Best-selling author Simon Barnes on life in Norfolk
08:00 18 October 2014
His books on birds, nature and sport have been read by millions - and taken him all over the world. But the place best-selling author Simon Barnes calls home is in Norfolk. David Powles caught up with him ahead of his latest release - and a very special surprise for EDP readers.
He’s walked with lions and night-stalked leopards in Africa, patted a grey whale in California and watched a flight of ten million fruit bats in Zambia.
In sport he’s witnessed World Cups, Wimbledons and world records in Olympic Games, including that famous Super Saturday during London 2012.
Yet, ask writer Simon Barnes for his perfect place and the answer comes instantly and without doubt.
“It’s home with the family, surrounded by love.”
Born in Bristol in 1951, but grew up in London, where his father was an actor.
Studied English at Bristol University before getting a job on a local newspaper in south London.
Also worked on the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, before spending four years doing Gonzo journalism around Asia.
First wrote for The Times in 1982, before leaving the paper in July 2014. Primarily wrote about sport and nature and has covered seven summer Olympic Games.
Wrote his first book in 1986 and puts his current total at 21 ½. Best-selling titles include Horsesweat and Tears and How To Be A Bad Birdwatcher.
A council member of the Halesworth-based World Land Trust, which buys land for wildlife conservation on behalf of cash-strapped organisations in the developing world and a patron of Save the Rhino and honorary vice-president of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.
Has been married to Cindy since 1983, they have two sons; Joseph and Edmund.
And a trip out of the city to meet the 63-year-old at that home soon makes it clear why.
Nestled in the Chet Valley down several windy roads off the A140 at Loddon is the picturesque farmhouse where the writer and his family have spent the last two years.
It’s here where the author of some 21 books composes and records his thoughts in a draughty shed at the bottom of the garden.
Should he need inspiration, that’s easy to find, for in front of that pokey little shed is the family’s very own marshland, complete with tracks and trails which often offer sightings of otter, deer, kingfishers and more.
After living in Suffolk for 14 years, the writer and his family chose to cross the border and move into a farmhouse in Norfolk around two years ago - a decision he hasn’t come to regret.
He explained: “It was time to move. We were staying in a big Tudor house and just felt it would be nice to be warm in winter and not have to spend all our money trying to stop our house from falling down.
“The idea was to move quite close, but we found this farmhouse and thought it was fantastic - with a lovely view.
“All my friends said ‘you’re going over to the dark side’ I told them ‘no, we’re becoming more profoundly East Anglian’.
“It’s that little bit further away from the ties of London. There is a lovely change of pace.
“We have a house that’s warm in the winter, a fantastic flood plain view with this bit of marsh and when we need to go into town, we simply head to Norwich.”
And of course, when much of your line of work focuses on the natural world, it helps to be in such a place.
“The wildlife is pretty fabulous and there’s actually a lot of nature writers who live here. North Norfolk is a favourite and Cley is wonderful,” he added.
“I’m mad about Hickling Broad - and mad about cranes in this county. To have them flying over is a real privilege.”
Mr Barnes will further ingrain himself in Norfolk life after agreeing to write a fortnightly column for the Eastern Daily Press, which will start next Tuesday.
He said: “Coming to Norfolk has been a great adventure for me, what better next step than writing for the EDP.”
We’re here to discuss, among other things, his latest release ‘Ten Million Aliens’, perhaps his most expansive book to date.
The book promises ‘a journey through the entire animal kingdom’ and that journey takes in all manner of life form, from tiny little creatures known as ‘water bears’, to blue whales, to human beings themselves.
He explained where the idea came from: “I was going to write about insects and call it ‘Six Legs Good’, but then I thought to myself ‘it’s not enough, it’s not the whole story’.
“Then I thought I’d do a book about invertebrate life - I was going to call that ‘Spineless’.
“But it’s not as if we’re separate and there are two kinds of animals. What’s interesting is how we are all joined. It’s the continuity between us and the earthworm - the fact that we are all animals – we are all in it together. That’s the premise for the book.”
A weighty subject indeed, but the mark of any good writer is to be able to take a complex subject - and make it accessible.
It’s something he’s done throughout his career and the latest release is also aimed at the everyman.
He added: “I wrote a book called ‘How To Be a Bad Birdwatcher’ which is about how to enjoy birds without having ever done so before.
You can’t be an expert at everything but you can still enjoy discovering it.
“I want people to read this book and have their minds expanded and think ‘I never thought life was that complicated, that beautiful, that ugly, that extraordinary, that overwhelming’.”
The book took him all over the world, as he strived to provide as ‘vivid and meaningful’ descriptions as possible of the creatures he discusses, aided by first-hand experience.
With such a passion for the natural world, being away from home is not a hard cross to bear, though it does come with its perils, as he recalled: “In Africa I walked in on a really rather angry lion. I was unarmed and at that point doing all the things you are not supposed to do.
“Fortunately, then I did exactly the right thing. You might think you’d run like hell, but you don’t. You simply lock.
“He looked at me, I looked at him and I’m just fortunate he wasn’t hungry. If I had run that would have triggered a chase reflex like throwing a ball of wool to a cat.
“But I didn’t, my body wouldn’t let me. It was a response older than human language, that came from the time when our human ancestors first walked upright.
“Survival instinct. If you see a lion, don’t move, stand bloody well still. There I was absolutely locked - and off he went.”
Not that standing still is something the father-of-two is used to doing. Considering he says he took up writing because ‘he couldn’t do anything else’, he’s made great success of it.
His best-selling books and novels, including ‘How To Be Wild’, ‘Horsesweat and Tears’ and ‘The Meaning of Sport’, were written while also chief sports writer for The Times, a job he left (rather controversially as far as his fans were concerned), earlier this year.
It was the day job that allowed him to indulge in his other passion in life - sport.
He said: “It’s always something I’ve watched and loved. My 15th birthday was 1966 and I can still see the goal now that Bobby Charlton scored against Mexico. The first goal England scored in that World Cup campaign.
“I had no notion you could score a goal from 30 yards - but he did that. A classic netbuster - and you just think ‘my God this is wonderful’.
“Sport is the most wonderful way of writing and learning about humans - much better than, say politics or business, because those people are always covering up.
In competition it’s stark naked there in front of you for all to see - you can’t cover up.”
These chief passions already form the basis for his next two planned books - one about Africa’s Serengeti (a place he calls Eden) and the other provisionally called ‘My Life as a Sporting Hero’.
But before then there’s some serious bird watching to be done across the plains of Norfolk.
• SIMON ON ... TEN MILLION ALIENS
“I had to think whether I should start at the top with humans and work down or vice versa. But then life isn’t a ladder, it isn’t going towards trying to create something perfect, it’s about creating lots and lots of things that are trying to live and survive and become ancestors.
“The tapeworm that lives in your gut is just as good at doing that as you or I are.
In order to try and get that concept over I had to write a book that doesn’t have a beginning or an end.
“The only other book that does that is James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which starts in the middle of a sentence and the beginning of that sentence is the end of the book.
“I began right in the middle of the last words of Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’
‘Endless forms, most beautiful and wonderful, have been and are being evolved’.
“At the end you get Darwin saying ‘who would think that across these incalculable eons of time. Who would think from such a beginning.’ That’s the last line of the book.
“I want people to read this book and have their minds expanded and think ‘I never thought life was that complicated, that beautiful, that ugly, that extraordinary, that overwhelming’.
“I discovered this thing called the ‘tardigrades’ - water bears - these tiny microscopic things. They live in moss and you find them in incredible densities. You can boil them, they don’t die. You can freeze them close to absolute zero - they don’t die, you can find them at the Pole or in the Tropics.
“You can radiate them 1,000 more times than a human can stand - and they don’t die.
“You can fire them off into space - and they don’t die.
“It’s something I’ve never heard of but one of the most incredible things.
“Science fiction writers wouldn’t dare come up with something like that - but nature does.”
• SIMON ON... HIS CAREER
“In some ways it was a negative vocation as I couldn’t do anything else. After I left university I started writing and was doing odds and ends for local papers.
“I went to live in Asia and got fired so spent a few years travelling around as a Gonzo journalist. Telling people I can do some work for them - but I don’t need money, I need a plane ticket.
“I suggested to cricketer Phil Edmonds that I’d write a book about him. That went fine and then I came up with another suggestion to do a year in the life of a racing stable - the book was a bit of a skyrocket.
“I’m always most proud of the last one. I’ve done three novels which I enjoyed immensely. Bad Birdwatcher was probably the best - it certainly made me the most money.
“I’m about 45,000 words into my Serengeti book. It’s about special places and the notion we all have a special place where on one hand you are a bit of a trespasser, but on the other hand you are a privileged visitor.
“The animals are a little bit more tame and the birds are a little bit more confiding. it’s just ever so slightly like Eden.
“I’m also going to write a book called ‘My Life as a Sporting Hero’. Playing it, not quite at the same level, and how that influences your understanding and watching of sport.
“The reason we understand about Romeo and Juliet is that we have all loved and lost and one at some point. Sport is also a common experience - that’s why we like it.”
• SIMON ON... HIS ULTIMATE HERO AND SPORTING OCCASION
“It’s really hard to bring out one, but my ultimate experience would be London 2012 - seeing the best sport in the world town where I grew up. The Super Saturday in the stadium there was absolutely the best. I spent every second Jess Ennis was in the stadium, in the stadium writing about her. I was also in Glasgow and it was just a great festival of sport.
“Hard to name a single hero. I saw Usain Bolt run 9.69 in Beijing and perhaps that one moment when he did the fastest boogie in history and danced over the finish line. We were just shouting at the top of our voices.”
• QUICK QUESTIONS
Most important thing: “Family and love”
Norfolk in on sentence: “Rich, diverse, watery and mysterious”.
Best advice ever received: “Don’t think I’ve ever listened to anyone’s advice much”.
Favourite place in Norfolk: “Home”
Greatest sports man or woman: “Dead heat between Usain Bolt and Yelana Isinbayeva (Russian pole vaulter) Greatest sports man or woman ever met: “There’s so many. In terms of achievements, perhaps Michael Johnson.”
What makes you most proud? “The fact I’ve managed to do work and raise money for the World Land Trust, in Halesworth.”