Former Genesis drummer Chris Stewart publishes his latest dispatch from Andalusia

It's 15 years since the former international shearer and chronic optimist wrote the bestselling Driving Over Lemons

Chris Stewart is crackers about dung. He is the Proust of ovine poo. Give him five minutes to rhapsodise about the quality of crap produced by sheep who've grazed on rosemary or thyme or on almond-tree roots and he'll take an hour. "I love it with a passion," he says, blinking behind his granny glasses. "You know that smell is the most nostalgia-inducing sense? How certain smells transport you even more than music? That's what the smell of sweet sheep shit does for me."

He's equally nuts about the sheep themselves: his books sigh with rapture at the sight of a well-fed, well-tended flock of Merinos or Churras ("with black and white faces, much like a Kerry Hill, but with fine long, almost boucle, fleeces"). And you should hear him on the subject of his beloved Washingtonia orange trees, on whose fruit he gorges straight from the branch ("I can't bring myself to eat an orange if it's been in a bowl even for just one night – it tastes stale").

Stewart is one of nature's enthusiasts. He's also one of her more impulsive handymen. He's also a farmer. The combination of all these has made him a best-selling writer. It's a quarter-century since he spent virtually everything he possessed (about £25,000) to buy a small, primitive farm, on the wrong side of the river, in the mountainous Alpujarra region of Andalucia in southern Spain. He and his wife Ana had driven around the region and idly wondered if they might ever consider living there; but when he thrust the cash into the hands of Pedro Romero within minutes of seeing El Valero, he was going on the purest impulse.

Telling his wife what he'd done wasn't easy. And, almost immediately, awkward questions crowded in: how could he fix a domestic water supply? What to do about locals' plans to flood the valley and build a dam? And what about Pedro, who showed no immediate, or long-term, intention of moving out?

Solving these problems, and transforming this patch of Nowheresville into a sun-drenched idyll took years of back-breaking toil and learning-on-the-job DIY, of helpful neighbours and impossible bureaucrats. It also begat Driving Over Lemons, published in 1999 to loud acclaim and huge sales. Successive books, drawing from the same rich well of rustic anecdote and expatriate self-consciousness, followed in 2002 (A Parrot in the Pepper Tree) and 2006 (The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society), and Last Days of the Bus Club is out this week.

Ever since Robinson Crusoe appeared in 1719, scores of Englishmen have reported back from their journeys to wild regions, which they have successfully tamed or brought to a working simulacrum of home, or claimed as part of their emotional territory. "The travel writer I most revere is Robert Byron, whose The Road to Oxiana is the all-time great travel book," says Stewart when we meet over breakfast beside the BBC. "And Bruce Chatwin, and William Dalrymple – and Peter Mayne, have you ever heard of him? He wrote A Year in Marrakesh. He went there to learn Arabic, and it's the most wonderful, funny, affectionate portrait of a crazy journey and the people he meets on it."

Thriving over lemons: Chris Stewart’s first book about buying a remote Andalusian farm became a huge global best-seller, which he has followed with three more quirky books Thriving over lemons: Chris Stewart’s first book about buying a remote Andalusian farm became a huge global best-seller, which he has followed with three more quirky books (Alamy)
Except for a single consonant, I observed, you could be talking about Peter Mayle and A Year in Provence. Did you read it? "It isn't really my kind of book," he says smilingly. Despite it being about an Englishman who relocates to a sunny part of Europe, takes over an unpromising dwelling and tries to live there, beset by problems of temperature, house repairs and watchful neighbours? "Yeah," says Stewart. "It's a genre I wouldn't read if I didn't write in it."

A lanky charmer with a handsome, weatherbeaten face shaded from the sun by a floppy hat, Stewart is a voluble and engaging talker, full of digressions, jokes, ad-hoc lectures about global warming, nettle soup and the inadvisability of going on TV while under the influence of hashish omelettes. His new book begins and ends with his experience of giving speeches. One is to his daughter Chloe's school about the value of co-educationalism, which the audience of scholars misinterpret as an exhortation to celebrate their bisexuality. Sex rears its head occasionally in the books: one chapter is devoted to the treatment of his inflamed penis by a female faith healer. These bulletins of (mostly) small events and everyday domestic crises have tickled the funny bone of British readers for 15 years, until they feel they know the family of Chris, Ana, Chloe, their dogs and sheep and parrot. As if they lived around the corner.

His books go down a storm in Spain, though they weren't published there until seven years after their success in the UK. "Our life at El Valero is a bit baffling to the Spanish. They're an urban people, but they've all got roots in the countryside. Unlike us, they don't have a romantic, Wordsworthian view of it. Life there was brutish and hard and hateful for them. So when someone goes and makes what seems like an idyllic existence in the mountains, they're surprised. But they say of the books, 'They're great portraits of the countryside as it was when we were there.'"

And, of course, as Bill Bryson discovered when writing about the British, a population loves being told how charming and eccentric they are. "Oh yes! The Spanish are obsessed with how other people see them. They're like a nest of baby birds, waiting to be fed with more information." Is he a media star? Stewart regards me wryly through his granny glasses. "Oh, yeah – I'm a literary colossus there," he deadpans. "I go on talk shows. Believe me, that puts your Spanish in order, appearing on a live chat show where you sink or swim."

Do readers ever come a-calling? "Lots," he says. "They have to park the car by the river, cross the bridge, then walk for 10 minutes. It's a tough 10 minutes, and people who aren't fit arrive in an awful state and blame us for it. Some turn up with cases and want to move in with us. It's happened four or five times. We've had to give them money to catch a bus home."

Are they mostly English? "Yes, but lots of Spanish, too. And weirdos. We had a German guy, a big fat man with a red face who stood dripping sweat, saying, 'Hello! I too haf written ein book. I use goat writer. Tell me, for your books, do you haf goat writer?'"

It must be flattering, though, these pilgrimages? "We've had some very nice people turn up, and I'm flattered when they make the effort. But pilgrimage? You mean I'm a human shrine?"

Stewart was born in Surrey in 1950. His father was a hard act to follow. "He was a pilot in the Second World War, then a charter pilot, flying missionaries about in Africa. Then he ferried bombers home from South Africa to Britain after the war, with [the airline entrepreneur] Freddie Laker as his navigator. He had this fascinating life, and then became a businessman, distributing electronic components. We were really wealthy for a while. We had a swimming pool, an apple orchard and two poodles, in Horsham, West Sussex. But my Dad was a big drinker and gambler and he pissed it against the wall, every penny. Philips bought a controlling interest in the company and bought him out. He went downhill, tried to kill himself, and ended up in the Priory in Roehampton, where all the best people go."

Hadn't Stewart fancied joining the family business? "That was my dad's dream, yeah – but I was a hippie. My academic results were feeble. I was interested only in pop music and girls."

Stewart says: 'I don’t think there’s anything better you can do in the middle of your life than to pick it up and shake it around a bit' Stewart says: 'I don’t think there’s anything better you can do in the middle of your life than to pick it up and shake it around a bit' (David Sandison)
Somehow, during his father's decline, the family scraped together enough money to send Chris to Charterhouse. There, the 16-year-old met Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford, and together formed the first incarnation of the multimillion-record-spinning machine that was Genesis. Stewart's involvement was brief. No sooner had the band's first single, "The Silent Sun", hit the airwaves, and the first publicity shot been snapped (with Stewart pouting moodily beside Peter Gabriel) than he was fired for insufficient grooviness.

He turned from music to literature, devoured the works of Thomas Hardy and acquired a girlfriend who came from Blandford Forum in the heart of Hardy country. The combination of teenage sex and Wessex prompted something deep within the 18-year-old Stewart. "I modelled myself on Gabriel Oak," he says, sheepishly referring to the stalwart farmer-turned-shepherd who romances the headstrong Bathsheba Everdene in Far From the Madding Crowd.

He discovered farming at 21, when he applied for a job as an under-assistant pig farmer in Bramley, near Guildford. It wasn't the most glamorous position available to a former public schoolboy with a romantic streak, but it worked for Stewart. "The first morning hit me like a hammer blow. They had pigs and sheep on the farm. At 7am, I stood in my new wellies in the farmyard under sheeting rain and I loved it all, the smells of the animals, the being outside, the physicality of it, the things you had to do. Someone said, 'Get into one of those tractors and drive around the field', and I felt like the cat that got the cream."

When a gang of shearers arrived that summer, Stewart had another epiphany. "I suddenly knew what I wanted to do with my life – I wanted to be a sheep shearer. It was so graceful, yet tough and demanding, like a dance with an unwilling partner. So I went away with them for the weekend and they taught me how to shear. I made a living out of being a sheep shearer, in Britain, Sweden and Spain, for 30 years."

Stewart goes off into another of his raptures, like Homer Simpson considering beer: "The sheep love electric shears. The beauty of clean white wool purling off pink skin and revealing this naked creature beneath – it's highly erotic."

When the bottom fell out of the shearing business, Stewart ran a sheep farm with Ana Exton, now his wife, near Crawley beside Gatwick airport. They had dismal luck: "The weather was bad, the lambs contracted horrible diseases, we'd borrowed money from the bank and market prices fell, everything was going down the tubes."

Characteristically, he responded to misfortune by travelling to China to co-write the Rough Guide to China. "The only thing I've ever been any good at is learning foreign languages. Chinese seemed an obvious choice – it's the world language that's spoken by most but understood by fewest. I learned it by Linguaphone tapes in the car driving from farm to farm."

After which it was back to Crawley and to the realisation, at 38, that he and Ana might thrive somewhere else – like, say, Spain. A quarter-century later, he's a happy and successful farmer-writer, and a kind of existentialist paradigm. "I don't think there's anything better you can do in the middle of your life," he said in a recent interview, "than to pick it up and shake it around a bit, do something different, live somewhere different, talk another language."

'Last Days of the Bus Club', by Chris Stewart (Sort of Books, £8.99) is out now. To buy it for £8.54 free P&P, call 01326 569444 or go to independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Emo rockers Fall Out Boy

music

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment

film

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Latest stories from i100
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.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links