Simon Barnes is a very good writer. I was at an event, organised by the excellent World Land Trust, where I saw Simon last week. Although I have met him a few times before, I don’t know him well, but I plucked up the courage to go and talk to the great man and we had a short and pleasant conversation – mostly about birds.
I was very surprised though, on Saturday, to see a big write up of the Hen Harrier issue in Simon’s column although, as I wrote here then, I wondered whether such a forthright piece on raptor persecution would go down well with some of the readers of the paper of the establishment.
For The Times is still the establishment newspaper even in the Murdoch days. I remember, as a schoolboy, sometimes buying The Times because I thought it might make me look intelligent – that didn’t work and I don’t bother now.
But I do read other people’s copies of The Times (in libraries, free copies in hotels, discarded on trains etc) and Simon Barnes’s writing has always been something I have enjoyed. How lucky I have been that Barnes writes about sport and nature – what could be better? You may know his nature writing through journalism, Birds (oops – Natures Home) magazine and several books (here is one reviewed on this blog) but do you share my love of his sports writing too?
I remember a marvellous piece he wrote about Desert Orchid around the time when the mighty grey won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1989, and I sneaked into the bookmakers in Sandy to watch the race and backed Dessie at 7/2 (when SP was 5/2 – value!) for a big stake of £10. Watch the end of the race again here just for the thrill of it – Dessie has done it!
But this week I heard that Simon Barnes had been made redundant from The Times – their Chief Sportswriter and brilliant nature writer. Why?
I did wonder whether Simon’s stand against illegal persecution of raptors over the years might have upset some people, and I notice on Twitter, and elsewhere, that others wondered the same. If you are a criminal (if you instruct your gamekeepers to kill protected wildlife on your grouse moor) then the last thing you want is to read about your crimes in your favourite newspaper over breakfast. If you are rich and powerful and have contacts you might be inclined to ‘have a word’. Far-fetched? I thought I’d contact Simon to see.
This is what he e-mailed me (probably from Wimbledon!) and he said that it was on the record:
‘I wondered about that myself, but I have no idea how these things are decided. Their line to me was that they were selling their top striker because they could no longer afford his wages. I was pretty shocked, though I was aware that a decent salary makes you vulnerable. I’ve been writing for The Times since 1982, and and I’m sorry it had to end like this. I’ve been able to work on some great stories — elephant corridors in India and London 2012, the Peak District and Wimbledon 2013. I’m making rather a point of not looking backwards right now, so I’m trying not to speculate on why I left.‘.
So, there you go: the very curious case of Simon Barnes’s departure from The Times.
Do you buy the cost-cutting story? I don’t. You don’t sell your top striker when he is banging in the goals and on top form, and you don’t give him away, so he can play for other teams, either.
The Guardian seems to have a rather unbalanced team at the moment – lots of play down the left wing of climate change but not much straight-down-the-middle wildlife-writing.
Here are some of Simon’s columns mentioning Hen Harriers:
Last Saturday – Some of our grouses are beginning to be heard
12 May 2012 – Hen Harrier extinction looks bad on the old CV
19 May 2014 – Take your partner for the great sky dance
14 December 2013 – Saving the Hen harrier is a serious business
24 August 2013 – That thing kills all my grouse. It’s got to go
12 April 2014 – We’re going to watch gamekeepers like a hawk
I wish Simon well in the future – he is surely too talented a writer to be out of a job for long. I’ll buy him a meal in London some time if we can get together – on me. We all owe him a lot.