NA: The sheep has been my totem animal since childhood. I don’t know where and when this started. I’ve lived in cottages in various parts of Northumberland for the past 25 years surrounded by and observing sheep. One of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms was the “shepherd-poet” Alberto Caiero who wrote:
I’ve never kept sheep,
But it’s as if I kept them.
My soul is like a shepherd,
It knows the wind and sun,
And walks hand in hand with the Seasons
Looking at what passes.
(tr. Richard Zenith)
Both my novels were inspired by a growing sense of kinship with animals, especially cats, dogs and sheep, which turned me into a vegetarian. The unnamed Sheep Who Changed the World evolved from Mickey the Judas sheep (whose job it is to lead other sheep to the slaughter in the abbatoir) in my first novel, The End of My Tether, which I started writing in 1996, the same year that Dolly the cloned sheep was born and Mad Cow Disease hit the UK. I finished that book shortly after its nineteen muses were needlessly killed on New Year’s Day 2002: these were the noble and boisterous Suffolk tups I used to watch from my window who were slaughtered along with 2100 other sheep in a flock which did not have Foot and Mouth Disease but were close to a farm which had been infected. Those were the last sheep in England to be slaughtered before the 2001 epidemic was officially declared over.
KN: Some people might not be aware of your first novel The End of My Tether, A Myth of England in 28 Lunar Chapters (2002), shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award, which draws richly from countryside law and lore and is itself a brilliantly complex codification of country ways and values: what drew you to these themes?
NA: The Green Man, Herne the Hunter and the Celtic god Cernunnos combine through the figure of Kernan in the novel, and the Green Man was certainly the catalyst, along with my lifelong fascination with mythology, English folklore and depictions of England and English life from Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poetry through to Shakespeare to Hardy and Edward Thomas. And seeing stone and wood carvings of the “pagan” Green Man in English churches, I would ask: was that to contain or appease the spirits of the earth, or to bring them inside, as it were? I’m also reminded that our word “pagan” (from the Latin paganus) originally meant rural, before it became synonymous with the worship of many different gods practised in rural parts. The Green Man has always felt to me to be a threshold figure, between human and nature, as well as being expressive of the power of nature. Or did the early Christians bring him into their churches to gain acceptance from those they wished to convert to the faith by accommodating their beliefs? In Australia I visited a Catholic mission at a remote Aboriginal settlement then called Port Keats: