As an only child, who first met other children at Sunday School, kids were more alien to me than the birds in the churchyard or the snails at the bottom of our tiny garden. I lived opposite a mainline railway station in North London, before the Clean Air Act, and smog and crowded tube trains and high rise flats were the things I hated most. I seized on any bit of nature I could – dandelions in the park and pigeons under the railway arches. I would follow the coalman’s horse around the streets just for the chance to give him a bit of apple, and visits to my great-aunt in rural Surrey were heaven with my first introductions to voles and shrews and slow worms. But if I couldn’t get the real thing, I’d read about it instead, and the local library was the answer.
The first book that I couldn’t put down was about an underwater world, and I think it was called Claud the Sea Horse, although a discussion board on Amazon suggests it might have been called The Deep Sea Horse. Anyhow, was it that which engendered a love of snorkelling, andexploring a world so very different from the one on dry land? I still think the most beautiful things I have ever seen were two huge shoals of little fish in Indonesia – one electric blue, the other iridescent green, and the cuttlefish that changed colour as it moved from rock to seaweed to rock beneath me – and then swam up behind me to get a better look.
Christine Pullein-Thompson and Ruby Ferguson fuelled a love of ponies, and Black Beauty showed me things from a horse’s viewpoint. I think children find it far easier to see things from an animal’s point of view than adults, as their perceptions are not so fixed. Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby books made me look at the difference between being wild and being domesticated, and what a horse might think about it. I don’t now keep pets – I have a pond for the frogs and newts, and a garden full of nest boxes and bird feeders, as well as an insect hotel for solitary bees, lacewings and ladybirds. I love the idea of creatures that visit because they want to, and are free to live their lives as close as possible to the way their ancestors did.
I moved from the children’s books of the fifties to a more non-fiction approach, via Gerald Durrell to Konrad Lorenz and Desmond Morris. One of the joys of later life has been the chance to travel, and see the places and creatures in Durrell’s books for myself, in their natural habitat. I don’t regard any animal as ugly or distasteful – all you have to do is to see the world from their angle, and it all makes sense. I do find the cruelty of the natural world difficult to take on occasion, and with our increasing knowledge of the intelligence of some animals it’s hard to maintain a view that they don’t know what they’re doing. But as a species we’re no better, and frequently a lot worse.
I haven’t actually written anything from an animal’s perspective, although I have written about animals and hopefully tried to convey my own views at the same time. Hunted was about ivory poaching, and stemmed from an article I read about a rogue elephant that was defending a wildlife corridor so that its friends and relatives could travel from one feeding ground to another. If he had been human, we’d have seen him as a freedom fighter. The Tree Devil was about genetic engineering, and was a plug for octopuses which are far brighter and more emotional than most people realise when they’re eating them. And no, I’m not vegetarian, although I do try to make sure I eat responsibly farmed animal products. After all, we do have four canine teeth, so it shouldn’t be a large part of our diet as all our other teeth are there to deal with fruit and veg and grains.
I have created a number of mythical creatures in the Divide Trilogy, and, as all mythical animals are re-combinations of existing fauna I’ve considered the characteristics of the source material. Consequently, the griffins have the magnified vision of vultures, and the sinistroms (devil-hyenas) have some of the more unpleasant traits of the creatures that inspired them. The shreddermouths (crocodile-type beings) also behave true to type. Strong mother-love, combined with an urge to store dead bodies until they begin to decompose…
The politically correct brigade will have outlawed one of my favourite books as a child, which portrayed a gypsy called Zachary Boswell who introduced a little girl to badgers and hedgehogs and deer, as well as many other creatures. I do think that my early reading had a profound influence on my attitudes as an adult, and that as writers we have a duty to try and create a love of the natural world in our younger readers, without being sentimental, as it’s to their advantage in the long run. And their children’s children.