Caught by the River

Richard Mabey – Happy Birthday to you!

Tim Dee | 20th February 2021

On Richard Mabey’s eightieth birthday, Tim Dee raises a glass.

Ahem … [a masked cough] … ahem… [tentative tapping of glass with a fork] … Thank you … We’re gathered here together to wish Richard Mabey a very happy birthday. He’s eighty today. 

I happen to know that a case of Picpoul de Pinet, a zesty and much favoured white wine, has been ordered for the Mabey homeplace, so he may well not need our salutations to bring a smile to his face right now – picpoul, by the way, translates as lip-stinger – but please let us nonetheless cheer for him a little more as he commences his ninth decade.

Ten years ago I visited Richard and Polly at home, beneath their thatch in Suffolk. It was a cold winter’s day, icicles hung by the wall, etc. My object was to interview Richard for a 70th birthday profile for BBC Wildlife magazine. Because it was a birthday profile rather than an interview tied to a book, it seemed legitimate to ask him about himself and his beginnings; so I did. Permit me, today, to interleave parts of our conversation from then (with thanks to Ben Hoare) with the present birthday cards.


I wrote earlier this month on CBTR about today’s birthday, suggesting that I might do a version, in time-honoured style, of reading out some telegrams at his party. Many have been sent in Tweet form. If you search for #MabeyMonth on Twitter you can see the items themselves. I’ll quote from some. And I thank everyone who has sent contributions (so do Kathleen Jamie and Mark Cocker, my fellow Mabey Month conspirators). Do look though, if you can, because there are some other unquotable but high value artefacts. Most especially some photographs. Kathleen got us going by posting a ‘groovy teacher style’ photo of our man from an early edition of Food for Free. Others followed: Chris Gibson shared a photo of RM in 1989 or thereabouts on a wildlife trip to Crete watching his first lammergeyer over the Lassithi Plateau. 

Peter Newmark supplied a photo with a marvellous caption – ‘Richard and friends birdwatching in the early 1960s at Tring Reservoirs. A few years earlier might have found us with our dinky first (& in his case last) telescopes and later a gang of us skinny-dipping in the same reservoir at night.’

And then there’s a photo snuck into the back of a website that Richard posted himself a few years ago.  It too is captioned – ‘How it all might have turned out differently: in Cannes, 1963, just before I dropped the hired 16mm Bolex camera in the Mediterranean, trying to film starlets on the beach in lieu of flamingos in the Camargue.’


We must be grateful for that mechanical hiccup. With these pictures in front of us, let me try to give a flavour of the man at home, as he will be today, by sharing some details of how it was in the same house ten years ago. That day, because of the snow and ice, a proposed nature walk was redirected indoors.

‘Following him into his library, what first catches my eye is a curious nine-stringed miniature guitar. It leans against oak bookshelves, home to identification guides, county floras and prose and poetry collections by the early masters like Gilbert White, John Clare and Richard Jefferies. This nature writer is a keen musician and has recently rediscovered his early love for baroque guitar. “The cold’s un-tuned it and loosened the pegs”, Richard tells me, and begins our talk by enthusing about the difficulty of mastering the instrument and remembering how, as a young man, he combined being guitarist in a skiffle group (Leadbelly’s songs were favourites) with the role of accompanying madrigal singers.  

‘The first book he wrote (though not the first to be published) was a sociological account of pop music; but if that sounds like an over-earnest product of the 1960s – as he says it was – he is still fascinated by music, and harbours an ambition to write a book about wild sounds and his own experiences of music-making, recalling his sensation of how singing together in a choir at school “engendered a kind of intimacy I hadn’t experienced before in an amazing melting of barriers between people.”  

‘This prompts me to ask about his hearing, which is not what it was.  A fair bit of birdsong is now beyond him, a particularly cruel loss for a writer who has written so exquisitely about the avian reality of nightingale song and the human meaning found in twit twit jug jug; but, in a remarkable though characteristic Mabey-moment, he says that although “it was grim to realise what I was missing, this managed to get turned on its head, so that I now feel an odd gratification from knowing there’s masses of stuff going on out there that has nothing to do with me at all. I find a weird reassurance in this. When I get panicky about how the spring warblers haven’t come back or things like that – I try to halt myself and say I’m just one person with a diminished perception, while the world has an existence far beyond me and beyond my sensory cognition of it.” This is classic Mabey: the interrogation of personal observation and the specificities of what he has (or hasn’t) noticed and then the generous leap outwards towards a humane philosophy and a truth that we can all recognise but never knew we knew.  

‘He might have gone another way. He was always a “country boy” but at school, as a member of “a clique of poetasters”, he wrote love lyrics as well as “shamelessly plagiarising” Richard Jefferies for his essays. He went to Oxford (“on the bus from Berkhamsted, in my father’s borrowed raincoat”) where he studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics and wrote film criticism as well as being active in the CND. “Nature took a back seat”. He remembers spending the afternoon of the terrifying climax of the Cuban missile crisis, thinking the world was about to end, listening to the radio in his student digs, and building a bookshelf, “desperately trying to be normal and plan for the future.”

‘He graduated and started teaching “welding and hairdressing students” lots of politics, a little literature and, “increasingly, the environment” (“Silent Spring had a profound effect on me”) and then moved sideways to work as an editor in the new educational books department at Penguin. There, he was part responsible for two brilliant epoch-defining series of school texts: the Voices poetry anthologies and the Connexions books on assorted issues of the day including a stunning account of the growing environmental crisis by Kenneth Allsop – a book which turned me, aged ten, from a mad keen birdwatcher into a passionate conservationist.’

On Twitter, this Mabey birthday month, some sent photos of their Mabeys:

RoyWood52 appears to have every book RM has written including that rare non-nature title The Pop Progress. Jeff B, overlord of this manor, might like that. Jeff, meanwhile, has been posting scans of RM’s writing in the curious period-piece magazine of the 1970s, Vole

Gill Alderman tweeted a picture of her well-used copy of Food for Free; so did Peter Foolen; The Constant Gardener has been working through the entire RM list with pictures of every book; RobfromMalpas put out photos of Mabey books alongside works by many authors who have followed him. 

Some had headline news: 

Keggie Carew – ‘It is the clarity of his thinking, his deep knowledge and his fierce independence – he is the gold standard’. 

Sean Street first met RM at the Wakes – Gilbert White’s home – on 30 May 1986 – ‘I can be that precise because it has mattered that much. Ever since he has been a mentor, teacher, encourager and friend. What I am writing now is because of him. His voice’.

Simon Spanton – ‘The man is a quiet and steady genius. Ahead of the game at every turn, always generous of himself and his knowledge. Honest and down to earth. A hero, a national treasure’. Simon also quoted a passage from Nature Cure that, Mabey-style, translocates all the egotism that any so-called hero might labour under – ‘Hapless moths apart, I rather like the idea of dusking. It seems to fit my evening sojourns, fluttering after a collection of elusive ideas that people have been trying to pin down for centuries’. 

Nick Swarbrick  – ‘That man has been an utter joy’.

Angus Carlyle – ‘RM is the only author on both my bookshelves and my parents’’.

Ben Potts – ‘Reading RM in my early 30s changed my life: he opened my eyes & his observations on roots, tracks, images, wings, words, weather have brought me much joy and helped me through some tough times.’

Nicola Chester – ’18 years ago I answered RM’s “clarion call for nature writers” and won @wildlifemag’s competition. He was a judge. I’d long loved his writing. I wrote about my baby son… Dad was very proud and framed the (now faded) pages… The competition and an essay from that time inform the start of the book I’ve just finished writing. He’s been a huge inspiration’.

Mark Cocker, as ever, pulled no punches – ‘RM is the most important, prolific and diversely gifted writer on the human relationship with the rest of life that we have. May the gods bless him! 

Some praised particular volumes: 

Darryl Moore likes Street Flowers and its ‘cheeky yet resilient ruderals’; Shaun Micklewright pointed to a quotation in the text of that book on Groundsel – ‘The flower of this herb hath white hair, and when the wind bloweth it away, then it appeareth like a bald-headed man’ and added ‘That’s it – just about sums me up’; Laurence Sterne Trust likes Plants with a Purpose – ‘every part of an elder tree has a use for us, even the pith’.

David Cooper quoted Iain Sinclair writing on The Unofficial Countryside – ‘Those glancing details, the colour & texture of a feather – are not only true to themselves, but they become symbols of larger and more mysterious energy fields’; Friends of Darwin, walking around the Liverpool docklands, said the same book gave him  ‘a far better appreciation of the importance of such under-appreciated edgelands’; it is Rob Edwards’ ‘absolute favourite’.

Joanna Cary recommends The Full English Cassoulet – ‘Make the turnip soup’; Danny Vincent is currently reading the same book, which is also called Wild Cooking. Runninghistorian endorses A Brush with Nature

Cal Flyn’s most admired book from ‘Britain’s greatest botanical writer’ is Weeds; Joanna Barron shared a passage from the same ‘completely brilliant book’; hemingway posted his CBTR review of the book – ‘I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed writing about that’; Andrew Hipp, an American botanist, is discovering Weeds for the first time – ‘Every page bears a surprise leading me to ground I had no idea existed. How did I get by without knowing this stuff?’ 

Helen Jukes wrote that Nature Cure changed her ‘whole perspective’. John Pilgrim wrote a song inspired by the book – ‘I sent it to him. He asked for more copies’. Friends of Darwin picked up Nature Cure in 2005 and been ‘addicted’ ever since. He added a page from the book with a note: ‘If RM struggles with the jizz of a flower, there’s hope for us all’. 

Mrs Courtyard loves Whistling in the Dark; and Friends of Darwin (one man but one splendidly active tweeting man) nominated a passage from the same book on the difficulties of rating birdsong; Nightingale Night said RM’s writing about nightingales is ‘incomparable, simply read it and search out a singing nightingale this spring’; Bethan Roberts is a nightingale reader – she quotes RM celebrating Keats’ Ode for ‘catching the tension – and the resonance – between the immortal nightingale of the imagination and the flesh-and-blood bird’. And she adds – ‘Mabey’s nightingale writing does that too, and gets the bird like no one else since Keats’.

Chris Gibson salutes The Flowering of Britain – ‘Richard’s lyrical beauty and quiet passion spoke to my heart. And Tony Evans’ remarkable photos made me buy a camera’; Jeremy Dagley was also ‘captivated’ by that book – ‘His delight in expectations confounded, delicious descriptions, & his love of place. The Bird’s-eye Primrose quest sent me on my own search one happy summer’; Adam Nicolson added – ‘I loved that book – the alkanet!’

Richard Holmes, the biographer, doesn’t use the Twitter but found a way to get a praise message for RM. He wanted to celebrate Richard Mabey the ‘Human Nature writer’ and pointed to two biographical books – ‘His magic life of Gilbert White, an early landmark book in the cross-over form of science/literary biography; and much later his subtle exploration of Flora Thompson’s writing career, in Dreams of the Good Life.

Food for Free, in particular, called up many memories: 

Tim Hannigan – ‘The book was on the miscellaneous bookshelf at the bottom of the stairs when I was a child (along with Marguerite Patten’s Cookery in Colour and the collected editions of Country Bizarre). I loved the slightly sinister plates for the mushrooms section’; Nic Wilson’s granny ‘brought us up on Food for Free, foraging in the Welsh country lanes & on the mountain slopes – bilberries, hazelnuts, nettles & lots of midges – eating us rather than the other way round’; Cherry Tyer worked at the book’s first publishers – ‘I remember his wonderful letters’; John Pilgrim grew up with the same book – ‘I was never quite brave enough to try out Nettle Salad [but] I remember making Rosehip Syrup. Reaching for the bright red hips in the hedges. Peeling out the pips, the deep itchiness. The boiling, and the ladling out into bottles. The sweet tang of the liquor’; bridgetmck’s mum bought Food for Free in the early 1970s and soon after ‘we moved to a tiny house with a big garden; then began many years of foraging walks and eating elderflowers, nettles, berries, & whatnot’; Chris Drury said a friend once gave the book to John Sainsbury, CEO of the supermarket chain – ‘He wasn’t amused!’

Some sent links to some online RM: 

A TV film based on The Unofficial Countryside is on YouTube (thanks Shaun Micklewright); two BBC Radio Four series can still be heard (thanks Just Radio Ltd). 

Many copied favoured passages of RM’s writing:

ManxCol posted a photo of a lovingly clipped RM Country Diary from The Guardian, one of many which he ‘obsessively collected’, adding, ‘Our culture doesn’t value its sages as much as it should’.  

Weebirdie posted RM words on the scent of moschatel scent and the madeleine of that smell; Jayne likes the idea of botanical ghosts in a parish churchyard (from In a Green Shade); Liz Ixer takes comfort from the persistence of urban wildlife (The Unofficial Countryside); Jenny Jones is inspired by that too – ‘nature’s fight back which is such an inspiration’.

Laurence Rose quoted The Common Ground – ‘To renew the living fabric of the land so that it also replenishes the spirits of its human inhabitants seems to me as close as one can come to a single expression of the aims of a total conservation policy’.

Richard Smyth has just reviewed RM’s latest, Turning the Boat for Home in the TLS and Darryl Moore quoted from the book and commented – ‘It is time to end plant blindness and speciesism, and to appreciate both the real importance of flora for our species and their innate value.’ 

Andrew Hipp marvels at RM on ancient yews – ‘Their boundaries become amorphous, absorbing and joining with other beings’; John Pilgrim is switched on by Beechcombings; Shaun Micklewright enthused about ‘how much knowledge and detail RM packs into his subjects’ and cited pages from Street Flowers on Shepherd’s Purse.  

Friends of Darwin is grateful for RM’s championing of Darwin and also his introduction to other writers, most especially for him, Ronald Blythe; he also quoted RM in The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn writing about ‘dropping down’ and observing in minute detail ‘to give an enhanced appreciation of the natural world’; another day he posted a page on snowdrops from Flora Britannica – ‘My late mum’s favourite flowers’. 

Ben Hoare kindly scanned that RM 70th birthday feature. He edited RM’s monthly Wildlife magazine columns for about 8 years – ‘the sparkliest, most word-perfect prose imaginable & never once a missed deadline’. 


‘In front of the Mabey library bookshelves is a small square table made of burr elm and on it a turned bowl of beech. Richard picks it up and rubs his hands over the surface. In all his writings he repeatedly returns to the thing in front of him.  The bird seen, the flower smelt. “The world of the real is fantastically important with me,” he says. “At readings, people occasionally ask about my spirituality.  They assume because I’m at times rhapsodic about nature that I’ve gone into a new realm, but I don’t really understand what the word spiritual means. I am deeply a materialist; I don’t want to have a metaphorical relationship with something beyond its reality. And, if materialist has a bad ring, call me a ‘matterist.’”

‘The matterist strokes his beech bowl marvelling at its spalting – the way an invasive saprophytic fungus has crept through the wood, patterning it with black lines, the ‘fences’ the fungus and wood have drawn between them in a series of swirling negotiations of give and take. “This community of living organisms arrived at a solution for how they might live together”, he says.  “The weird thing is, we only knew it existed when Charles Sharpe made this bowl: an artefact showed us its nature.”


And then, one night this week, a message beamed in from RM himself – it too was classic Mabey, friendly and warm, beginning locally, almost domestically, before taking off in the wink of an eye around the world, like Puck girdling the Earth: he wanted to thank all for such a wealth of memories and generous tributes, but he also wanted to point to some other amazing life underway. ‘The spectacular Amazonian Moonflower’, he wrote, ‘lauded in The Cabaret of Plants is about to bloom for the first time in the UK in the Cambridge Botanical Gardens’. 

There’s a film feed for this.

I’m writing on the 18th February. The bloom is beginning. As if some almighty natural power was watching over events, it may be waiting for Mabey, the birthday boy. It’s a coincidence, of course, and we don’t give any quarter to magical thinking regarding nature – our man has told us so, many times – but there is something very definitely Mabey about that.


2021 will surely have quite a spring in store for Richard but, then, every spring has. He has written brilliantly about waiting for his first sighting of swifts in Britain back from their winter over southern Africa, exploring all that the birds carry with them for him. As he today, I hope, enjoys his picpoul beneath his winter thatch, I think of the coming year, in Suffolk skies, being somehow already laid into those swifts – the same species – that I can see outside my window in the blue where I am at the Cape of Good Hope, so many thousands of miles away. They are the spring; they fly it. All this thinking, I realise, is thoughts that Richard Mabey has given me, of course. That is him all over.

Many happy returns, Richard – of birthdays and of swifts.