An Interview with Tim Dee
Luke Thompson: You went to the BBC to become a radio producer and have said that you tend to make programmes on poetry and nature together. I wonder whether you could say something about your early agenda in radio production and how this has developed.
Tim Dee: I’ve been a producer now for twenty-five years. I joined the BBC as a radio production trainee. In many ways working as a radio producer on mostly arts programmes (poetry, some history, some radio drama) was a way to follow a line of least resistance for me. I’d done an English degree and could have gone on to do academic research but felt that taking creative books into the academy wasn’t especially good for them or their readers. After my degree I continued to live in Cambridge where I’d signed on the dole and was claiming housing benefit. At the same time, as was possible in those days, I began to work unpaid (at first) for a bird conservation organisation. My boss there, Nigel Collar, had also done an English degree and indeed a PhD (on George Orwell), but had ended up working as a conservation researcher. He wrote about threatened birds in the Red Data Books – the monumental catalogues of the dead and the near-dead. He had found a way to bring together his dual interests in birds and words. I liked him and I liked that. In my time there I wrote a short and worthy (but tremendously dull) book called The Endemic Birds of Madagascar. To do so I toured the corridors of the Natural History Museum bird collection and noted down the bald factual details that were written on the labels attached to the legs of the skins of the dead endemic species: couas, vangas, ground rollers, mesites. I never went to Madagascar. Nor was I an ecologist and my under-developed understanding of ornithology and conservation science brought me up short. I needed to know more or to get out and do something else.
LT: This was when you visited Hungary.
TD: I was curious to see the communist east of Europe and I knew it had some good birds. I had a great holiday there and found myself, on my return to the UK, applying for a British Council postgraduate scholarship to study at Budapest University. I’d devised a plan to learn enough Hungarian to make my way through its twentieth century poetry. The British Council, who must have been short of real scholars at that time, said yes. I had another (mostly) great year in Hungary (I wrote a little about this for The Clearing). I might have stayed in the east and I might have become a writer of sorts in those years at the end of the 1980s. If the New Statesman had taken a piece about life in Budapest that they half-liked, my working life might have taken off in a new direction. But I came back to Britain, moved back in with my parents, and applied for various jobs including, because it was there, the BBC production trainee scheme. The application process took some time and in the meantime I was offered a job as the photographic librarian at Save the Children. This was interesting. I had to commission photographers to take pictures both of Princess Anne (the charity’s patron) and of Save the Children’s work in Ethiopia, Bangladesh and the derelict badlands of Glasgow. The mix was tough and provoking. But not long after I started the BBC called. And I went. The trainee scheme there allowed for a series of attachments to various parts of radio production. The collapse of communism was under way and I thought I should make programmes about that, which would draw on my experiences in Hungary. But I had a good and happy three months on Kaleidoscope, the Radio 4 arts programme. A proper job on the programme came up not long after I had finished. I applied for it and so found myself fundamentally back in the land of words – making speech programmes of commentary and illustration about the arts. I was paid to go to the theatre and the cinema and to read books. All I had to do was make some account (always others talking and with me behind the scenes) of those activities into a few audible minutes each week. I felt I had capitulated in some ways. My grappling with geopolitics on the one hand and the ecology of extinction on the other had finished. I’d defaulted to a version of an arts or media life. I remained keen on birds. Once learned you cannot unlearn your knowledge nor the love that goes in step with it. I remember walking to Broadcasting House in the centre of London on a snowy day and looking up to see cold weather flights of lapwings above Trafalgar Square. The outside, as it were, knocking on the inside. And my first longer feature at Kaleidoscope was, perhaps significantly, about the nightingale as a natural artist. But words on birds were mostly for me only and not for broadcast. Nature writing was something I read and enjoyed as I always had (not that there was much of it about in the 1980-1990s), but I didn’t make programmes about it. When I was seven my father had a printer-friend make up some headed letter paper for a Christmas present. Above my address it read: ‘Tim Dee: ornithological, zoological and travel consultant’. I loved it, of course, but was too embarrassed to use it. I still would be.
LT: Your writing suggests a purpose – I think you said in Archipelago that ‘Nature Writing is not what it was and my books are announcing this’. I was wondering whether the same sense of purpose is shown in your radio work.
TD: That remark was not about the books I have written or might write. It was part of an attempt to describe the mix of impulses, including new ones, behind the proliferation of writing about nature these days. Nature writing is not the same now as it was, as I said in that essay, when it walked a thin green line between science on one side and poetry on the other. The borders have bled. My radio work is drawn to this bleeding. I like taking truths about nature and exporting them into places that previously have been sniffy or unconcerned or careless about it. In this way I am the ornithological consultant as advertised on my childhood letter-head. It’s important for me when making a play to get the bird song right. And I rebuke my colleagues when they don’t. But it’s a little more than that too. I think the noticing that must go into good nature writing is really worth hanging onto. Acuity of vision, depth of purchase, paddling of fingers into the world, Thoreau’s contact with the hard matter, all of that which comes from wanting to see and know nature are qualities of attention that take the attender close to love and we need these as much as ever, even more so now with the outside world being increasingly offered to us as a simulacrum of itself, screened and digitised.
My radio work has mostly been about making versions of things that belong – broadly – outside (this could include a poem as well as a peregrine) and bringing them inside. I work with news from elsewhere. By outside I don’t mean simply out of doors, I mean that stuff which hasn’t surrendered to whatever inside might mean (a simulacrum, or central heating, or complacency, or shopping, or superiority). My writing is drawn to the same. I want it to make less of me.
TD: It sounds odd, I agree, and it is a tough order for a book with a writer’s name on its cover and a writer’s life splashed and dragged through all of its pages, but what I have in mind is something adjacent to Keats’ remark in his magnificent and famous letter to Benjamin Bailey of 22nd November 1817, where among much else (the truth of the imagination, etc), he talks about how ‘the setting sun will always set me to rights, or if a sparrow come before my window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.’ Taking part in existence was always what I was after in my bird love, my pond dipping, my nature table, and the same driver has operated on me all the way down to trying to remake (or give an equivalent of) those things, and the power of those things, in writing. There is a paradox here of course: this extension of self, the joining to the world, that enlarges the self and makes us feel ‘more alive’ and ‘more ourselves’, occurs (most commonly) at the moment it is announcing our separation from the rest of life. We cannot fly or grow leaves but having that pointed out to us takes place most often when we are watching birds or botanising. The separation is declared at the very moment we reach furthest across the gap.
LT: Is this something you’ve been aware of in all of your books? There seems less of you in your most recent book, Four Fields, than in your first, The Running Sky. Does Four Fields have a different purpose or approach? (I haven’t read The Endemic Birds of Madagascar to compare it.)
TD: The Running Sky was about the air in this way – a place we cannot go to as birds can. Four Fields was about the earth – the place of common origin and destination. My next book will be about time – the Spring, nature’s and Earth’s that comes around, ours that doesn’t. The Endemic Birds was just a list of dead birds and dead words.
LT: So would you say the books are all different aspects of the same perspective?
TD: In some ways they must be. They are all about our fall, our separation from the run of life and how our knowing this marks the barrier between us and Thoreau’s hard matter. Human history is a story of severance. We are cut off from the world. And in our mastery and ruination of it even more. The cave paintings say this, J.A. Baker says it, the Proceedings of the Royal Society do too. There is no document of civilisation that is not also a document of loss. We have been making elegies for ourselves as long as we have known ourselves as ourselves.
LT: You’ve mentioned Thoreau’s ‘hard matter’ previously, and seem to parallel him with your desire to ‘take part in existence’. Several contemporary nature writers talk about the restorative power of this taking part. I wonder whether you could give a hint how far you follow Thoreau, and whether you consider your writing to have a spiritual purpose?
TD: When I hear the word spiritual I reach for my gun. Or rather my wife’s. She is South African and studied sociable weavers for her PhD in a shifty place. The gun was to defend herself if need be, to shoot the snakes that were eating her experimental subjects, and (when required) to shoot those birds as well for laboratory investigations. All these actions seem to me as eligible versions of ‘nature writing’ as anything else made out of the living not-us. They are secondary marks made on the surface of the earth. The commentary that we live by.
I don’t feel that nature observation is necessarily restorative: that implies there is something to be restored to and I think we lost that possibility in evolutionary time when we stepped away from the wild flux of life into consciousness. Everything since then has been about the gap between us and all the rest. It is this I keep banging on about. I like books like David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous and I like the idea of our species negotiating our relationship with others as, to steal Jerome Rothenberg’s phrase, technicians of the sacred. But we are far away from the continuities celebrated or adumbrated in those books and terms. Thoreau was a great writer, but his cabin and the words he made from his stays there (we remember he didn’t need to live like that, we remember he was the heir to a fortune made from a factory making pencils) were thoroughly modern, a lifestyle choice that might have featured in Country Life magazine as much as in Resurgence or Earthlines. He is great because his writing knows this and captures the awkwardness attendant upon that knowledge.
God is long gone where we live. Pantheism would be silly. My writing is about this and about what remains.
LT: You say ‘My writing is about this’, but it’s that ‘this’ I’m trying to get clear. You seem to be saying your writing is about the loss of something which, as a species, we never had and cannot have. The fall from something which, as a species, we were never balanced upon. So what does remain? Is your writing a literary licking of honey as the branch beneath us breaks?
TD: What remains are the animals, plants and landscapes that we write about. We have mostly destroyed them. But we have brought them into meaning by doing so. To turn back is no easier than to go on. The old is dying and the new cannot yet be born (may never be able to be born). In the gap is a space filled with morbid symptoms. This is Gramsci on politics but I find it helpful for thinking about agriculture, forestry, mining, human-created climate change, species loss. It is the writer’s job to notice these and to bring the subject freshly (the fresh hell) to our attention. What we have made nature be and what nature is are not the same. Nature’s writing is not nature writing. See Aldo Leopold on the yellowlegs walking a poem. I am interested in, and sustained by, the multifarious ways we have spoken to nature and have thought that nature speaks to us. It is an ever-renewing golden bough in that way, even though it is, as you suggest, breaking beneath our weight. Drawing attention to this has kept me going for the last ten years. Knowing it or feeling it has kept me going for fifty. I like honey but I try not to lick it too obviously in public. I also know the life-cycle of the honeyguide. The bird’s farming skill, another way of entering the earth, was the kick starter for a chapter of Four Fields. It is good to see other ways of living. And dying.
LT: The honeyguide section is one of my favourite parts of Four Fields. That was in Zambia, and your other foreign fields are equally spectacular – a field in Chernobyl, another at the site of Custer’s Last Stand. But running through them is this pulse of the familiar fens, to which you return, your first field and your final one. Can you say something about your intimacy with this place, and how that is different from the other sites?
TD: I’ve known three of the four fields in my book more than once, at more than one season, in more than one mood. I only went to Chernobyl for a single visit – for a week – but I brought to that chapter something of my experiences in, and understanding of, the fields and steppe along the edge of Europe, where the west meets the east in our minds if not in the soil. I walked and birdwatched those fields, in Hungary, Crimea, and further north in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, over twenty years of travels. I can only write about a place that I have known for a while and crucially, it seems, have known for purposes other than prose. Too many writers among us these days are turning every walk they go on into words. It was important for me to have been in those places at a time when I wasn’t thinking of making a book out of them. Purposeless sojourning. The humus of memory. These experiences accrue value. So the fens, yes, I have known for ages and I have lived with them in all sorts of ways. But they are not a home landscape, though I do now live on their edge, and indeed their continuing unhomelyness is the best engine in my book. Their restless, unlovely, unsurrendered acres repeatedly hammered to within an inch of their lives got me going somehow. They made me think about what farming means to me imaginatively. That is where that book resides. The turning of the soil in our minds.
LT: The paperback of Four Fields is out soon, I believe, and you say you’re working on a book about ‘time’. How far along is that?
TD: Slow I’d have to say. I want to write about the spring and about passages and migrations and to move through a few seasons in step with them, whilst thinking about ways we are not and cannot be. It is just possible to walk with spring – it moves up the northern latitudes at about human walking pace, so that you should be able to hike a breaking green wave from North Africa to the Arctic Circle between midwinter and midsummer and be, in effect, in or at the same season each day. This is almost too delicious an idea to contemplate. So, I have found various reasons not to begin this properly. One was that a trip I had planned to the Sahara in Northern Sudan had to be abandoned. Human traffic there has become dangerous, putting me in mind of – but not able to witness – the struggles of birds, our summer visitors, as they cross the sand. Something will happen soon enough. I am interested in human exits out of Africa too. Toumani and Sidiki Diabate (father and son) have a marvellous double kora tune called Lampedusa which touches on this and which I am listening to right now. I think the great exchange of sunlight that the tilting globe allows the world each year is my favourite thing. And the fact that we as individuals are allowed only one go at spring – would you agree? – makes it all the more poignant. Then there is the further fact that we have – having burned our own springs – found, in what seems like the late middle age of our species, a way to so mess with the planet that we can screw up its own seasons. There are things to try to say, I hope. And I hope I’ll get round to them.
LT: A final question, if you don’t mind. I loved the book you edited with Simon Armitage, The Poetry of Birds. It’s a real rattlebag of material, with centuries-worth of poetry arranged by species. So you might find Ivor Gurney and Sylvia Plath side-by-side, John Ashbery and Emily Dickinson, or Edward Lear and Michael Longley. But there’s a question posed in your foreword: who was the first nature poet to use binoculars?
TD: I think, but I cannot prove it of course, that it was Edward Thomas. Isn’t there a photo somewhere of him with a pair slung around his neck? Or am I making that up? Military technology certainly helped out (even my first pair in the late 60s were ex-army) and I wonder if he wouldn’t have been issued with a pair of spotting glasses or somesuch. As far as binoculars actually changing what was written, the impact of field magnification on perception, I think we have to wait a few decades after Thomas (there again, bird poetry went into a embarrassed hiatus between World War One and the 1960s anyway). Ted Hughes is the most obvious reveller in the optical close up. His thrushes, I am sure, wouldn’t have looked so menacing without a pair of bins bigging up the drama.
Tim Dee is the author of Four Fields (Jonathan Cape). He also wrote The Running Sky a memoir of his life as a birdwatcher and is the co-editor (with Simon Armitage) of The Poetry of Birds. He has worked as a BBC radio producer for twenty-five years. He is at work on a book about the Spring.
Bristol-born artist Greg Poole studied zoology at Cardiff and has been a friend of Tim Dee’s since their schooldays. Greg has a solo exhibition at Muchelney Pottery from early September 2014. www.gregpoole.co.uk