The Times Educational Supplement Information Book Award (Senior category) for 1981 has been won by Richard Steel for Skulls, which, the judges said, stood out from its competitors for its originality and lack of inhibition.
Skulls is a handbook on how to collect and identify animal and bird skulls. In the introduction the author writes ‘I began this book when I realized there seemed to be very few people who were enjoying the hobby of skull collecting, and even fewer books which gave help in the identification of finds.’ By the time he completed it, Richard Steel was sixteen years old.
We asked Sara Steel, Richard’s mother, to tell us about her son, his book and how it came to be written and published.
I bet I’m the only author’s mother in the world who dusts skulls, hoes around a pile of decomposing cows’ heads, scrabbles on hands and knees to find fox incisors under the washing machine and is called to admire a huge bull’s head (‘That’s the horny pad, Mum. Have a look inside the ears.’) as it is brought through the living room to join those cows’ skulls in the garden. Living with a son like Richard is certainly interesting, adding considerably to Life’s Rich Pattern. The fully fleshed bull head was a recent acquisition of his from the slaughterhouse where he works.
Since he was about four years old, Richard has pursued a single-minded path through life, skilfully avoiding teachers and their ideas of academic achievement. At Infant school, while they struggled to impress on him the importance of writing News and doing Sums, I was thankfully abandoning, at his request, the Dinosaur book I’d read to him every night for two years for Animal Life, an adult magazine offering an A-Z coverage of the world’s animals. Richie’s stubborn yet friendly resistance to educational coaxing is epitomised in his Infant prayer for Mother’s Day which omits to mention his mother:
`Thank you dear god for The sea there are little fishes in the sea and there are lobsters and crabs. You can eat crabs and lobsters and you can eat fishes.’
Every week-end we would gather polythene bags and take a bus to the downs lying north of Portsmouth city. Richie’s skull collecting hobby must have started there, though neither of us can remember the exact moment or the exact skull. We were always collecting things: feathers, stones, egg-shells etc., and once brought back some dung beetles to study briefly before we let them loose on a pile of manure in a neighbouring garden.
The first time I was conscious of the skulls hobby was when I caught sight of him, a solemn eight-year-old boy, crouching on the garden path with my carving knife in his hand, intensely studying some neatly arranged flesh and pelts. He had collected weasels and stoats from a gamekeeper’s gibbet and was busily discovering things about their insides before he cleaned the skull for collection. Since then, we have suffered a variety of smells, ranging from the unpleasant to the unbearable. In his book, he describes finding a dead seal on Aberdaron beach:
‘I packed a bag with a sheath knife, bill hook, rubber gloves and plenty of large dustbin bags and persuaded my parents to bring a spade and drive me down from our farm cottage. They started digging (upwind) in a steadily increasing drizzle and also began to complain about the stench. Luckily, I hardly noticed this as my nose seems to be permanently congested – a fortunate ailment with my hobby.’
‘I began to remove the head. The skin was very thick and tough and, although the evening was chilly, I was dripping with sweat. My mother had to hold her nose at one stage and come round to me to wipe my face, as I could hardly see what I was doing! … We had small audiences at various times, but the only people who stayed for any length of time were children; adults seemed to find the sight and smell too awful. I held the head up at last, to a chorus of sad sighs from the children. We rolled the body into the huge hole and covered it up.’
Richie was then fourteen and had already started writing Skulls. It all started by accident. The children at the primary school where I teach knew that any nests, or bits of bodies or dead birds could be identified by Richie and regularly brought in specimens for us to see. One child refused to believe that a skull was a piglet’s, since her farmer father said pigs didn’t look like that. Richie was very offended that his integrity should be questioned. ‘Farmers don’t know anything about country life,’ he said. We tried to find verification, but apart from one very basic book on bones and one highly complex one (neither of which were helpful), there was nothing to prove him right. A friend of mine, Gerry Gaston, who later did the illustrations for us, said he really ought to write about his peculiar hobby as there couldn’t be anyone anywhere else like him! (This has proved to be wrong, as since publication he has received letters and visits from similarly peculiar people from hopeful eight-year-olds to a middle-aged artist.) So at odd moments, whenever the call of the wild outside was not too strong, Richie lounged about on the sofa eating doughnuts and quaffing mugs of tea while I took down his dictation.
I typed up the chapters and we took six photostats before writing to tell various publishers that we would be in London on such and such a day and could we call in. (We’ve since heard this is NOT the way to approach publishers!) Roger Smith of Heinemann agreed to see us to help us find a publisher as the book was not suitable for them. He politely welcomed us, looked at the drawings and the manuscript and said in surprise: ‘Hm. This must be taken seriously.’
He promised to read the book and let us know what he thought of it, but his face had that ‘I think it’s good’ look. When the book was accepted, everyone except Richie leapt around and planned parties to celebrate. To him, if you wanted to publish a book you simply sat down and wrote it, then someone published it.
In the meantime, his school career had progressed to the stage where he was considered too weak to take CSE Biology, although this decision was later revised. He ploughed through revision for a mixture of 0 Levels and CSE’s and decided to use some of his book (he took out the anecdotes) for his Biology project, which made up one third of the marks for his final assessment. We were all shaken to hear that he had earned only a Grade II for the project. When my husband and I went to discuss this with the school, they protested that they did not think it was his own work since he had not stated this on the work. Despite our explanation that it had been accepted for publication, the school would not move from their original assessment. (Richie – ever modest, or perhaps not seeing school as anything to do with his real life – had not told them about the book.) It seemed to be educationally insane. Richie had not only sustained a hobby for many years in isolation from the enthusiasm of fellow collectors, he had evolved his own knowledge, built up from first-hand experience, and from practical successes and failures. As teachers, my husband and I were bitterly disillusioned at the shallow criteria apparently used to assess these projects and to discover that other teachers could not recognise talent when they saw it, nor could they recognise the years of quiet original research involved in building up the knowledge required to write with authority about such a subject.
Richie’s slight regard for school took a further nose-dive. ‘It interferes with my life really. I could be ferreting or fishing, finding skulls or stuffing animals.’ Meanwhile, taxidermy had entered his passions and one day we came home to a horrific stench as he and his minions were slitting open a dead badger. We did watch with some admiration as he peeled the skin off, informing us that the lips are particularly difficult to remove successfully. Some of the minions were sent off to search for a shop selling dolls’ eyes while the others chewed away on corned beef sandwiches, heedless of the carnage before them.
Apart from a few queries (what is a mustelid please and can you describe a purse net?) and the fact that the man from the Zoological department of London University found an ambiguity in one animal description, the editing was plain sailing. David Bellamy wrote the foreword and a photographer arrived to take 180 photos for the jacket.
When the book was published, our local bookshop displayed skulls and books in its window and photographers and journalists came to take the same photographs and ask the same questions. There were two articles in Sunday colour supplements, but this was not unexpected, we thought, after all, he was surprisingly young and the book was about such a weird subject. Until we heard he had won the Information Book Award, we had no idea it was an especially good book.
I think it was only when we arrived at Stationers’ Hall for the award and saw dozens of waitresses pouring Madeira into 200 glasses that Richie finally realised that what he had done was unusual. He blanched noticeably but seemed calm throughout. At the gorgeous lunch afterwards, Heinemann’s inspired cook treated him to extra helpings of a fantastic banana pudding. As he sat, surrounded by Important People in publishing, Stuart MacLure; editor of the TES, asked him if he had enjoyed his day. `Yes,’ he said politely. `Especially the banana pudding.’
Very unflappable is Richie; his priorities seem to be right. He even refused a Radio 4 broadcast because 1,000-cows needed de-warbleflying. His enthusiasm is undiminished. At Christmas we had a goose, acquired from an elderly friend of Richie’s. `He bonked it on the head very carefully for me,’ said Richie, `so that I could have the skull.’ Did you know that a goose has filters on its beak AND filters on its tongue? However gory Richie’s offerings may be, they’re always interesting.
I just wish he would get on and stuff the kestrel and the raven in my freezer, I need the room.
Here is the entry for the Badger.
Badger (actually omnivorous, see p 11, but has basically carnivorous-type teeth)
Habitat: Everywhere except Scottish islands. Lives in sets in woods and copses especially bordering pastureland.
Places to look: Find a set and try to find the badger’s rubbish pit which will he some distance away. You may find a body there. I have found many of my badger skulls near such pits. Sometimes the badger disturbs the buried body of another when it enlarges or alters the set and you can find a skull in the general pile of diggings. Badgers arc creatures of habit and use the same pathways and routes from their set when they go out foraging for food. Quite often, a small country lane has become a major thoroughfare for traffic over the years and badgers are knocked down by ears as they cross these roads, still following the old path that has been used for hundreds of years by their ancestors. You need to be on the alert therefore on car journeys for bodies by the side of roads.
Size: 116-150 mm (shown two-thirds life size)
The most noticeable feature is the ridge of bone running down the top surface and this ridge is called the sagittal crest. This can be one centimetre high in places and is an important part of the attachment of the great jaw muscles. Now this ridge is not developed in a young badger and you may find a skull where the suture lines (the jagged edges to each bone section’ are still open. If you find this, and cannot easily identify the skull, suspect it is not of an adult. Sometimes the skulls of the young are rather different in shape and formation from the adult (ie pig and piglet, sheep and lamb), and then you need to rely on the teeth for identification and the gradual growth of your own experience.
If there is just a small ridge then, you need to look for other clues to see if it is a badger. He has another strong ridge, jutting out at the back of the skull. This is called the occipital crest. All these ridges give the skull great strength and power.
One of the most noticeable features about the badger is the interesting articulation of the lower jaw. It fits into a groove in such a way_ that it will not dislocate, and usually the skull with be intact, with the lower jaw seemingly attached – unlike other skulls where the lower jaw bone is loose from the rest of the skull.
I have recently acquired a skull with a deformed lower jaw. Obviously the jaw was broken at some time and healed completely, but the bone is thickened and distorted, bulging downwards.
The badger has prominent canines and sharp premolars, but the back molars are somewhat flattened to grind up vegetable food. It has been said that a badger can break a man’s arm by clenching it in his jaw, and he is certainly able to crush a cow’s bones to extract the marrow. If you have ever seen the huge size of a cow bone then you could certainly believe this story. The cheek bone (zygomatic arch) is thick and strong and you will soon discover that it is easy to recognise a badger’s skull merely by handling it, because of the strength and thickness of bone.
Badgers are the heaviest land carnivore, weighing up to 13 kg (30lb). I have been badger watching with a man who has visited the same set for eleven years. The badgers trust him so completely that he can lay trails of nuts, fat, grain and Smarties (!) and sit quietly on the ground covered by a tough tarpaulin and…
Skulls is rich in anecdotes like the one Sara Steel quotes in her article. Told with directness and humour, they give tremendous life to the book and make taking up skull collecting as a hobby seem eminently possible – given a consenting family.
But there’s more to it than that. The chapters on ‘How to Begin’ and `Cleaning and Preparation’ are realistic and practical and the sections devoted to Identification are properly academic and admirable for the clarity with which facts are explained.
The judges for the Senior TES Award (books for those aged 11-16) were Valerie Alderson, Edward Blishen, Gerald Haigh (Headmaster of Henry Bellairs Middle School. Warwickshire) and Stuart MacLure.
The judges in the Junior section (books for children up to 10) did not make an award this year. ‘Books were thinner, dearer and poorer than in previous years. There was a lack of finish and quality about them, and the texts were undistinguished and often too complex for their intended readership. Indexes were either inadequate or non-existent and there was a shortage of hard information.’
Skulls by Richard Steel
Heinemann, 0 434 96450 6, £3.95
Piccolo, 0 330 26655 1, approx. £1.00 (to be published in April)