The Keats-Shelley Blog

14 December 2019

Keats-Shelley Podcast - A Conversation with Simon Barnes, 2020’s Keats-Shelley Prize Chair (Part 1)

Simon Barnes talks Songbirds, nature, birding and considers who wrote the better nightingale: John Keats or John Clare?

Simon Barnes is unique in the world of literature. How many revered sports writers are revered nature writers too? Off the top of my head I can think of one: Simon Barnes himself. 

For many years the chief sports of the Times, he covered seven Olympics, five World Cups, a Superbowl and the World Chess Championship. His profiles included everyone from David Beckham to Red Rum; his publications range from novels about Hong Kong to a biography about England off-spinner Phil Edmunds.

What elevated Barnes above his peers was prose that could pithily encapsulate the drama simmering underneath the surface action: ‘With Sampras the beauty was subtle, the tactics and execution obvious. With Federer, it was exactly the other way around,’ as he wrote in his 2018 career-spanning retrospective, Epic.

Barnes has since brought the same acute powers of observation to the natural world in general, and to birds in particular. This is perfectly illustrated by Simon's reading from The Meaning of Birds, which ponders their appeal for the Romantic writers, before comparing the nightingales of Johns Keats and Clare. 

When we decided that 'Songbird' would be the theme of 2020's Keats-Shelley and Young Romantics Prizes - to mark the composition 200 years ago of PB Shelley’s To a Skylark and the publication in book form of John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale - Simon was the perfect choice as Chair of Judges. 

We met recently in London to discuss his love of nature, poetry, sport and writing - not to mention how this feeds into Romanticism, Keats and Shelley.

Listen to Part One below. 

Part Two will be posted next week. 

The music on the podcast is Androids Always Escape by Chris Zabriskie

James Kidd