Author and historian John Lewis-Stempel

PUBLISHED: 00:19 19 January 2012 | UPDATED: 20:56 20 February 2013

Author and historian John Lewis-Stempel

Author and historian John Lewis-Stempel

From his knowledge of cows' behinds and foraging in the Herefordshire countryside to the American West and the trenches of World War One, John Stempel-Lewis is a man of many excellent words, says Sharon Chilcott

The next time I put animals in a show ring Ill be more sympathetic, laughs Herefordshire author and farmer John Lewis-Stempel explaining how he competed with four other writers for the prize to write Young Herriot.


The book, which tells of James Herriots formative years at veterinary college in Glasgow in the 1930s, sits alongside the three-part BBC drama, screened last December. The programme-makers were looking for someone to write the book to accompany the series and my name was put forward. It was a nerve-wracking process. They nearly made us go head to head.


With more than 100 books already to his name and having sold 1.5 million copies, it was the first time John had been in a competitive pitch, but he believes he won it because it played to all my strengths. I was probably the only author who knew the front end of a cow from the back end!


For the historian and writer who was brought up on a Herefordshire hop farm and has now returned to his roots to farm sheep and cattle near Longtown, theres no hiding his delight: It was the perfect job. I was a total James Herriot fan as a child. I read all the books and was briefly persuaded by the series that I wanted to be a vet but my maths
wasnt good enough so that knocked that on the head.


I used to enjoy reading the books because they were incredibly well written. Herriot has the most brilliant prose style.


The task of researching the book also brought back memories of stories from his childhood. My mother never saw a doctor as a child because she was always tended to by the vet. I can remember her telling me about being given potions for her skin and apparently once the vet took out one of her teeth, which was perfectly normal in rural Herefordshire in the 1930s.


Young Herriot: The Early Life and Times of James Herriot, has now been added to the string of titles which John has to his name, including the acclaimed Six Weeks. His book about British frontline officers in the First World War is so-called because in the worst of the war, in battles such as the Somme, that was how long a junior officer could expect to survive before becoming a casualty. Like much of Johns work, it looks at how people behave in situations of military conflict. I am interested in how humans act in adversity, so my books tend to concentrate on the soldiers point of view. I think it is important that people should feel the experience and I am chuffed beyond belief that Julian Fellowes used it for reference for the second series of Downton Abbey.


He is also delighted that Dan Stevens, who plays Matthew Crawley in the costume drama, has said that the book was the best resource ever in preparing for his role as an officer in the trenches.


The idea for the book, which explores the benevolent paternalism of junior officers, came to John in the chapel at Monmouth School, where his son Tristram is a pupil. Looking at the roll of honour, the thought started going through my head that people tend to think of public school officers in the First World War as being incredibly effete poets or absolutely stupid Hoorah Henrys. My son and his friends are not like that so presumably those boys who went to war werent either, and I started to investigate what the boys of 1914-18 were like and why they fought despite their likely fate.


Working as a historical researcher for TV in London, John got his first break into writing with a collection of short stories based in the American West. The only way the company in America would publish it was under a non-double-barrelled, American-sounding name. So I used the name Jon E. Lewis and the American publishers pretended I came from Hereford, Texas. I could never be interviewed about my books though. I would have been rumbled because of my very English voice!


The book came out around the same time as the film Dances with Wolves. It was the only one about the American West on the shelves and it did fantastically well. The publisher really thought I had my finger on the pulse, says John (or Jon!), who has gone on to publish at least 50 books under his pseudonym. This year, he is about to embark on another about the
American Indians.


It was only about 15 years ago that he started writing under his own name. I find the anonymity of a pen name quite pleasurable, he said. The advantage is that you can really hide behind it and write about things you dont write about as yourself. For example, Ive written books about The Doors, which I probably couldnt have done in my
own name.


Around the same time, he finally returned to his ancestral roots with his wife, Penny, who had until that point been reluctant to leave the city. When I met my wife, I approached her at the age of 19 saying I wanted to be a writer, which she thought was a good chat-up line, but she says I failed to tell her that I would be wearing tweed and want to drag her back to Herefordshire. But after my persistent campaign and our first child, her will cracked.


He met Penny in London, having left Herefordshire to go to universities in Bristol, Cardiff and Kent, obtaining an MA in Historical Studies. But he says: I always knew that I didnt only want to write. I had a hankering to return to farming I couldnt give it up.


The couple moved first to Abbey Dore and then, wanting more land and a view of the Black Mountains, to a 17th century house at Longtown, which
John subsequently discovered had been in his family before, back in the 1390s. Members of his family, who went by the name ap Harry, used to own the whole of the Vale of Eywas and one of its
most illustrious members is Blanche Parry, Chief Gentlewoman to Queen Elizabeth I.


On the 40-acre farm, he says he has a complete set of farm animals ducks, geese, chicken, pygmy goats, a horse, two ponies and a donkey, four dogs, six cows and a flock of sheep. He adds: I am rubbish at growing vegetables, but I am quite interested in cereals and I am interested in looking into micro-farming, to see how a small acreage can be self sufficient.


In his 19th century book, Cottage Economy, William Cobbett maintained you could be self-sufficient with a quarter of an acre of land. I am quite interested in trying that, says John. It would be wise to take this seriously as here is a man who has already spent a year living on the food growing wild on his land.


Having read somewhere that a primitive hunter-gatherer needed 100 acres to support a family, he thought he would see if he could support himself on his own acreage. I have a hidden but stubborn desire to test myself in extremis. One of the reasons I like farming is that I like being out in all weathers. I liked the idea of the challenge of spending a year living on wild food and the fact that it was a perfect excuse to spend time outside. His wife and children, Tristram, 17, and Freda, 13, didnt join him in his experiment: The children used to torture me by devouring their perfectly-cooked Waitrose salmon in front of me while I was eating some green stuff!


His book, The Wild Life, describes his experiences and his two narrow escapes, one when he ate a poisonous mushroom, which made him ill for about a week, and another when he partook of some dubious watercress. His next book, Foraging The Essential Guide to Free Wild Food, is, he says: based on my hard-earned experience.


Meanwhile, this prolific writer, who says he is driven by a strong Protestant work ethic, has already embarked on another book about the First World War, the details of which are still
under wraps.



Look out for John Lewis-Stempel at this years Hay Festival, where he will be giving a talk about Young Herriot with Herriots son, Jim Wight.


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