The Preface – For Grownups
Of course, I don’t know if you are like me - but if you are, even a little bit, then maybe through lockdown you realised you and your children or grandchildren wanted just a tad more than the usual, rather formulaic children’s books about how “Kevin and his kangaroo, Kenny, saved the World” or “When my naughty cousin fell in a pool of sludge”. Please don’t get me wrong, these types of books are great! But, sometimes it’s good to have a change. This book came about quite by chance and was never intended to be published; in fact, it was never intended to be written.
The book is a collection of thirteen intimate letters, as if from an uncle or godfather, for the entire family to read and enjoy together. Each is connected to the others and draws the reader and listeners into the natural world, sometimes in our homes or just beyond the front door, no matter where we live. The letters were originally sent to the three children of a family living in south London, starting, quite by accident, just before the coronavirus pandemic took hold. Month by month, the letters snaked through the year and distracted the young family, aged three to nine, from the drudgery of lockdown.
Nature’s seasonal regeneration serves as a jumping-off point for the stories, loosely synchronised to the seasons throughout the year, and often, but not always, referring to animal activity in the children’s own typical London townhouse garden and local park - in fact, one just like yours. Every animal mentioned, except for Edward of course, can now be seen, in “the wild”, within forty-five miles of the centre of London and other big cities or towns.
The intimacy of writing these letters, across both the geographical and generational divide, dovetails with the connection we have with the natural world and emotional experiences we all share. Through past and present adventures and discovery, the stories set out to balance fun, friendship, freedom, excitement and amusing annoyance with loss and sorrow, childhood fears and the ever-changing environment. The book also marks a time of hope as beavers and otters return to our rivers, ravens and white-tailed eagles revisit our skies and salmon migrate, once more, up many of our rivers; sometimes even through or over our towns.
Every story is based on factual events, with a dusting of imagination, and each is accompanied by illustrations, quizzes, surprising “Fun True or False” sections, and family activities for discovering nature in our back yards. There is a map to show where the stories took place, along with access details to the sites where applicable.
To find out why I wrote the first letter you’ll have to buy or borrow the book. But, I will say this; the initial letter was an apology ... an act of sheer cowardice.
Now, before you either read on or put this book back on the shelf, I’d like to share with you a tiny but profound experience from my life’s index that illustrates just how nature and a little piece of storytelling can bring the generations together. It shouldn’t take you long, the story is free, and I’m sure the bookseller won’t mind.
‘A hidden world in plain sight.’
Many years ago, I was home from work unusually early for my eldest son’s sixth birthday party. It was a sunny day in late May, and the celebrations were being held in the small back garden of our three-up, two-down. A little gazebo had been erected and it was festooned with bunting and balloons. There were opened presents aplenty, and wrapping paper lay discarded on the untidy but well-used little lawn. The party table was covered with a brightly coloured tablecloth and decorated with recently spilt orange squash; randomly discarded paper plates; crumpled napkins and partially eaten Birthday cake and sandwiches; all of which was now abandoned for games such as “hide and seek” and “pin the donkey’s tail”.
As most of the children rushed around the lawn, I noticed one of the boys was lying alone, on his tummy, in a far corner of the garden. He was peering into a patch of slightly longer, unkempt grass. By himself, but quite happy, he’d found something of interest deep within the greenery. I wandered over, unsure if I should interrupt, and knelt down nearby. He seemed to be talking to the grass, but, once he noticed my presence the boy invited me to meet his new friend: a shimmering gold and black ground beetle. I was introduced to the creature, along with a very still woodlouse and several energetic ants. Over the following minutes, he told me the story of their friendship and how the woodlouse had got lost on his way home and was being teased by the ants. He described in detail how he and his friend the beetle had come to the woodlouse’s aid. I was encouraged to join in with the occasional observation.
At that moment, I felt a deeply serene and perfect connection between the boy, the gathering of wildlife, and me; all of this amongst the hubbub and mayhem of the party going on around us. I felt truly privileged to have been invited into his secret world.
Without notice, he turned his head towards me, looked quizzically into my eyes, smiled, then jumped up and ran over to his friends to rejoin the party, without another word being spoken.
All that needed to be said had been said.
I gazed back towards the beetle, who looked equally surprised at the boy’s departure before he too scampered off, leaving me, a grown man, lying by myself face down on the grass with only the long-dead remains of the woodlouse for company. Even the ants had deserted me as I peered into the foliage once more.
It was only then, I realised a gaggle of mother-helpers was staring at me, mouths open, from the other side of the garden as Bridget, my long-suffering wife, returned from the kitchen with a tray of biscuits, six cups and a pot of Earl Grey. Much to her consternation and somewhat perplexed, she surveyed the situation of me sprawled on the lawn, alone, and still in my work suit and tie. Then, she tilted her head to the left as if musing over a modern sculpture, gave out a long and exasperated sigh - befitting of Sybil Fawlty - and without seeking an explanation, turned away to the gaggle of mums.
“Oh dear…Anyone for Tea?”