Literary Animals

– Gemma Cantelo and Philip Parker

26 writers Gemma Cantelo and Philip Parker caught up to discuss the children’s books that have influenced them, against the backdrop of our new project, 26Habitats.

Gemma: In September, we’re launching 26Habitats, which will explore our amazing landscapes, from woods to wetlands. Landscapes often play such an important character part in literature, don’t they? I think that can feel especially powerful when you’re a kid – stuck at home, but suddenly free to explore the most beautiful, most treacherous places. Is there a book that embodies that feeling for you?

Philip: Yes, there is – Watership Down! I am pretty sure it was the first piece of contemporary fiction I ever read. So it has an important place in my reading life. Like so many of us, I was brought up on animal stories such as The Wind in the Willows (which I recall insisting was the only book for bedtime) as well as Aesop’s Fables. But Watership Down introduced me to fiction that, while a fantasy, could create parallels with our own world.

Watership Down is a direct descendant of The Wind in the Willows, and itself pioneered a whole genre of animal stories. For me it is a significant piece of environmental literature – although my pre-teen self, reading this one summer on the Welsh coast, would not have been thinking that. I was lucky in that I had a lot of freedom to explore the countryside, and I could picture the exact landscape Hazel, Fiver and the other rabbits roamed. Have you an animal (or landscape) tale that inspires?

Gemma: Many. The Wind in the Willows, of course – it’s probably the book I think of when I think of bedtime stories. Winnie-the-Pooh was one of my mum’s favourites too, so that featured at a fair few bedtimes. Little fragments of those stories wiggled their way into my childhood – I played a lot of Pooh sticks!  

I also remember how gorgeous the books looked. Our copy was a bit battered, as all loved books should be. Its dust-jacket was long gone, but you could trace the lettering on the cover. Someone (maybe my mum?) had claimed it in fountain pen on the inside page. As well as the gorgeous E.H. Shepard illustrations, there was a map. I loved that map: I didn’t have to read the story, I could imagine my own, wandering from Eeyore’s Gloomy Place to the Heffalump Trap.  

I didn’t have a real-life 100 Acre Wood to explore – and even if it had been on my doorstep much of Ashdown Forest, Milne’s inspiration, is sadly out-of-bounds. But, I drew plenty of maps of the patch of green outside our house; seven trees, a patch of mud, two benches and a ‘no ball games’ sign had some evocative names to live up to!  That patch of green felt like home: safe, secure, constant. For me, that was part of the emotional wallop of Watership Down. Home can be destroyed! Do you remember the impact of first reading it?

Philip: I remember it quite vividly. The sense of jeopardy made me think that I was actually reading a book that wasn’t necessarily for children (in fact, I now understand that on publication it was marketed as for adults). The language didn’t patronise, and I can still feel the horror at some of the more disturbing passages (the impaled mice!) or the hilarity at the swearing of Kehaar (the gull). What a grown-up read!

But author Richard Adams showed me that a thought-out, complete world can be fabricated on the page and take root in my imagination. The rabbits aren’t cute Beatrix Potter bunnies; they have their own culture, sense of community and even a folk mythology. Some of them die. They have their own language (odd words litter their dialogue which the reader has to interpret, like ‘hain’ for song), as well as a different language of the hedgerow to communicate with other species. The central characters become believable, even relatable – you want them as your friends – the book ceases to be fantasy.

And when I finished the book I experienced, for the first time, that sense of ‘bereavement’ you get when you have to leave behind characters and a story you have become invested in. You know what I mean?

Gemma: Definitely. Desperate to get to the end of the story, but trying to make it last as long as possible. I know that feeling well!

I didn’t know Watership Down was originally marketed to adults. Do you think reading it at a young age shaped your attitude to nature and the environment?

Philip: I think it must have. The power of the book is that it does not sentimentalise the animals (unlike most tales with talking creatures), and it is grounded in natural history and set in real places. This gritty realism corresponded with my own young experience, such as finding dead, decaying sheep in the local hills! On the other hand, my family also had pets, even a handful of turtles (this was years before the mutant ninja varieties…), so all these factors developed a love of, and respect for, nature and animal rights.

There has been much debate as to the underlying messages of the book – whether it’s a classic hero saga or a commentary on politics (democracy of Fiver vs the dictatorship of General Woundwort). But before he died Adams said it was just a story about rabbits. Do you think our adult selves are all too ready to read meanings into stories in order to ‘appreciate’ them – rather than just experience pure narrative like a child?

Gemma: Interesting question. I certainly think we fetishise complexity, and that can cloud our appreciation of a rollicking story, an emotional hit or a clear message. We can be quite snobby about that: it’s just a children’s book or it’s not just a children’s book because it’s actually about blah blah blah. The stories that stick with me – the ones that have changed how I see the world – got me in the heart, not just the head. I want to feel bereaved to get to the last page, as you did on finishing Watership Down.

Perhaps there are some parallels with our attitude to the environment, nature loss and climate change? We know the intellectual stuff – the science, the facts. But, sometimes they paralyse us into inaction: it’s too big a problem, too complicated a solution and we can’t think our way through it. Do you think there’s a role for storytelling?

Philip: Definitely. In fact I think storytelling in all its forms is the only way ahead. This week the Environmental Justice Commission released a 70,000 word report detailing the economic, social and technical changes needed to get on to a path to limit the climate crisis. It looks like an extraordinary achievement, but how many will actually read this? How many will fear to open it? We are bombarded with facts, counter facts and opinions, but storytelling is the one way to distil the essence of this path into a digestible form. These reports focus on facts, but storytelling focuses on the reader, forges a relationship. That report has 100 recommendations. If that was turned into 100 stories I wonder how much more widespread the understanding could be.

Perhaps Watership Down did more for animal rights than campaigning at the time. Certainly it reached a massive audience – more than 50 million copies sold. In the realm of this kind of crossover fiction (a book adopted by adults and kids) only Tolkien and Rowling have written bigger-selling titles. And the 1970s animated film had an equally impressive influence. Although I have a confession – I’ve never seen this or any other Watership Down adaptation. I tend not to watch these if the source material is really treasured by me. Perhaps I don’t wish to pollute the original memory? Have you a favourite, or hated, adaptation of a much loved book?

Gemma: I feel slightly envious that you haven’t seen the film; I think I saw it before reading the book. Terrifying. The film poster comes with the tagline:

“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and when they catch you, they will kill you.”

Violent crimson-eyed rabbits, psychedelic visions, fields of blood… Certainly not a cosy Sunday afternoon cartoon about bunnies. My sister still visibly winces if Bright Eyes plays in her ear-shot! 

Turning back to 26Habitats, you’ve been celebrating heathlands. Will we see any echoes of Watership Down in your piece? Or the shadow of any other nature writers?

Philip: There are no bunnies in the forthcoming centena! But here is my Rabbit-Heathland-Pub-Quiz-Answer… which I came across in research. Did you know rabbits played a role in shaping some of Britain’s countryside? They were introduced by the Normans, and in the middle ages landowners set up warrens on non-productive land, like heathlands. There would have been hundreds across England and southern Scotland, usually set up by monasteries for meat and fur. The bunnies would graze the heathland alongside commoners’ sheep and cattle and this helped maintain the heathland ecosystem.

But on your other question – yes, the shadow of arguably the greatest of all ‘ecological poets’ falls across the centena. John Clare wrote passionately about the nature and people of his native Northamptonshire, including heathlands, and he witnessed their fencing off by landowners and the industrialisation of agriculture. He documented the resulting destruction of nature and the way of life of his rural peers in his letters and heartbreaking poetry.

Gemma: The whole 26Habitats project stands in his shadow. We’re still seeing the ramifications – and amplifications – of that fencing off and destruction of nature today. There’ve been many lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic, but surely it’s brought home just how urgently we need to rebalance our relationship with the natural world. Our 26Habitats partners at the Wildlife Trusts do some awesome work promoting and re-establishing nature – and connecting people to it. But, we need political leadership too, don’t we? You’d hope that will be very much on the minds of world leaders as they gather in Glasgow for the COP26 climate conference later this year. 

We’ll also be launching 26 Pledges in the run up to COP26, with writers reflecting on the individual actions they can take to protect and restore nature. Do you have your own pledge, Philip? 

Philip: I’ve already cut back on meat consumption, making it a weekend thing. But production of beef and lamb are by far and away the biggest creators of greenhouse gases in food production. So I will cut these out and also look to reduce other meats especially pork. And of course I NEVER eat rabbit. Reducing or cutting meat consumption is arguably the biggest impact an individual can have on one’s carbon footprint (apart from abstaining from flying).

I will also pledge to engage more with climate protest activities and getting involved locally with things like the Great Big Green Week in September (18th – 26th). And what might you pledge?

Gemma: I’m pledging two things – for now. I’m lucky enough to have a garden, so my first pledge is to ditch the tidy (-ish) lawn and let it go wild. I also use far too much plastic. My second pledge is to reduce my own plastic use by switching bottles of product for things like shampoo bars, and to pick up other people’s plastic waste when I spot it on the beach. 

I’m sure the writers’ pledges will inspire me to add to that list!

– Gemma Cantelo and Philip Parker

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