Commentary – Pond Life

This story appeared – in abridged form – as a guest guest post on Helen Day’s fascinating Old Ladybird Books blog. You can read the full version here.

Pond Life is another Derbyshire story, set in Ambergate, which is where I grew up. That end of the Cromford Canal, and the Ladybird book which shares the story’s title, were part of my youth, as well as the narrator’s. My grandparents had a farm beside the canal, and like many children my interests were elemental, and the farm provided access to all four. There was an open fire, which fascinated me. Plenty of water in the canal, and the countryside itself provided amply in terms of air and earth.

The Ladybird books in Nature Series 536 really were my favourites, too. Along with Pond Life, the seasonal What to Look for quartet was amongst my most cherished boyhood reading, along with British Wild Animals, British Wild Flowers, and Butterflies, Moths and Other Insects. This was the start of a lifelong love of natural history writing, and alongside my rural upbringing primed me for the poetry of John Clare. There’s a darker side to the natural world, and our relationship with it, which should not be ignored, but I do think it’s important first to establish the connection, and I remain indebted to these Ladybird titles for their part in my young life.

As with most of my stories, Pond Life has links to my novels, in this case both The Wood Road North and the second one, which I’m still writing. Characters from the fringes of the novels pass into the stories, and more central characters from the stories appear in the novels. There’s also an overlap between the stories themselves, perhaps a separate narrative to which even I’m not entirely party, just yet. But a hard drinker called Mark turns up again here, as he did in Belper’s Many Taverns and The River’s Bride.

This story hints, albeit gently, at some of the wider themes in my work as a whole: nature and the countryside, reluctance or refusal to engage with the everyday world, the flow of water, and the power of alcohol. There are also family considerations, and the senses of place and belonging. The Ladybird book Pond Life has helped the narrator to construct his identity, and he turns to his advantage any suggestion in the phrase of backwater insignificance. Everywhere is a backwater, for somebody.

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