Wild thing

Libby Purves does wonders for an author’s sales.

Midweek, Radio 4

The thrill of the week was a three-minute radio slot that caused a direct surge in book sales beyond any publisher's wildest dreams. That this moment occurred on Midweek (24 March, 9am) may come as a surprise, since its presenter, Libby Purves, seems always to be asking
her guests the same question ("So, was showbiz inevitable?") and they always seem to be giving the same answer ("Well, the letter she wrote to Bob Fosse before the Venice premiere was just so inspirational that my one-man show . . ."). But then, towards the end of the programme, a forest ranger from Somerset called Colin said: "Deer as a whole are free of diseases. But they really do find some horrible ways to die."

Libby and her other guests went quiet while he proceeded to flog superbly his diary, A Year in the Woods, which had apparently found its way to Penguin via a neighbour who writes about angling. Colin was pretty curmudgeonly. He made it clear that he thought London was a hole. He wasn't, in short, like Britain's premier nature writer, Robert Macfarlane, recently seen wandering around Epping Forest finding ineffable beauty in a discarded mattress.

I'm sure Macfarlane's a good egg in the flesh, and it needs to be said that the wild is everywhere, in rubbish tips as much as in areas of outstanding natural beauty. But there's really no rejoinder to his argument, and it knocks the energy right out of his prose. All that's left is a pained lyricism, which is sometimes brilliant, but can also feel so self-regarding and wet. Writing that's the exact opposite of wild.

Whereas Colin's chat was the real deal (". . . so I'm cleaning up these two deer, when I get the feeling someone's watching me and stood very close behind me, and the wind was picking up and all the trees were beginning to crack . . ."). Your reviewer immediately logged on to Amazon - and I wasn't alone. Within an hour, Colin Elford's book, previously only briefly mentioned in Metro and a Leeds University fanzine, had gone from number 17,234 on the Amazon sales ranking to 248. Within three hours, it was at 84. Within four, they had sold out. By six o'clock, they had hurried in more copies and it was peaking at 26. From a three-minute slot! Gold like that, you can't fake.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, GOD