14 Jan 2022 / My Arvon Journey
At secondary school, I was fascinated by the twin challenges of solving mathematical problems and writing stories. But those two obsessions were not supposed to go together, at least not into the sixth form. Forced to choose, I plumped for the scientific route and went to college to study physics. Life was a serious matter and playing around with words and symbols didn’t seem that serious.
Thankfully, once at university I discovered that I could switch to studying maths full time. It meant I could take mathematical puzzles seriously after all. And after graduating, I found my maths could serve a serious purpose by helping tackle the world’s environmental problems. I have tracked atmospheric pollution, investigated the ozone hole and since 1996 when I joined the Met Office’s Hadley Centre, I have hunted for the signs of humanity’s impact on the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans.
It is an important job to have been doing. It has also been inspiring, hopeful and even fun. By figuring out the problem of climate change, we scientists have charted a course to its solution. There is a chance – still – that the climate crisis can be overcome, in a way that is equitable, sustainable and life-affirming.
Unfortunately however, I have discovered that my work comes with a darker side. Our science has come under attack, from the vested interests of climate change denial who have been determined to stop our findings being acted on. That has been hard to endure and battle against. But over time, I have found solace – and a way to fight back – through the power of words.
I never gave up on playing with words, thanks in part to my English teacher who told me when I left school that I should carry on writing. I had had some success during my teenage years, winning an essay competition on the theme of “Why I would like to visit America” by writing that I wanted “to see whether it is as bad as it is made out to be” and having a ghost story published in the school magazine. But I wasn’t sure how to develop my writing further. Until, in 2009, I screwed up my courage and enrolled on a course at the Arvon house at Totleigh Barton.
That week, under the skilled direction of Mavis Cheek and Paul Sussman, was a revelation. Playing with words was taken very seriously indeed but our time together was also a lot of fun and hugely life affirming. On the Friday evening I read out a page from a fictional climate change thriller that Paul had inspired me to start writing. When I stopped reading and people clapped appreciatively, I felt changed forever.
I carried on working on my idea on early mornings, train journeys and days off work. But eventually, in Spring 2016 while walking along the clifftop path at Scabbacombe Head in South Devon, I realised I wanted to take my writing in a different direction. What I had personally experienced, uncovering the reality of climate change and battling against climate change denial, was as fascinating, jeopardy-ridden and emotion-packed as any fictional story I could dream up. I decided to turn to non-fiction and think about the genre of popular science.
Fortunately, Arvon were running a course on popular science later that year under the direction of two exceptional writers, Aarathi Prasad and Michael Brooks. I signed up and enjoyed another extraordinary week, this time at The Hurst. And as you would expect from an Arvon course, it was all about the words.
We talked a lot about the hopeful human side of science. We analysed an extract of The Hot Zone, Richard Peston’s terrifying account of the Ebola virus. We wrote our own scenes of discovery and jeopardy. And on the final Friday night, I read out the first draft of what eventually became part of a passage of my book, Hot Air: The Inside Story of the Battle Against Climate Change Denial.
It was a long road to completion. In Autumn 2019, needing an extra dollop of Arvon magic, I travelled to Lumb Bank for a wonderful course on hybrid writing under the direction of Tania Hershman and Maria Fusco. Being among writers again was a big fillip; one that helped me complete the last lap of my journey to publication. Shortly after leaving Lumb Bank my book found an agent and then a publisher. After that came more writing and editing, and finally the finished copy.
I couldn’t have done it without my most ardent supporter at my side, artist and musician Pierrette Thomet, my wife and the co-creator of a project called Climate Stories that brings together scientists, artists and citizens to think creatively about tackling the climate crisis. But I couldn’t have done it either without Arvon. Playing around with words, I discovered, can be both playful and serious, the results dramatic and truthful. Thank you Arvon for helping me realise that.
Hot Air: The Inside Story of the Battle Against Climate Change Denial is published by Atlantic Books.
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