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Katherine Rundell: ‘Larger than the world’s chaos are its miracles’



Katherine Rundell arrives for lunch in London’s Fitzrovia at exactly the appointed hour, having spent her morning in the British Library researching hummingbirds. She was trying to track down a record of Queen Victoria’s delight in seeing a display of the birds’ iridescent skins at the Great Exhibition in 1851.

This would be an odd pursuit for most people but it is just another day for Rundell, a bestselling writer and academic who bursts with original ideas and enthusiasms. Her prizewinning children’s novel Rooftoppers concerns a gang of orphans who live above Paris buildings, and her Instagram profile shows her standing nonchalantly on the roof ridge of All Souls, the Oxford college to which she won a prize fellowship at 21.

As a character in Rooftoppers remarks of its heroine Sophie, “She is bright enough to start a forest fire.” In addition to Rundell’s five children’s novels, plus two picture books, she earlier this year produced Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne, a virtuoso biography of the English metaphysical poet. The Golden Mole and Other Living Treasure, a collection of her awestruck essays, some written for the London Review of Books, about animals including hares, pangolins and seahorses, is published in October.

Rundell’s guiding philosophy is wonder, that in a world scarred by climate change and conflict, we owe it to ourselves and others to stop and look around. We should notice and celebrate — as did Donne in a life also scarred by poverty and despair — the astounding details of our existence, from beauty and brilliance to the fact that wombats run incredibly fast. “Attention is the thing we offer, that we owe most to the world we live in,” she says later.

Rundell is now 35 and, having devoted a decade to Donne, including a doctorate and his biography, is accustomed to spending a lot of time in archives that “smell strongly of feet and linoleum”. She is dressed in black and has the intellectual’s ability to discourse rapidly in seamless arcs, complete with literary references and silent footnotes. But her brown eyes are warm and sense of humour robust.

We meet at Rovi, one of several restaurants run by the Israeli-born chef Yotam Ottolenghi. I inquire why she chose it, expecting some rigorous logic, but it was simply that she had not been before and fancied a new experience (“novelty” was the essay topic she was given for her All Souls fellowship exam). 

Apart from her essay on hummingbirds, she is redrafting a children’s book due for publication next year, having discarded 50,000 words of her first draft. “Wrong setting,” she replies, starting to explain the difficulty before she remembers not to give away the story.

Her about-turn is unusual, but Rundell is an inveterate redrafter: “My publishers have this exasperation that they have to claw my books from me.” She made false starts at her Donne biography before breaking from academic precision and writing a wilder text about the many facets of her literary hero’s extraordinary life as first a love poet and later dean of St Paul’s Cathedral under James I.

Rundell may not yet be done with Donne: she has worked on and off for years on a novel about Anne Donne, who married Donne without her father’s consent at 17, and may have been pregnant at the time (Donne was thrown in prison for a while and famously wrote: “John Donne, Anne Donne, undone”). Anne died at 33 after bearing 12 children, of whom six died before they reached adulthood.

The toll of death was then immense and Rundell has read letters of 16th-century mothers’ grief. “We often [believe] that because people lived in a time when death was so common and no one had any teeth, there was a coarsening of the emotional fabric in order to survive . . . But I think that losing a child, even if it was the sixth one, was absolutely a knife to the neck.”

We reach this sombre reflection without having ordered, despite two polite prompts from the waitress. Rundell picks courgette borani as a starter, followed by urfa chilli gnudi, while I order burrata and raw peas, then lemon sole with sauce vierge. We justify a glass of wine each, although it is Monday. “I’m a bad cook who loves food,” she says, quoting from memory the US wit Fran Lebowitz: “I love food. I love ordering food.”

It is a few days after the Queen’s death and I ask if she is herself a monarchist. “Personally not. I think it is hard to argue that the royal family does not uphold, codify and legitimise the class system,” she says, adding that “many of those who have held the role have done great harm, deeply bound up with empire . . . and the horrors and murders it involved”.

She admits to some ambivalence, though. “My mother can articulate clearly why she loved and admired the Queen . . . There’s a necessity we have for a figurehead that we can see and be seen by, who has, we believe, a great and passionate love for her people . . . We negate the power of viscerally felt continuity at our peril.”

I have torn into my creamy burrata but I notice that, although Rundell eats politely, she gives her dish less of the attention she advocates.

Having discussed the death of children, we turn to the disappearance of parents. Orphans, or children who are separated from their mothers and fathers, are a staple of children’s books, from CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and also feature in Rundell’s work.

“You need to put your characters on a train of chaos that will give them adventures and delight and excitement and peril,” she explains. “But also, the orphan story is a way of [showing] that we stand alone in a hard world and here are some things that may see you through. Endurance will matter. Generosity will matter.”

Rundell spent much of her own childhood in Zimbabwe, where her father was a UK government development adviser and her mother a French lecturer. She had posters from National Geographic on her bedroom walls and “adored knowing about living things”. The couple had two children and fostered two others, and drilled them in maths (her father’s doctorate was in mathematical probability) and poetry.

“My dad loves maths and wherever we were going on the bus, he would translate algebra into little caterpillar problems . . . We had poetry of all kinds pinned in the house, a bit of stuff in French and some Donne. We were paid to memorise them, in my case small plastic dog figurines called Puppy in My Pocket. I think the going rate was four puppies a poem.”

As our plates are cleared and more food arrives, we also reach the figurative main course. The Golden Mole is funny and joyful (“I don’t think I’ll live to see anything as fine as a raft of lemurs”; “the crow is an Einstein among birds”; pangolins are “more beautiful than plausible in this fallen old world”). But behind the descriptions lies an injunction: be astonished.

She quotes the author GK Chesterton: “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder,” and that is her own philosophy. “It’s something that Donne is quite clear on. Wonder, astonishment and life-long awe take the kind of iron will and ferocious discipline that most of us have neither the time nor the capacity for. But I do find it the regulatory ideal.”

“The what ideal?” I ask.

“Regulatory,” she repeats crisply. Only later, looking it up, do I discover the term was coined by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Rundell uses it to mean an ambition that might be unachievable but is worth striving for.

Her own awe about animals such as crows is deeply embedded. “They happen to be things I’ve loved for a long time. Someone told me when I was little that crows were the most intelligent of birds. It may or may not be true, but since then, I have always treated them with respect for their problem-solving skills.”

As to hares, I quote her claim in The Golden Mole that, if beauty matters most, “we should love the hare more than almost any other creature”.

“Have you ever seen hares boxing?” she asks. I have not witnessed their March courting rituals.

“It’s an incredible thing to see. If you pass hares boxing in a field, it is so joyful in the moment. You’re delighted because it’s delightful . . . As we go about our days, a little more delight might be worth having.”

Talking of delight, I again seem to be getting more of it from my sharply spiced cooked fish than she from her gnudi. “Nice, but not staggering. It’s slightly too lemony. I think I ordered badly,” she says carefully.

I envy the verve of her observations, such as that wombats, “despite the fact that they do not look streamlined”, are capable of outpacing Usain Bolt by running at 40kph for 90 seconds at a time. “I’m unable to summon with imaginative clarity numbers such as kilometres and speeds. I need someone to tell me ‘eight Eiffel towers’.”

But I mention that I was not wholly convinced by her argument that “failure to pay attention has been at the root of many of our failures”, and that if we only gave more of it to rare animals, fewer would be threatened with extinction. Many people visit zoos, admire the elephants, then carry on as before.

Rundell pauses to collect her thoughts, unperturbed at a challenge. (“In academia, where the expression is ‘a good battle dignifies everyone’, you’re constantly aware of people’s willingness to trip you up,” she said earlier.)

“I mean attention as a bodily and political act, not just an intellectual discipline. The same way that being attentive to a guest means not just looking at them but understanding their needs and providing for them. That form of attentiveness but writ large and political . . . I would never want to imply that all that is needed to save our perilous world is more love.”

That is quite a utilitarian definition of wonder, I object. Rundell clarifies again. “Not a sense of wonder that implies, ‘What a fleetingly beautiful thing that I’m going to take solace from’ . . . The John Donnian wonder that encompasses death, plague, chaos, betrayal and still says, ‘You are such a marvel that to do anything other than to live focused and alert is a denigration of that which we should be.’”

I have finished my fish, but several balls of her gnudi remain. “Would you like one?” Rundell asks. When I decline, she comes clean: “They’re unbelievably salty and almost inedible, but I don’t want you to be like [she puts on a deep voice], ‘Katherine Rundell, picky eater.’”

She orders mint tea, and I take an espresso. This all feels a bit spartan, so I add one portion of miso fudge to our order.

Out of interest, I have read the start of her PhD on Donne, which was highly learned but felt slightly as if it was bursting out of being a doctorate (“Such was noted,” she says drily.) Did she enjoy her days at All Souls?

“I used to wake at four and do creative work until nine, then shower and start an academic day, teaching Shakespeare [to undergraduates], which I loved. Then I’d work to the end of the day and go for a drink with friends. I was sleeping five hours a night for years and they were some of the happiest times of my life, but I can’t do that now. Something’s changed, age.”

59 Wells Street, London W1A 3AE

Courgette borani £14.50
Burrata £15.50
Urfa chilli gnudi £19.50
Lemon sole £38.50
Miso fudge £5.50
Glass Vinho Verde £9
Glass Pinot Gris £8.50
Double espresso £3
Fresh mint tea £3.50
Total incl tax and service £132.18

Rundell now lives in London and teaches less, but she remains a multitasker. A friend compared her Donne book to Agatha Christie “writing a slim volume about Proust” amid detective stories, but Rundell’s comparison is CS Lewis. “We forget how unbelievably successful, in terms of numbers, his adult books [such as The Screwtape Letters] were.” It sounds like an ambition.

Do her publishers urge her to stay in one lane? No, she says, they are flexible. “If you asked me to give up writing like the animal essays and Donne, I would be devastated, and I would keep doing it anyway, but just for myself secretly. Likewise if you asked me to give up children’s fiction, and [its] distillation of clarity and vividness.”

We turn finally to her penchant for climbing tall buildings. She cites Phillippe Petit, the Frenchman who walked a wire between the twin towers of the old World Trade Center in New York: “You can’t overcome vertigo. It’s an animal that you have to tame minute by minute but you live alongside it.”

She is warier these days. “As a kid, I constantly wanted to bungee jump and leap off things. As an adult, you have a clearer sense of the inconvenience of serious bodily injury.” But her phone’s screensaver is a night view from the top of the 117m Centre Point building nearby, which she scaled when it was covered in scaffolding. She recently climbed a tall building in Paris, and has her eye on a couple in London.

“It’s not really legal but it’s not strictly illegal, it’s a bit blurry,” she says. One of her companions in quasi-crime is a philosopher friend from Oxford and another is a criminal barrister. Rundell takes a lead from The Night Climbers of Cambridge, a guidebook to scaling the ivory towers written in 1937.

“I’ve never been caught but I have friends who have, and people are by and large generous. Obviously, you must acknowledge that the world is not even: being white and female helps enormously . . . But the freshness of seeing the city from a completely different vantage point is a real delight.”

A plate of small cubes of miso fudge arrives. Rundell bites into the salty sweetness, her eyes briefly close and she looks as enraptured as Edmund eating the White Witch’s evil bribe of Turkish delight in CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

“Wow, delicious. And I mean that,” she says.

Having finally attained culinary wonder, we part. Rundell has given herself an afternoon off from the archives, and I settle the bill.

“I think all my children’s books are saying the same thing,” she told me earlier. “It is chaotic to be alive, but larger than the world’s chaos are its miracles. It’s rational to be afraid, but be brave anyway. The world is vast and awaits you.”

‘The Golden Mole: And Other Living Treasure’ is published in the UK by Faber on October 20

John Gapper is an FT columnist

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