Derek Ratcliffe in the field, 1989. Picture: WILL WILLIAMS
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Nature's polyglot: the life and work of Derek Ratcliffe

Mark Cocker remembers the great naturalist's remarkable constellation of talents.

Derek Ratcliffe in the field, 1989. Illustration: Will Williams

 

Nature’s Conscience: the Life and Legacy of Derek Ratcliffe
Edited by Des Thompson, Hilary Birks and John Birks
Langford Press, 571pp, £29.99

I remember vividly an occasion when a journalist friend pronounced with all the conviction of the uninformed that a well-known writer on nature was also the nation’s greatest naturalist. In truth, literary merit has little to do with field ability. Being good at finding wild creatures or plants depends on two things: acute senses and the ability to shut down the internal monologue so that the whole of one’s attention can be devoted to the search image in question.

The naturalist’s third prerequisite is the power to recall the thousands of bits of information that enable them to turn what they see into an identifiable organism. Being good at species recognition is rather like mastery of a language. To know your flowers is like speaking fluent Spanish. To know all Britain’s flowering plants and then the ferns and sedges is comparable with an overarching mastery of Spanish, Catalan and Italian.

Most naturalists, however, are monolingual. Rare is the person who knows two groups of organism fluently and rarest of all is a naturalist such as Derek Ratcliffe, who had an astonishing ability to distinguish plants, ferns, sedges, bryophytes (mosses and liverworts), insects, birds and practically everything else. His talent was like that of the mythic polyglot who speaks Spanish, Arabic, Persian and Japanese. When he died in 2005 one of this book’s editors proposed him as the greatest naturalist since Darwin. In the intervening decade no other name has suggested itself.

Yet naturalists are a strange lot. Many of them neither care, nor are able to make their beloved part of nature accessible to any but others exactly like themselves. Too often they cherish the impenetrable code of their discipline, steeped in scientific Latin and Greek. Who among us ordinary mortals can be bothered to get on terms with something known only as Anastrophyllum jorgensenii or Bryoerythrophyllum caledonicum?

The true measure of Ratcliffe’s abilities is that he knew the secret languages of moss taxonomists and plant biologists but could also write and speak in the lingua franca of us all. This book is a glorious, multi-authored exploration of the many parts of this great naturalist: writer, scientist, mountaineer, explorer, photographer and unremitting champion of the wild. It is also a summing up of his place in British natural history, which amounts now almost to a cult.

Ratcliffe’s constellation of talents was especially manifest in two achievements. Rachel Carson may have issued the broad-spectrum warning on pesticides in her book Silent Spring (1962) but it was Ratcliffe with friends who nailed exactly how organochlorine compounds were driving predators, including everything from pelicans to peregrines, towards extinction.

His paper of 1970, unravelling the science of pesticides, was cited as one of the 100 most important ever published in any British ecological journal. Against great opposition from vested commercial and agricultural interests, Ratcliffe’s hard and hard-won facts – he personally monitored 500 peregrine eyries to get the raw data – eventually led to an international ban on the offending pollutants.

A lesser-known part of his CV was his almost single-handed drafting of A Nature Conservation Review (1977), now a scriptural text for environmentalists, which laid out the whereabouts and character of Britain’s chief natural riches. Over the past half-century, this has been a blueprint for national policy and it also shaped the organisational criteria for pan-European legislation on nature and natural resources. Arguably only someone with Ratcliffe’s 360-degree field skills, encyclopaedic knowledge and intellectual clarity could have synthesised so much data so succinctly.

Curiously, the least satisfying essays in Nature’s Conscience are those in which the authors strive to re-emphasise Ratcliffe’s importance. He needs no bias. Yet ultimately the leeway that the book’s editors offer to all the contributors encourages them to stray routinely into a much wider hinterland of environmental material. Ratcliffe’s life story thus serves as a totem pole around which has been assembled an entire history of British conservation since the 1940s.

Our hero had one cardinal failing, however. He was so much a man of truth that he became easy prey to those for whom facts were relative. Numerous friends bore witness to his time as chief scientific officer at the Nature Conservancy Council. At many higher-level meetings Ratcliffe was forced to sit in seething, white-knuckled silence and endure the presence of his political bosses who, for 18 years, were largely landed Thatcherite Conservatives.

Unfortunately he did not live to see how nature and nature writing have become so much a part of mainstream popular culture. A recent spate of books has achieved high prominence but has moved far from what was considered orthodox natural history in Ratcliffe’s day. The new works dwell on suburban wildlife, edgeland landscapes, or wildlife species kept as pets. Very often the main theme is the ego and personality of the individual author. One wonders what Ratcliffe would have made of these developments. All we can say is that, in his own engagement with wild places and wild species, nature asserted its true north.

Mark Cocker’s books include “Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet” (Jonathan Cape)

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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