Silent Spring Revisited
I had the rare honour of being invited to give a talk about my first book, Silent Spring Revisited, at the Buxton Literature Festival. I have several talks lined up, but this was the first I’ve done. The journey through the Derbyshire Peaks was pierced by glorious sunshine, evening shadows spearing across a landscape by freshening rain, cut hay drying in the warm upland breezes.
Buxton retains all of its Victorian spa town elegance, and crowds milled in the gardens and outdoor cafes. A particular highlight was meeting Joanna Lumley outside the Opera House. Knowing her liking for birds and track-record as an environmentalist, I tried to lure her along to my talk. Alas she was much in demand and had other bookings.
I figured the easiest way to structure the talk would be around a few selected readings from the book, to give a flavour of its content and structure, and to fill the gaps between with discussion of Rachel Carson’s life and legacy, where my inspiration for the book had come from (an unlikely source – The Peregrine by J. A. Baker), and why I’ve taken the approach to writing it that I have.
Fifty years on from the publication of Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring, my book is a tribute to her vision and courage, and an attempt to answer the questions: was Rachel Carson right? Did we listen? Year by year since then I chart the major milestones in environmentalism, in the UK, USA and beyond, and the fate of the birds and the dawn chorus. Around this I have woven personal anecdote and other political and cultural events and milestones, to place the movement in its wider historical context.
I’m quite soft-spoken, apparently, and the sound man told me I would need to pro-ject clearly in this large, hotel function suite, with its air-con and absorbent upholstery. His message was reinforced at an early stage but one elderly onlooker. So pro-ject I did. It was hot in there, and as I held the book at the lectern, and essentially shouted out the chosen passages, and in particular the section on the 1967 Torrey Canyon disaster, with its images of burning seas, it dawned on me I might look and sound like a fire and brimstone preacher. And preach is what I’ve never wanted to do, when writing. I always adopted what I hope is a fireside manner rather than a pulpit one. That I was mopping sweat from my brow may have enhanced the undesired effect. I didn’t allow the image of the seabird drenched in crude oil to linger on the screen behind me for long.
Writing, for me, is about finding your inner voice. Bill Shankly once said that if you speak softly, people will work harder to hear you. I’ve always wished that he was right about this. It seemed to work for him. In that sweltering suite I made sure to read some of the more comic extracts, the part of me that has to laugh, although I fear a little for our future. But in any case for future talks a more intimate venue, a comfy chair, an evening time-slot might be more suited to me, the book’s style. Perhaps any book’s. Most aren’t written to be read aloud, after all.
The questions from the audience at the end were spot on, as you’d expect from a literary crowd, the feedback encouraging. One lady even called it the most thought-provoking talk she’d been to, although I’d “have to work on the presentation style – but that will come,” she added, reassuringly.
Buxton also made me realise that one of the loose threads running through SSR is the parallel I’ve often noted between environmentalism and other, more recognised, faiths. And that environmentalism, if not by name, may be a common subtext to all, or most. Is it in actual fact a new religion? Or is it perhaps the oldest? Perhaps I’ll throw that one open the next time.
Conor Mark Jameson
Silent Spring Revisited is published by Bloomsbury in hardback, price £16.99