Interview in The Scotsman Magazine, February 2010


Interview by Chitra Ramaswamy

What do we know about Ruth Padel? Well, she’s a major poet, academic, broadcaster, and the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin. She is an expert on rock music and Greek myth. She has taught horse-riding in Berlin and gone searching for tigers in the ice winds of Tibet and the shrinking jungles of India.

She has excavated Minoan tombs in Crete and taught opera at Princeton. She has been described as “the sexiest voice in British poetry”. Oh, and she has been known to exercise that voice in Istanbul nightclubs.

It’s a life well lived but unfortunately for Padel, none of this is what she is most recognised for these days. “The poet in that Oxford smear scandal,” one person muses when I mention I’m going to interview her. “The poor woman who sent those e-mails,” another offers. It’s going to take a while yet for people – Padel included, I soon discover – to move on from last year’s singularly British scandal. Yes, the one featuring a fellow poet (Derek Walcott), a university (Oxford), a sexual harassment claim (alleged), and a smear campaign (anonymous, well sort of).

On paper, Padel seems the kind who is up for the fight. After all, she has agreed to meet me, a journalist, just months after being pilloried in the press. “It was like I’d gone out of the house to buy a pint of milk and found myself in a blizzard on a mountaintop,” is how she describes the whole sorry affair to me. And the picture that emerges from her CV is of a gung-ho animal-whispering eco-warrior, a music-loving wild woman who isn’t afraid to look a tiger in the eye, pluck leeches from her knickers, or indeed square up to a rival poet in a university election. Chrissie Hynde meets Ray Mears, perhaps. She is also about to publish her first novel, Where the Serpent Lives, which treks from the London of the 7/7 bombings to the snake-infested forests of South India. Survival of the fittest is a phrase that comes to mind and yet the shoe doesn’t quite fit. We meet at the grand offices of her publishers in Blackfriars, London. Padel, neatly turned out in a tailored green jacket and red-rimmed specs, is instantly different to how I imagined. More fragile-looking, birdlike, and very thin. She also comes across as younger than her years, girlish even. She looks too nervy to go wandering into the jungle or send smear e-mails to journalists. I can’t picture her saying boo to a goose.

“As a child I was shy and was always surprised when things went right,” she says later. She speaks very quietly, an unusual quality in a university lecturer. “I was surprised to get a scholarship to Oxford. I was surprised to get a first. I was surprised so many people wanted me for the Oxford (poetry professorship]. I was really touched. Then I was surprised to be elected and then of course I was surprised by all the other stuff that happened.”

She gets more and more quiet until she is almost whispering. “You know, it wasn’t my idea to stand. I’m not very good at feeling proud of my achievements. My publisher keeps saying: ‘You should be proud of this novel, it’s wonderful.’ I suppose I am. But there is something in me that feels it’s wicked to be proud of yourself.”

Before we head next door to a hotel bar for tea and croissants, Padel shows me a bronze statue of the Hindu deity Shiva in the lobby. He features in her novel, a rich stew of wildlife, myth, sex and science, and she’s tickled by the coincidence. Padel fell in love with India when she was researching Tigers in Red Weather, her acclaimed travel memoir that drew on her Darwinian descent, and has returned to the jungle ever since. It’s where she is the happiest.

“When I first went into tiger forest I did suddenly feel that was where I wanted to be,” she explains. At the time Padel had just ended a relationship, and the tiger – the strong, silent predator who eats, travels and survives alone – became a symbol of her quest to be on her own again. In the process of falling out of love, she fell for the jungle. She is single now, living in north London with lodgers. Her daughter “who comes and goes” is currently working in human rights in Colombia. “It was a feeling this was what I wanted to write about. And my mother, my grandmother, and of course Darwin were naturalists. I grew up with the idea that nature ought to be an object of my attention. My mother was always pointing out the peregrine falcon coming to the garden or the little deer.”

it took Padel five years and five drafts to write Where the Serpent Lives. It’s the story of a woman, Rosamund, living in the shadow of her renowned scientist father (she says she wasn’t aware of the Darwin comparison, which struck me immediately), her destructive marriage to a serial philanderer, and her journey towards reclaiming her life. And yes, this involves a jungle quest, in Rosamund’s case to seek out poisonous snakes. “I’m as scared of snakes as anybody,” Padel laughs. “But I did go snake-catching with a tribe in Karnataka and south of Chennai. I got the Darwin Now award from the British Council to do research and went to the Agumbe rainforest research station, which is the only king cobra reserve. I was terrified. You have to go out at night with torches because that’s when the cobras and kraits are active. Before we went out, they asked me what my blood group was. I thought, oh God.”

Padel has always taken a long time to think things through, to commit experience to poetry. Although she penned her first poem at the age of three – “I suspect it was about dogs or flowers” – she didn’t get published until her forties, not long after she had her daughter. Before Padel’s career as a poet took off, she taught ancient and modern Greek at Oxford and Cambridge. Writing about her great-great-grandfather took even longer. It was only last year that she published her biography of Darwin in lyrical poems. And it’s only now that she has written a novel. Why does she sit on things for so long?
“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” she says. “I suppose what stopped me for 20 years was classics.” She pauses and then the admission comes. “I suppose I didn’t have the confidence when I was in the academic milieu.” I tell her I wondered whether it has taken her a long time to become herself. “I think you’re absolutely right,” she says quietly. “I just hadn’t put it to myself that way.”

Last year, for nine days, Padel was the first woman to be elected as Oxford Professor of Poetry in the post’s 300-year history. It should have been a thrilling moment, coming in the same year as Carol Ann Duffy’s appointment as the first female Poet Laureate. But it all went catastrophically wrong. In a nutshell, Padel and Derek Walcott were the frontrunners in the election. But a smear campaign, in which letters were sent to Oxford academics with details of sexual harassment claims made against Walcott, led him to pull out of the race. Then things got really messy. It came to light that Padel had sent two e-mails to two journalists tipping them off to the claims. To this day she maintains she had nothing to do with the anonymous letters. All the same she felt she couldn’t stay.

Did she feel betrayed by her supporters, Melvyn Bragg and AC Grayling among them, who turned against her? “You do discover who your friends are,” she says. “The people whose opinions I really, really respect made their own minds up.”

“It all goes back to the anonymous dossiers,” she continues. “Anything anonymous is horrible. It makes you paranoid. Some of the nights I spent lying awake I even wondered if it was aimed at me from the start. Was I set up?” She sighs and then toughens up. “I’m sure that’s not true. You have to walk away from it. The chapter will be properly closed when they elect a new professor.”

It was a nasty affair and no-one came away without egg on their face, neither Padel, Walcott, nor journalism. “All that I did – and I really, really regret it – was send two e-mails to two journalists,” she says. “After Walcott announced he was standing people began to talk to me about being quite shocked that someone with a sexual harassment record history in universities was being considered for the post. I had some sympathy with that view. I mean I do think sexual harassment is wrong and you have a duty of care to your students. But it wasn’t for me to say so. I was torn. I’m not in the business of undermining other writers.”

Today Padel refers to her decision to send those e-mails as “a moment of lunacy”. But in the end the only person she hurt was herself. “Since the journalists didn’t act on those e-mails the only person they harmed was me,” she says, then quickly adds, “but that doesn’t change the fact that I shouldn’t have sent them.”

Has she written about the experience? Her life has always been reflected in her poetry, from the three collections that charted the rise and fall of a turbulent relationship, to her voluptuous verse that luxuriates in Darwin and Darth Vader, sex and science. “It was such a big thing, and so complicated,” she says. “It was a kind of hieroglyph of what society thinks about so many things – women, men, teaching, universities, the media. If I started to write a poem about it … You know, I think I will address it. I might even do it in a novel if this one takes off.”

Padel strikes me as being very concerned about what others think of her, which isn’t really a surprising consequence of what’s happened. She evidently reads everything that is written about her, from book reviews to character assessments. Indeed she quotes phrases to me. But she is also warm, patient and surprisingly candid, almost to the point of naivety, which is perhaps what got her in trouble in the first place. There is something childlike about Padel, from her enthusiasm and sense of wonder – which she says she got from Darwin – to her tinkly laugh and insistence that she “wouldn’t do anything bad”.
The conversation turns to Darwin. Padel was aware of her ancestry early. Her grandmother, Nora Barlow, edited several of Darwin’s books as well as his autobiography. “She was the first Darwin scholar and I loved her house. She stood for anti-humbug in my family.” It took Padel years, though, to embrace the link to her great ancestor. “At school I hated biology. Frogs’ legs weren’t for me and I couldn’t work a Bunsen burner. Then we had to write an essay about a scientist and I chose Darwin and said at the end that he was my great-great-grandfather. My teacher made me read it out in class. I left out that last sentence.”

Years later Padel was working on her PhD on Greek tragedy in Cambridge when it dawned on her that she would write about him one day. “I was looking after my grandmother,” she recalls with a smile. “She lived until she was 104 and at this point she was in her nineties and had lost her short-term memory. But she was still very bright, could beat everyone at the Times crossword.” That night Nora told Padel about the loving relationship between Darwin and his wife, Emma, and how difficult she found his loss of faith. “It pained Emma and it pained him to know it. I thought I’d love to write about that but I didn’t know how.”
It wasn’t until Padel entered the jungle years later that she felt able to do so. “We were kayaking in Laos for three days. I was petrified, I’m not a water person. So we’re going down the river and I’m looking at these forests emptied of animals and I realised that 170 years earlier Darwin had been looking at similar forests on another continent. He was learning how species came to be. I was learning how they came to be extinct. There was a horrible symmetry to it.” Not long after, she started writing poems imagining Darwin’s childhood and then just kept on going until the end of his life. Today she is at her most passionate talking about nature, whether tiger poaching for medicine or the representation of snakes in Greek mythology. Even her novel, she tells me, was written partly to remind people about the importance of conservation.

This summer Padel is going to work with children in the Highlands on a wildlife conservation project. “I feel such a connection with Scotland for all sorts of reasons,” she says. “Darwin hated doing medicine in Edinburgh but the city was really important to him. He used to go out with oyster fisherman in the Firth of Forth to catch marine specimens. He wrote his first scientific paper there at the age of 17. And my father is descended from the Scottish anatomist William Hunter; his mother came from Bute. She danced the sword dance in front of Queen Victoria.”

It seems to be animals, rather than people, who have become her big love.
“But the animals are a way of understanding people,” she insists. “There is so much unawareness. At the deepest level, not being aware of animals, whether that be a snake in the grass or a fox in the garden, is about not being aware of other people.” And if she hadn’t journeyed into the heart of darkness herself? “It was a turning point,” she says. “It released me to write about what I wanted. I don’t know. Maybe it gave me confidence.”

Where the Serpent Lives by Ruth Padel is published by Little, Brown, priced £12.99

This article was first published in The Scotsman Magazine on 06 February 2010