New Stories, New Heroes

Four years ago when I was researching Manatee Baby in the Colombian Amazon, I stayed with a remarkable woman, Sarita Kendal, founder of the conservation organisation Natutama. Sarita and her co workers had changed a community from one that was increasingly exploiting the resources of the river without thought, to one behaving sustainably. Fisherman who had hunted manatees for years, stopped, aware that the animals were declining and that they wanted their grandchildren to be able to see the river as it had been in their youth. And once they had begun to see their small, remote village on the river, as part of a bigger world, where nature was besieged, they began thinking about other species too, from the big, slow growing fish to the trees along the banks.

All of that was achieved through stories, telling and listening. Sarita’s weapons in her struggle to save the endangered Amazonian manatee, were coffee, biscuits and a big homely kitchen table where people could sit and talk. She listened to the fishermen talk about their lives, and about the manatees, and in exchange, she told them the stories she knew about how slowly the manatees breed, how they had entirely disappeared from other stretches of the river. There were no accusations or recriminations, but the two story streams blended, and the fisherman came up with a new narrative on their own and a new identity for themselves, as guardians of the river’s biodiversity. They began to tell older stories too, the traditional stories of the indigenous people of that part of the Amazon, that encourage sustainable use of natural resources and connect humans to animal and plant species, as fellow beings.

The stories we tell shape us. They shape what we do and how we think of ourselves. And what we do and how we think of ourselves, need to change. The natural world is not an optional add on to our getting and spending world, it is our world, our life support system and our spirit sustaining system. Nature isn’t other, but everything. Biodiversity isn’t some obscure scientific concept but the miraculous net that holds us, and all life above the abyss of oblivion.

How do we change our stories? One way is to change the kinds of characters that take centre stage. The wonderful Grayson Perry suggests in his book The Descent Of Man that our concept of masculinity, that of the archetypal alpha male solving everything with force, is wrecking the world and men with it. Not a lot to be said about that except ‘yes, that’s right.’ I’m not suggesting we replace strong characters with limp ones who can’t make a decision to save their own, or anyone else life. What I’m suggesting is a different kind of strength – the strength to beat force with guile and intelligence, the strength to turn from a path that leads to conflict before it gets to fisticuffs, to win through communication. Some people would label this type of hero as heroine. But that kind of ‘men do this and women do that’ thinking is a part of what got us into this mess. Hero should be a gender free word.

We need heroes of  all different kinds, and heroes who collaborate, who build strength cooperatively. We are too used to stories of ‘one man against the odds’ , too used to dividing the world with unhelpful duality, male /female, strong /weak, clever /stupid. Real heroes, real humans are a mixture, each one a unique cocktail of attributes and failings, defying any kind of simple label.

Plots too are stuck in a simplistic a rut…sad to happy, everything wrong to everything right, the chosen one with special powers triumphing over all.The real world is more complex and more compromising. There is no happy every after, and happiness is a transient state anyway. What there is, is growth and change and the confidence to delight in those things, to share them and snatch happiness while we can. The real joy of being human, the real core of our nature, is more complicated, more subtle and more wonderful than the plot of an action movie can encompass!

Nature is complex, species are infinitely connected and interdependent, growth and change are integral to all natural systems. Let’s tell some stories that reflect that and our place in it And if intelligence and communication are the attributes of our new protagonists, then perhaps the best 21st century super heroes are storytellers?

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Tales from The Woods

end of the day walking in the Sierra Gorda

end of the day walking in the Sierra Gorda

I’m fresh back from a week in Mexico attending the World Land Trust Symposium and meeting the partner organisations with which it works. What a fabulous week. What a wonderful country and what incredible people (only a very special group of people react to the cry ‘rattlesnake’ by trying to elbow each other out of the way to get a better look). There are so many stories I heard last week, so many thoughts to share…but these are just a few. Do please click on the links and explore these wonderful places and conservation organisations :

The self deluding wraiths of climate change denial are still stalking the corridors of power in Washington and Westminster, muting the message that we need urgent change. It’s depressing. But its not the whole story. Around the world, people are just getting on with what needs to be done. Last week at the World Land Trust symposium in the Sierra Gorda Biosphere reserve, conservationists from around the world show cased projects that conserve biodiversity, lock up carbon and improve people’s lives.

Conservation is often seen as the enemy of development. How can we provide electric power, housing, jobs, education to growing human populations and still hang on to biodiversity? The answer is, more easily than you might imagine

For the last twenty years and more the Pedraza family, mum Pati Ruiz Corzo, dad Roberto
Pedraza Munoz and sons Roberto and Mario have devoted their lives to saving the forests of the Sierra Gorda, in Queretaro State in central Mexico, through their organisation Grupo

The Sierra Gorda forest are a biodiversity hot spot

The Sierra Gorda forest are a biodiversity hot spot

Ecologico Sierra Gorda GESG. The range of projects that GESG has instigated is amazing, and all of them have resulted in direct benefits for the people who live in the forests. Here are just a few: offsetting the CO2 outputs from municipal vehicles by safeguarding areas of forest; setting up the only locally run recycling network in Mexico; supporting over 200 organic vegetable growers to supply local markets with healthy food; using 20 million pesos generated from a local carbon and environmental tax to pay ranchers to keep cattle out of the forests plus constant projects in education, education, education for children, farmers, eco tourism operators. Jobs are being created, lifestyles improved, and the forests and all they provide – clean water, clean air and climate change mitigation- are protected. It is what Roberto junior describes as ‘ the conservation economy’.

One of the reasons – apart from sheer bloody minded determination and two decades of hard graft – that the concept of the conservation economy has taken root in the Sierra Gorda is that climate change is beginning to bite. Seasons are very clearly changing, with unfamiliar rainfall patterns and ever more severe droughts. There is a general sense that there is greater change

Wild epiphytic orchids in the Sierra Gorda

Wild epiphytic orchids in the Sierra Gorda

around the corner and the people and the land must be ready for it. One of the ways that GESG is building defences against the effects of drought is through its education programme for farmers. Using holistic land and animal management techniques drawn from tried and tested experts from all over the world farmers and ranchers in the Sierra Gorda have improved soil fertility and water holding, whilst reducing the inputs from expensive chemical fertilisers. Yields of corn have risen from 800kg/HA to 2000kg/HA and the same grass that once supported 800 cows now supports almost 3000.
Increasing the productivity of existing farmland takes the pressure off the forests, and in the forests, left undisturbed in turn help the farmers by providing clean water, and helping to keep rising temperatures under control. This faming model has proved so successful in Sierra Gorda that famers and ranchers all over Mexico are starting to get interested, including ranchers with holdings the size of British counties.

Time and again at the Symposium last week I heard about conservation projects that directly benefited people by providing jobs and creating sustainable businesses. In the Garo Hill’s in

The Garo Hills where forests hold citrus biodiversity

The Garo Hills where forests hold citrus biodiversity

NE India WLT partner, Wildlife Trusts of India, is helping local farmers changes from slash and burn agriculture to sustainably managed terraced plots and taking the heat off the forest by supporting new ways of making a living by rearing small livestock. Biofuel planting and organic growing in Armenia supported by WLT partner FPWC stems the needs for villagers to


Armenian Mountains

Armenian Mountains

use vulnerable diverse mountain pastures and cut old growth trees for fuel, while creating jobs and boosting the local economy. In the Garo Hills, in Venezuela and along the Kinabatangan River in Sabah,Borneo, funds raised for conservation and through carbon offsets create local jobs in tree nurseries, planting and forest restoration.



Much of this kind of progress depends on local

Kinabatangan River

Kinabatangan River

habitants and local governments seeing the natural environment around them in a different way, not as an obstacle to ‘development’ but as an invaluable resource providing the essentials of life – ‘ecosystem services’ – such as clean water. If a forest is proving your only water supply then isn’t it sensible to pay to make sure you keep your forest, especially when more frequent droughts threaten.


In Ecuador water quality and supply are big issues, especially so as the effects of climate change are being felt, and municipal authorities are under pressure from their electorate to keep supplies clean and constant. So WLT partner NC Ecuador saw an opportunity. They identified the watersheds – mountain forests whose rain gathering powers fed streams and rivers – providing water to 5 municipalities. Each municipality then passed a law to protect its water-giving forests and instituted a water fee on residents that can be used to purchase and protect forests, reforest damaged areas and protect soil. Renzo Paladines of NC Ecuador reported to the Symposium how 300,000HA of forest in Ecuador are now protected under this scheme. Soon, there will be 39 municipalities paying to keep their forests and their water supply and Renzo is looking for new partners in the mining industry as one tonne of extracted mineral requires 20 tonnes of water and without sustainable watersheds their business is done for. Over the border in Peru, Alex More of NC Peru is talking to farmers about their irrigation schemes and how to safeguard them by safeguarding forest.

Of course its not all good news. Small scale, people centred development offered by the conservation economy – or REAL development as I’d like it to be known – is not what makes big money for the people at the top of the economic tree. They still want their road-building-dam-erecting-forest-clearing-mega-bucks, and they are hard to resist. After 20 years of

Pro Bridge Poster in Kinabtangan

Pro Bridge Poster in Kinabtangan

working very successfully with local people in Borneo, Isabelle Lackman of HUTAN found locals turning on her organisation when it opposed the building of a huge new road bridge. The bridge will split the forest in two and fragment already vulnerable primate populations. Its impact could undo all the careful work in forest maintenance and reconstruction that Isabel and her team have done, and from which local people have benefited. The politician who is behind the bridge promises all sorts of fictional delights – but the truth is the bridge is to make life easier for oil palm producers, so they can plunder yet more of Borneo’s natural heritage, with no lasting benefit to the people who will be left with the big concrete monster on their doorsteps.

Luckily Isobel and people like her are determined and dedicated, not just to the forests and the wildlife but to the people who live there. Rodrigo Karate of Guyra Paraguay told me one last story before we went our different ways in Mexico city. Using funding from the Darwin Initiative, Guyra Paraguay are establishing plots of a native plant, yerba mate, the source of a health giving and highly prized tea. It will only grow under the shade of the rainforest and using the traditional expertise of the Mbya Guarani people who tend and harvest the crops.

Rodrigo explained that fifty years ago these people were being hunted by the government like animals. Now their isolated communities are very poor, with no access to education health care or even sanitation or a reliable food supply. The forest in which they live – 72,000 HA of the San Rafael reserve – is one of the most biodiverse on earth. The Guarani love their forest but poverty has forced them to clear plots of agriculture and for timber. The new project gives them a way to make a proper income from keeping their forest; it provides access to international markets for their tea already popular in the US and all over South America. The income this new trade will give both the Guarani and their forest,   a brighter, more secure future, whilst also locking up a lot of carbon for the sake of the rest of us.

Bonkers wild orchid in the Sierra Gorda

Bonkers wild orchid in the Sierra Gorda

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This time of year is always crazily busy. It’s literary festival season and the start of the new school year so children’s authors are dashing about the countryside. At least I had had a bit of a calm before the storm, as I had most of August at home writing two novels for Walker Books, designed to inspire ocean-love in their readers (more about these soon). But once I hit the road everything was more than usually busy.


In the last few weeks I’ve run a writing course and signed books with my friend Jackie Morris (her new ones The Quiet Music of the Gently Falling Snow  and White Fox are  STUNNING)

done several  different literary festivalsimg_1762, Crickhowell, Cheltenham, and Turn the Page in Totnes. And, as I’ve had a lot of different books to tell people about, it’s been a slightly schizophrenic existence.









The first are three books published by Graffeg and illustrated by an extraordinarily talented young illustrator called Abbie Cameron. All three are about animals (durr, of course they are they’re by me) but they are also about playing with words, because they are all in rhyme. I love writing in rhyme; you can use the aural echo rhyme creates to punch home a point, you can make new information fun 9781910862438_lrand accessible and rhyme immediately makes everyone happy, and ready to join in. I’m not usually allowed to work in rhyme as the perception is that it gives translators a problem and makes foreign r9781910862445_lrights sales difficult for publishers (though I’m not sure how much of an obstacle to success this has been for Julia Donaldson and Axel Shaffer). Having these rhyming texts to work with in schools and at literary festivals gives me something that is instantly an interactive performance. I’ve already had lots of fun with them and look forward to using them for years to come (and Abbie and I will be doing three more books together). You can see a video about these here 



The next two, The White Hare and Mother Carys Butterknife are also published by Graffeg and also use the talents of new illustratorsimg_1483
and Anastasia Izlesou,  Anja Uhren respectively. These short stories are the first in a series of six folk tales – invented by me or retold and adapted from traditional stories. They have that fairy tale feel and a touch of darkness, enhanced by the illustration.


Anyone can read them – I wrote them to be accessible for any age- and imagined that they could be books to slip into a coat pocket and read in one sitting on a journey. Graffeg have done a beautiful job and the books look wonderful, and very distinctive. I can’t wait for the next two to be published and to have some space in my life to write the
last two stories in the series. In truth I hope they aren’t the last, I could write these stories forever. They are wonderful to tell and live audiences seem to love them.


Last and very definitely not least ‘A First Book of Animals’ was published on October 6th and is now out in the world. I was so lucky to img_1733be able to work with author and illustrator Petr Horacek on this book. It’s a collection of poems and prose poems, each one about a particular animal and each one embodying some aspect of its appearance, behaviour or ecology.

I wanted each poem to be a fresh and clear as possible – so that readers would be captivated by creatures they’d never heard of before and see familiar animals in a new way. And I wanted everything about the writing of this book to be enjoyable, so I didn’t worry about making choices about which animals to include. I chose my favourites, and animals that I remembered getting excited about when I was little. As a child,I was lit up by the blackbirds and frogs and hedgehogs in our back garden; animals far away, that I read about or saw on the TV, gleamed and glittered in my imagination. The wonderful thing about Petr’s illustrations, is that they all glow with that heart-shine – they aren’t simply beautiful images they are full of emotion and reflect what animals look like inside me where they are the stars of my heart.

Petr and I have been doing events together and its worked so well – it’s great fun being on stage together and the audiences get to see Petr painting live which is incredibly exciting.









The bigger message of A First Book of Animals is to communicate the wonder and value of nature’s variety. I have two more books
coming out in the next year that do this job (more about this soon too) but each one will work for a different sort of audience, which means I’ll have a way of talking to almost anyone about the most important subject there is BIODIVERSITY and how to save it. I’ll be going to the World Land Trust symposium in Mexico all next week and meeting conservationists from all over the world. I’ll be sharing with them some of the pages of these books and showing one of the ways in which we can create the conservationists of the future.

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Last night I watched an amazing documentary, ‘A World Without Down’s Syndrome?‘on BBC iplayer, made by the actor Sally Phillips. It was about her experience of having her son Ollie, who has Down’s Syndrome. I’d recommend that you watch it, if only to see the opening sequence of Sally (who is the sort of person you instantly wish was your best mate) having a water fight with Ollie and his two brothers, who are all just gorgeous boys.

But it wasn’t a sanitised feel-good film saying that ‘every family should have a disabled child, it’s lovely.’ It raised some really difficult questions about choice, and if it’s always a good thing: do we really have the insight and intelligence necessary to make choices that modern medical technology allows us to make? Do we even have the right information to make those choices?

When I was pregnant – a very, very long time ago – I had the standard test to see how likely it was that I was carrying a child with odro3243Down’s Syndrome. I clearly remember the dread with which I waited for those results. I don’t know how I would have reacted to a result that said I was carrying a disabled baby; I’m pretty certain I would have had a termination. But what would that choice have been based on?

Firstly this: seeing Down’s syndrome adults on an outing in a local cafe when I was 10, and picking up the horror and disgust expressed by the other patrons. The default setting of our society is that disability of any kind should be seen and not heard, locked away where we ‘normal’ people shouldn’t have to look at it. The big message that society gave then, and still gives now, is that disability is just not OK. And of course that’s a vicious circle. The less visible people with disability become, the less we experience them as PEOPLE, the more we feel them to be OTHER. And who wants their child to be part of that gang?

And secondly, this: I was a working mum. Terrified, at the time, that the children that I truly, desperately wanted, would impede my progression up the career ladder. Working as TV presenter, as I was back then, required me to tell the world that I could give birth and go straight back to work. Just about possible, I felt, with a ‘normal’ baby, but what about a disabled one? I feared the unknown, and with no experience of seeing mothers with disabled kids, my ignorance coloured that space black.

Since then, I’ve had more contact with families and children living with disabilities. I’ve seen kids with miserable cocktails of multiple klft1947impairments, who really are having no fun, and their poor ragged, exhausted families who aren’t either. And I’ve seen kids with disabilities who have lit up and glued together their domestic situations and become the irreplaceable stars of their family universes. And many shades in between.( look at this wonderful book Hole in the Heart Bringing up Beth by Henny Beaumont)

The problem is, that, because of our inability, as a society, to talk about any of this openly, our perception of disability is always entirely negative. Sally’s excellent argument was, that as medical science gets better and better at predicting what
a foetus will be like, we will weed out more and more babies with any kind of disability. And then any kind of feature we don’t want – a big nose, the wrong colour eyes, a predilection for mental instability.

As a biologist I think this is risky territory. Over the next 300 years life is going to be pretty tricky as we sort out our relationship with our parent planet – who know what genes that lie hidden in the tangle of our DNA might get us out of a hole? So it seems crazy to be pruning our population to an ever narrower vision of what is normal, beautiful, sane and well.

As a human I feel that the notion that we can control our lives and what happens in them is pretty illusory. The unexpected, the unpredicted, the serendipitous is the grit in the oyster of our lives, that can cover us in pearl dust even as it cuts our flesh.

The modern world with its requirements to rush, achieve, get, get, get, leaves little space for caring, for spending a morning making sandcastles or holding someone’s hand. It is this society of ‘getting and spending’ as Auden said, that ‘lays waste our powers’, our powers as loving, insightful humans, growing from the day we are born to the day we die. It requires us to edit out of the world all that is in the way of things and stuff – people who need help, people who need care, people who don’t give a damn about poggenpol kitchens and ipods. These are the very people who might just remind us of what really matters.

So should we give up testing our unborn children? I can’t answer that. I am lucky, my kids are fine and well (touch wood). But we should certainly talk about all this and stop shutting disabled people behind doors, as if they were not part of the human race.

And here is a footnote: a really lovely thing happened this week in connection with all this. This year my story ‘Perfect’ illustrated by Cathy Fisher was published. I’ve written about this elsewhere, ( and here too) but it concerns the birth of a disabled child. Every big publisher img_3205turned it down, including those with whom I have a long track record. It was finally taken by a wonderful small (but growing) publisher here in Wales, Graffeg Books . It is now available in America and, in November,will be getting a stared reviewed in Kirkus Reviews (V V big deal for kids books in the States):

‘A fledgling swift helps a child cope with disappointment when a baby sister is different than expected. The swifts return the same day the baby comes home from the hospital. The white narrator watches from the window, imagining “racing and chasing” with the baby. But something is wrong; dark, looping scrawls suddenly mar Fisher’s eloquent, luminous pastel compositions. The baby is too still. (The baby’s condition and prognosis are unknown; the baby herself is often shrouded in mist.) The birds circle as the pensive child plays alone and confesses, “I didn’t want to feel the way I felt. But I couldn’t love my sister, no matter how I tried.” But after the child helps an injured fledgling to fly, the child wonders if the baby likewise “only needs a little help.” A close-up of the fledgling’s sharp-eyed face is mirrored by a close-up of the baby’s white, frail face—the baby’s dark eyes are sunken but gaze at readers with a similarly knowing expression. As the siblings lie in the garden, the narrator declares how it will be: the two of them, “screaming with delight and laughter.” Davies deftly addresses—and respects—a dark feeling, and though her optimistic symbolism will certainly reassure children, it will equally reassure parents struggling with their own uncertainty or grief. An emotionally vivid, hopeful illustration of unpredictability, disappointment, and acceptance—recommended for children and parents alike. (Picture book. 4 & up)’

This reviewer seemed to completely get what we were trying to do with the book.I’m not saying any more, but you can join the dots; hopefully our book will open up some much needed conversation about all of this. 

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Back In The Real World

IMG_1013Last week I was three ways high. High in the Abruzzi mountains of Italy, up in a medieval hill top village looking out on a landscape of hobbit hills and snow streaked peaks.


High on the smell and sound of the place – awash with flowers and alive with natural music, nightingales, cuckoos,frogs.










High on singing for three or more hours every day in places like this IMG_1093

with 15 other keen singers and our wonderful course teachers Rachel and Becky Unthank

Actually, four ways high because the experience of being in close proximity to Rachel and Becky as they sang their beautiful harmonies was completely magical and transforming.

This week has been more mixed, as I’m back to the misunderstandings and crossed wires of the real world, that sometimes have me questioning if I can carry on writing at all.

First, was the e mail from a publisher asking me to make my proposal for a children’s natural history title more ‘non fiction-y’- ie more like a list. The stated reason for this request was that if fiction and non fiction are too combined, the booksellers and librarians don’t know where to put the book. This is like saying you can’t knit an orange jersey, because the shop only has yellow and red shelves.
It was a depressing request for a number of reasons:
1) anyone who knows my work, knows that combining nf and F is kind of what I’m all about. And with quite a lot of awards under my belt, more than 40 books and a track record of international sales, that seems to work.

2) narrative non fiction is the new black in children’s publishing, especially as the US has now put it at the very heart of their curriculum, and finally
3) one would hope that bookshops would stock more than one copy, offering the easy solution of one on the NF shelves and one in the F shelves.

I’ve had these kind of battles all my career. I once had an editors tell me I couldn’t write about polar bears from the perspective of an Inuit because I’m not an Inuit. One priceless question in the course of that particular tussle was ‘ could you say that you had been encouraged to write this by a close personal Inuit friend?’ Presumably answering ‘yes’ would have dispelled the editor’s misgivings.

Deviate from a list of facts and some people begin to twitch. Luckily, my main publisher, Walker Books, and my wonderful long standing editor there, Caroline Royds, have pioneered narrative non fiction in the UK. They understand the magic of story space – the imaginative place created by the words and illustrations in a picture book, where the real can be combined with the imagined, to convey all manner of factual material. It is the nature of narrative that you have a narrator, and a narrative perspective – both these can be invented in non fiction and be used to contain and convey factual material.

But having to explain this again and again and again is wearing. It’s like having to constantly justify my existence. Having to fight the corner for narrative non fiction, to people who profess to want to publish it is intensely discouraging. And I’m very, very tired of it.

Happily I never have to explain to my readers, who just get it at once.

The third crossed wire was over my recent picture book Perfect

with illustrations by Cathy Fisher

It was reviewed in  Book for Keeps.

and the reviewer really didn’t like it, because, she claimed, it presented disability as something fearful and by telling the story from the perspective of the disabled newborn’s sibling, I was denying the disabled child self determination.


It’s depressing when someone totally misses the point. How could I have written the story differently so that the reviewer really understood what I wanted the book to say? That initially disability can seem scary and strange; that disability does not define a person, the person defines the person; that all of us need a little help from time to time, and that helping and relying on each other is what families – and society – are all about. And that everyone, no matter what the configuration of their minds and bodies, is perfect, and perfectly loveable.

I also felt, reading that review, that the opinions expressed were exactly the reason that I wanted to write Perfect.

The reviewer seemed to be suggesting that any negative comment about disability was un acceptable, and that only the disabled were entitled to talk about disability. I think this is a very unhelpful attitude that shuts down conversations about disability and its impact on families and society. It creates a reluctance to talk naturally about disability and ultimately reinforces the imposed silence that drives people with disabilities into the shadows, and expects them to be invisible. I have watched the impact of disability on families. I’ve seen the worry, the shock, the sheer logistical hassle that the disability of a a family member can cause – it is unhelpful to deny these negative experiences. But the message of Perfect is that those negative feelings and experiences do not have to define the whole of a life: that the personhood of a disabled family member is more important than their disability and that giving them access to autonomous life, through offering a little sensible support, should be as natural as breathing.

If I break my leg, my family have to help me. Everyone has to make adjustments, but it doesn’t stop me being myself or being loved and being able to give love in return. It’s not helpful to deny the pain and inconvenience.

I’ve been hugely moved by the response of children with disabled family members, by people with disabilities and organisations representing people with disabilities. All of which have been incredibly positive. Tracy Elliot head of research at Cerebra told me the book delivered many of the messages they strive to put over. A disabled mum told me it was her children’s favourite bedtime read. I’ll hold onto those responses in my heart.

But just when I’m wondering if I’m really only fit for shelf stacking or if I should run away to sea, something good happens. Yesterday it was this, Emily Sutton’s first sketches for our ‘A First Book Of The Sea’

IMG_3296 IMG_3298 IMG_3297

This will be the third in a series of books of poems, following ‘A First Book Of Nature’ illustrated by Mark Hearld and ‘A First Book Of Animals’ illustrated by Petr Horacek and out this Autumn (more about this here soon).

A first Book of the Sea is a little different from the other two – it’s about humans as well as nature and about the role that the sea plays in our lives and in our hearts. I wrote the poems last Summer,
thinking about Emily’s style as I did. It was wonderful to see so many of the images I’d imagined, and many that I could never have thought of, already dancing across the pages of Emily’s sketch book. I adore artist’s first sketches – I’ve often longed to do two editions of picture books, one with the first, free pencil marks and one with the gorgeous finished full colours.

Yesterday had a second inspiration in it too. Because of my poem ‘The Day War Came’
(and another wonderful response to that here
I was invited to the opening of an exhibition called ‘Drawing Our Stories’ of writing and pictures by refugees and migrants, curated by Jane Ray and Sita Brahmachari.
It was simply wonderful. I couldn’t stay for the whole event (trains to South Wales wait for no one) but I heard several of the writers and artists read, and speak about, their work.


IMG_1097 IMG_1103

Their words were very powerful, very moving, written from the crucible of some of the most difficult experiences humans can have, being forced to leave the place where you feel you belong.

On the banks of the river stands my father

A young man then

And here we are, the next generation

Catching the stories of the Ubangi before we were born

At su set in the Summer

The river changes to yellow and purple

In my counytry

In the Congo

These colours

This river

Is caught forever

In the nets of our family memory

I was reminded of my privileged position, to be living in a peaceful country, with a passport and a nationality that matches who I feel I am; and to be able to make a life of words.

So, thanks to Emily, and the courageous writers and artists of the Islington centre for refugees and migrants, I’m humbled, untangled and recharged. I’ll keep writing. I’ll keep mixing up fiction and non fiction to try to tell truths about the world, about nature, about humanity and about how they weave and twine together through our lives. And if I have to fight for my stories, then I’ll fight.IMG_0988

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The first chair by Jackie Morris

The first chair by Jackie Morris







Less than two weeks ago I wrote The Day the War Came, kind of a poem but really intended

to be a picture book that will spread its message for years to come. It ends like this,

I came to a school.
I looked in through the window.
They were learning all about volcanos
And drawing birds and singing.

I went inside. My footsteps echoed in the hall
I pushed the door and faces turned towards me
but the teacher didn’t smile.
She said, there is no room for you,
you see, there is no chair for you to sit on,
you have to go away.

And then I understood that war had got here too.

I turned around and went back to the hut, the corner and the blanket
and crawled inside.
It seemed that war had taken all the world and all the people in it.

The door banged.
I thought it was the wind.
But a child’s voice spoke
“I brought you this,” she said “so you can come to school.”
It was a chair.
A chair for me to sit on and learn about volcanoes, frogs and singing
And drive the war out of my heart.

She smiled and said
“My friends have brought theirs too, so all the children here can come to school”

Out of every hut a child came and we walked together,
on a road all lined with chairs.
Pushing back the war with every step.

When it was posted on the Guardian website,

with a lovely empty chair from Jackie Morris, other empty chairs began to appear…on twitter, on Jackie’s Facebook, in my in box. Pretty soon I’d lost count, Pretty soon I couldn’t keep up with giving a personal thank you to every one who had drawn, painted, embroidered, felted an empty chair.


I’ve had emails from people in other countries sending chairs, translating the story into other languages. I’ve had emails telling me about empty chair demonstrations – lining up of chairs to protest about the UK governments, and the whole worlds general indifference to refugees.

Something about this story, something about the image of an empty chair touched a deep, deep nerve.

Refugees are not new. The first people to leave African and spread human beings around the world were probably refugees of sorts – from small tribal skirmishes, from famine, from too many big predators. And as soon as there were enough of us we started creating wars.

South Wales where I live received refugees of sorts in the many Italian families who came here in the last century to set up cafes in mining towns.

(Their initial sense of loss and alienation is the subject of my story, now this wonderful theatre production

Refugees are not going to stop existing. Even if we can stop shooting and bombing each other we’ve messed up FullSizeRenderour planet so much that there will be ever more natural disasters, and so more refugees.

As I said in my last post. This is not ideal. This is not what we’d chose. But it is the way it is.
And whatever you think, the reality is that only luck stops you and me, our kids, our grandchildren from being refugees. Tomorrow we could be the ones fleeing for our lives with our babies on our backs and the wrong kind of shoes on our feet.

So we need to be kind. We need to share. Because we could be next. Because every person matters. Because that’s what makes us truly human. People talk about ‘human nature’ as a negative. War is ‘human nature’. But if that were the whole story we’d be extinct already. Human nature – the really successful bit – is compassion, is empathy. Remember we have special words for people without those qualities, medical diagnoses.

What a simple and clear symbol of sharing: getting up so someone else can sit down for a minute.
Giving up your chair for someone less able to stand. Offering the spare chair at your table for someone who needs it.

IMGP3504 (2)Please, if you haven’t drawn a chair, do it now as a small symbol of our humanity and our ability to share. Its completely irrelevant if you can draw or not. Just do it. And upload it on the guardian witness website. There are far more chairs already a part of #3000chairs than have been put on the site…so if you’ve already done a chair, put it on there. Lets see if we can really get THREE THOUSAND…but work fast.

And if you really can’t draw on (though I can’t see why not..) then log onto the site and recommend chairs…look at them all they’re so lovely…and loveliest are the ones by people who just had a go

To inspire you listen to this while you draw : The utterly wonderful Karine Polwart singing so insightfully about the dual nature of humans.

here are some of Karine’s brilliant lyrics

Ten thousand years of big ideas
Distilled into a million fears
A grand design a shiny rocket
A bullet in a bully’s pocket

So mesmerised by particles
We disregard the articles
The ones we write to keep the peace
Sullied now by blood and greed and grease

Is this the best that we can do?
Oh I can think of better things cant’ you?

We can think of better things, can’t we?
Get drawing.

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The first chair by Jackie Morris

The first chair by Jackie Morris

In an ideal world there wouldn’t be children without parents. In an ideal world hospitals wouldn’t be bombed because they looked a bit like something else. In an ideal world everything would be sweet and smooth and we could all afford to be as selfish as we liked and it wouldn’t matter.

But it isn’t. Its messy and unpredictable, and no matter how much time we spend moaning about how bloody inconvenient that is it won’t change. We can’t change the cards we are dealt, but we can change how we play them.

The 3000 children, alone with no one, who have fled from all manner of ghastliness that it’s hard to even imagine, have been dealt some pretty bad cards by the world. We don’t have to go into who dealt them and if we have some role in how the deck was shuffled. No. It’s much more simple than that. Three thousand kids with no one looking out for them. So somebody has to. Who is it going to be?

Our government this week decided on our behalf that it definitely wouldn’t be us. Because if we did that, then every parent across the world would be putting their child in an envelope and sending them to the UK. (Presumably the Tories think the same of the NHS that curing people only encourages people to be ill.)

So who will take on the task of taking care of these three thousand children with nothing and noone, who have had everything taken from them, and now risk having their futures taken too? There is a queue of child traffickers eager to take on the job.

The sickening shamefulness of this got to me so much on Thursday that I put aside all the other things I was supposed to be doing and wrote in the genre I can do best, a picture book text – though obviously without the pictures. It ends with a child being turned away from a school because there’s no chair for her to sit on.

I Skyped my friend Jackie Morris cos the words were burning me and I had to read them to someone.

In the middle of a million things she has to do she said she’d draw a chair. Then I sent it to Emily Drabble at the Guardian and by Thursday evening it was up on the internet.

Yesterday afternoon talking to my friend Petr Horacek, I told him about the story and he offered to do a chair too.

Somehow the idea of 3000 empty chairs, one each for those lone, rejected children seemed like a good one. A chair, so shaped for a human, so strange and purposeless without body to sit on it.

And now, less than 24 hours later, illustrators, writers, readers, parents, children are sending chairs…drawn, painted, even and embroidered House of commons one from Karen Celestine.


Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could gather three thousand chairs ready to parade across the internet and make the people who voted to shrug their shoulders and throw those kids to the traffickers hang their heads in shame.

If you want to add a chair…it doesn’t matter if you can’t draw for toffee, just have a go

Emily Sutton's studio chair

Emily Sutton’s studio chair

e mail it to me or tweet it with the hashtag #3000chairs and include Emily Drabble’s twitter handle @EmilyDrabs so your chairs wont get lost in the internet cracks and we can add it to the guardian gallery of empty chairs,








Here’s what I wrote

The Day War Came

The day war came there were flowers on the windowsill
and my father sang my baby brother back to sleep.
My mother made my breakfast, kissed my nose
and walked with me to school

That morning I learned about volcanos,
I sang a song about how tadpoles turn at last to frogs
I made a picture of myself with wings.

Then, just after lunch,
while I watched a cloud shaped like a dolphin,
war came.
At first, just like a spattering of hail
a voice of thunder…
then all smoke and fire and noise, that I didn’t understand.

It came across the playground.
It came into my teacher’s face.
It brought the roof down.
and turned my town to rubble.

I can’t say the words that tell you
about the blackened hole that had been my home.

All I can say is this:

war took everything

war took everyone

I was ragged, bloody, all alone.

I ran. Rode on the back of trucks, in buses;
walked over fields and roads and mountains,
in the cold and mud and rain;
on a boat that leaked and almost sank
and up a beach where babies lay face down in the sand.

I ran until I couldn’t run
until I reached a row of huts
and found a corner with a dirty blanket
and a door that rattled in the wind

But war had followed me.
It was underneath my skin,
behind my eyes,
and in my dreams.
It had taken possession of my heart.

I walked and walked to try and drive war out of myself,
to try and find a place it hadn’t reached.
But war was in the way that doors shut when I came down the street
It was in the way the people didn’t smile, and turned away.

I came to a school.
I looked in through the window.
They were learning all about volcanos
And drawing birds and singing.

I went inside. My footsteps echoed in the hall
I pushed the door and faces turned towards me
but the teacher didn’t smile.
She said, there is no room for you,
you see, there is no chair for you to sit on,
you have to go away.

And then I understood that war had got here too.

I turned around and went back to the hut, the corner and the blanket
and crawled inside.
It seemed that war had taken all the world and all the people in it.

The door banged.
I thought it was the wind.
But a child’s voice spoke
“I brought you this,” she said “so you can come to school.”
It was a chair.
A chair for me to sit on and learn about volcanoes, frogs and singing
And drive the war out of my heart.

She smiled and said
“My friends have brought theirs too, so all the children here can come to school”

Out of every hut a child came and we walked together,
on a road all lined with chairs.
Pushing back the war with every step.

The first chair by Jackie Morris

The first chair by Jackie Morris

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Perfect, the story of a story

OGBQ3614I’m no sportswoman. In fact I could be the world’s most uncoordinated writer. So to use a tennis analogy seems a bit of a cheek, but it really is the only one that will do. I’m hopeless at tennis – of course- but my very sweet and long suffering son gave me a tennis lesson and, just once, I managed to hit the ball properly. It felt amazing; completely different from all the other times I’d ever ineptly whacked a tennis ball. The sound it made was wonderful, as if the ball and racket were resonant parts of a musical instrument. I  knew instantly that I’d got it right.

Just three times in my life I’ve got that feeling, instantly, from a story, that resonant thwack of knowing you’ve hit the narrative sweet spot. One of those times was early 2014. I wrote a picture book text  – ‘Perfect’ – that connected swifts and the birth of a baby, written from the perspective of the baby’s older brother. (you can read some of the back ground to the story in an earlier blog post) It addresses the negative feelings that sometimes surround the birth of any sibling, but is specifically about a disabled sibling. I hate to use that word ‘disabled’, as if that’s all there is to say about a person. But that’s kind of the point of the book – you learn that the word, the label, doesn’t matter; that a person is a person and that’s all.  Having had some contact with families with ‘disabled’ children I knew that initially it can be hard to see through the word to the person, and that there can be a period of pain, confusion, disappointment, before the person shines through and love does its magic. I wanted to give a space for those negative feelings, a way to say its normal to feel this stuff but it will pass and something good will come.

From publisher’s perspectives this is a PC minefield. All the same, I thought it was an important topic to air, and I felt I’d done it well. So I was sad (disappointed, gutted, depressed etc) when it was rejected by everyone, from my main publisher through every other major publishing house in the land.

Rejection usually puts me into a spiral of self doubt, but for some reason this just made me cross and determined. Luckily for me a small but perfectly formed publishing house in Wales, Graffeg, who had published my great friend Jackie Morris’ work, took it on. Initially I hoped to find a student illustrator to illustrate the text, but carrying a narrative is a big burden for a first outing as an illustrator so instead – quite by chance – I found Cathy Fisher. One look at a single image of hers told me that here was the person with the skill, the insight and the life experience to carry this story. I am still pinching myself that the universe dealt me such a fine card. Cathy’s images for ‘Perfect’ are stunning. Everyone who I’ve shown them to just gasps.

The book will be published in the Spring 2016, but it already has friends – people to whom I’ve read the story, and now, people who have been enchanted by Cathy’s illustrations. You can see some of their comments below. And from the 30th of December 2015 you can see some of Cathy’s images too as lovely LOVELY Emily Drabble at the Guardian is putting them up on the website. You can read the text at the end of this blog.HCRQ7425

Closer to publication I’ll post a reading of the story on line and of course you can always pre-order your copy. But for now, look at the Guardian Children’s books website and share the link with as many people as you can, so that the bravery of Graffeg – small and VERY perfect – can be rewarded.


Here’s what Cathy Fisher says about the experience of illustrating Perfect.

When I first met Nicola, by chance (because she had seen one my pictures on my friend’s wall) I was so exited. I felt like a child who had just found a new friend! She read “Perfect” to me in a cafe and my mind instantly filled with tender images. I was so touched. It is such an honest story. I drove home hoping she would ask me to illustrate it for her. I was thrilled when she asked me and felt blessed to have the excuse to spend summer watching swifts.It was hard to find them at first, which perturbed me. I remember so many swifts in summers when I was young. They really have dwindled.

In August I found them. That’s when I really started to understand them. At the same time I found the Boy, Baby and (although they hardly appear) Mother and Father.

The characters come to life through research, drawing and constantly thinking about them. I trawl the internet for images, study other artist’s work, take photos, read, write down thoughts, watch people, draw a lot and obsess!

I collaged my cuttings and drawings into a sketchbook, then worked out the illustrations for each page in a story board and made a dummy book.

Before I began the final artwork I presented it all to Nicola and Graffeg. From the beginning I have always felt that Nicola and I understood each other so it has felt very easy to exchange and interpret thoughts and ideas with her.

I have eight siblings and four of my own children. One of my sisters has had many years experience of fostering, so complex family stories have been intertwined in mine over the years. Experiences in my life have made me feel empathy for all the characters in “Perfect”.

All the time I was working on the final artwork I was thinking of the baby, the boy and imagining I was flying with swifts. I have been dreaming about the pictures. With each illustration I imagined I was the character while I worked.

I work with mixed media, painting and drawing, on heavy weight, handmade watercolour paper. Throughout the whole process I listened to Max Richter’s eight hour lullaby, “Sleep”. A beautiful continuous piece of music, which I am sure influenced the flow and the mood of the illustrations.

When I was drawing the illustration of Baby in the cot, I wanted to express the boys confusion to his reaction to his new baby sister. I wanted to express a gentle, soft silence, a reverence, but also his inner turmoil. The ‘scribble’ above her cot, which tumbles down and spills over into the next page, is to represent the boys own angry frustrated scribble. I was shocked at my own reaction when I drew it – I felt such anger, I cried. Expressing feelings through drawing and painting can be quite cathartic!

Nicola’s story needs to be read, listened to and talked about. I feel honoured that she asked me to illustrate it.

Almost the first person to hear Perfect was Laura Carlin, my collaborator on ‘The Promise’. Talking to Laura in the WorldLand Trust Gallery in Halesworth where we had an exhibition of Laura’s artwork for ‘The Promise’ was actually the start of ‘Perfect’

Nicola knows how to tell a story without putting on a voice for children – something you still see too much of in children’s publishing. Children aren’t stupid, they see and feel when things haven’t turned out as planned. So, as important it is to not talk down to them, we should also involve them in the not-so rosy side of life. ‘Perfect’ is beautifully written – and it does tend to make you cry – but it also tells a very truthful and real story. It made me breathe a sigh of relief to remember that words and pictures can help widen and explain the world for children. It intrigues, involves and soothes it’s reader – all at the same time.

I read ‘Perfect’ to Jackie Morris just after it was hitting its first round of rejections. She helped keep up my spirits and encouraged me to keep trying to find a publisher.

”Perfect” is a story about disappointment, and the emotions that go along with all the whirl of feelings that swirl around this. The first time Nicola read this to me it made me cry. People talk so much about diversity in books. What this has taught me is something about my painting. Every piece of work I do is a disappointment because it is never ‘perfect’. But it is what it is. And if I can see it and appreciate it for itself, then that is so much better.

It’s more than that, so much more. The pictures are gems, each one. They sing off the page. I know this text travelled through a few publishers and Nic almost gave up on ever seeing it in print. It’s so discouraging, to have such faith in a piece of work and be knocked back. I am so glad it found a home with Graffeg. It will shine. One of the best picture books I have ever read.

Nikki Gamble visionary force behind children’s literacy consultancy ‘Imagine’ let me read Perfect to her at the FCBG in Spring 2015. I should have thought to supply tissues. 

When I first heard this story, it was one of those precious moments when silence is the best response – silence to allow the beautifully wrought prose to resonate. Because stories as deeply felt, and as exquisitely crafted as ‘Perfect’ are the food that nourish the soul and help us to become better versions of ourselves. I will be reading this and putting it into the hands of as many teachers, students and children as I can.


I loved the little bedroom on the top floor of our pointy house. 
In Summer, swifts nested in the roof above it and I watched their fledglings first flights from its window. They were perfect from the very start, soaring high to slice the sky with crescent wings.
All Winter, I waited for them to return. And I waited for the baby who would sleep in the tiny, rooftop room.
The day she came was the same day that the swifts came back. They raced and chased each other, screaming over rooftops with the joy of being home
I watched them from the window.  That’s how it will be I thought, me and my sister, racing and chasing, screaming with laughter and delight.
But when my sister came home from the hospital, I could see that she would never race or chase. She didn’t even scream. Her dark eyes looked at me and she lay quite still.
 I didn’t want to hold her so I ran into the garden. I lay there, on my back, to watch the swifts, and let my tears run down into the grass, where nobody would see them.
All Summer long I played outside, alone.
When people asked about my sister, I turned my head away.
 I didn’t want to feel the way I felt. But I couldn’t love my sister, no matter how I tried.
 Every night I watched the swifts fly up and up into the dusk. They disappeared into the blue.  Sometimes I wished that I could vanish with them.
Every morning they’d be back, snipping at the air between the rooftops with their scissory wings. Their screams as sharp as arrows pointing to the stillness in my sisters room.
From outside in the garden, I’d watch them, visiting their nests in the roof above her quiet window.
Then one August dawn, I saw something on the grass, like a sooty piece of half burned paper from a garden bonfire: a fledgling swift had crashed onto the lawn. 
Down on the ground it looked all wrong, its puny legs too small, its crumpled wings too long.But when I gently stretched its crescent wings, they were quite perfect.
 Its dark eye looked at me as it lay quiet in my hands.
Perhaps, I thought, it only needs a little help
I went inside, and carried it upstairs, right up to the little bedroom on the top floor of our pointy house. 
I opened up the window and held the swift out on my hands, so it could see the sky and feel the air.
Its small feet gripped my finger for a moment, and its body trembled.
Then, its wings flickered, fast as thinking and it was gone! Scissor-slicing through the morning air until it was a black dot, high above the rooftops.
I turned around and stood beside my sister’s cot.
Her dark eyes opened and her tiny fingers curled tightly onto mine.
She smiled at me, a perfect, perfect, perfect smile.
 Perhaps, I thought, she only needs a little help.
 I picked her up. So small and warm and soft inside my arms.
I took her out into the garden and we watched the swifts together.
And I told her how it was going to be, the two of us together,
racing, chasing, screaming with delight and laughter. 





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Some of My Year In Random Pictures

DSC_0072DSC_0113DSC_0039DSC_0001DSC_0163DSC_0154DSC_0369DSC_0365DSC_1551DSC_1540DSC_0194DSC_0180DSC_0295DSC_0220DSC_0286DSC_0355DSC_0373DSC_0384DSC_0444DSC_0460PWWY6493IMG_2504 (1)IMG_2454DSC_0502DSC_0501DSC_0526DSC_0490DSC_0513IMG_0030DSC_0380

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Me and LarryWhen I was 17 I bought an album that wasn’t anything like the LPs that my friends talked about on the bus to school. Rather than moody, unsmiling, adolescent boys, its cover featured an artwork of a breaching whale. I played it for the first time on my father’s radiogram, at night, lying flat on the floor and staring into the darkness. High sweeping moans, bubbling rumbles, whoops and squeaks came from the record, sounds unlike those made by any human instrument, and yet this was quite obviously music. It spoke straight to my heart and I was instantly besotted. Over the next three years ‘The Song of the Humpback Whale’ recorded by American biologist, Roger Payne, became the soundtrack of my journey from school girl to fledgling biologist.


But in 1970s Britain whales were impossibly distant, away in the realm of dragons or unicorns. Something to campaign about – whaling was still alive, well and legal back then- or dream about, but not, I thought, creatures I could ever really see or study. Then, quite by chance, in my second year at university, I met Hal Whitehead. In whaley-circles nowadays that name is legendary, but back then, Hal wasn’t Professor Whitehead, the most eminent whale biologist of his generation, but a scruffy post doc, looking for a research assistant – and that turned out to be me.



davies9So, in June 1979 I stood on a cliff in Newfoundland and looked down to see three humpback whales in the water below, their fins showing turquoise through the jade-coloured ocean. I spent two summers there, studying humpback feeding behaviour, as they hoovered up the shoals of spawning capelin that lay just under the surface, like heaped hoards of silver doubloons. They breached, just like the whale on the album cover, sometimes multiple times. One whale did 47 breaches in a row, although by the time it did the last one, it wasn’t getting very far out of the water. When the sea mist rolled in and brimmed to the cliff top like milk, I’d listen to their blows and snorts carrying up from the water below.

At the end of the first of my two Summers in Newfoundland, and almost as exciting as seeing real live humpbacks, I met Roger Payne and his musicologist partner Katy, who did much of the work on humpback song. I spent an afternoon – entirely overawed and star struck – at their ‘lab’ outside Boston. I remember a light filled loft, surrounded by trees; green, leafy-light streaming in and falling on huge worktops, covered in sonograms of whale song; intense grad students arguing about what humpbacks did and didn’t do in the warm tropical waters where they courted and had their calves.


The research that Katy and Roger began has now grown into decades of recordings of humpback song from around the world. It’s shown that humpback song is the most complicated display created by any animal. But unlike bird song or courtship display, it changes, sometimes quite radically, not because of genetic change but because whales learn from and react to each other. All male humpbacks in one place sing the same song each year but by the following year, perhaps a new ‘verse’ or a different ‘chorus’ has been added. Gradually some of these changes spread across oceans from one population to another, usually in a predictable direction and at a steady speed. And once in a few years there is a huge song-shift and another, very different , song takes over, completely replacing the original song. As if the all whales suddenly decide to stop singing Beyonce and switch to Adele, or even Beethoven. In other words humpback song can change not because of evolution but because of revolution – a change is as much cultural as human changes in musical tastes.

Throughout my two summer studying humpbacks I dreamed longing dreams about tropical oceans, filled with whale song and I wanted more than anything in the world to see and hear humpbacks living their other, more beautiful, romantic life. But humpbacks only sing on their winter breeding grounds, and I had to wait thirty years before I was finally heard humpbacks sing.

DSC_0333_2In 2013 I was, at last, back on another of Hal’s research boats, ‘Baleana’, in the deep waters off the Caribbean island of Dominica. It was captained by Hal’s research partner Shane Gero, who runs the long term study of sperm whales there, so humpbacks were not really on the agenda. It was almost the last night of my two week stay and I was on watch in the wee small hours. Black water lapped around the boat, the sky was streaked with navy blue clouds and veiled stars. A hydrophone over the side allowed us to eavesdrop on what was going on in the ocean beneath us and part of my job on watch was to listen out for sperm whale clicks, at regular intervals. I put on the headphones and shut my eyes. There were the familiar noises – dolphin whistles, thin high wisps of sound and the frantic clock ticking noises that announced that a pod of sperm whales was hunting somewhere a thousand meters under our keel. But then a new sound, one I hadn’t heard at all before but instantly recoginized, an ascending keening-curve of sound, a rumble, a running series of short whoops and long, low note, off the lowest register of an oboe. Humpback song! Almost as soon as I heard the first, there was a second. The song soaked into me and I knew that somewhere inside, I had been hungry for this sound for every second of those thirty years. I felt as if it was entering every cell and settling into my DNA like a new bit of code.

Ever since, I’ve been planning to write something about humpback song and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to go back to a tropical ocean somewhere to hear it again. But a davies20unique  collaboration between musicologists and biologists sciences, initiated by Dr Alexis Kirke senior research fellow at the School Of Humanites and Performing Arts at Plymouth University could give me an opportunity to hear it, closer to home.

Back in 2010 Alexis got interested in blue whale songs and the very precise pitching of their sounds Reading the paper got him thinking “Shortly after” Alexis says, “I was sitting in a meeting and the director of Peninsula Arts said she wanted to commission a piece of music.I pitched the idea of the Saxophone and Blue Whales performance and got the gig.” As Alexis dived deeper into whale biology as part of his research for the piece he met biologist Simon Ingram who told him about humpback song, and introduced him to the whale science team at St Andrew’s University, lead by Dr Luke Rendel (Hal’s collaborator). The first result was a performance, ‘Fast Travel’ , that combined live saxophone performance with the singing of virtual whales, whose songs were programmed to react to the saxophone and to each other The second result is a much larger, evolving collaboration between Alexis, Simon, Luke and their Phd Students. The plan is, Alexis explained, to “use the modelling of humpback whales as a way both to investigate their marine science and to develop tools for multi-robot system communication”

For the time being the focus is very much on the whales. The team aim to unravel some of the mysteries of humpback song, which have resisted almost four decades of scientific study: why and how does the song change over time and what exactly is the role it plays in the lives of humpback whales?  Using models developed by Alexis’ team in  Plymouth, computer programmes will mimic humpback songs, as described by hundred of hours of field studies and recordings. These programmes will create twenty, virtual whales  – referred to in the study as ‘agents’ – who will sing in the virtual ocean of cyberspace and react to each others songs. The ‘agents’ can be imbued with different characteristics – a liking for new sounds or an aversion to them, for example- and the number of whales singing, their volume and spacing can also be varied.  Six months worth of humpback singing can happen in cyberspace in just two minutes, so it will be possible for Luke and his collaborators to run hundreds of different virtual scenarios with the agents in their virtual ocean. “We hope” Luke told me” that we can generate a model that exactly mirrors the patterns of song evolution we see in real whale populations”.

As I talked with the team in Plymouth back in October we began to think about some possible spin offs from the project, things not strictly speaking part of the research… Could the virtual whale song be part of Plymouths annual festival of contemporary music? Could the whale song model be made into an app allowing people to run different whale song scenarios for themselves, and generate new kinds of songs? Could the songs be visually represented, like animated sonograms?

IMG_0374The ideas that got me most excited were, off course, the ones related to children. For years I’ve been ending almost every school visit or literary festival performance by teaching audiences of children a potted version off humpback song that they can reproduce easily. Of course, children love the opportunity to make loud noises – especially ones like farts – so this always goes down a storm. But could this be combined with Luke’s project in a more sophisticated way? One possibility would be to design an interactive app that allowed children to make their own whale songs using their own voices and then include them in a virtual song scene with other virtual whales, and see how those whales reacted to their song. Can you lure a whale closer with your song? How must you change your song composition to do this? Can you invent and sing a song, so popular it brings about a whale cultural revolution?  This could be something that schools could run on a computer in class, as part of a science or a music lesson, or something that could run in a ‘Whale Song Booth ‘ at a cultural festival.

I’m also keen to explore some of the story possibilities of humpback song. Many of my own stories feature children who, in some way struggle to be heard, or whose voice, opinions, personality are at odds with those around them. So, there are some obvious parallels with humpback song. The surface of the water is an almost perfect barrier to sound so a whale can be singing in the water and inaudible in the air above. A child may be singing or crying on the inside but that emotional voice may be completely inaudible to the adults around her. A novel song may be ignored by a population of humpbacks, or bring about a revolution so that all whales sing the new song, just as a  child, very different from her piers, may be the outcast or the most popular kid in class. I’m also very interested in the image of the singing whale as an archetype – a symbol of freedom and of the beauty of the wild. I have an image in my head of a child, frightened and alone, in a dark room reaching out to find a whale swimming close in the darkness.

The weekend after I met the two teams in Plymouth, I was playing  around with a singing bowl filled with water, watching the water form a small fountain, simply with the sound waves produced by stroking the bowl around its edge. It got me thinking; humpback song is very loud and humpbacks hearing it are immersed in water. What effect does humpback song have on the water and on the whale bodies immersed in it? Could whales be perceiving their songs in a very different way from the way we choose to record and document them? Could the whales listening but not singing – the females- be conducting the sound in the way the bowl conducts the sound waves?

I’m just at the beginning of thinking about how a narrative with human meaning might be linked, counterpointed, harmonised, with the story of humpback song. Right now I have all sorts of things swimming around in my head, but I know that as always its as important to look out, as it is to look in when you search for stories. So I’m waiting to hear what Alexis, Luke and his collaborators discover when they begin to play with virtual whales, and looking forward to more cross curricular conversations between biology and music.

And I’m planning to go and hear humpback song in the wild again…I’m in need of new adventures.



‘The Cultural Lives of Whales’, By Hal Whitehead and  Luke Rendel from St Andrews University,

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