An education in the life of the writer and naturalist, Richard Mabey
'I burst into tears over fractions'
Thursday 17 September 2009
Richard Mabey, 68, is the author of 'Food for Free', 'Nature Cure' and 'Flora Britannica', as well as an award- winning biography of naturalist Gilbert White. 'Wild Cooking' came out this month. A new version of his book on nightingales, 'Whistling in the Dark', is out next spring, as is 'A Brush With Nature', taken from his columns in BBC Wildlife. Starting on Monday, his R3 series, The Scientist and the Romantic, goes out at 11pm every evening next week.
I remember mostly disasters at Rothesay, the pre-prep school in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire that is named after the grand Edwardian house in which it was situated. I was quite a timid child at this stage and began to have my first experience of psychosomatic symptoms: indigestion and dizzy spells. In those days, one was diagnosed as being "highly strung" – like a harp.
In one classroom there were two teachers and two classes facing in opposite directions. In my first year I once sat in the back row facing in the wrong direction and was subjected to an hour of fractions, bursting into tears at the incomprehensibility of it.
At Berkhamsted Prep I was more sociable and developed a vigorous outdoor gang life. We had a brilliant teacher of nature studies, Mrs Benson, who took us on daily walks on the commons. I remember first seeing a fly agaric toadstool, the red one that's always drawn in children's storybooks with elves sitting on it. It was a very encouraging school; I did a picture of the human body in wonderful genital detail and, instead of rebuking me, the teacher pinned the picture on the wall.
I passed the Common Entrance, which meant I could go up to Berkhamsted School (a minor public school, now re-named Collegiate). Most of the teaching there was very far from inspirational, but the science lessons were pretty good. I could do the theoretical stuff at school and, at home, I pursued the trade of amateur alchemist. You could buy chemicals such as mercury over the counter at Boots.
I started writing and won various prizes for essays. I read my first volume of [Victorian nature writer] Richard Jefferies and plagiarised him recklessly. I have just written the forward to a new edition of his Wildlife in a Southern County.
A young maths master started a madrigal choir doing Elizabethan choral music – with girls from the nearby girls' school. Being in a choir and learning to listen and respond to other people's voices was the single most important experience of my school life.
I got a distinction in my physics and chemistry A-levels but, at maths, I was no better than when I faced the wrong way at my first school; in the A-level, I only got an O-level grade. I didn't get into Cambridge but the wonderful maths teacher said, "Try my old Oxford college – I'll put in a good word." I got into St Catherine's with a long interview.
I adored Oxford, but it took me a while to settle in. I went up to study biochemistry, but I applied in my third week to change to philosophy, politics and economics. In the first biology experiment we were meant to extract the contents of our own stomachs with a tube. I never for a single second regretted changing to PPE. I got a second (a good second, I was told).
We had Iris Murdoch as a tutor for a while: very exciting. [Philosopher and professor] Isaiah Berlin had a course on Marx which became a big university event. There were 2,500 to 3,000 people present – a third of the student population, with people standing on tables for his heroic, electrifying performance.
- 1 Home Office says Nigerian asylum-seeker can’t be a lesbian as she’s got children
- 2 What happens to your body when you give up sugar?
- 3 Drugs Live cannabis trial: Hash is less harmful than any other drug, expert claims
- 4 Turkish Airlines flight TK 726 crash-lands on Nepal runway amid dense fog
- 5 Apple and Google users being spied on for a decade because of 'Freak' security flaw
The City of the Monkey God: Archaeologists claim to have found city lost for 1,000 years in remote Honduran jungle
Turkish Airlines flight TK 726 crash-lands on Nepal runway amid dense fog
Japanese island overrun with cats after population explodes
London property boom built on dirty money
Becky Watts: Stepbrother and his girlfriend named locally as two arrested on suspicion of murder
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Durham Free School: 'Creationism taught at' free school facing closure
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
Ukraine crisis: Top Chinese diplomat backs Putin and says West should 'abandon zero-sum mentality'
Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...
£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...
£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...
£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...