Tigers in Red Weather

Up The Creek Without a Padel: This is where writer Ruth Padel, recent guest speaker at this year's Durham Literature Festival, found herself. When researching her latest release, she became a very reluctant passenger in a tiny red rubber kayak through white water rapids as she made her way towards a mighty river! It was the scariest thing she had ever had to face, she confessed. Even more terrifying than the time she found she had wandered between a tigress and her cub, or the time she was stung by the scorpion!

The reason for all this, she explained, is the dilemma facing the world's tiger population, which is sadly facing extinction. That is, if it wasn't for the valiant efforts of the conservationists and agencies cited in her latest book Tigers in Red Weather. (Little, Brown. 2005)

On meeting Ruth Padel, the award winning poet, academic, columnist and avid dog walker, you can't quite imagine her sitting bedraggled in a boat, vulnerable and scared, facing a trek through dense jungle. However, this was just a fore gleam of the exciting adventure we were to glimpse whilst sat comfortably in The Studio at The Gala Theatre last Thursday evening.

It was there, in conversation with Katie Massey that Ruth introduced us to both her personal and physical journey. She explained that she saw her talent for writing as a gift that should be shared with others. So she began by presenting us with a dramatic recital (no poetry readings here!) of her poem Tigers Drinking At Forest Pool - taken from The Soho Leopard (Chatto & Windus. 2004). This poem (influenced by George Herbert's Prayer) created, for the audience, inspired images of the noble Asian tiger living wild. This was cleverly followed by a graphic description of the pointless destruction of this amazing creature and its natural habitat. By using the poem The Forest, The Corrupt Official And As Bowl Of Penis Soup, suddenly, the reason this writer had spent three and a half years researching this one book, made perfect sense.

Her motivation was made even more poignant when Ruth gave us some insight into her childhood. Growing up with the legacy of her great grandfather, Charles Darwin, and with a mother who was a botanist all had an impact. She described her childhood home full of images and books of wild animals; she was taught classics and ancient languages as well as becoming an accomplished musician and she was still influenced by all. What made the most impact to her, as a small girl though, was Mowgli's adventures in The Jungle Book. The tiger Basheera inspired her because he was completely pivotal to the story and this, she confessed, was one reason why she is still fascinated by this creature.

It was clear, hearing Ruth Padel talking about her life and work, that for her there is no distinction between humans and animals. In fact, she makes a very convincing argument that tigers are actually more humane... they only kill to survive!

The scene thus set, we were then treated to an extract from the aforementioned new release: we were taken to a dense jungle, struggling to climb to the top of a remote mountain, in a place renowned for landslides. The irony of her reading this particular passage was not lost. It describes Padel and her fellow conservationists having overcome dangerous obstacles only to slip back and have to start again. We immediately understood that this is the daily battle these people have to face to try and save the tiger. Constantly battling against government corruption and international poaching means only small successes can be achieved. The lush language that epitomises this author's work was so descriptive in this reading that I felt that I had literally been with them every step of the way! By interval, I was mentally exhausted and grateful for the chance to recoup!

Suitably refreshed, we all then returned to a more personal reflection. Katie Massey noted that this book was hard to categorize. It could sit just as comfortably on shelves marked Travel, Memoirs or Autobiography. Agreeing, Ruth spoke of how she had included her private experiences in the book as part of her emotional journey. This then led her to talk about her relationship with her daughter, informing us that as a mother she feels akin to a tigress, protective of her young but proud that she is now leading an independent life. In fact she is following in the family pawprints (about the size of a human hand, Ruth explained, teacher like!) as she is currently travelling herself.

This epic evening was then ended with one final recital before opening for audience questions. Padel astounded all by reciting from memory the rather sizeable poem Writing To Onegin (after Pushkin) (The Voodoo Shop, Chatto & Windus, 2002). This obviously reflected her classical training, but Ruth insists she is just as influenced by her modern contemporaries. Naming many, including Emily Bishop and Paul Farley she stated that the work of these writers kept her own work "...exciting and challenging."

Intense questioning then followed, which Ruth handled admirably and eloquently. It gave her an opportunity to defend her position as Ambassador of London Zoo. She stated that she abhorred bad zoos, but reputable zoos such as London and New York were to be applauded. This was not hypocrisy on her part, rather recognition of the substantial work these establishments do to protect the planet's endangered animals. In fact, she argued, many species would already be extinct if it was not for their work.

So, could there possibly be anything else that could challenge Ruth in the future? Definitely! Ruth has decided to explore a completely new writing style, the complete opposite to anything she has done before, she enthused. By the audience response, I could sense that all present echoed a quote from the lady herself "Go for it, Petal, nothing is as real as when you write!"

Sharon Facinelli
Durham Literature Festival
10th October 2005.

Previous report: The Young Visiters Next Report: Vane Women
Previous report:
The Young Visiters
Next Report:
Vane Women