Interview with Cambridge BBC November 2006
RUTH PADEL – multi-talented great-great-granddaughter of Darwin…
Jan Gilbert talks to Ruth Padel
Imagine the pressure; your father taught Greek and became a psychoanalyst, your mother was a botanist, one of your great-great-grandfathers was a concert pianist and the other was Charles Darwin! Jan Gilbert finds out how Ruth Padel lives up to that!
Ruth Padel’s biography makes for inspiring reading. She’s a prize-winning poet; has taught Greek at Oxford, opera at Princeton, and horse-riding in Berlin; has excavated Minoan tombs on Crete; sung in an Istanbul nightclub; was a judge for the 2005 Aventis Science Prize for the Royal Society; and was the first female fellow of Wadham College, Oxford.
While her varied achievements and experiences will doubtless cause a few dropped jaws, Ruth herself couldn’t be more modest. At CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities) in Cambridge, for a reading from her latest work Tigers in Red Weather, she told me, when the subject of her impressive CV comes up. “I’m not very good at feeling proud. I enjoy what I’ve done, but I want to do more!” she continued, laughing.
Ruth’s background is an eclectic mix of arts and science; her father taught Greek before becoming a psychoanalyst, and her mother was a botanist. Then, of course, there are her great-great-grandfathers: one, the scientist Charles Darwin; the other, a concert pianist in Leipzig and founder member of the York Symphony Orchestra.
No wonder Ruth quite reasonably sees the arts and sciences as interlinked, entangled. “Science and poetry are very similar: you have to see something and describe it as clearly and concretely as you can. …Darwin loved form; he’s always saying he loved the rich, complex forms of what he looked at. And that’s so like poetry, and that’s what I like about poetry too,” she enthused.
“I’ve only recently begun to realise Darwin’s influence on me. He’d always just sort of been there.”
As well as seven collections of poetry, Ruth has five books of non-fiction to her name. As you might expect, these are wide-ranging, covering subjects as diverse as rock music, Greek tragedy, poetry criticism, and, now, a travel memoir, Tigers in Red Weather,
But Tigers in Red Weather is much more than a travel book; it’s about loss and survival, poetry and science; it’s a study in natural history; an exploration of threatened Asian jungles by a woman who has travelled with and questioned scientists and conservationists struggling to protect the forest and its denizens from poachers, mining, logging, and development.
To hear Ruth speak of her travels through Asia is by turns. To hear Ruth speak of her travels through Asia is by turns enthralling, inspiring, and disquieting. She tells me how a meeting with a biologist in Burma opened her eyes to the extent of surveillance there. Frustrated with how unproductive the meeting had been, Ruth mentioned it to some Burmese poets she’d met, only to be told how lucky she was that the biologist had agreed to speak to her at all. Ruth explained, “immediately after I’d gone, she would have had to write, and probably tape, an exact record of what I said, and what she said to me; and if it didn’t tally with at least two people from her own staff, who would be reporting on her, she’d be in trouble.”
She told me of her time in Sumatra where she stayed with an extraordinary Gloucestershire woman who “was running single-handed a huge espionage ring against the tiger poaching in the forests”. In fact so sophisticated was this anti-poaching operation that a member of MI6 told its coordinator that she didn’t need any advice from him!
For Ruth, Tigers in Red Weather has brought home her connection with her renowned forefather, whose complete works have been published recently online. “It’s funny,” she confessed, “I’ve only recently begun to realise Darwin’s influence on me. He’d always just sort of been there. I’d read the Origin of Species a long time ago, and there was lots of family lore, but when I started researching my tiger book, I started reading him seriously.
“When he writes in his diary about first setting eyes on tropical vegetation, he’s so excited, and he says, ‘It has been to me a glorious day, like giving to a blind man eyes.’ And that’s what I felt when I first walked in a tropical jungle. But also his excitement came from the page to the thing, which is mine too. You know I was a very bookish child, …and my love of the wild was lit partly by reading, by the Jungle Book, by Ernest Thompson Seton, and by Bambi.”
Just as reading has inspired her, Ruth is hopeful that writing, and her book Tigers in Red Weather, will keep conservation in the public eye. She told me about the Chinese government and how “their demand for tiger skin and bone is decimating the population of tigers”. She cited Chinese control of Tibet as a case in point, noting how the Chinese government encourages Tibetans, against their wishes, to perform dances wearing tiger skins for tourists.
Proving the impact of writing about these issues, she mentioned a report on the Tibetan situation by the Environmental Investigation Agency; a report made available at a recent conference in Geneva. “The reports were piled up outside the conference room,” explained Ruth, “and somebody from the Investigation Agency saw the Chinese government delegate creep up when he thought he was unobserved, take all the reports out, cross the road in Geneva, and put them in the skip.” She continued, “So obviously writing makes a difference, as they don’t want the publications to appear! Writing is important, getting it out there is important.”