keeping busy editing my new book while enjoying the view of the Downs near Wye from inside my mini camper van.
I am delighted to announce that I have been awarded an Foundation Grant by the Society of Authors to help fund research into my new book, which currently has the working title of, The Volunteers.
For six years I ran a volunteer group for a small conservation organisation. This experience had a profound effect on me, as it did on everyone who found their way to us. Now I want to write about those years in the woods and tell the stories of the people that came.
In particular I want to write about the young people, many of whom were in a bad place in their life at the time, either through mental health problems, drugs, a brush with the law, or simply because they had lost their way and needed something good to happen. Each one of those people took a brave step out of their door the day they joined us. Their stories are bound up with my own walk back from a dark place following redundancy and a breakup.
Behind this story is my theory, which is that, for hundreds of years we worked with our hands, on the land, alongside our neighbours and then suddenly the world changed. The volunteer group restored people, if only for a little while, to the way we are meant to be.
Nature is hardwired into our genes but increasingly we are alienated from it. We spend our days in high rise boxes cut off from such life-giving essentials as fresh air and sunlight. We are lost amid noise and concrete, our every move watched and followed by gadgets that we welcome into our lives. Small wonder that we are in meltdown. Loneliness, depression and drug use are all on the rise and, even those of us who can’t put a label on things, feel stretched thin.
For the volunteers the woods offered a respite, a chance to return to the world of bird song and dirt beneath the fingernails. To regain a sense of community and of ourselves.
I have been beavering away at this story for the last two years, visiting locations to relive the years I spent running the group and planning my research of everything from how working outdoors affects our mental health to traditional woodland management techniques.
This story of the volunteers and what that time meant to me is a tale I have long wanted to tell but find it hard to put in the time needed to write when writing just doesn’t pay the bills. Now, I feel like I have been given a breathing space, an opportunity to create something which I hope will be worthy as a follow up to my 2017 book On the Marshes.
Watch this space. A new journey begins.
So, It’s a wet, wet day and I am holed up in my kitchen doing some research for my new book, which I have been slowly working on for the last year. I am writing the story of my time with the wildlife conservation group I ran for six years, an experience which had a profound effect on me as it did on everyone who found their way to us.
Sometimes I think is it just a bit old fashioned to write a book about a wildlife conservation group when young people are camping on the streets of London and pressurising governments about the climate crisis. Wouldn’t I be better off spending my time joining them?
But what I am discovering from my research is that I am also part of the solution. For governments to take action they need to think that enough ordinary people care and people care about nature if they feel the need for it.
Some people feel the point is to save the earth for the sake of humanity. After all we cannot survive without a planet and we cannot survive without nature’s ‘ecosystem services’ of carbon capture, fresh water and healthy soil that can grow food. Personally I find myself more interested in saving the planet simply because it exists and is beautiful and other creatures have as much right to life as us. But it is the truth that, while nature will survive just find without us, we cannot survive without it.
Nature is essential for our physical survival But what I am learning through my research is that we also need it on a more subtle level too. Studies show that our brains have become wired through lack of contact with it.
Urban environments and technology are literally sending us crazy. Constant noise, proximity to other people and attention grabbing websites are sending our amygdala into overload and leading, not only to rises in depression and anxiety, but even to illness’s like schizophrenia. Nature resets our brain and makes us calm down, become less prone to rumination and more able to concentrate.
So we need nature for our physical health, for our mental health and also for our soul. Whether you believe in the existence of it or not, you probably know that indefinable something that soars in the presence of nature’s grandeur. At least I really hope you do. Nature links us with the unknown, with something larger than ourselves that we cannot pin down. We need this. We need that heart stopping sunset or rush of bird wing overhead, we need that moment of silence in deep woodland broken by one insect buzz. God how we need that.
It makes me feel justified, this research. What I am trying to write about is not just a story of a group of people who went to the woods but why being part of a group that went to the woods made us all feel so damn happy. It is a book about connection with nature and how it heals us in a world gone a little mad. It is a story about how we need nature far more than it needs us.
In writing this story I not only hope to tell people about the power of nature to heal but encourage them to get out and see for themselves how much difference it can make to all our lives and why we should all be supporting those people camping on the streets of the capital that are fighting for it’s future.
Sidney Cooper Gallery, 22-23 St Peter’s Street, Canterbury
I am delighted to be taking part in the Writing Comes Alive festival run by Canterbury Christ Church University. Come and see me get enthusiastic over the marshes. on Tuesday 7th November between 6.00pm and 7.30pm
Some people are ideas people and some of us are executers. This is the conclusion I am coming to. I have been struggling with work on my second book, loosely titled Behind the Wall, for weeks. I came to a halt last year when I sent off three chapters to my agent who didn’t fall in love with it and suggested I needed to go away, read more novels and think about it again.
I have followed her advice but I confess to finding many modern novels a giant yawn, somehow tired with life and the stories they are trying to tell before they even begin. Still it was good advice. I learnt things from my reading but the thought of starting the book again from a whole new direction was intimidating.
Then, today, my friend turns up for coffee. Our regular Friday ritual where we analyse the world and say the stuff we truthfully think but don’t shout out loud. He casually drops into the conversation that he’s been reading a new version of The Canterbury Tales and he’s had this idea for my book. In two sentences he comes up with the most amazing concept of how I can look at the whole story from a different angle.
I sit there open mouthed. How can it be that, after months of thinking of ways to begin, he just throws out the best idea like it is nothing?
My friend is an ideas man. He throws out a million genius ideas before breakfast and another twenty before tea. He is cursed with ideas. They come so thick and fast and are all so clever that he rarely follows them through.
I am an executor. He comes up with one idea, one lightbulb idea and I wish to sit down and begin to put it into action. I can turn his idea into something. I very much hope.
Unfortunately today, I must face reality. I cannot crack on with his idea as I have to re-edit my first book, On the Marshes. A book which came out of an idea, that now I think of it, may well have been his.
Things are beginning to get real now that we have hit 2017 and I begin to plan for the publication of my book, On the Marshes in April. Yesterday I met with Sue Sparks at St Mary’s Church, Lower Higham, where I am planning to hold the launch party.
The church is set on the marshes and the journey I took when writing the book began and ended from there so it seemed the ideal place to do the launch. However, planning an event in a church does feel decidedly close to planning a wedding.
We talked about candles, background music, refreshments, lighting. Seeing as partly the book is about the break up of my relationship then it feels a little ironic that I now appear to be wedding the book.
I am still a little dazed and maybe can’t quite get my head around that, yes, this book will be out there, published, properly published, like you can go into a book shop and buy it, published.
April will be on me before I know it though and my book and I will meet at the alter. I am quietly fizzing with excitement.
Ok, so what happens when you send your chapters to the agent and they don’t fall in love with them? If you’re like me you go through a whole range of emotions.
For one, you ignore all the positive comments and just focus on the negative ones. Yes, this is because the negative is easier to believe but also because the positive comments you don’t need to do anything about and the negative ones you do.
Then you get depressed. You think, you can’t do this thing, write, after all. The first book was a fluke. Maybe it’s just a terrible idea and you should give it up and do something else.
Then, over the next few days you remember why you wanted to write this book in the first place. That you love this story, that you have things you want to say to the world through it. That you have been enjoying writing the whole thing so, so much, until now.
Then your story becomes like a child that you’ve invested in and, even though it’s gone off the rails, you still believe in it and want to do your best by it. So you take a deep breath, sit down with it and begin to look at what needs to be done to improve things.
It’s a lot of work. You will need to start again, right at the beginning. Slow down, stop the headlong dash to get to the end and set out on a new course. And so you begin…again.
Through all this I still know what a privilege it is for a professional to take the time to read and really think about my work and offer truthful and helpful advice. This is where I take heart that I have wriggled my way onto the next rung of the ladder.
I’ve been in the other place. The one where you send your chapters off and get no feedback. I have been in that place many times and now I’m in this other place. The place of the soon to be published author where you can call your agent and they sound happy to hear from you and take the time to really go over what you’ve written.
Only time and hard work has got me there and that determination is what is needed now.
And so it begins again. As I start to talk about publicity for my first book, On the Marshes, which is due to be published in April, then I go back to the nerve wracking beginning of the whole thing and send a synopsis and three chapters of my new book to my agent. Asking that thing that I think, I hope, all writers ask. Is it any good?
Does any writer know if what they’re writing is any good before someone else tells them so? I know if the writing is going well, if it’s flowing, if I’m locked into it and enjoying it, if I want to keep writing it but, is it any good? That I find hard to judge alone.
So I send it out to friends and they tell me they really like it but still I don’t know if that’s enough. I kind of need that outside thumbs up from someone who I don’t feel is obliged to say it. I need someone in the writing world who reads a lot of this stuff to tell me.
External validation? probably. Deep seated insecurity? most likely but even the fact that I send it out at all says something. So many writers hide their writing away. Thinking they’re not good enough, unable to stand up under the eye of criticism. Never try and you never fail.
So sending it out at all also says something about me, something at the core of me, some deep seated self belief that writing is what I’m meant to do and it is what I would do even if I were alone in the world and no one ever told me if I was any good.
Chris Packham’s memoir is a book about a lonely, troubled, isolated child who is at his happiest when he is out in the fields and woods discovering wildlife. A boy who is the freaky kid in school, probably a worry to his parents but who has far more potential than anyone else around him.
If you were this kid, read this book. If you are the parents of a child who you suspect may just be this kid, read this book. If you expect a media friendly anecdote about a happy boy who came to be a television presenter, maybe stay clear.
Fingers in the Sparkle Jar is an unbelievably, bloody, brave book which it is hard to believe anyone with a public profile would have written. I suspect that if this had not been written by a ‘celebrity’ it wouldn’t have been published which says far more about the lack of bravery in publishing houses than it does about Chris’s ability to write as the book is very well written with beautiful descriptions of nature and brilliant observation of Britain in the 1970’s with all it’s hot, dusty and disconnected edge.
The book jumps around between times and perspectives but keeps it cohesion and the odd structure feels appropriate for the subject, sometimes you are in Chris’s head, sometimes you are observing him from someone else’s viewpoint. I think if you are deeply internalised then this is how you view the world.
This book resonated with me on so many levels. I frankly was that child or one very like it. It took me right back to being an isolated and bullied girl in a rough comprehensive and finding solace in nature books. It bought home the absolute necessity of being completely honest in your writing because only then can you reach out to others who feel the same way and give them something of real value.
This is a valuable book. It is a brave and important book. It makes me want to stand up and applaud this man and then possibly follow him around for the rest of his life and say ‘thank you.’
My agent Hardman and Swainson have added me to their author page. So I guess that makes it official.