A tragic tale of starving koalas and dashed dreams

`It is said Michael still wanders his Wiltshire estate gazing wistfully up at the eucalyptus trees'
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The Independent Culture
IT IS 10 minutes past four at Paddington station and the last Great Book Excursion of the century is about to begin. Waiting on the platform, as I puff into view, is Charlie, the world's calmest publicity manager. We have five minutes before the Great Western service to Bristol departs. This is my first trip with Charlie. Her predecessors, Louisa and Sarah, may well have warned her about my habit of arriving for trains at the very last minute, for she tells me she wasn't in the slightest bit worried. "I knew you'd make it," she says. Charlie immediately wants to know whether I get recognised often. I admit, rather sadly, that I do not. "It must be the glasses that I wear. You see, I never wear them on screen. Also I think English people are more reluctant to come up to you and ask whether you are who they think you are."

Blather, guff, blather. The words were dying as they left my mouth. Later that night, on the return journey, there was a hubbub in our carriage. A group of people were turning around and pointing. I leant forward excitedly, sure that my hour had come. Charlie would surely be impressed. And then I became aware that everyone was looking beyond me. I turned, to see two of the Blue Peter presenters busily handing over signed photos of themselves to a happy group of fans. Thankfully, Charlie missed this.

The Great Book Excursion has become a two-yearly ritual. It involves setting off, by train and plane, around the towns and cities of Britain, accompanied by a minder from the publishers and a well-marked copy of the latest book. I know there are writers who loathe the whole business of public readings. I love it. I never feel I've taken ownership of the book until I've read it aloud in public (I immediately admit that this last sentence is worthy of inclusion in Pseuds Corner. Did I really write that?)

Oh well, you understand what I mean. There is something exhilarating about standing in front of a crowd and reading something that you have written. For me at least, if not for them. The question-and-answer session afterwards is always the best part. In Bristol, the crowd is made up of loyal Radio 4 listeners; they are, by and large, people who care about the world around them and are unafraid to show it. A man asks me what I think of the Radio 4 audience? What word comes to mind? "Civilised", I say. In the most fundamental sense of the word imaginable. They come from every political persuasion but share common ideas about what makes a society decent. There are questions, too, relating to the places I've written about in the book: Africa, Asia, America, the Balkans and, of course, Ireland. "Will there ever be peace?" I am asked. Bearing in mind the momentous weekend ahead, I tell my questioner that peace is something that grows; it doesn't just appear.

We move on to questions about the future, about my son, about the BBC. And then I sign books and chat.There always seems to be somebody in the audience who knew one of my parents or relatives. In Bristol I meet Paul Piercey, who worked with my father in London in the late Fifties. They were both jobbing actors struggling to survive by doing odd jobs around the city. I've written about Paul and my dad in the new book. There is another man at the reading who worked with my father at the long-vanished Met Theatre in Edgware Road. We all go for coffeebefore the tyranny of the train timetable calls me back to London.

The public readings and encounters are always fun. The business of press and publicity is a less universally pleasant experience. To be fair, most of my reviews have been good and the interviewers decent.

But being the kind of business it is (journalism/ publishing), I should be a fool to expect an easy passage. And, sure enough, out of the yawning mouth of broadcasting history a bellow of stale air pours forth. It is a work colleague who rings me with the sad news.

"Ferg mate, do you know about this vicious piece in The Spectator?" he asks. I reply that I do not. The headline reads - apparently, for I have not seen the organ - "Blubbing for Britain". My first reaction is one of deep shock. For I have misheard my colleague. I imagine that he has said "Blubber for Britain" and that the article is a cruel attack on my plumpitude. He then reassures me that this is not the case. In fact, the article denounces me as an emotionalist, though thankfully a slim one. It is written by that old broadcasting legend, Michael "Koala" Vestey.

Every year, usually in the run-up to Christmas, Michael lets rip with a broadside against me. I have only vague memories of Michael during the short period that we both worked at the BBC. He was an elegant and fragrant figure whose appetite for hard work was the envy of all. His departure left a gaping hole in broadcasting, which many would argue has never been filled.

But it was not, I am convinced, the pressure of overwork or the end of the golden age of broadcasting that led to his present surliness. I blame it on the whole unfortunate business of the koalas. Shortly after leaving the BBC Michael set about realising the great dream of his life: the establishment of a breeding project for Koala bears in Australia's outback.

The plan was ambitious, some might say foolhardy. Vestey and his old Rhodesian army chum Frik Venter planned to breed thousands of the lovely animals on a rented ranch near Alice Springs. The opening phase went well enough, though it is said Michael found the local Aussie staff a little rough for his taste. The name of "Sprout" McKenzie is still one that produces tremors of anger, I am told. But the real trouble began with the great drought of '95, which wiped out acres of eucalyptus trees, the natural breeding-ground of the koala.

At this point, you might ask what purpose Michael had in breeding thousands of such animals in a country that already had enough to be getting on with. This wise question brings us to the real tragedy of the matter. Michael's plan was to export the koalas to Britain for hopeful sale on the Christmas market. Bearing in mind the wise old slogan - "A koala is for life, not just for Christmas" - Michael spent much of his family fortune on ensuring that the animals would survive the cruel cold of their first British winter. To this end, he planted hundreds of eucalyptus trees on his Wiltshire estate and installed a revolutionary heating system, so that the koalas' little paws would be kept warm as they clung to the upper branches.

Michael was to pay dearly for his sentimentality. The heating system killed the trees and the koalas starved, eventually abandoning his farm to roam ferociously across the countryside. Local farmers even organised hunting groups after reports of several unprovoked attacks on sheep. It is said that Michael still wanders his estate, gazing wistfully up at the eucalyptus trees from whose great heights malevolent crows splatter him with their droppings. He is also being pursued by the Koala Rescue and Protection Programme (Krapp for short).

It's a terrible end, and a warning to us all. Just because you have scaled the heights of broadcasting, never assume it will be as easy in the world of business. Now I am off to sign some books. Bye bye, and watch out for those koalas.

The writer is a BBC special correspondent. His `Letters Home' is published by Penguin, price pounds 6.99