My house, my cats and a masterpiece

Another author has walked into what was once my world and made it his own
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The Independent Online

Like many writers working at a time when public intimacy is both accepted and fashionable, I have sometimes considered delving into the shadier areas of my own life for a bit of material. For example, the house where I lived until three years ago - charming, old, rackety, a creaking ship of memory - seemed to demand some kind of exploration in prose, particularly during the last few sad months when I was living there at the end of my marriage. Here, surely, there was a starting point for one of those books that take the mess of personal life, and give it shape and forward movement.

And there was. A book in which not only my old house, but also my cats and the woman to whom I was married for over 20 years play their part has just been published. Early reviews have declared it a masterpiece. There have been comparisons to John Clare and T S Eliot. Clearly, the bestseller lists beckon. I had not underestimated, it seems, the richness of this background for the right author at the right time. That author, though, turned out to be Richard Mabey.

My reading of Richard Mabey's new book, Nature Cure, has been unusually slanted and partial. Authors are edgy about their material at the best of times; if that material, used to good effect by another writer, is quite literally close to home, then one would expect the effect to be discomfiting, maybe even distressing. Another author has walked into what was once my world, made it his own and has then written rather brilliantly about it. Reading his account, I have been nervous, now and then analysing my reactions like a jockey who has taken a heavy fall and, lying winded, checks his body for broken bones. I think I am going to be all right.

I have known Richard for quite a few years, but had not seen him for some time when, in 2002, he turned up at the caravan where I was temporarily living. He was staying with our mutual friend, the writer Roger Deakin, and was in bad shape. Since he had completed his enormously successful Flora Britannica, his life had gone into a dizzying downward spiral. He had suffered a nervous breakdown, had been forced to sell the family house and had eventually been hospitalised. Unable to write, he was being looked after by friends and, when I saw him, was a stunned, overweight figure, unrecognisable from the lively, observant person he had once been.

Richard liked this part of East Anglia, and had the idea of his putting his life together here. I knew that my ex-wife, Caroline, was looking for a tenant and suggested that a temporary, and mutually satisfactory, arrangement might suit them both. He moved into my old house.

The events of the subsequent 12 months, as described in Nature Cure, will give heart to all but the dourest of pessimists. Richard began to look around and see things again. He became absorbed in the wildlife of the Waveney Valley, its human and natural history. He began to write. And, most significantly of all, he revived a friendship with a woman named as Poppy in the book, and the friendship became love.

As he unthawed, much of the domestic which surrounded him and about which he has now written were the things that I had once known so well. Through his eyes, the farmhouse to whose history I had contributed in a small way was re-imagined and seen anew. The building almost becomes a character, playing its part in the Mabey story. "In the small hours the place seemed only marginally removed from the woodland out of which so much of its fabric had been hewn. It was unquestionably still alive. Nothing was straight or on the level." His study (my bedroom) was an eyrie, "awesome, demanding". The cats and their different characters are so vividly described that at least one of them could soon be attracting the attention of a PR agent.

The birds for whom the house and garden was habitat and, in the case of house martins and occasionally swifts, a destination at the end of a long migration north, all played their part in Richard's nature cure.

Startlingly, the very things that provided company for me seem entirely different, almost alien, when seen through different eyes. The house where I lived, and the birds I used to watch, are part of a vivid and fascinating landscape that has more to do with the writer, the observer, than with any objective reality. Now I can read about them with as much objective curiosity as any other reader would.

The title that Richard Mabey gave to his account of his year of recovery indicates that some kind of call of the wind pulled him back from the brink but, as the book itself indicates, there was more to it than that. Human love played its part, and so did real friendship.

I like to think that the house where I lived, with its creaking timbers and the sense of spiritual (if not actual) warmth that it conveys, also contributed its share of inspiration, bringing Richard back to life and providing a background to a book that offers, particularly to those who have been through personal earthquakes of their own, a story of hope and strength.