According to John McEwen, writing in The Spectator on 11/10/2014:
Mark Cocker is the naturalist of the moment, with birds his special interest.
This accolade, with dozens more, is presumably the reason that his opinions on other nature-writers are thought of value, and we have just read his article Death of the Naturalist in New Statesman, 17/06/2015.
He was by no means as even-handed in his writing of it as was the editor Jason Cowley in his publishing of the piece. It may be remembered that it was Jason Cowley, then editor of Granta, who anthologized in Granta 102 (2008) what could be called the cream of ‘The New Nature Writing’, and we wonder how thoroughly he had read Mark Cocker’s article — considering its content.
Although, at first reading, it may appear to be a measured analysis of ‘what is wrong’ with nature-writers today, and we accept that there is much in it which is sincere, we cannot help but discern a scarcely concealed sub-text. Mark Cocker was hardly subtle in this respect. He mentioned by name multiple-award-winning authors whose work in this field is accepted to be outstanding and yet whom he described, and not to flatter, as ‘New Nature Writers’. (Why he did so when he was also included in that august company in Granta 102 was rather strange.)
His arguments were not well-made; rather, he dwelt on what he now perceives to be the differences between ‘them and us’. ‘Us’ being those like himself and, of course, his good friend of long-standing, Jim Perrin. ‘Them’, to give his own example, Robert Macfarlane. And this phony, in fact fabricated, vendetta has had life breathed into it by Mark Cocker previously: here he is, writing in The Spectator, 21/03/2015:
‘In recent years there has been a fashion for so-called ”New Nature Writing”, when the words are invariably heavy with emotion, while the descriptions of place and wildlife often serve as a hazy green backcloth against which the author depicts the main subject — their own personalities.’
Whilst probably this is not the case in Mark Cocker’s own work it is distinctly the case with Jim Perrin’s and there are many who have pointed it out.
The writer of this article attempted to manipulate the emotions of his readers (a Jim Perrin trait) and hinted they should pity Richard Mabey — ‘Poor Richard Mabey’ — by planting the idea that this most brilliant of true nature-writers, a man of humility and great integrity, is at all troubled to have been ‘supplanted’ (a word used with derogatory intent) by Robert Macfarlane. This was churlish. And he quotes: ‘Some ambitious young scribbler in every holloway, dingle or fen.’ It is utter and prejudiced nonsense. ‘Poor’ Richard Mabey is of finer fibre, and would never harbour those vain ideas. And to add gender to the mix, that is, using Kathleen Jamie’s words, was not as innocent as at first it might appear. It was a red-herring; and while it is true that there have been female nature-writers far into antiquity it is also the case that men have Had it Their Own Way for generations, with the early men-only universities and institutions; their publishing houses and the exclusivity of their clubs. (Much of William Wordsworth’s nature-writing, though, was inspired by his sister, Dorothy’s own nature notes.) Actually, as we said, it was a ‘red-herring’, dragged intentionally into his article so that he could quote her specifically and to link the quote to Robert Macfarlane — what she had written was a mean-spirited caricature:
…A Lone Enraptured Male! From Cambridge! Here to boldly go…
Yet, further on, Mark Cocker pays lip-service to the truth that all nature-writers take example from those who have ‘boldly gone’ before. No, it is perfectly obvious that the mean intention behind this whole passage is unworthy; and that gratuitously to insult Robert Macfarlane was Mark Cocker’s only purpose. Jim Perrin has frequently used the same tactic which seems to us a rather meaningful coincidence. It was not necessary; worse it was malicious. Mark Cocker should feel ashamed of entering the lists on behalf of his friend for it is virtually certain they discussed it and one senses Jim Perrin’s smeared finger-prints throughout the text.
It was written, in part, to be divisive and the author’s words were calculated to encourage readers to consider what is really a spurious distinction: and to make quite certain that his point was not missed he continued, openly, to mention Robert Macfarlane in distinctly unpleasant terms. He chose his words carefully — it would not do to be thought using libellous language; a trick he might have learned from Jim Perrin who has devised and used it to great effect over the years — a method of libelling ‘libel-lessly’. He disingenuously continued: ‘The person who has borne the brunt of the criticism [Robert Macfarlane]…’ Well, yes, most notably from Jim Perrin, under the protection of anonymity (aliases used include: Melangell, Llywarch / Tim Bartley, Arthur Dooley, Clem Fandango, Jago Wells and Jokerman-lemon and lime). And now, as was evident in the article, from Mark Cocker himself.
Why should he have written in a manner that — it is plain to see — is an attempted verbal assassination? And why did he go to lengths to diminish the work of other authors in his ‘thoughtful’ discourse? His own extensive body of work stands alone, regardless of the category into which it falls: he should feel, with justification, proud of his literary output and success. Is this not sufficient? Should it not be? Instead, through the sophistry in his article, he maligned individual fellow writers. Ah, the lure of politics in the literary world… His opinions, seemingly well-thought-out, should hold no weight when the words he chose, however ‘cleverly’ — and under the guise of ‘measured consideration’ — were used to disparage others, but so ‘gently’ they might not have been noticed. (And we must not forget his entrenched loyalty to Jim Perrin… )
Indeed we wonder if they are his own words or if there has been input — maybe considerable collaboration — from this close friend: an author who in so many of his own articles, reviews and comments, even in an article on the Sherpas he did so, often makes opportunity to write nastily about ‘The New Nature-Writers’ in general, and Robert Macfarlane in particular; and who, to harm the reputations of those of whom he is envious — infinitely superior — frequently skates to the very brink of libel. (Of course there was the famous case of Curran v Perrin where, for once, he did not get away with it! — his motivation then was surely jealousy and spite.)
Has Mark Cocker been contaminated by association? We think there may be a rational explanation for the continual sniping; rather more elegantly in Mark Cocker’s prose as compared to the poisoned arrows which Jim Perrin aims. He, the ‘pre-eminent’ author (as is written endlessly in the author-information given out about him) was not included in that seminal edition of Granta. And we do know, as a certainty, that he definitely was not invited to contribute. Thus were the readers deprived of the words of an illustrious writer in the genre… Such a loss to all concerned and to the world of ‘New Nature Writers’… Had Jim Perrin been involved one might guess that none of the subsequent diatribes over the years; the bad reviews and negative thoughts (his own or those of his supportive friends and cronies) would ever have been posted, or crossed their minds! We believe this lies at the root of all the anti ‘New Nature Writers’ brouhaha: malignancy and vengeance. ‘Hell hath no fury like [Jim Perrin] scorned’…
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The categorizing of nature-writers could be thought fanciful. Fashions come and go, in writing as in hem-lines, and each will write in their own way. Does Helen Macdonald, for instance, author of H is for Hawk — and whom Mark Cocker was at pains to particularize (as did Jim Perrin in his Guardian Country Diary entry of 07/03/2015, except the oblique barb he used was Machiavellian) — ever declare that she considers herself to be ‘a nature-writer’, new or otherwise? Her book was written from the heart and as such it has been recognised and has touched the hearts of thousands, achieving an outstanding success — a success perhaps that some other authors might envy? She was not concerned to be allocated an authorial category. So why has Mark Cocker written with an element of almost-disdain? — it seems patronising and un-gentlemanly.
As to Jason Cowley’s editorial approval of Mark Cocker’s article: surely he cannot be unaware that Jim Perrin launched a personal attack on him — (that is of his introduction to ‘Granta 102’) in his ‘William Condry Memorial Lecture’ of 2010. Again, as in this article by Mark Cocker (when he refers to Robert Macfarlane) part of Jim Perrin’s lecture was quite deliberately focused on Jason Cowley. His brazen intention was to insult him — we were later told that ‘it was his revenge for not being invited to contribute to Granta 102‘. While this invidious behaviour can be seen as Jim Perrin’s ‘stock in trade’ we had not thought Mark Cocker would so avidly ape his style.
And has Jim Perrin’s influence on Mark Cocker guaranteed him a mention in the article in which he was given much credit for his views and thus ensured for him a suitable elevation among his peers? Not only that but he was hailed as having written ‘a searing memoir’. (Of which more later.) Might it be that Mark Cocker’s continuing alliance with Jim Perrin is ill-judged? — given his interest and expertise there is no pun intended when we repeat the old adage: ‘Birds of a feather flock together’ and as we think so highly of his books we would be saddened if this was the case.
But: Mark Cocker knows about our website and we have spoken with him. There were two conversations, albeit the second was brusquely curtailed. (We supposed that between the two, and the first was friendly enough, he had communicated with Jim Perrin… ) We told how ‘Melangell‘, who had written several sycophantic comments on The Guardian‘s website about his work (they are still there), was actually his friend Jim Perrin using an alias. Perhaps to his credit he would not believe us then, yet to this day he seems so besotted with Jim Perrin that he cannot accept the possibility. This well might be because Jim Perrin can be very persuasive — ‘plausible’ is his middle name. Whenever he is challenged on the subject of our site we know that his response is always to say that it is ‘full of lies’; that our family ‘has it in for him’, and that ‘he is the victim of malicious gossip that is being spread about’. He also exhorts any over whom he has power not to read it — to do so would be tantamount to the gravest disloyalty; so, in good faith, Mark Cocker has presumably been loyal to Jim Perrin. At the time of our telephone conversation he simply could not believe what we said. ‘No’, he replied, when told the dreadful truth: ‘she is a woman’… He would not believe us. Until our conversation he had no idea and refused even then to countenance the possibility: he did not want to know. Similarly he has accepted ‘DrudwyBranwen‘ at face-value and seems without suspicion.
This trust, bordering perhaps on naivety, or to be cynical, self-interest has certainly ensured that Jim Perrin has a firm ally in Mark Cocker and the entrée through him to other opportunities. As so many have indisputably been closed to him since the establishment of our site — (his work at the Ty Newydd writing centre in Wales, for one example) — he has needed all the help he can muster and Mark Cocker has continued to be his right-hand man. We are inclined to wonder whether Jim Perrin has some ‘hold’ over him; if so it seems powerful. And what reason, what obligation, could have induced him to reference the ‘searing memoir’ of his best friend’s book West?
This was a book which even its publisher Toby Mundy* said to us, in speaking of Jim Perrin: ‘It is a book that he should never have written’. (Yet, after all, perhaps it was the book which was destined to reveal by its ramifications the ‘real’ Jim Perrin.) It was ‘the book’ in which its author told so many blatant lies: not only about his relationship with our sister Jac but also about her family and friends, her ex-husband and her previous partners (all identifiable as he intended them to be, to those concerned). His former lovers who had learnt the truth of his nature and dismissed him were salaciously written into West and even, and the ultimate wicked disloyalty, he wrote of one of his ex-wives — the mother of the son who was so tragically driven to suicide: she was lied about most shamelessly. It is proved beyond doubt that Jim Perrin is an accomplished and manipulative liar, and someone who has many and worse ‘crimes’ to answer for. Why Mark Cocker should feel so beholden we cannot know. Why he fits so tightly in his pocket (as it seems) is a mystery. We only wish that he would show more sense and sensitivity than to remain bosom friends with such a man.
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In our opinion his article in New Statesman was not entirely what it purported to be. Its ‘cleverness’ was merely a vehicle — an exercise in downing other authors (however flatteringly disguised). Did Jim Perrin have a hand in the project — or two? We feel that Mark Cocker, even if he stands loyally by his friend, would be wiser not to be further involved with him in factitious attacks on ‘The New Nature Writers’. It puts him in a very bad light indeed. Perhaps it would be better to concentrate on his own admirable work, his acknowledged speciality: the birds of the world… He does not need Jim Perrin, and his career might well be tainted by further association: this would be a tragic outcome for one who has achieved so much on his own merits; and even if at first he really had no idea of the serious flaws in Jim Perrin’s character — and he is adept at concealing them as he chooses — by now Mark Cocker cannot have failed to realise that all is not as it seems: ignorance is no defence.
* Toby Mundy resigned from Atlantic Books in 2014, after founding it in 2000 and being its Chief Executive Officer. He told us the company showed a loss of £1.8m on a turnover of £6.9m in a dreadful 2010 — which was the year that they published West! He also said: Jim Perrin’s book did not help the situation as the sales were so poor. — and he considered that more people now read our website than have read the book with which we took such issue…
NB. As the 2013 Defamation Act ‘inversely’ puts it: ‘A statement is not defamatory unless its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant.’ We wonder whether Mark Cocker’s comprehensive ‘reporting’ of only derogatory remarks and references regarding Robert Macfarlane constitute grounds for legal action by him.
It is more likely though that his article, with its snide inferences, will drop unremembered into a black hole…
Since writing this post our attention has been drawn to a most perceptive article in The Times Literary Supplement: The Limits of Nature Writing in which the author Tim Smyth describes Mark Cocker as ‘perhaps England’s leading contemporary nature writer’ and mentions many other well-known writers in this field. However Mark Cocker’s acknowledged friend Jim Perrin was NOT included in Tim Smyth’s list — and we can imagine his, Jim Perrin’s, mortification at being, once again, excluded from a listing of this peer recognition. Did the omission spark Mark Cocker’s article? Was he writing as an exercise in ‘loyalty’ to his overlooked colleague?