Drawing on the natural world

Writer Ruth Padel, who opens West Cork Literary Festival this summer, is a direct descendent of Charles Darwin and is greatly inspired by science, she tells Carl Dixon

Ruth Padel

THE West Cork Literary Festival is one of the biggest events of the year for book-lovers in Ireland. The festival will be opened at Bantry Library on Sunday, Jul 7, by award-winning writer Ruth Padel, who presents the BBC Radio 4 programme Poetry Workshop and whose work as a poet draws heavily on the natural world for inspiration. Padel will read from her new poem, ‘The Mill Wheel at Bantry.’

Padel has spent a lot of time in Ireland over the last 20 years. Having started her career as a classical Greek scholar at Oxford, she has also maintained a lifelong relationship with Greece. She has seen at first hand the human damage caused by the current financial crisis. “The genesis of the poem was a workshop I did in Bantry last year,” she recalls. “I asked the participants to wander around the town as an exercise. The key to this task is to allow yourself to become reflective and open and to let yourself be drawn to something that feels important or has some personal significance.

“The wheel by Bantry Library is such a very striking feature within the town and for me it brought up the concept of the wheel of fortune and how people are being forced to leave to find work as they have so often in the past. I was also very taken by the big boarded up shop, which I refer to in the poem as the House of Elegance. It used to bustle with activity but is now silent and empty. The harbour at Bantry struck me, as many places in Greece have also, as one of those places where many traumatic partings have taken place.”

At the opening reception, Padel will present the JG Farrell Fiction Award, in memory of this brilliant author who drowned at Durrus in August 1979. “I knew Jim in London before he moved to Ireland and I moved to Greece,” says Padel. “He was a very funny, very imaginative man. He asked me to cycle to India with him once. I declined, although now I wish I had said yes and I suppose there are elements of regret within the poem and a sense of connection to this place through him.”

Migration in the human and natural world is the theme of Padel’s latest work, The Mara Crossing. This is a work of prose and poetry that begins with the “soap opera” of cells which split, migrate and replicate, moves through the world of humpback whales and barnacles and onto the our own history of exploration. “Of course, it must have been terrifying for those first explorers to load up a boat or a backpack with provisions and head over the horizon without knowing what awaited them,” she says. “But migration is essentially a natural process. If you are the son of a dominant tiger, for example, you may need to move to a new territory to find food and mates. By this process, tigers have moved from their original home in Northern China to much of Asia.”

Padel’s work draws heavily on her interest in natural history; she is a council member of the Zoological Society of London and a great-great-grandchild of Charles Darwin, of whom she has written in Darwin — A Life in Poems, published in 2009.

“My family were inherently fascinated by the natural world, whether it was observing birds or seeing what lived on the underside of a leaf,” Padel says. “I also read a lot of books like Tarka the Otter as a child. Observing nature for me has always been intertwined with the use of language. It seemed to me that the act of imagining the life of an animal and the act of creating a poem were not dissimilar. I was particularly struck by this when I walked in a tiger forest for the first time for my book, Tigers in Red Weather. I didn’t see a tiger. You rarely do, in fact; they will see you 20 times before you see them once, but every element of a tiger forest, from a leaf to a kingfisher, is related to and defined by the tiger’s presence. Writing poetry is similar in that you may not see the entire meaning, but every word is related to it.”

Her works combine poetic imagery with scientific language and concepts; disparate elements that often don’t marry very well. “I actually find scientific language exciting,” she says. “Scientists use words to convey precise meanings and as a poet you are always looking of new words to convey an image. I wrote a novel, Where The Serpent Lives, about zoologists who were studying king cobras, and the words used to describe what snake venom does to human flesh can be extremely evocative and poetic.”

Padel remains a committed conservationist. “There is a lot of interest at the moment in eco-psychology, which suggests that a person’s sense of mental and physical well being is intimately linked with the health of the natural world that surrounds them,” she says.

“It is something I believe. Perhaps as a species we will fail to manage our own destructive impulses, but each individual has a choice to do something or do nothing.

“For me doing nothing is not an acceptable option.”

MILL WHEEL AT BANTRY

(in memory JG Farrell)

This twelve-foot torque is the iron ghost of an ancient wheel, turning riveted slats back and up. Now stuck, now moving again scattering jewels through bright air from a twist-stream bucketing over slimed rock by the Library, combing tangled grass to emerald hair.

This gash at the top of town, with its whiff of Hades, is where we catch our glimpse of what’s below. From here on down, we join the hectic flow to the ordinary: tarmac, the Spar and chip-shops, the cafés and whispering silver-and-isinglass mud of Bantry Bay. But churning or still, fortune’s wheel

sets the pace. And this wet rock, grey as a sea-lion taking a dive to the dark, plus this pour-down of spark-froth entering town by way of the burying ground, run under it all: under Vickery’s and the famine graves, under the boarded-up House of Elegance, the fire station and two-room museum

offering memorabilia of martyrs, butter-making, caring for sheep; photos of where we are as it used to be; reports of sea-wrecks and sea-rescue; the resin replica of a cross descrying the quest of St Brendan for Isles of the Blest. There’s been so much I haven’t attended to. So much I didn’t see.

— Ruth Padel

Festival highlights in Bantry

The West Cork Literary Festival will open on Sunday, Jul 7. That evening, the programme will feature the Egyptian novelist and political commentator Ahdef Soueif in conversation with festival director Denyse Woods at the Maritime Hotel, Bantry; The Freedom Poetry Show, presented by Dropping the Act at Ma Murphy’s Pub; and an open mic session with Paul O’Donoghue, again at the Maritime Hotel.

The programme on Monday will include a reading by West Cork musician and artist Kristin Gleeson of her debut novel Selkie Dreams at Bantry Bookshop, and a reading by British author Kate Mosse of her novel Citadel at Bantry Library.

On Monday evening, Philip Hensher, author of The Missing Ink, will further his campaign to rescue handwriting from oblivion with the launch of the Letter Café at Organico. And at the Maritime Hotel, Mary and Bryan Talbot will discuss their Costa Biography Award-winning Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes.

On Tuesday, Tina Pisco will read from her novel Her Kind at Bantry Bookshop, and Michael Harding will read from his memoir, Staring at Lakes at Bantry Library; Niamh Sharkey will conduct a Monster Doodle event for children at St Brendan’s School Hall; and Irish Examiner contributor Sue Leonard will present An Evening with Anne Enright at the Maritime Hotel.

The programme on Wednesday will include Lane Ashfeldt reading from her short fiction collection, Saltwater, at Bantry Bookshop, and Peter Murphy reading from his new novel, Shall We Gather at the River, at Bantry Library.

Bestselling children’s author Darren Shan will unveil his new Zom-B Series at the Maritime Hotel; Deborah Levy will read from her short story collection, Black Vodka, at Bantry Library; and Ruth Padel will introduce the acclaimed African author Nuruddin Farah at the Maritime Hotel. The Maritime Hotel will also be the setting for the launch, by author Peter Benson, of the 2013 Fish Anthology.

On Thursday, Jamie O’Connell will read from his debut collection of short stories, Some Kind of Beauty, at Bantry Bookshop, and theatre director and filmmaker Gerry Stembridge will read from his new novel, The Effect of Her, at Bantry Library.

Later that evening, Carol Drinkwater will introduce the veteran British broadcaster and author Melvyn Bragg at the Maritime Hotel, where he will discuss his novel, Grace and Mary.

Friday’s events include Writer Idol at the Maritime Hotel, at which Jonathan Williams, Kate Thompson, Francesca Main and Louise Doughty will appraise anonymous literary submissions. On Friday evening, also at the Maritime Hotel, the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, will discuss her autobiography, Everybody Matters, with Alison O’Connor.

The festival winds down on Saturday, Jul 13, when there will be a Special Island Event, featuring James Harpur, Billy O’Callaghan and adventurer and travel writer Tim Severin, on Whiddy Island. That evening, Liam Carson will curate the IMRAM — Irish Language Event, featuring the poet Gearóid Mac Lochlann, backed by guitarist Mark Braidner, and Louis de Paor, backed by piper Ronan Browne.

- West Cork Literary Festival, Jul 7-13. For more visit: www.westcorkmusic.ie/literaryfestival



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