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It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet

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It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet

Link to this post 31 Dec 09

It shouldn't happen to a vet

Anthony Irvin at home in Beyton - photo

Write about what you know, they tell aspiring authors, and vet Anthony Irvin did just that - drawing on his years under the African sun for a children's safari adventure. Steven Russell met him on Suffolk soil (which was a bit of a shame, for some southern hemisphere sunshine would have been nice . . .)

HIS own story has the touch of James Herriot about it, and a hint of the TV family drama Wild at Heart, starring Stephen Tompkinson. Anthony Irvin has camped near elephants, canoed among hippos, and windsurfed in the company of stingray. He's eaten crocodile, climbed Africa's highest mountain and photographed a rhinoceros in his pyjamas. (It was Tony in his jim-jams, not the rhino. Just to make that clear.) Oh, and he still carries a scar on his arm after a New Year attack - by humans. When he sat down to write his first novel, it's fair to say he wasn't short of experiences, colour and atmosphere on which to draw. Tony has spent about 20 years in East Africa, more or less, where he became an expert on a cattle disease that few outside the continent have ever heard of. He flew high in the sky in light aeroplanes, relished his trips to the bush, and worked closely with indigenous people such as the Maasai.

When his adventure came to an end and returned to Britain, settling in East Anglia, he effectively became a stay-at-home dad. More used to writing scientific papers and reports, he welcomed the chance to try something different: dreaming up fiction in between sorting out supper and keeping the house straight.

“Every children's writer starts like this, I think: you start telling your children stories and they get imaginative, and people say 'Oh, you should write those down.' You have great pretensions of following in JK Rowling's footsteps . . .” he laughs.

Mr Irvin with his new book
The Ant-Lion, conceived as the first of five stories in the series African Safari Adventures, sees brother and sisters Kal, Lucy and Ellie transplanted from London to Tanzania, where there are whispers of diamonds on their mother's cousin's wildlife ranch. Cue a dangerous quest involving help from a Maasai boy named Matata, a location called the Place of the Skull, and encounters with lions, snakes and bandits. The book's illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings by artist Cat Sawyer.

With a son and daughter in their early teens, Tony's got a handy inside track on youthful idiom and interests, though he's aware that trends and teenage jargon can change quickly. Think how a word such as spiffing, used in the stories of Just William, soon became an embarrassing anachronism, he points out.

“Having written in a scientific background, I thought it was going to be easy; but you have to totally forget how you wrote before. Scientific writing has to be so precise and boring, basically! You've got to get all the details in and refer back to who's done what and how that relates to what you're doing, and how perhaps you're taking things a step further; but in fiction you've got to learn to write dialogue. I used to write speeches to start with!

“You've got to keep the pace in children's writing and keep the pages turning.”

Tony joined a writers' group in Bury St Edmunds, not far from his village home, and found that useful. He wrote a few short stories and had some published, then got his teeth into this children's series.

“They are unashamedly adventure stories; but what I try to do, through the eyes of the children, is almost to ask the naïve questions: 'Why is that man wearing a tablecloth?' 'That's not a tablecloth; it's called a shúkà ,' for example - rather than simply saying 'The Maasai men were wearing shúkàs.'

“You're feeding back to your reader aspects of Maasai culture and the conservation of wildlife - subliminal messages through the 'viewpoint characters' with whom, hopefully, they will empathise.”

Brought up in Berkshire, Tony spent much of his childhood cycling off into the countryside with his pals and chasing butterflies. He thought about becoming an entomologist, “without having much idea of what that would involve!”, and won a university place at Cambridge - where youthful prowess at running appeared to be a clinching factor. He couldn't study entomology, but he could read veterinary medicine if he wanted to. So he did.

His first job, back in the 1960s, was in farming practice in Northamptonshire - cattle, sheep and a few pigs - followed by a spell in Cornwall: Daphne du Maurier country, on the edge of Bodmin Moor. “Her sister used to bring a diabetic Pekinese for treatment.” That sounds just like an episode from Herriot. “It could well have been Tricky Woo!” (Also a Peke.)

Tony didn't quite click with his boss, and also found the work didn't stretch him enough. The then Overseas Development Administration was trying to recruit vets to work overseas in research posts and Tony got one of the jobs.

He spent three years being readied at an animal disease research institute in Berkshire before his dispatch to the East African Veterinary Research Organisation. Of concern was a cattle disease known as East Coast Fever, caused by parasites spread by ticks and found in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and nearby countries. It wiped out many thousands of animals each year.

Tony, his then wife and their two sons, aged about four and two years old, flew out to Kenya in 1969. That first stay stretched over about four years, and a daughter was born out there.

For a wildlife enthusiast such as Tony, Kenya was a treat. His luggage contained books on the game parks and birds of East Africa, and the family would load up the Land Rover and enjoy camping trips.

“One of the things that was so beautiful about Kenya was that at weekends we'd sometimes go off and cycle in the local forests and there were clouds of butterflies, particularly if there'd just been a shower of rain - swallowtails and all sorts of things. Wonderful.”

The climate was appealing and there were flowers everywhere. People were extremely pleasant. Tony was struck by the open spaces, once you were away from Nairobi. Within a couple of hours' drive he could find soda lakes with their crowds of flamingos. It was possible to scale a recently-extinct volcano and climb down in the crater to explore. Mount Kenya, the nation's highest, was also within easy reach. The coast was six hours away, where a staffed beach house could be hired for a glorious holiday.

“It sounds terribly decadent,” he smiles, agreeing it was an almost paradise-like existence.

The downsides included Kenya's intrinsic poverty. Sadly, many young men from the countryside would head for the city, believing the streets of Nairobi were paved with gold. Often, says Tony, folk would turn to crime when their expectations were dashed: pinching handbags and breaking into cars - that sort of thing. Corruption was also a problem.

“I think for ex-pats living there, the thing that causes most tension is the fear you could be broken into at night, with the threat of violent attacks. They have these pangas - machetes, basically. You'd have bars over all your windows. Chances are you would employ a guard, and dogs. But you get used to it. It's a way of life; OK, it's a rather unpleasant way of life, and all your colleagues can tell stories of unpleasant things that have happened to them or their friends.”

Tony says he emerged more or less unscathed, though it depends on one's definition of “more or less”!

“I've got a scar on my arm,” he says, pulling up his sleeve to show the white line. He tells of an incident from a later period in Africa. “We were at the coast and staying in a place that had sort of stable doors in the bedroom, which opened inwards. We were woken in the middle of the night by a terrific crash. Someone picked up a rock and dashed it against the door.

“The thing to do is yell - so my wife and I yelled blue murder. These guys started pitching into us. One of the thing petty thieves do is called pole-fishing. They try to tweak your clothes off the chairs. People warn you not to try to grab the poles because the thieves normally fix razorblades into them.

“We had a little rowing dingy we'd take out on the sea, and we had an oar beside the bed. My son Simon, who was 19 at the time, came in; he picked up this oar and started laying into these guys. They didn't make a sound; they just went. I had this cut on my arm - that was the only damage - but there was a great big piece of wood out of the oar!

“This was New Year's Eve, so I spent between about 11pm and midnight in the police station, sitting on the floor while they dealt with some other emergency. Then I had to make my statement.”

Tony thinks he was cut by a kind of dagger called a seme; and it was suspected the assailants were off-duty guards from a nearby hotel, going home after finishing their shift. There was another incident that night, involving an acquaintance who was stabbed in the neck. The blade broke off, but the victim survived. “It could have been horrendous.”

He adds, wryly: “What was ironic, after this great attack and everything settling down, was the people next-door said 'Can you stop making all that noise?!' So I gave them an earful!”

Did such an experience make the family think they ought to head back to England?

“It didn't, funnily enough. It was part of the way of life. You could say it was almost our stupidity, because we hadn't employed a night guard to look after the property.”

Tony had a number of spells in Africa. After his first stint he went back to Berkshire for three or four years. Then he got the Kenya bug again and landed a job with a new international research institute in Nairobi, where he worked on livestock disease with the aim of helping poor farmers.

After six or seven years he returned to the UK, ostensibly as a civil servant based in Victoria, though the role carried responsibility for development programmes in poorer countries. He and a colleague in essence covered the world between them, so globetrotting was the order of the day.

“The nice thing about livestock was that livestock were in the country! It wasn't like being an economic adviser, where the only place you'd go would be the city or a university. So I had some wonderful trips, being paid by Margaret Thatcher, as it was then, to go trekking in Nepal, for example; or to visit the Falkland Islands, flown down by the RAF, only just post war; and then off to the Caribbean because all the sheep had got blown off Montserrat by a hurricane.

“That was pretty awful, seeing a country's devastation. One of the vivid memories was seeing a corrugated iron sheet wrapped round a stump of a coconut palm just like people might tie a strip of paper around it.”

Next came Zimbabwe in 1995, for the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. Tony's earlier marriage had ended, but he and second wife Susanna - also a vet - had daughter Rebecca at about this time. She came out to Africa when about 12 weeks old.

The family stayed almost exactly a year, before Tony returned to the Nairobi institute where he'd worked previously. It needed a director of biosciences and his role involved managing a $30million research programme. There's a photograph floating around from this time, showing Tony explaining all about ticks to Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi!

Son Josh was born during this spell, so both youngsters spent their early years in Kenya.

The return to England came towards the end of 1999, with a couple of years at Garboldisham, between Thetford and Diss, before a move to a village near Bury St Edmunds. Susanna continued with her veterinary career - she works in a diagnostic laboratory near Bury - and Tony did some consultancy work as well as pursuing writing in conjunction with his domestic duties.

With The Ant-Lion out in print (it's a damselfly-like insect, by the way) Tony can turn his attention to the rest of the series. Books two and three are written in draft form, and book four is started. All share that animal/African safari flavour.

He half-tuts/half-smiles when asked about TV wildlife programmes, for some do get up his nose, he admits. The BBC series in the late 1990s about student vets just before and just after qualification were good, he says, but later variations proved irritating. He cites one where the vets ventured across Africa, helping with animal projects and surgery - “and they were pontificating about the behaviour of zebras and so on. The poor Kenyan vet was just relegated to the background: who probably set the thing up, did all the work, and from whom they were probably getting their information!”

The Ant-Lion, produced by self-publishing imprint Matador, costs £5.99. ISBN 9781848762077

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