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

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,
‘ 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, 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….


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…


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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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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