‘In her work, the journey is the stepping stone to lyrical reflections on the human condition.’André Naffis-Sahely
Ruth was born in London, in the attic of her great-aunt’s house in Wimpole Street, and comes from a background mainly of teachers, scientists, scholars and musicians. She has lived in Oxford, Cambridge and for many years off and on in Greece, but now lives again in London.
Through her mother Hilda, whose life, character and love of nature Ruth celebrates in her 2018 collection Emerald, she is one of seventy-two great-great-grandchildren of Charles Darwin. Her father John Padel, born in Carlisle, began as a schoolteacher, teaching Latin and Greek in Preston before he studied medicine in London and became a psychoanalyst. He taught Ruth ancient Greek, and she followed him into studying Classics at Oxford. She wrote a D.Phil. there, on Greek tragedy and ideas of the mind, studying for this on a scholarship at the Freie Universität, Berlin, the Sorbonne in Paris, and The British School of Archaeology at Athens.
From 1975, she worked as a classical scholar teaching ancient Greek at Oxford, Cambridge, Birkbeck College, London, and sometimes in Greece on the island of Kalymnos. She also lived in Crete, writing up her thesis and teaching English.
In 1984, she gave up academic tenure to write full time. She supported her writing by freelance journalism, broadcasting and teaching. From 1998 to 2001 she wrote The Sunday Poem, a weekly column on reading poems for the Independent on Sunday. In 2001 she began wildlife research for Tigers in Red Weather and her first novel Where the Serpent Lives, visiting tiger forests across Asia and the world’s only king cobra reserve, in South India. Since then, she has travelled extensively in India, where she enjoys meeting poetry and conservation colleagues and doing poetry readings (in, for instance Mumbai and at the Jaipur Festival). In 2018, she began a new line of conservation research in Tamil Nadu.
Ruth was First Resident Writer at Somerset House, 2008-9, where she inaugurated and curated a series of Writers’ Talks on paintings in the Courtauld Gallery, beginning with Philip Pullman on Renoir and Colm Tóibín on Cézanne, doing a talk herself on Bruegel’s ‘Flight into Egypt’. As Trustee of the Zoological Society of London, 2010-2013, she initiated and chaired a series of Writers’ Talks on endangered wild animals, pairing well-known writers with keepers, scientists, conservationists and specific wild animals, such as Mark Haddon with the Galapagos tortoise and Andrew Motion with sea horses, and contributing one herself on hummingbirds.
In 2013, she joined King’s College London, where she is Professor of Poetry and curates a series of talks and readings titled Poetry And. To stress poetry’s connection to all areas of life and thought, she invites distinguished experts in other fields to talk on their own work in relation to poetry, alongside poets interested in that subject. Recent speakers include Philippe Sands and Sean O’Brien on Poetry and Europe, Roy Foster on Poetry and History, Thaddeus O’Sullivan and Glyn Maxwell on Poetry and Film, Iain McGilchrist and Michael Symmonds Roberts on Poetry and Neuroscience, and Mona Arshi and Chakramurti on Poetry and Human Rights, Paul Farley and Tim Birkhead on Poetry and Birds Eggs, Helen Mort and Sarah Wheeler on Poetry and Women in the Arctic.
In 2015, Ruth gave the inaugural Miłosz Lecture at the Miłosz Festival, Krakow. The festival organised a team of translators to create The Art of Kintsugi, a Polish-English dual-language selection of Ruth’s poems.
Ruth has one daughter, an anthropologist, and lives in London. Her 2016 collection Tidings – A Christmas Journey is dedicated to the Focus Outreach Street Population team for the homeless, in her home borough of Camden. Her 2018 collection Emerald was written after her mother’s death.
Greece & Crete
Ruth’s life-long relationship with modern Greece, especially Crete, began in 1970 when she studied as a PhD student at the British School of Archaeology at Athens. The archaeologists invited her to work on an excavation of the Royal Road at Knossos, in Crete, where she learned modern Greek from the workmen. Ever since, she has lived on and off in Crete, has many friends there and visits regularly. She learned to sing Cretan songs – one of her tracks on Desert Island Discs in 2009 was a Cretan folksong – and some poems in her first collection Summer Snow (1990) and her collection on the Middle East, Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth (2014), are set in Crete.
Ruth loves giving talks and readings in Crete and Greece, on poetry and also on Darwin: most recently in Heraklion, Rethymnon University, and at the Synagogue of Etz Hayyim in Chania, where she has given poetry workshops.
In 2016, after giving a talk on Darwin in Spetses, she went to Lesbos to visit refugee camps, and suggested to Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj that they collaborate in an installation to highlight the plight of the Syrian refugees and celebrate the support given them by the people of Lesbos. The result, Dark Water Burning World, follows Ruth’s work on migration, The Mara Crossing 2012. It has been performed and curated in The British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge and Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, and is being translated into Italian and Arabic. Her poem ends with words quoted in the British Museum’s show, Living with Gods:
…and their stories our stories
steered by the small
star-light of cell phones
over waves like rings of a tree
rings of the centuries
rocking and spilling
on the windy sea
as if water kept its shape
after the jug has broken
one shining petrified moment
before the shattered pieces fall away