Sunday, September 19, 2021

My hero / Oliver Rackham by Richard Mabey


A detail from the cover of Oliver Rackham’s History of the Countryside

My hero: 

Oliver Rachman by Richard Mabey

A tribute to the botanist and nature writer who died last week

Saturday 21 February 2015


first saw Oliver Rackham perform in 1973, at a cross-disciplinary conference on the British oak held that autumn in Sussex University. We were at the dark heart of what Oliver was later to call “the locust years” (he loved a good epigram) when the forestry sector was trashing native woodland, and the subtext of the conference was a subtly orchestrated counter-attack by British ecologists, a bid to rehabilitate the national tree. Oliver was their secret weapon. He appeared on the platform looking so much the eccentric young don (he had one elbow of his coat darned red, the other green) and the power of what he delivered was stunning. He dismembered myths, caught erstwhile authorities with their factual trousers down, gave a glimpse of a community history lived not apart from trees but with them. He had measured the timber in old Suffolk houses and found the woods they were built from. He knew, first-hand, how woods worked, and that oak had been part of a different culture of woodmanship, based on natural regeneration, not industrial planting.

That appearance set out the preoccupations he was to explore in a dozen magnificent books. No one had a more crucial impact on a whole generation’s ideas about ecology and history. For Oliver, woods weren’t abstract entities; they were symbiotic networks of carpenters, beetles, deer, land-thieves, lichens, pollards, surveyors and toadstools. I once drove him from Stowmarket to Cambridge, a journey that should have taken about an hour. It took three, as he showed me a wood with five-leaved herb paris and a landscape in which he knew every hedge.

He excoriated generalisations and what he called “factoids” (eg that building the Tudor navy destroyed our oakwoods) in elegant English that had its roots in the precision of Gilbert White and the robustness of William Cobbett. He had little truck with the self-centredness of modern nature writers, but we are all in his debt.


001 My hero / Oscar Wilde by Michael Holroyd
002 My hero / Harley Granville-Barker by Richard Eyre
003 My hero / Edward Goldsmith by Zac Goldsmith
004 My hero / Fridtjof Nansen by Sara Wheeler 
005 My hero / Mother Mercedes Lawler IBVM by Antonia Fraser

007 My hero / Ernest Shepard by Richard Holmes
008 My hero / JG Ballard by Will Self
009 My hero / Alan Ross by William Boyd
010 My hero / Ben the labrador by John Banville

011 My hero / Vicent van Gogh by Margaret Drabble
012 My hero / Franz Marek by Eric Hobsbawm


017 My hero / Jack Yeats by Colm Tóibín
018 My hero / Francisco Goya by Diana Athill
019 My hero / Max Stafford-Clark by Sebastian Barry
020 My hero / Arthur Holmes by Richard Fortey

036 My hero / Robert Lowell by Jonathan Raban
037 My hero / Beryl Bainbridge by Michael Holroyd
038 My hero / Charles Schulz by Jenny Colgan
039 My hero / Oliver Knussen by Adam Foulds
040 My hero / Annie Proulx by Alan Warner

041 My hero / David Lynch by Paul Murray
042 My hero / Edwin Morgan by Robert Crawford
043 My hero / Anne Lister by Emma Donoghue
044 My hero / Jane Helen Harrinson by Mary Beard
045 My hero / Edmund Burke by David Marquand
046 My hero / Shelagh Deleaney by Jeanette Winterson
047 My hero / Christopher Marlowe by Val McDermid
048 My hero / Gwen John by Anne Enright
049 My hero / Michael Mayne by Susan Hill
050 My hero / Stanley Spencer by Howard Jacobson

051 My hero / William Beveridge by Will Hutton
052 My hero / Jean McConville by Amanda Foreman
053 My hero / Alexander Pushkin by Elaine Feinstein
058 My hero / Cy Twombly by Edmund de Waal

079 My hero / Gene Wolfe by Neil Gaiman
087 My hero / Alberto Moravia by John Burnside
096 My hero / Isaac Babel by AD Miller
097 Lucian Freud by Esi Edugyan
100 Thomas Tranströmer by Robin Robertson
102 My hero / David Hockney by Susan Hill


190 My hero / Iris Murdoch by Charlotte Mendelson
194 My hero / René Descartes by James Kelman
199 My hero / Albert Camus by Geoff Dyer


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