After a rich life of adventures, from the mundane circles of Hollywood where he spent years writing about the biggest movie stars of the world to the wilderness where he finally chose to retire ‘Between Earth and Paradise’, Mike Tomkies, the unforgettable master of Moobli, died on October 6th 2016. Maybe Moobli and Mike’s friends who crossed the “Rainbow Bridge” before him were waiting for him on the other side, on that melancholy autumn day when Nature did lose one of its best defenders…
“In the time of middle-earth, timeless aeons before the fall from grace, there was a place where men could pass quite freely between earth and paradise. So that men’s minds should not be dazed by the shocking beauty of paradise, the place was made in the celestial image, a high place of ethereal beauty, masked in soft mist, earthly yet shot through with a spirit beyond the range of men’s minds. So perfect it could not be other than the roots of heaven.”
(“A legend told in the Allinson family of Westmorland” – quoted by Mike Tomkies in Between Earth & Paradise.)
The more I read Mike Tomkies’s books, the more I like them even if I have to use my English-French dictionary quite often and more especiallay to find the translation of bird names or other animals. But the author’s life reads like a novel with many chapters full of adventures and unexpected developments. Who could have imagined that, after spending so much time socializing and making friends with the most glamorous stars of Hollywood, the brilliant and popular celebrity journalist would retire to the wilderness and become one of the greatest and most popular naturalists of his time, spending the rest of his life in some of the most beautiful and remotest places of Canada, Spain and Scotland?
The time Mike Tomkies spent in Scotland, first on the small island of Shona and then in an old crofthouse on the shore of a Highland loch, is what interests me most. As I had deliberately chosen to put his books on the shelves of my “Scottish library”, though I perfectly knew he was born in England, I was particularly happy to discover in Between Earth & Paradise that he had Scottish roots ;-).
“As I drove round a bend the road suddenly opened out on to a view so magnificent, right down the sea loch and over the islands of Eigg and Rhum, that its beauty hit me like a stroke in the soul. Entranced, I stopped the Land Rover and impulsively knelt down to kiss the ground, to touch the rocks on the shore. A strange excitement grew within me for I felt in some odd way that I was actually coming home. (Although I knew I had some Scots blood, I didn’t know until a talk with my father over a year later that my mother, Adele MacKinlay Stewart, who died when I was four, was pure Highland, and that her father, John Stewart was born on Islay).
(‘Homecoming’ – Between Earth and Paradise – Mike Tomkies)
“The old stone cottage was cold and cheerless. As I shivered on a fish box in its empty dampness for the first time, surrounded by the debris of my former life, I felt a sudden panic. Soaked to the skin, I was fatigued after a long day ferrying boat loads of lumber and belongings up the steely grey loch under the onslaugh of heavy rain. Now, my cherished hope that after seven years of wilderness living, first on a remote coast in western Canada and then in an old wooden croft on the Atlantic edge of a Scottish island, this new place would be my base for the deepest wilderness experiences of all, seemed not only presumptuous but foolhardy. No one had lived here, all year round, since 1912. When the old steamer that had once plied the loch was removed, so had died the human life along its shores.”
(A Last Wild Place – “Into the Wild”)
Moobli is the book which made me discover Mike Tomkies. I knew since the first page of this book that it would remain forever engraved in my memory though I never managed to read up to its end the chapter entitled “Decline”. In this heartbreaking chapter Mike Tomkies remembers the last hours of Moobli. This is heartbreaking reading. Truly. But Iain and Margaret who had so kindly and judiciously offered this wonderful book to me had also warned me about the sadness of some of its passages. I could not but feel the unbearable pain of such a moment having lost our dear Ralph who looked so much like Moobli… a twin of Moobli in a different place and circumstances…
“My grief lasted a full two years and it was exactly five years to the anniversary of his death before I could face writing about it…
For a long time I could not adjust to the knowledge that I had lost my aide-de-camp in the wilds, my adjutant, befriender of the wildcats, brilliant tracker of all forms of wildlife, my best pal, and twice the saver of my life…”
“In the first months many people told me that the best way to assuage grief was to replace Moobli with another dog. To me the idea was total anathema. I could not ‘replace’ Moobli in any such way. He was not just a family pet. He had been my only and constant companion through both idyllic and harsh times for nearly nine years. I had spent more time in his company than with any other animal or human in my whole life, including my parents, for my mother died when I was four and my father, a travelling salesman, had been seldom at home. To this day, five years after his death, I still miss my beloved old comrade. I have never felt the urge to get another dog. Maybe I will one day, and of course it will be a totally different character and perhaps just as lovable, but for me there will never be another Moobli…”
(Moobli – “Epilogue”)
Who is Who ? 😉
From the Wikipedia page devoted to Mike Tomkies, I’ve tried to select the key features of his life. It’s not easy task given how rich and multi-faceted it proved to be. “Au fil de mes lectures”, or following our readers’comments, I will try to complete and improve this “summary” but, whatever its shortcomings, let’s not waste more time in our quest to discover the philosophy of life of one of the most fascinating men of our contemporary world.
- Born in 1928 in West Bridgeford, Nottinghamshire, Mike Tomkies spends the first years of his life with his family in Whitley Bay, near Newcastle, in the north of England, before moving south to Worthing and then to Henfield near Brighton in Sussex. After the loss of his mother, who died during childbirth with his sister, and under the guidance of his father, Mike develops his love of nature in the English countryside that surrounds him.
- In 1952, at the age of 24, an attempt to sail around the world ends up with a shipwreck and a 400 miles (640 km) walk from Lisbon to Madrid.
- A period of military service with the Coldstream Guards leads him in the Middle East and… at Buckingham Palace!
- He begins his journalistic career at Fleet Street, in London, and then goes on as a free-lance in Paris, Madrid and Rome and finally as a Hollywood columnist until the age of 38.
- Weary of society life Mike Tomkies decides to return to nature and begins his exploration of Canada, settling in British Columbia, on the Pacific coast, where he builds a log cabin and works in various trades and activities to survive. It is here that he begins his wildlife studies tracking grizzly bears, cougars, caribou, bald eagles and killer whales, telling his adventures in Alone in the Wilderness, a very popular book first published by the Reader’s Digest.
- Running short on funds, Tomkies returns to writing in Hollywood, accompanied by Booto, a stray wild dog who has adopted him in Canada and who enjoys the attention of stars such as Cary Grant, Omar Sharif and Peter Finch during interviews.
- The two also travel around Mexico and Belize, where Mike Tomkies spend hours with Dean Martin – writing for the Daily Express
- He returns briefly to Canada, hiring North America’s greatest Red Indian guide, Clayton Mack, to follow dangerous treks deep in grizzly country, seeing 21 bears in three days.
- After another year in the wilds of Canada, Tomkies bids a very sad farewell to old Booto and returns to Hollywood for more amazing experiences with major film stars.
- He goes motorbiking in the Mojave Desert with Steve McQueen and then meets some of the greatest stars of Hollywood: John Wayne, Doris Day, Robert Mitchum…
- However, the wild keeps calling and Mike Tomkies decides to return to the UK. He finally settles in Eilean Shona, a remote island off the west coast of Scotland, restoring an old wooden crofthouse which has been used as a shelter for sheep to live in. “There was no road, no electricity, gas, phone, bathroom, kitchen, sanitation or even piped water” he remembers. “Sheep dung five inches thick covered the floor… During the week it took to make one room habitable I slept in an old caravan on the shore below the bigh house“. There he begins his work as a naturalist, observing and writing about Scottish nature, golden eagle, black throated diver, pine marten and Scottish wildcat.
- After a few years spent in Eilean Shona, Mike Tomkies settles on the shore of Loch Shiel, in a small crofter’s cottage called “Gaskan” which he renames “Wildernesse“. The place soon becomes a shelter for a whole variety of injured animals. It is then that Mike Tomkies decides to go in search of a four-pawed friend to share his solitude. He drives down to Sussex, in his well-equipped Land Rover, to fetch Moobli whose first appearance as a pup had disconcerted him: “He was droopy, fat as a piglet,, and he stood square, knock-kneed, his four huge paws out of all proportion to his size.” The description of little Moobli is quite irresistible but the dog will soon prove to be a most lovable, intelligent and faithful dog, always ready to follow his master in the mos perilous circumstances. In Moobli , a book full of love and gratitude, Mike Tomkies tells us the adventures of master and dog in the Scottish wilderness. After Moobli died Mike Tomkies spent the next four years alone and sad, missing his dog while completing his studies of golden eagles and rare Scottish species.The government had asked him to track and study golden eagles over a 300-square-mile (780 km2) area and he will be the first person to successfully breed the now critically endangered Scottish wildcat and to return individuals to the wild. Far from the madding crowd, on the very mahogany desk on which “JM Barrie had written the first film script of Peter Pan and part of his Marie Rose” and which had been given to him by his friends from Eilean Shona, Mike Tomkies will write nine books about the wildlife in the Scottish West Highlands.
- A Last Wild Place, first published in 1984, is the most famous of his books written about Wildernesse. The above cover of the book is that of the next edition which should be available in February 2017. As I only have an old edition of this book, I’ve pre-ordered it. I love very much its cover!
- Mike Tomkies then leaves Scotland for Spain where he spends five years hiking in the mountains, making films and writing a book about species including brown bear, lynx, wolf, wild boar, vultures and eagles. He has made his home a crumbling old villa with no glass in the windows or running water.
- All in all, twelve feature-length films on wildlife will be produced by Mike Tomkies with a focus on Scotland and the golden eagle. Three network TV programmes will also be made about his life and work in the wilds, the last of which “Wild Cathedral” having been repeated seven times.
- In 1988 Mike Tomkies is elected as an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.
- Mike Tomkies spends the last years of his life in an Elizabethan Farmstead in Henfield, near Brighton back to the country of his youth, still writing his books and always observing the world outside. He appears in the documentary film Last of the Scottish Wildcats (Coffee Films 2006) and becomes the patron for a new charity, the Scottish Wildcat Association in 2009, who names him an Honorary Member of the Association for life. He goes on travelling into the Scottish Highlands spending his 83rd birthday filming nesting eagles in Galloway with an RSPB team, and in 2014, having said his first fictional work, “Let Ape and Tiger Die”, would be his last novel, he releases a new wildlife book, “Running Wild“, through publishers Whittles, bringing his life experiences in the wild up to date.
- He dies aged 88 on 6 October 2016… after collapsing on a nature reserve… a “good death” for a man such as Mike Tomkies…
To change as radically as he did his way of life, a “dream life” for many people, he must have had good reasons but rather than to speculate about them let us try to find .
I had been living the fast globe-trotting life of a successful Fleet Street journalist, mixing life, drinks and copy with the elegant, the swift, the rich and the most famous of the day – Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner, Brigitte Bardot, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Steve McQueen and Elvis Presley among the celebrities I had known well. I had lived for periods in Rome, Paris, St Tropez, Vienna, Madrid, New York, Las Vegas and Hollywood. So long as I secured ‘The Story’, the world had been my oyster. Then, disillusioned with the high life, morose after a broken romance, I longed to return to the realities of the wild and my boyhood love of nature.
(Between Earth and Paradise – ‘Introduction’ – October 1990 – Mike Tomkies)
All seems at peace at Wildernesse; forgotten yet again are the dark cold days of winter for now the whole world is aflame with light and warmth. Quite suddenly I feel almost overcome by the beauty around me, the sweet scents, the gently swaying trees, the murmurs of the humming of bees and tiny insects wings, the tinkling of the burn etching its way over clean washed stones. Over all there is a pervading harmony, a glimpse perhaps of a world of balanced beauty in which what we, in our varying ways, call God meant man and all wild creatures to dwell, a glimpse indeed of paradise on earth.
(A Last Wild Place – “Renewal”)
In nature’s teeming world the animals and birds are working hard to fulfil their destinies. The feeling came strongly upon me that we, who evolved from original creation to become the dominant species, with unique gifts of intelligence, foresight and the ability to love spiritually beyond ourselves, have an inherent and inescapable duty to act as responsible custodians of the whole inspiring natural word. We are the late-comers, it can only be ours on trust.
(A Last Wild Place – “Renewal”)
I give the final words to Iain and Margaret. I could not say it better:
Living alone in desert places, is it too much to say that a man develops his own
understanding of what binds him to the natural world ? A curious existence,
but one certainly would have the time and space in which to think .. .. Simply
to visit those ‘desert places’, as a hillwalker does, can be deeply satisfying.
Recently we came across something that Margaret’s father, a life-long hillwalker,
wrote in ‘The Scotsman’. “On the Scottish hills, one learns about one’s capacity,
judgment, one’s physical and mental nature. But some enlargement of the spirit
also follows from being close to nature.”
Of his friend Tom Weir (1914-2006) he wrote: “Tom does not pretend to be a philosopher
or go into ecstasies about intimations of mortality, but he does believe that the outdoors
life is about more than landscapes or animals or people. ‘It’s a voyage into oneself,’ Tom
Seton Gordon (1886-1977), the naturalist and prolific writer, advised a young friend:
“It is a fine thing for you to have a love of the hills, because on the hills you will find
yourself near grand and beautiful things, and as you grow older you will love them
more and more.”
I am very happy to share with you the two videos I’ve found on You Tube. There is no better way to enter the world of Mike Tomkies and Moobli in such a remote and beautiful place of Scotland.