I spent the weekend inspecting the so-called “Nazi cattle” that my Devon neighbour Derek Gow has had shipped over as part of a fascinating conservation effort to reintroduce extinct species to Britain. Needless to say, these are not remotely inclined to goose-step; what is awe-inspiring is that they were genetically re-created in the Nazi era to bring back the aurochs: huge, wild cattle that have been extinct for nearly four centuries. One of my favourite pieces of British eccentricity is the fossilised skeleton of an auroch at Cambridge University’s Zoology Museum, black as a burnt oak. It was this, I believe, that inspired the immortal last sentence of Nabokov’s Lolita (“I am thinking of aurochs and angels . . .”)
The Hecks are not aurochs, but they are magnificently horned, a good deal larger than normal cattle, and strikingly similar in shape and colouring to those in the cave paintings at Lascaux. Mr Gow, however, has been causing some controversy in the Broadwoodwidger neighbourhood for his championing of this species; it was his beavers that famously fled at Christmas, and still (in the case of the male) remain at large, gnawing through large riverside trees in an attempt to attract a mate or possibly re-create Mr Beaver’s den in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The beaver’s presence is alarming fishermen and establishments, such as the charming Arundel Arms Hotel, that depend on fishermen for their livelihood in the Tamar River’s prime salmon-fishing area. However, I am always on the side of endangered species. Having already driven my family mad by putting up barn owl boxes, etc as penance for having a second home (albeit rescued from total collapse), I’m thrilled.
Mr Gow, who is offering courses in water vole management and creating a living history museum for the wildlife of Britain, is just the kind of farmer that New Statesman readers may like to support. His Hecks are wonderful beasts, and we should welcome them back.
I suppose I feel sympathy for endangered species because of being one myself. My new novel, Hearts and Minds, took seven years to write because I got seriously unwell in 2003. First appendicitis, then cancer, then endometriosis struck. Horrid though that was, being ill was also a tremendous piece of luck. First, it reconnected me with my deep passion for children’s fiction – and led to my becoming the children’s critic for the Times, the only day job I’ve ever loved.
I believe that good children’s novels are much harder to write than the adult kind, because they have to have not only good style, characters, atmosphere and ideas, but a stonking plot. My novels all have plots, and therefore tend not to sell to adults, except when some silly person tries (as with A Vicious Circle) to stop publication by claiming libel.
So it was with alarm (as well as gratitude) that I saw Rachel Johnson in the Evening Standard fingering my fictional Rambler magazine as being a wicked send-up of the Spectator during its “Sextator” period. Not guilty! – though admittedly the Rambler’s editor is somewhat based on Marc Boxer, now safely deceased.
Being ill led to long conversations not only with doctors and nurses – all of them foreign, many from Asia and Africa – but with eastern European au pairs, Muslim minicab drivers and the kind of immigrants eager to pick up the pieces of a shattered domestic life if you can pay them. All of this fed into my novel, which is a kind of Dickensian detective story about five immigrants in north London, connected through love, work and crime. Some of what I found out was very disturbing. We all know that many immigrants are vulnerable to nastiness – from racism to sex trafficking – but it’s often hard to remember this. It’s simply too convenient to forget that, for every bogus asylum-seeker, there are thousands more, honestly working their socks off. Now that I’m well, and no longer need their help, I hope I’ll never forget what they gave me.
But many immigrants are, triumphantly, those who gambled their youth, courage, wits and strength, and prospered. My husband and I are both the lucky descendants of such people, and completely thrilled by the Gurkhas’ recent victory concerning their right to live in Britain. How can anyone refuse citizenship to such brave, loyal men? Apart, that is, from this wretched government.
The one good thing about the recession is that this year many Brits will be forced to holiday in the UK. I grew up in Italy, with its hard, pebbly beaches, and the joy I still feel at our glorious, sandy ones will never, ever leave me. Plus, there is an added bonus: everyone who holidays here, instead of abroad, can now, like Kate Winslet, claim to be working class.
Amanda Craig’s new novel, “Hearts and Minds”, has just been published by Little, Brown (£17.99)