Darwin's Ancestor: Ruth Padel

PUBLISHED: 21:06 07 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:54 20 February 2013

Darwin Picture courtesy of Shrewsbury Museums Service and www.darwincountry.org

Darwin Picture courtesy of Shrewsbury Museums Service and www.darwincountry.org

Ruth Padel is a writer and an explorer... traits evolved from her great great grandfather, a man she will honour through poetry and prose this bicentenary year<br/><br/>By Dave Hancock

'When Ruth travelled through remote jungles and tropical forests looking for wild tigers, she took Origin of Species. It gave her a personal insight into the writings of great great grandfather

This feature should evolve. It should develop gradually. You should learn first about Nora Barlow. She was a formidable woman who brought up six children, died at the age of 104 and has a pink and white double aquilegia named after her.

Next, you should know about Ruth Padel. She is a prize-winning poet, writer, radio broadcaster, chorister and nightclub singer.

Nora Barlow was the granddaughter of Charles Darwin and edited several of his books, including the first unexpurgated version of his autobiography.

Ruth Padel is, in turn, the granddaughter of Nora Barlow. She remembers her grandmother talking about Charles Darwin's evolving ideas. When Ruth travelled through remote jungles and tropical forests looking for wild tigers, she took Origin of Species as reading material. It gave her a personal insight into the writings of great great grandfather.

Ruth's personal evolution comes in the form of Darwin A Life in Poems, published on February 12. It is, says Ruth: "About Charles Darwin, his central relationship, his family, his relation to faith and above all his ideas - but through poems."

This is one of the poems.


"I often had to run through town between the School

and home." Slipping the shuts between one dark street

The mediaeval names of Shrewsbury's narrow streets and "shuts" - the slip-passages between old buildings - are still in use.

and the next: Shoplatch, Mardol, Grope Lane,

Butcher Row. "Being very fleet

I was generally in time but I often prayed

earnestly to God for aid." Gullet Passage, Bear Steps,

Portobello, Murivance. "I attributed my success

to prayer, marvelling how greatly I was helped."

"I've always read lots of books about animals, always liked Dr Dolittle and always enjoyed gardens," says Ruth. These interests have survived alongside playing the viola in Westminster Abbey (her first job - pay 5), singing in an Istanbul nightclub and studying classics at Oxford, Paris and Berlin.

She lectured in Greek for a while but gave it up to write poems. "I loved teaching but it uses up so much energy which I need to go into writing - that's the trouble," she says now. "Anyway, I do teach one poetry course a year - in South Crete at a place called Loutro you can only get to by boat."

Her first pamphlet of poems, Alibi, was published in 1985 but she admits that it has been broadcasting and journalism by which she has made her living.

"I've always been interested in tigers and the wild," says Ruth. "I wanted to learn, understand and explain about the conservation of tigers."

She's referring to the beginning of this century. Between 2001 and 2004, she journeyed extensively with scientists and conservationists looking for wild tigers. Her travels took her to many places including India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Russia, China and Sumatra.

"The results of these journeys are in Tigers in Red Weather which was published in 2005," she says. "This really led me to get more interested in biology and perhaps understand my great great grandfather better."

Poetry has always been foremost in Ruth's life. She took a selection of poems by poets from Donne to Emily Dickinson on her tiger travels and included them at the back of Tigers in Red Weather. She has also published two books on reading contemporary poems, 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem and The Poem and the Journey. Coincidentally, at the time of writing, the first is the set text for a poetry appreciation group at Wenlock Books in Much Wenlock.

Of Ruth's six published collections of poems, four have been Poetry Book Society choice or recommendations and shortlisted for major literary awards. She won first prize in the National Poetry Competition and has received a Cholmondeley Award from the Society of Authors. Chairperson of the UK Poetry Society from 2004 to 2006, Ruth is currently Poet in Residence at Somerset House, where Charles Darwin worked as secretary of the Geological Society from 1838 to 1839.

Born in London and living there now, Ruth has not actually visited Shrewsbury, although this will change in 2009. "I'm doing a lot of Darwin related work this year," she says. "This includes a series of programmes for Radio 4, quite a few interviews and a number of articles.

"I wrote recently that we should do something better in 2009 than just celebrate Darwin. This year is an opportunity to know him better, to spend more time in the exhilarating company of a man who gave us the basis of modern biology and expanded other sciences."

You can start to know Darwin better by reading Ruth's new book - which will be stocked by Wenlock Books and, no doubt, Shropshire's other independent bookshops. And you can get to know Ruth a bit better by meeting her when she visits Much Wenlock on October 23 in an event at the Edge Arts Centre presented by Wenlock Books.

In the meantime, here's a personal insight by Ruth: "I always learn my poems by heart before reading them - usually while walking my daughter's American cocker spaniel dog. It's just the way I've evolved, I suppose."

Darwin A Life In Poems by Ruth Padel published by Chatto and Windus on 12 February. Price: 10, hardback.

Darwin My Ancestor by Ruth Padel is being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 9.30am each Tuesday for a month from January 27.

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