Writer, editor, teacher
Generally speaking, any writer’s working life is pretty dull. All the excitement goes on inside our heads and maybe some of it spills out in the words we put down. I think I knew that as a 10-year-old, when I first started writing fiction. We were a kind of double-immigrant family. My dad had left Germany as a young man, and we had all left Hamilton, Lanarkshire, when my brother and I were boys. I don’t think I ever felt truly at home in Hertfordshire, and a sense of displacement and disorientation has always fed into my writing.
At the age of 11, I produced a masterpiece called Mystery at Animal Village. A friend of my dad’s declared he was greatly impressed and was struck by the resemblance to Animal Farm. I’d neither read it nor heard of Orwell, but I was aghast that someone should have had the talking animal idea before me.
We were solidly working class with middle class aspirations, so an airy-fairy degree was not for me. University was about going on a course with a fast-track to a job, so I started at Manchester University, doing Law. Somehow I broke loose and ended up switching to English fourteen months later.
Though I adored Manchester, I gained nothing but a qualification, equipping me for not very much. And so for 18 happy, impoverished months, I built up experience as a full-time volunteer, writing about conservation, running a tree nursery and coping when money ran low by eating chickweed and nettles. I even developed my own photos in a mosquito-ridden cellar.
Paid employment came with the Beds & Hunts Wildlife Trust, where I was good at raising publicity (witness the bumblebee costume), but rather less effective at raising funds. When it was time to move on, I hopped nine miles to join the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) press office. Then I was editor of the RSPB youth magazines for 16 years. The endless enthusiasm of generation after generation of child readers kept me going.
A sideline that turned into a career started with a succession of chapters and books on wildlife for the US market. I got a big break with a small column, the Guardian Country Diary. That led to slots in BBC Wildlife magazine, then Birds in a Cage, my first non-fiction book for adults, followed by a second book, A Nazi in the Family and that took me on another exciting and wholly fulfilling journey.
Just before book number two came out, I knew it was time to go freelance, turning a moonlighting role into a full-time job. That’s just what happened at the end of 2014. And my third book, A Tale of Trees, the battle to save Britain’s ancient woodland was published in October 2016.
An inspired and inspiring director at Cambridge University’s Institute of Continuing Education then decided that as well as writing myself, I should encourage others to do so too. So began yet another career, this time as a creative writing tutor, a role that I love (thank you, wonderful students).
PS have a look at my Guardian Country Diaries! It’s a great privilege to write for what is (almost) the world’s oldest newspaper column. The Guardian’s first Country Diary appeared in 1904. And but for forgetfulness on the part of one contributor (he forgot to send his copy in one day), it would be the longest-running on the planet.
Enjoy its eccentricities and range of styles (including mine, usually appearing on the second and fourth Wednesday of every month – confused? I am.). Each column is just 370 words, a vignette you can absorb in less time than it takes to boil up a cuppa.