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'

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition