In the second of this year’s Q&As, we talk to farmer, historian and award-winning author John Lewis-Stempel. John is the latest member of an ancient family of farmers who have lived and worked in Herefordshire for nine hundred years. A prolific writer, he has sold over a million books world-wide. His bestselling last book, ‘Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field’ won the Wainwright Prize.
At NiddFest John will be talking about his new book – ‘The Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland’. This is a story of how John took an abandoned field close to his farm and husbanded it in a natural, traditional way, restoring its fertility and wildlife, bringing back the old farmland flowers and animals.
John will be speaking at 2pm, Sunday 7th August, Pateley Bridge Memorial Hall. Book tickets here.
Here is his Q&A:
1. What is your earliest memory of the natural world?
In the beginning… I was playing (circa 1972) in the wheat-field behind my grandparents’ in Herefordshire and bumped into a corncrake. It was probably the last corncrake in Herefordshire, and the incident is one of the inspirations behind ‘The Running Hare’.
2. Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes/No. I’m unfaithful to writing. Sometimes I like it, sometimes I hate it. As a rule I’d rather be farming, but farmers were told to diversify…
3. Who were the authors or who inspired you to start writing?
Denys Watkins-Pitchford (‘BB’). Always and forever. At school, we read BB’s The Little Grey Men (unthinkable, probably, at a school today: 12-year-old boys being read a book about gnomes) and I saw that, gnomes aside, it depicted and explained the countryside. I try to do the same.
4. Do you have a favourite place or landscape?
Herefordshire, top to bottom, side to side. My family have lived here for 800 years. There’s a reason we have get up and stay; it is English heaven on earth, it’s still England as you imagine it. (Sorry Yorkshire, but you are a close second)
5. How do you feel about the state of the natural world today?
Sad for us, sad for nature. I really just want all the birds, animals and plants from my 1970s childhood back. Is all hope lost? No. (See motto No. 3 below).
6. Do you have a motto?
Generously, I have three mottoes:
a) I’m sometimes asked for my advice on nature writing, and it is. ‘Go outside. And stay there’.
b) I subscribe heavily to Edmund Burke’s aphorism: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.”
c) It’s not over till you win. If you haven’t won, it’s not over.
7. What are you working on at the moment?
A book about a wood. I have an old fashioned idea about woodland, namely it is also a place for farm animals, such as primitive sheep and longhorn cattle. A common thread through my writing is celebrating the space humans/nature/livestock share. In my book, such a trinity is proper farming.
8. What are your three ‘desert island’ reads and why?
The Wild Lone by BB. In this adventure story for children (adults?) Watkins-Pitchford appreciates that the species barrier between animals and humans is thin. That is, they are more like us than we suppose. Without a doubt it is the book that has most influenced my attitude to animals. BB was way ahead of his time, and without being sentimental or anthropomorphic. He shot for the pot.
The Eye of the Wind by Peter Scott. The autobiography of the conservationist, WWII naval officer, and son of Scott of the Antarctic. You don’t have to be an anorak to be a bird-lover.
Collected Poems by John Clare. If God/Pan has chosen a human for his/her voice, it is Clare.