to find food. Mary and William found five hundred jobs on the Demesne, and the wages were paid from Mary’s fortune. As a result, the famine death toll in the Parsonstown region was far lower than in many other parts of the country, and any reservations that the local population might once have had about the Parsons family were utterly dispelled. As Randal, one of Mary’s youngest sons, said of the period following the famine
‘I can remember times of great unrest … my father used to go out to the telescope with pistols in his pocket … but there was never any real danger as the family was so popular…’
There was a story circulating in Irish society throughout the period of their marriage. It tells how William, on one of his fact-finding missions to an English manufacturing works in the North, was employed ‘incognito’ as a foreman. The ‘boss’ was so impressed with this new worker that he invited him for Sunday lunch. William and the boss’s daughter, Mary, fell for each other. But Mary’s father had better things in mind for her than a marriage to the shop floor. William was sent packing, only to return, in full Noble regalia, to ask Mr Field for his daughter’s hand.
Sadly, there’s not much chance that the story is factually correct, but there is a truth in it. William and Mary were, as Frances Cobbe said, ‘a happy and united couple’, they had the kind of equal, loving relationship that might be the envy of modern marriage. Their relationship is captured in a simple and rather ineptly rendered picture, painted by one of their many friends, the astronomer Piazzi Smyth. It shows a rather portly William and the dark haired and striking Mary, sitting at a table, turned to each other. In William’s hands are little renderings of his marvellous astronomical drawings, whilst Mary wears the gloves she used to protect her hands from darkroom chemicals. They are looking into each other’s faces with the same expression of rapt delight. They are not, I think, exchanging words of love, they are telling each other about nebulae and photographs, and what they will each do tomorrow.
Yet another of William’s inheritances was a love of family life. He and Mary had their children educated at home, and although there were always nannies and tutors on hand to help with the child care, the children were as much as possible included in the life of the Castle in the Winter, and of the London Season in the Summer.
Randal Parsons, one of William and Mary’s youngest sons, wrote a brief private memoir of the life at Birr in the 1840s and 50s when he was growing up. Through his rather restrained and guarded prose, a vivid picture of a very lively household emerges.
In typical style, Mary laid down a pretty strict schoolroom routine for the six sons living at home at that time, beginning with lessons at 7am. There was still, however, plenty of space for fun. William and his sons were known collectively as ‘the Boys’, they disappeared for long periods into William’s workshops, to emerge with all sorts of home made inventions, spring traps for rabbits, miniature steam engines and once, a giant magnet with which they picked up all the fire irons in the drawing room. Randal gives some indication of more frivolous activities: The Bishop of Limerick slipped and fell on the polished floor of the hall whilst playing shuttle cock and battledore, and was laid up at Birr for six weeks.
From the late 1840s the Leviathan became a celebrity, just as William had intended it to be. His intention had never been to keep the telescope for his own use to make ‘glorious discoveries’ on his own. All along he had had published every detail of the Leviathans’ construction so that others could follow in his footsteps and make telescopes for themselves. He threw open the doors of Birr to anyone who wanted to come and learn more about astronomy or the telescope itself. The viewing platforms on the Leviathan were built to take twelve at a time, and frequently were tested to their limits. Birr was always full of visitors, political and scientific friends, cousins, Aunts, Uncles, too. Many visitors came back to Birr time after time and stayed for long periods. In Frances Cobbe’s words,
‘… it seems the philosopher understands the art of good living for a better dinner I never ate!’
The frosty nights of Winter were best for observations and in Summer William’s duties took him and the family to London for ‘The Season’. There were parties and soirees almost every night at the Parson’s house in Connaught Place. William was elected President of the Royal Society in 1848 and from then on until his death in 1867 the Summer soirees at Connaught place were an important meeting place for scientists, musicians, artists and politicians.
After the Season came long visits to Grandmother Parsons in Brighton, and, in the 1860s, voyages aboard the Parsons’ yacht. Everyone went, including Mary and they sailed around the coasts of Britain and Europe. Randal and the eldest boy Laurence kept journals for one of those sailing summers. From Randal’s particularly, a real picture of family unity emerges: At some points it seems Randal got fed up with his diary and changes in handwriting happen mid-entry, as if the diary had been passed around the dinner table.

There was however another story behind the glittering Scientific and social success, the lively shared experiences of a happy family. There was tragedy in the family. Randal mentions it only in passing in his memoir , it was a place perhaps too sore to touch more firmly,
‘In my younger days Mother Father and six sons were living at home. Other children died in infancy and the only one who lived to any age was my sister Alice who died of rheumatic fever at 13 [sic] and I never saw her.’
Mary’s first child Alice was born in 1839 and her second, Laurence in 1840. In 1842 , the year the speculum for the Leviathan was cast, and in 1843, she gave birth to little girls, who didn’t live long enough to be christened. Little William was born in 1844, but she lost another infant just after birth in 1845, the year the telescope was completed and the Famine began. John came a year after that in 1846, but Alice died in 1847. Randal was born in 1848 then there was another baby who died in the first days of life in 1850, whilst William was away for long periods preparing for the Great Exhibition, in London. In 1851, the year of the Exhibition (where Mary bought a whole new set of commemorative plates for the Castle), Clere was born, and three years later her last child, Charles. Just when she must have thought the heartbreak of losing children must surely be over for her, her little boys William and John died within two years of each other in 1855 and 1857.
Of the fifteen years that included the period of the birth and fame of the Leviathan, Mary and William lost seven of their eleven children. This was another engine to drive their activity, work and plenty of it was the best distraction from grief.
That isn’t the end of the sadness in this story. The Leviathan itself brought disappointment into the very heart of what should have been the complete triumph of its achievements. The feature that made the Leviathan great, its vast bronze ‘eye’ was also its fatal flaw. In the damp cold of the Irish Winter the metal surface tarnished, dimming the telescope’s vision. It was a problem William had foreseen, and the reason he had made two mirrors for the telescope. But as the great telescope’s fame spread, and more and more visitors were drawn to Birr to ascend the vertiginous viewing platforms to watch the Leviathan perform, there wasn’t always time to change mirrors. A few observers experienced the telescope on very much less than peak form, and their derogatory comments were amplified by a press which delighted,even then, in throwing mud. A stain settled on the reputation of the Leviathan. Down the years this small, bad press was casually replicated in one text after another, until the received wisdom about the Leviathan of Parsonstown was that it was some sort of hopeful monster, stranded in an Irish bog. William and his glorious, triumphant quest became blurred and faded, like the image of a distant galaxy in the tarnished eye of his Leviathan.

Materials and Methods

Birr Castle, unlike other Great Irish houses, kept its archive on site. Many houses which sent their family papers to the National Library lost everything when that institution was damaged in the Civil War. Birr too lost some of the archive in the Civil War, when fire destroyed the library, but most was saved, and much of it relevant to this story. William’s astronomical diaries and drawings, his private and scientific correspondence, estate records and accounts are all there, together with a similar level of documentation for his father, Laurence. Many of Mary’s pictures are still intact, her darkroom is much as she left it, and there are pieces of her private correspondence, to her Uncle and friends. In addition to the material in the archive at Birr, there is the chest of letters about John Parson’s death in 1828. There are many portraits and drawings done of and by members of William’s generation of the Parsons family, in the private collections at Birr Castle, which the 7th Earl and Countess of Rosse have kindly made available to me.
Not everything that I’ll need is at Birr. The County Offaly Museum keeps copies of local papers covering the period I’m interested in, plus a huge amount of documentation about the Famine. I can look for traces of William and Mary in the correspondence of the politicians and scientists of the time who were their friends, such as Nassau Senior, Romney Robinson, Fox Talbot. Mary Ward, William’s cousin and very close family friend who spent long periods at Birr, also kept a diary, and I’m on its trail. ( As another ‘strand of wool’, Mary Ward was killed in an accident at Birr two years after William’s death, involving a steam carriage made by William’s sons and driven by their tutor). There may also be useful material in the Conway Papers held at Balliol College Library in Oxford. These cover the elopement of William’s younger sister Alicia with Edward Conroy, son of Sir John Conroy who was said to have been Queen Victoria’s mother’s lover, and possibly Victoria’s biological father.
I’ll also be taking astronomical advice from Sir Bernard Lovell and Sir Patrick Moore, both of whom have been closely involved with the most recent chapters in the Leviathan’s story. ( I’ll be finding an expert in nineteenth century handwriting to help me with William’s letters, his writing is very hard to read!)
In addition to the archive at Birr (to which I’ve been given very free access by Lord and Countess Rosse) there are published books about the telescope and the science of the Parsons family. Patrick Moore wrote ‘The Astronomy of Birr Castle’ in 1992 (sadly now out of print) and W. Garret Scaife wrote ‘From Galaxies to Turbines, Science Technology and the Parsons Family‘ (The Institute of Physics Publishing) in 2000. In 1989 there was a travelling exhibition of the photographs by Mary Parsons and an accompanying book ‘Impressions of an Irish Countess’ by David Davison, the world authority on Mary. There are several local publications on the history of Birr and the surrounding countryside and of course, many general texts on the history of Ireland (eg. Kee, 2003 ‘Ireland, A History’).
Any family over time generates stories that tangle together like strands of wool. Few stories have a definite beginning or a real end. Not even birth and death can top and tail a life neatly, as the story of that life starts long before it begins and may go on for generations after it ends. The story of the Leviathan began with Laurence’s decision to educate his boys at home, and Alice’s cleverness at sums. It continues today in a whole generation of telescopes, an era of astronomical awareness that grew from the scientific work at Birr and in the Leviathan itself, restored in reputation and physical reality and back just where William put it.
With all that said, the story of the Leviathan of Parsonstown is William and Mary’s story. Without the combination of their skills and attributes it would never have been completed and achieved what it did. They were an extraordinary couple and they lived in extraordinary times.

 

 

 

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Found in the Digital Attic

This is only a short post…not really a post at all.

It’s been a Heinz 57 varieties week. Last weekend the glorious Boswell Festival, where I had some of the best conversations of my life with other authors there (Thomas Harding, Phillipe Sands)  and came home buzzing (and I WILL write more sensibly about this soon). Then, London to celebrate the publication of King of the Sky, meet lovely librarians from the SLA (also to see the big David Hockney exhibition at Tate Britain…more of that too, soon.)and speak to Amnesty International about how King of the Sky,which they have kindly endorsed and my new picture book (see below!) might help raise funds for refugees. And then rehearsals for 3000 Chairs, the theatre production that links last years #3000 chairs campaign and gallery on the Guardian website and next year’s picture book The Day War Came. It’s a great piece of physical theatre directed  by Claire Coache of Open Sky  and Gillian Hipp from Hereford College of Art, and performed by Hereford students. I’m hoping we can somehow get it to the launch of the book next May, so we can have an auction of 3000chairs artwork at the Amnesty centre in Shoreditch. As soon as I know more I’ll blog about it and start to gather artwork for the auction.

At the same time as all this, The Pond, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6ER3zHpDwAthe story I wrote about a grief stricken family illustrated by the amazing Cathy Fisher has gone out into the world and is swimming around. Its such an important story – it won’t be a best seller but I hope it will have a long life in libraries and schools and some homes…wherever there is a family that needs it.

Today I’ve been looking forward and back…editing a new story for a new publisher, and gathering old files of old stories to give them new life with lovely Graffeg (who published Perfect and The Pond). And I happened to go into the ‘attic’ – into those old files that you usually can’t open cos you made them six computers ago.

Most of the time technology drives me to screaming but today it worked…a converter app magically gave me instant access to old files – poems, picture book texts, stories – that I haven’t looked at for ages. And in the way of going into attics, you nip in for five minutes to pick something up, open a box, begin pulling letters out of envelopes or old toys out of bags and five hours later, you’re still up there…  I found this poem about Keats House. I wrote it, I can’t even remember the date, but it was on a visit to the poet’s house in Hampstead, with a group of children. It was this time of year, and we sat on the grass outside in the little green postage stamp that is all that remains of what would have been big green space in John’s time. We used Keats’ fine eye to help us look and the children wrote beautiful descriptions of the leaves, the light the sky. It was one of those days that gleams in the memory. The kids loved it, loved the day, the place, and their own voices and words.

It was a big day for me too because I grew up with Keats. My father recited Ode to Autumn and to a Nightingale almost every day of my young childhood. He’d do it while he was shaving in the mornings. I grew to love the sounds of the words. Its never far from my heart, that set of memories, but it’s close now because my son, who was born the year after my father died, has begun to ask about him and I find that the thing I want to tell first is about his love of words.

So this poem, recovered from an electronic attic today, written on that gleaming day perhaps a decade back, was for daddy really. And now for my son too.

On Visting Keats’ House With A Class of Fine Children

Dear John
We visted your house today
Not the Swan and Hoop where you were born,
With hoofbeats clattering the cobbles and the creak of wheels.
Not your Granny’s house in the woods and meadows
Of old, wild Middlesex.
Not the apprentice room above the surgery,
Or the students lodging near the hospital
Where you lay awake with blood and crying in your head.
No. We visited you last house, on the Heath,
Where you found a wider sky to walk under,
Crickets chirruping by the Winter fireside
Nightingales in Summer dusks,
And love of course.

We weren’t invited,
But we thought you wouldn’t mind
If we sat in your study
In the chair, placed just as you left it,
Looked through your window at the sky.
We walked around your bed;
Was it so high and fluffy, John,
When you were here?
We wondered if you had to run and jump to go to sleep,
And if, when you were ill,
Your bed was just too high.

It was dry today, and being Summer
We went into your garden
And tried to look as you once looked
With hearts as open as our eyes,
Noticing the details:
The shiny stripes of bark,
The minute patterning of grass blades
The sunlight and the shadows
And the wind in the trees,
Like change.

And things have changed John.
Middlesex is banker country now,
No woods just roads and concrete
And shops that sell a world of nonsense.
There hasn’t been a nightingale in Hampstead
Since the war we call ’the last’,
Though why I can’t imagine,
Since it seems the fighting never stops.

You might not even know your house,
A grand room stands where your back door was
And there’s a sort of shop
Where Mrs Brawne sat darning stockings.
Your stairs have gone,
There’s no real kitchen
And the view beyond the garden’s blocked with houses.

But there are some good things:
The wall that divided you from Fanny’s been demolished,
It’s all one big space, that you could share;
Just a street away the hospital could cure your illness,
We understand tuberculosis now
We have its number, we’re on its trail
It doesn’t win the way it used to do.
The medicine you left behind moved on.
In my class no one died from whooping cough or scarlatina
Polio and measles don’t maim and blind,
The poor don’t die of cholera, but boredom
And everyone can learn to read and write.

And John, one other thing, it’s the reason
We didn’t need an invite to your home.
Anyone can come here now,
Other lives and ghosts have left their mark but
Its your good spirit that they come for,
And your face that looks down from every wall.
You’re famous John,
Your words weren’t written on the water,
They’ve travelled round the word, engraved on hearts
My own included.
Your deathless nightingale, your loitering knight,
Your season of mists, go with me
And millions like me, everywhere.
Just like you said
A thing of beauty is a joy forever
Its loveliness increases
It will never pass into nothingness.
So as we left your house
We crushed lavender between our palms
And remembered you.

 

 

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Underwater Worlds

coral atoll from the air

Thirty five years ago, almost in another world, another life, I went to the Maldives to take part in a WWFN funded study on blue and sperm whales. I flew in over the scattered dots of coral atolls, shaped like turquoise cats’ eyes in the deep indigo of the tropical sea. There was a boat ride from the airport to the marina where the boat was moored and as I stepped over the gap between the dock and the boat, a cloud of sergeant major fish, little zebra striped diamond shapes, swirled under my feet. Even though by then I’d spent two summer studying humpbacked whales, living on board small boats and camping on uninhabited islands it had all been in Northern sea, dark opaque, impenetrable. This glimpse through gin clear water into the underwater world of a typical reef was instantly entrancing.

I was desperate to see more. So I snorkelled off the marina where the water was filmed with engine oil. Corals were surviving on the sea-ward edge of the harbour wall- pale branches tipped with pastel green, yellow, pink, mauve; blue surgeon fish and parrot fish tootled about. Even with the floating turds and sunken rubbish, it was amazing. It was like being given a key to a fairy kingdom or being able to walk around at will in your best dreams.

When I finally snorkelled on a clean, un-polluted fringing reef a few weeks later I thought my soul was going to expand beyond the limits of my skin and burn me up. I let the wash of the waves waft me back and forth over the reef crest to experience to hallucinogenic, addictive vertigo of crossing over the drop off, where the atoll edge plunged three thousand metres to the sea bed. I hung in the water gazing at fish, flying between the coral heads, completely ignoring my presence. The sensation was one of having left my physical body behind and just being let lose to drink in the loveliness around me. The tiniest details were ravishing. I remember being mesmerised by a shoal of little fish fussing around some floating sea grass leaves. The green of the leaves was dappled with shell pink of algae, the fish, tiny silvers of life,were electric orange and the ripples above them fragmented and pattered the light as it struck them through the water. Still, half a lifetime later I can call up that image and its sheer beauty fills me with sunlight.

In the years that followed I got the chance to make brief visits to that dream world of underwater and enter into that out of body state – snorkelling in the Seychelles and the Caribbean even off the coasts of Devon and Cornwall. Then life got in the way and the only time I entered that world was through the dissolving wardrobe-back of my sleeping life.

But this February I flew to Indonesia, to the long skinny tip of Sulawesi, to learn to scuba dive, to do the underwater world properly. I chose Sulawesi as it’s the dead centre of marine biodiversity for the whole of the Indo pacific. I was nervous. I’m not a brave person and I wondered if the whole tanks / face mask / breathing through a regulator would freak me out.

It didn’t. Underwater my heart rate dropped. My breathing slowed. I felt, sort of at home.

And what I saw was so, so, so much more than I’d seen snorkelling in the top few brightly lit metres of under water.

me underwater with my wonderful instructor

My first open water dive was on a wall, part of the Bunaken Underwater nature reserve. We dropped into the water from the back of the boat, that deep indigo sea and grass green island on the horizon- a simple bright picture. But one of the most fabulous things about entering the underwater world is that the porthole to it is so simple: blue sea reflects the light, open sky. You have no clue that the very second you put your face mask through the surface, everything is different. You enter a three dimensional existence. In normal life we can go forwards and backwards and sideways. We live in two dimensions. Underwater, you live in three and it feels profoundly different.

On my first dive there had been rain and wind. The water was full of suspended sand and plankton. So as I passed through the surface the visual change was simply that the indigo grew depth instead of just being surface. But as we sank the reef came up towards us, and we dropped over its edge and began to go down alongside the wall.

This was nothing like the ordered garden of the reef crest – the neat heads of branching and brain corals, like the pruned trees in an arboretum. This deeper part of the reef was like entering the subconscious mind, full of unfettered shapes and ideas, strange and marvellous. Huge sponges, massive fans of soft corals, blooms of basket stars, washes of fish shoals and the punctuated details of pairs or little groups of fish attending to their particular niche on the reef.

Like the orange fish on the pink and green sea grass, so many of the details of that first dive are printed on my mind: a sleeping turtle the size of my garden barrow resting pale and serene on a ledge- above it a bed head of brain coral, at the end of the ledge a pink fan of soft coral, like a tiffany lamp; triangular bat masked banner fish staring down the chasm of a huge sponge, with a look of existential gloom on their faces; emperor angel fish, impossibly striped in deep glowing neon blue and yellow.

But the truly astonishing thing was the big picture. At 18 m or so we stopped and looked back up the wall. this is a view films and photos don’t show because its hard for cameras to see through several meters of water. Pictures of reefs show sunlight details, or artificially lit close ups of tiny wonders, not the big scale landscape.

Here’s what I saw looking up.

Imagine looking up at a wall six stories high, a wall that extends in both directions for as far as you can see. Below you are six more storeys disappearing into darkness. The wall is covered with huge three dimensional shapes – columns, vases, tendrils, laminate petal formations – each one between the size of a human and a small car. They are coloured in dull pink. duck egg blue, forest green, olive and ochre, accented by electric yellow, black, white. Its as if Grayson Perrys maddest pots had been duplicated and assembled here in some huge fiesta of the mind. Among the pots, between and in and out swim fish – striped, spotted, splashed – yellow, blue, pink, mauve. In the crannies and nooks of the pots, in the tiny details of their surface finishes, are yet more creatures – tiny shrimps shaped like pom moms, little fish that dart over the glazes as if attached by strings. Creatures so camouflaged, so like part of the pots themselves, that only when they move, do you realise they are alive.

After two weeks of dives like that, I had a lot to process: a night dive when we sat on the bottom, turned off our lights and watched the bioluminescence blossom round us like galaxies being born; a huge puffer fish buzzing around the reef like a mafioso collecting protection money; clouds of red toothed surgeon fish with their trailing tails describing balletic patterns in blue neon. I came home realising I had to find a whole new language to describe what I’d seen and experienced. I haven’t found that language yet. I’m working on it, thinking of fiction and non fiction that could communicate that largely unseen, unsuspected and undervalued universe of beauty and wonder. Because we need to know about it. We need to cherish it, for itself and for us- the oxygen in three out of your last four breaths came from the ocean.

But perhaps I don’t need to think too hard. Perhaps just telling it like it was is enough. Just after getting back I described my first dive to an audience of year 5 and 6 children in a school. When I’d finished, a hand shot up
“How old do I have to be to learn to dive?”

I don’t very often think ‘job done’, but I did then.

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A Home For Lots of Languages

‘Lot’s’ new Picture book about biodiversity, demonstrating another kind of diversity!

I’ve been a writer for a long time now, more than 20 years. I pootle along OK, though nobody knows who I am and movies have not been made of my books. There is no merchandise. I have a mortgage, no time to dust away the cobwebs and my car is mostly held together by mud. But I have written a lot of books and thanks to the wonderful foreign rights department of my publishers, they have been published in a LOT of languages. I have boxes of my books in my loft in Finnish, French, German, Russian, Spanish,Italian, Portuguese, Swedish. My favourites are the Japanese, Chinese and Korean ones. The text looks so beautiful, more pattern than print. Some editions have entirely different covers, that I like better than the originals. I love to think of children in all these countries reading my books. It makes me feel that I’ve done something ok.

But sitting on my shelves, shoring up my self belief these books are really not doing much.
So, I do periodically try and find a good home for them: I’m delighted when my friends tell me of foreign relatives with children; I once sent all my Danish editions to Sandy Torsvig.

Last Summer I spent a day in the Evalina Children’s hospital school. The Evalina is a truly wonderful institution and the school – with classrooms under the great glass roof on the side of the building is a bright, inspiring place. Children come from all over the world and from all over our multicultural capital for treatment. Finally, I’d found a great home for my non English books. The staff at the school said they’d love to have them. I went home intending to send them. But books are heavy and I have an awful lot of them. The cost of posting is prohibitive. I resolved to drive them up next time I drive to London.

In the meantime, quite a big meantime, I came across another good home for ‘foreign’ editions. The Hackney Empire started a children’s books swap, and said they’d  love books for kids with English as a second language, at Hackney empire. Hooray.

This weekend I was going to drive to London ( to work in the three schools in Hackney where I have been working regularly for the last three years ) with boxes of books for Hackney’s lovely rainbow population and for the Evalina.

BUT I have a misbehaving shoulder. Lifting heavy boxes and driving to London are impossible this weekend.

So was lying awake at 5.30 this morning fretting about this when I thought, maybe I can find a solution. Maybe some courier company like DHL whose vans I see zooming about the lanes round my home, would take my books to London for me, as part of their work for their charitable foundation. Then I thought, if that were possible, perhaps it could be a bigger thing. All over London shelves in publishers offices are groaning with the weight of foreign language editions. The foreign rights department at Walker periodically put out boxes of them in the canteen and beg staff to take them home. Could all these books find their way to good homes, like the Evalina, like HackneyBook Swap, or schools with lots of kids from other countries, or libraries in multicultural Burroughs? Surely it can’t be hard to get  publishers courier companies, or Uber, or London cabbies-( who already have a track record of work for children.)

two boxes of my books in lots of languages, waiting to be taken to London

So I’m putting this out there. Publishers, can you gather up your foreign language editions? Couriers and cabbies can you offer your services? Schools, libraries, hopsital schools can you say if books in other langurs would be welcome??
Can we make this all fit together and do something small and good so that a child living in a new language, or having medical treatment far from home can have the comfort of a story in their mother tongue? This is a small way to remind ourselves of the joy and richness that people from other cultures have brought to the UK, and how we still need to remember to extend a kind and courteous welcome

Lovely German edition of A First Book Of Animals with Petr Horacek’s GORGEOUS pictures

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…and another thing about Non Fiction…

Had there been the option to dance until dawn I would have taken it, but as there wasn’t, I spent New Year’s Eve with my fire and two films. The first was one I’d frankly been putting off, as I knew it would be harrowing. ‘Beasts of No Nation’ follows the story of a child forced to become a soldier in a brutal W. African civil war. It’s an astonishing film, and its young star, Abraham Attah, gives an utterly convincing performance as a little boy ripped from his home, who watches his family killed and then is forced to fight and kill, by the charismatic monster, his commander ( brilliantly played by Idris Elba – another shocking oversight that he didn’t get an Oscar nomination).

It is every bit as ghastly and disturbing as you might imagine not least because of the invisibility of the unrest in West Africa that sparked the book by Uzodinma Iweale on which it’s based. I realised just how good and how close to reality it was when I watched the second film, Virunga, a documentary about the eponymous national park in Rwanda, last refuge of mountain gorillas. At the time the film was made, the government of Rwanda had sold its soul to the devil by giving a UK oil company (SOCA – famous for despicable deeds around the world – a real Voldemort of an organisation ) the right to process and then drill for oil in the Virunga national park. That’s completely illegal as its a World Heritage site. The park rangers and their leader were then in the position of having to defend the park and the gorillas against their own government. SOCA, realising that a nice bit of unrest and fighting would serve them well, encouraged rebel forces from over the border in Congo ( men who looked like they just stepped off the set of Beasts of No Nation) to overrun the park and solve the problem of the pesky wildlife and its human protectors. The level of greed, ignorance and corruption displayed by the SOCA official – a slick young French man, by SOCA’s security chief, a British mercenary so unpleasant no one could have made him up, and the leader of the rebel forces, who made Beasts look like the factual prequel, was depressingly predictable.

But in this darkness were incredible lights: the people who live in the park and who gathered en mass to bury and honour gorillas murdered by poachers; the Rangers, Andre Bauma and Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, who spoke inspiringly about their love for the gorillas and about the hope the park represented for their ravaged nation; the ranger’s leader, Emmanuel de Merode, whose calm quiet resolve in the face of violence and disaster was heart stopping and the french journalist Melanie Gouby, who documented the story. Gouby was amazing; a young woman who looked like she should be having coffee on the left bank talking about Satre, she befriended the SOCA official, filmed him secretly making remarks that would have been at home in the mouth of a 19th century slaver, and had dinner with his vile security chief. Can you imagine the bravery it took for all of those people to stand up for what is right, to continue to speak about it, in the face of the kind of violent threat that will slit your throat and leave you in a ditch without hesitation? (Merode was shot and almost killed in 2014 by forces many believe were allied to SOCA). These are the real super-heroes of the world, role models for young people to aspire to.

The film ends before the decision by SOCA to pull out – the coverage of the story turned up the international heat so much they had to get out of the kitchen. WWF hailed it as a great victory (I find their coverage saying We Won, a bit sick making) but there is no doubt SOCA or some other Multinational vampire, is waiting in the wings, and the gorillas are not safe and neither are the people who share their forest habitat. Neighbouring Uganda is allowing oil and mineral prospecting in Lake Edward which borders the park.

These two films, together with my experiences this year with The World Land Trust (documented in an earlier blog) confirmed a lot of things for me. One, that the development promised by big multinational companies is simply rape by another name. They take what they want, create unrest to be able to do it and then leave, blaming the backward nature of the indigenous population for the chaos they have created. The second is that conservation offers real development, the chance to improve human lives at a human scale while maintaining an environment that still provides water, food, and a place to live well

And the third is that the documenting and the telling of real stories like this, stories that the big voices of the world want to drown out with their shouting, is why kids need to read and to write non fiction. They need to learn the skills of curiosity, observation and the determined gathering of information; they need to learn how to turn information into story and they need to practice having a voice and making it heard. The telling of true stories is subversive, it has a power to change the world. Big voices hold the stage because they have the skill and the confidence to use words, but little voices can gain that skill and confidence and then, big voices- watch out.

and if you’d like a novel for young people that tells some of this story beautifully read Gill Lewis ‘Gorilla Dawn’

and you might like this by me, about refugee children on a W. African rubbish dump Rubbish Town Hero

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Review Of My 2016

Museum of Anthropology Vancouver


I’ve just been listening to lovely John Simpson, the emperor of foreign correspondents, saying that in spite of what current news may tell us, the world is a better place than 20 years ago. There are fewer wars and dictatorships, more democracies, more negotiations than armed conflicts. So, although 2016 has been a year whose passing no one is going to mourn, here, in the spirit of  ‘Always Look on the Bright Side Of Life’ are some nice things that happened in my personal corner this year. You’ll find links to lots of  people. Do click and explore and see just how incredibly lucky I am to work with such fabulous artists of all kinds. Thank you Universe for lining me up with such delightful collaborators.

Seeing the finished art work by Emily Sutton for ‘Lots’ a picture book about biodiversity

Cover of Lots Walker Books 2017

– and seeing the dedication in print.

Being greeted by children in the three primary schools in Hackney that I’ve been visiting for a few years now. So great that they know me and look forward to working with me.

Moving here, to a house in a village in the Brecon Beacons. Dark, dark starry skies and owls calling in the night.

 

 

 

 
Publication of Perfect. So proud of this picture book and of the response to it.Here’s me talking about it  Published against all the odds, having been turned down by a list of publishers long as your arm. Huge thanks to Graffeg Books for giving it a home.

And so lucky to have found Cathy Fisher 

Hackney kids loved it and it opened up a great dialogue about their own experiences within their families. Now, extra special as Cathy Fisher has been nominated for a Greenaway for her illustration for it.

More wonderful books from Graffeg Books. These rhyming texts were illustrated by new talent Abbie Cameron. We had a ball working with them in schools. Kids so love rhyme.

 

 

 

 

Bologna Childrens Book Fair. Always amazing but especially so this year as Laura Carlin’s illustrations were everywhere – hers was the cover design for the Fair brochure. It was like walking into the Tate and finding your friend’s pictures all over the walls.

Walker Stand at Bologna book fair

 

 

Also the wonderful foreign rights department at Walker Books had organised a dinner so I could meet some of the many publisher around the world who have published my books over the years. I heard stories about readers in China, Japan, Germany, France. I was bathed in warmth and welcome; people thanked me for writing when all I wanted to do was thank them all again and again for valuing what I do and bringing it to audiences in so many countries.

 

Rehearsals for the new production of King of the Sky, supported again by the fabulous Angie Dickinson from Pontadawe Arts. Wonderful cast, wonderful director, Derek Cobley and amazing musical director John Quirk, making my words sound like a West End musical. The production went on a tour of Wales – I just wished I could go too!

Tessa Bide,Huw Novelli,David Prince, Louise Collins

Huw, Louise, Tessa and Sonya Beck

It was great to be back at Hay with King of the Sky for the second year.

Hay Festival 2016

The UK government’s rejection of 5000 unaccompanied child refugees pushed me to finish the text about the impact of war from a child’s perspective, the Day War Came. Written by noon and, thanks to Emily Drabble, was up on the Guardian children’s website by tea time.

Jackie Morris did a beautiful little chair to accompany the piece…

The first chair by Jackie Morris

 

and it inspired a chair tsunami, from artists and illustrators, children, teachers. Every chair a small act of solidarity with dispossessed children…You can see some of the chairs here, do look, it’s beautiful and I’m hoping to revive it next year 3000 chairs.  A great tragedy that the Guardian Children’s Books website is no more.



 

I’ve been finding time to do pictures…I wanted to be a painter so much when I was young but I’ve done almost nothing for decades. Loving getting back to it.

Graphite stick, forest in the Sierra Gorda

Time off. In the Abruzzi mountains leaning new songs with the Unthanks. Singing dawn over the mountains.

carvings from 15th C church in the Abruzzi

…and on North Uist. This has become a tradition for me and my wonderful friend Julia Green,whose great new book Wilderness War came out this year.

 

A summer of writing in my new writing shed – the the door open on the hills. Sitting outside practicing guitar one evening and a grass snake popped its head through the decking and told me to shut up.

So great having a veg garden again…

Teaching at Ty Newydd with my friend Jackie Morris. What a fabulous and inspirational week that was. Stunning weather too…breakfast out every morning and lots of time writing in the wild.

Our lovely students

I’ve worked in lots of International schools around the world, but the Danube and Vienna International schools in Vienna were special treats.

A park in Vienna

My favourite moment in a class of 11 year olds was finding that all of the children in the class could speak at least three languages. Two girls piped up, saying that they had taught each other their native tongues, Italian and Russian.

Publication of the first two books in the Shadows and Light Series for Graffeg. I’ve loved writing these stories whose roots are in myth and folk tale. They’re vehicles to showcase the talents of new illustrators like the brilliant Anja Uhren and Anastasia Izlesou
An Indian Summer of literary festivals – Edinburgh Crickhowell, Cheltenham, Totness Turn the Page and all with LOVELY Petr Horacek to publicise our new book A First Book Of Animals- my poems his art – all to inspire a love of animals in a new generation of readers. It’s been a delight from start to finish working with Petr and his pictures for this book are making everyone gasp with wonder.


We also made other friends….(I totally fell in love with this barn owl)

At Turn the Page Festival in Totnes

I’m lucky enough to be a Trustee for the World Land Trust. (I try to connect my readers with nature and conservation – here’s a speech I made about that at WLT a while back ) WLT works with other conservation organisations around the world, helping them to do community based conservation that works for people as well as biodiversity. I was ‘fasciliator’ for their international symposium in The Sierra Gorda Biosphere reserve in Mexico in October. Amazing inspiring work showing that we don’t have to chose between people and nature – we can do the best for both. Also humming birds, and mind blowing forest diversity…

Wild epiphytic orchids in the Sierra Gorda

end of the day walking in the Sierra Gorda

…and quite a lot of dancing.(be glad I don’t have pictures of THAT)

A week in Vancouver…(saw a bald eagle, Barrows golden eye and buffleheads on my first day)

A view from Stanley Park, Vancouver

Museum Of Anthropology Vancouver

I was working in the most beautiful community – Crofton House girl school. To be honest, private schools can be a bit of a trial, but the Crofton House girls were an absolute delight to be with, bright, kind, insightful and endlessly curious and welcoming. Lots of highlights in that week, but one was being shown round the Unicorn Wood – part of the garden around the school – by two older girls who leave ‘unicorn messages’ in the trees for the younger ones.heir comments at the farewell assembly had me wishing I hadn’t worn mascara).

The start of a great collaboration with Herefod art college to find two more young illustrators for the next in the Shadows and Light Series (5 and 6 – 3 and 4 already sorted thanks to Fran Shun and Claire Jenkins from Swansea Met). We’re also going to collaborate to create a theatre production from The Day War came, working with Open Sky productions’ director Claire Coache.

Hereford college of Art is a gem and I got a bonus on my second visit to see Claire Coache’s production Hairy Fairy‘s as one its two stars is Tessa Bide, who did such a beautiful job as Mum and puppet director on King Of The Sky.
My last visit to Hackney of 2016. Three days of working with young writers who were as focussed and hardworking as adult MA students. This is the stuff that reminds me why I do what I do.

Putting finishing touches to a big non fiction book for Hodder. Illustrated with great charm and humour by Lorna Scobie it’s a tour through the many different species that we seem to have only one word for…duck (134 species) beetle (3-400,000 species), bear (8 species).

Sneak preview of Lorna Scobie’s work for our book for Hodder

Great meeting with Cathy Fisher (the same little bit of a cafe in Monmouth is our conference room). She’s already working on our next book, The Pond.

Cathy Fisher’s stunning endpapers for The Pond Graffeg Books 2017

It’s about how a grieving family heal through the wildlife on their back garden pond. Cathy’s work for this is already astounding. It will be published next year…one of the great things to look forward to in 2017…

Coming up in 20 17….

Publications

The King of The Sky’ -Walker Books Spring 2017

its been a theatre production already and now will be a stunning picture book. Laura Carlin’s work is unique and insightful. Delighted that Amnesty International think that this book helps give a positive view of refugees.

One of Laura Carlins images from King of the Sky

Laura’s illustration from King of the Sky

(Having done two rather serious books together, we have decided that our next book needs to be about something VERY silly)

‘Lots’ – Walker Books Spring 2017

boy was this hard to write! The whole of the concept of biodevrsity in a picture book. But Emily Sutton’s illustrations have nailed it and are ravishingly beautiful. Together with A First Book of Animals and the upcoming one from Hodder I have three books that will let me communicate about biodiversity to a wide range of children and adults.

the third and fourth books in the Shadows and Light Series, Graffeg Books.
Elias Martin – a story about the harsh environment of the Canadian north, and the magic that lives there.
The Selkie’s Mate – an adaptation of a tradition Scottish folk tale about the love between a crofter and a selkie – a seal-woman.

Naughty Animals Walker Books – a book to make children laugh while they learn about creatures that get the better of humans.

The Pond – Graffeg Books Spring 2017

my second picture book with Cathy Fisher – another real and difficult subject presented for young readers.

Ongoing work

Back to my lovely Hackney schools and Highly Primary in Shropshire early in the New Year.

Work begins on the Illustrations for the Day War Came and on the production that we hope to have ready for Hay 2017!

Two new stories for Shadows and Light and two new illustrators to be found…

A big book all about Trees for Hodder.

A picture book about hummingbirds and the meaning they hold for the people who encounter them on their migration North from Mexico to Canada …this will be a long awaited collaboration with Jane Ray, whose work I’ve adored all my adult life.

I’ve got two novels that need editing – goodness knows when I’ll find time for those, a story about an albatross I want to write, and one about bowhead whales and Inuit, that’s been cooking since I wrote ‘The Whale Who Saved Us’ . Plus, having taught almost every audience I’ve worked with for the last 20 years how to ‘sing like a humpback’ its about time I wrote a book about humpback song….Oh yeah and then there’s the sorry about the parrots and the war veterans….and the travelling tailor and his box of dark magic…

Celebrations

My first picture book Big Blue Whale will be 20 years old in June

and my 50th book will be published…not quite sure of the timings but looks like it will be , appropriately enough , ‘Lots’!

…and I’m finally going to learn to dive. Off to Indonesia for two weeks in Feb. Counting the sleeps.

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