An Interview with Horatio Clare


Horatio Clare is a writer and broadcaster whose books include the Somerset Maugham Award-winning memoir Running for the Hills, the travel and nature book  A Single Swallow, the children’s novel Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot, and Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year, Down to the Sea in Ships. Clare has also contributed to Seren Press’s ‘New Stories from the Mabinogion’ series, for which Welsh writers such as Cynan Jones and Gwyneth Lewis were invited to retell a story from the medieval Welsh classic. Clare wrote The Prince’s Pen, based on the myth of ‘Lludd and Llevelys’. His most recent publication is Orison for a Curlew, published by Little Toller Books and illustrated by Beatrice Forshall, in which Clare travels in search of the Slender-billed curlew, a bird thought by many to be extinct. In conversation with The Clearing’s Luke Thompson, Horatio Clare talks about his Orison, migration, birds, people and responsibility.


Luke Thompson: Perhaps you could start by telling me something about the title, Orison for a Curlew.


Horatio Clare: I thought of the project as an elegy at first, and termed it so in early versions, but on the journey it became obvious that was wrong – the bird is not yet dead, and definitely not buried. I like orison and I have only read it in Owen’s Anthem which seems an under use of a beautiful word. The sense is much better – this is a prayer for the slender-billed curlew, not an obit. The themes of the prayer are mystery, change, loss, but also adventure, commitment, and our powers to make changes for the world’s good. Its real heroes are conservationists.


LT: Yes, you have both heroes and villains here, and I’d quite like to pursue that a moment. You record your friend Yannis Tsougrakis saying, ‘We are in a time when everything starts from man’. It’s that ‘everything’ that strikes me. Because we are talking about the destruction of habitats, but another theme – a theme I think is present in much of your work – is that of ‘hope’.


HC: I am congenitally hopeful, except in the blues when hopeless, and perhaps, heaven forfend, more realistic. The birds have changed things. Their very rarity, their possibility, underscores and helps reserves for other species, and many visitors. And if the news sometimes makes these seem like the end of days they are also times of great tides of hope. All those human migrants, who come into Europe just where the bird was – the furiously hopeful of the earth. The many heroes in the book were more downbeat than expectant, but that comes with conservation.


LT: You’ve touched on two themes there which I wanted to ask you about, both of them to do with the political backdrop to Orison. One of these is the role of the EU in conservation, which is brought up a couple of times, most notably when you were in Bulgaria.


HC: The EU and international bodies like Birdlife International and the RSPB have been a vital source of inspiration, aid and funding to the east. Environmental relationships like the one between the EU, the RSPB and its Bulgarian sister have been an unalloyed force for good. Wild species, the environment and humans have all benefitted. To talk to Bulgarian, Hungarian and Romanian environmentalists is to realise that the hopes of the founders of the European Union, the hopes of all of us who live within it, are still alive. The EU is not a dream, it is an expression of what is best in all of us: our similarities are greater than our differences; the Earth is more than a resource; all living things are important. The narratives of many human lives, like those of migrating birds, are voyages of exploration and return. Our challenge is to make the second half of that journey possible by working with the countries of the east, so that their migrants will be able to complete their journeys, rather than being forced to cling on wherever they are able to find handholds in the west. EU environmental projects should be the beginning of transnational cooperation towards a better world, not the end.


LT: That prompts the second theme I wanted to ask you about – human migration. Orison is more than a prayer for the curlew, isn’t it?


HC: Yes. Since writing A Single Swallow in 2008, which followed the birds’ journey from South Africa back to Britain, I have seen migration in the natural and human worlds as halves of one whole. We all move for the same reasons – for food or goods, out of curiosity, to find mates, to find our places in the ecosystem, to build, to breed and raise young. In the human world it strikes me as an abomination that capital is free to move wherever it might increase, while the vast majority of the earth’s people are not free, are restrained by their own or other governments, are hemmed in by regulations and fences. I loathe passports, flags and fences; I detest tribalism. Nationality is an accident which should be a choice; patriotism the festishisation of happenstance. It is great to love a country, but to be unable to love the world more takes blindness, willed or suffered. Border fences, as the great Palestinian writer and lawyer Raja Shehadeh put it, are our greatest mistake. They must end, he said, they will have to, one day. While Orison celebrates cooperation across borders, and the crossing of borders, it is also the story of a world run through by fences. We know they do not really work, that they all fall in time, and that their propagation is the first sign of a scoundrel regime. The tide of migration we are seeing now can either be taken as a great threat, and a signal of a failing world, or it can be seen as an extraordinary upsurge of courage and initiative, which has caused a reciprocal wave of charity, compassion and practical idealism.


LT: Yes, I had wondered about the connection between Orison and A Single Swallow. Could you say something about why you wanted to return to the theme, and how Orison develops those earlier ideas?


HC: It comes from childhood. The first wish I remember making was for wings. A Single Swallow came from the simple desire to know where the skyroads lead, to follow the birds, to glimpse a world to which they, not humans, were central. And of course there was a trick in it, because I wanted to write about borders, and human migration, and paradoxical as it may seem, people seemed more interested in the story of migrating birds than in the story of migrating people. This may be changing. Orison was a development in that there was never any realistic chance I would see the bird: the story had to be about what was known of it, and the people and places it connected. If there was a message in Swallow it was that there is a single road that runs from your front door to the tip of the Cape Agulhas in South Africa and every ordinary person who lives along it is your neighbour: I proved this by throwing myself on the mercy of a lot of them. Swallows live and travel in one country, not thirty.


I did not know what the slender-billed curlew would have to tell the world when I began to work on the book, and the book is by no means definitive – the very opposite, being mostly questions. But the bird’s story does seem to raise an unexpected hope. As the planet heaves under our weight, and human-built frontiers crack and crumble, and the news simmers with transnational evils, from terror to pollution, there also rises a post-national goodness, a new kind of internationalism, a determination to do, to help people and planet, and this drive has a wonderful disrespect for frontiers, passports and dogmas. (Our town was flooded over Christmas. Secular, Muslim, Sikh and Jewish groups, individuals and groups from this country and abroad, turned up to help. No one had asked or directed them. They just appeared.) There is no orison for benevolence in the book; kinder times, perhaps, but one good thing about our record-breaking population is that there are an unprecedented number of kind people alive right now.


LT: And there is more of the human story in the sense of responsibility and activism that runs through Orison. I made a note of Petar Iankov saying of the birds, ‘I am given consciousness, something they do not have; they are not responsible for me but I am responsible for them.’


HC: You can pay the strong no higher compliment than to say that they are friends to the meek. Environmentalists are up there with saints, in my book. The conservationists I met were distinguished by their kindness, their determination, and a kind of fierce happiness. They all refuse to be bowed by circumstance, they set their eyes on higher prizes than money, they serve a higher calling. The recipe for happiness is service – you see it everywhere. This was the wonder of the journey: as monks pray for non-believers in the dark watches of the night, so quiet men and women work for causes obscure and mighty, lost and not lost, with the same care and dedication, while so much of the world marches blithely, greedily, towards destruction.

LT: ‘The recipe for happiness is service’ – I wonder whether you might spell out your own sense of responsibility and service. For instance, what are you serving, and how?

HC: Too little: I think this explains an underlying unhappiness! Teaching is service, and I do quite a bit of that. My books are intended to serve. I hope Orison does not disserve the slender-billed curlew. My children’s book, Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot, is intended to help people, and I have had some lovely responses to it; Down to the Sea in Ships seems to have had a good effect in that it has made readers aware of a hidden world upon which we all rely. Writing feels such an indulgent, peripheral, hopeless activity much of the time, but if a book chooses you to write it all you can do is be grateful and get on with it. It comes out, hits and misses, you feel wonderful and terrible by turns, but then, either way, letters and messages arrive. And somehow you have served people you will never meet; maybe not millions of them, but to give something to someone, somewhere, is extraordinary. I am not the only writer who feels guilty for not writing more and not writing better, and we are notoriously narcissistic and insecure, but it’s a sense of responsibility of a kind, isn’t it?


LT: And did you approach the question of the slender-billed curlew with this dual narrative in mind – I mean, the story of human responsibility in conservation and of human/animal migration? I’m asking, I suppose, how political your initial intentions were?


HC: I have learned that there is no point approaching subjects from a political position: your job is to put the subject first and see what it has to say. Clearly the disappearance of the bird meant something for us all. And the cause seemed obvious – changing land use, depletion of water, draining of wetlands – but you never know what the truth will turn out to be until you pitch up, ask questions and write down what you find. The message of hope was completely unexpected and organic.


LT: Perhaps we could talk more generally, too, about travel and the practice of travel writing. It permeates even your children’s book, Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot. There’s that moment when the whole world opens up and Aubrey and his father are able to see everything, everywhere. 


HC: I often suffer from small, mean, panicked thoughts, to which a joyful vision of the wider world is an antidote. If I have a gift it is to celebrate the wonder and beauty of places and people, the richness of the world’s days, its variety and the great gentleness of its true scale. We are constantly being told the world is small, and made to feel that it is shrinking to a muchness, because that suits sellers and rulers. But it is not so, and it is part of the travel writer’s job to hymn its diversity and detail.


LT: I also wondered about how you wrote. With such an active schedule, there can’t be a huge amount of time to write up. It made me wonder how different the discipline was for travel writers. For instance, do you draft and develop as you go, or do you write brief notes and sketches then develop them when you return?


HC: I write a tremendous amount of longhand, notes and narrative, as I go. I take down ten times more than I use, and that is the first draft. The second, third and nth go into the poor laptop, which is missing two keys.


LT: With your optimism in mind, maybe I will dare to end with this question – I don’t think it’s a spoiler: How confident are you that the slender-billed curlew is still alive?


HC: There were too many unconfirmed sightings during the last push for a confirmed sighting for the bird to be quite gone. I believe there is a remnant population, but whether they are still able to breed is another question.

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