It’s a funny direction that children’s writers arrive from. I encounter writers, often female, who quote “I have been writing since I was 8 years old…!” I have no doubt they have. Then there are the boys who played video games and progressed into the extra world of fantasy writing. Why not? It sells and sells well. I met an old guy who wrote 50 history text books before deciding to pen that one book for his grand-daughter that made him a millionaire. So an ex-farmer writing books? Well nothing new there really. In fact one or two current fashionable authors claim to be farmers, well they have some animals at least. Morpurgo for example.
Try though I might though, I struggle to pigeonhole myself into any of these categories. You see mine was a love of animals first, then a love of words second. Yes, for years the words came from my mouth rather than from my pages but that is a fairly easy bridge to cross. Or is it? That, at least, is another topic. But back to the animals, my job, my task which I set myself as a young man, was that of some kind of animal psychologist. On leaving school I found fascination with the pedigree animal kingdom and the art of displaying live animals to win prizes. I am not talking about pets, but farm animals, cows, sheep, big f*ck-off bulls sometimes. To put an animal in front of a judge and win prizes takes two skills. Firstly, the animal needs to look right, have its best clothes on and shine. My one skill lay in that area, the ability to brush, groom, clip hair with the finest attention to detail. In fact I became such a guru at that, my videos and grooming products still live on to this day.
The other was down to how an animal behaves itself in a show ring, and that didn’t happen by accident. I prided myself, still do in fact, to have the ability to encourage an animal to behave itself to order. I wish I could do that to humans, toddlers especially! Don’t get me wrong, I am no horse whisperer, but I learned that the secret of getting an animal to behave was to understand them, to see inside their head. To me, it seemed to come easy, I don’t know why. I am not the only one, all good stockmen have this sense, many are better at it than I. But it is a gift, something that one is born with as well a skill that develops with practice.
So, many years later I am reusing that gift. Great children’s writers speak of using their childhood and their memories as their writing material, of course they do. But I use something else as well. You see, the mind of a young animal is just that, YOUNG. When I look back, nearly all the animals that I have worked with, lived closed to, persuaded and coaxed, they were all youngsters, children. They were my kids, with their strange persuasions, habits, tempers and tantrums. It took me years to work that out but one day it happened, and on that day, I gained my most valuable asset.
Most of the animal characters I write about now are children wrapped up in some kind of animal skin. In every one, I see three things: an animal I once knew; a child bouncing around, sometimes trying to escape or grow; and a little bit of myself trying to control it. I have received numerous emails from grown-ups telling me that, after reading one of my books, they will never look at their animals in the same light again. That pleases me no end. They hear what I see.
However, the skill of getting these stories into the correct form, of making the words and smells that I feel in my head, in their head, dance on the page? That is my biggest quest. But I am so so glad it is that way around and, after a year of trying, I would like to think I am mastering it now. I get so disillusioned with so many literary critics and writers, with so much literary skill and grammar, yet with nothing exciting to say. I am sure they consider someone like myself, with so many stories to tell, as a tedious intrusion into their grammatically classic dimension. But let them keep listening, for already some people are starting to hear the child within the animal.