“I think a fox captures a sense of old wild nature, and also modern suburban life” Tim Bird on the hidden secrets in The Great North Wood from Avery Hill Publishing

Launching at the upcoming East London Comics Art Festival, Tim Bird’s latest offering from Avery Hill, The Great North Wood, has been met with a glowing review already. But we were keen to find out more about the secrets of this subtle and meandering read, so we thought we could get in touch with Tim in order to see if we could see the wood for the trees.

The Great North Wood focuses on an area of historic woodland in South London, and various stories connected to it, can you tell us a bit about the inspiration for this book? We’re guessing it has a bit of a personal connection?

Tim Bird: I’ve lived in various places around south London for the past 10 years, but always quite close to Sydenham Hill Woods. Its somewhere I enjoy walking and exploring with my kids. Living in a big city, its quite a novelty to have a relatively undisturbed patch of ancient woodland on our doorstep! One time when I was walking there, a group called the London Wildlife Trust were having an open day – they manage the woodland and promote environmental awareness. I picked up some leaflets about the Great North Wood and began to read about the history of the area. Its strange to think of such an urban area being covered in forest. It got me thinking that ghosts of the ancient forest might still haunt parts of south London.  

It comprises lots of different chapters, some historical, some more contemplative. Did you approach this story in a different way to your previous work? And how did the various chapters develop? Did they come piece by piece or did you have the whole thing planned out from an early stage?

TB: I find my style of comics works best in short chunks – it tends to be heavy on narration with very little dialogue. That can be hard to read with no breaks, so I generally split my comics into shorter chapters – its something I’ve done quite a lot previously. I planned out what I wanted each chapter to deal with right at the start. I wanted the book to work chronologically so it goes from pre-ice age ancient forest right through to post-human crumbling concrete. Some of the chapters tell stories of how places in south London got their names (like Gipsy Hill and Honor Oak) and some chapters are more fantastical, imagining an ancient woodland magic that still exists alongside the suburban houses, train stations and high street shops of present-day London. Once I’d decided what I wanted each chapter to be about, I worked on them separately and developed them as their own little story.

We love the way you use the fox as a narrator/hero throughout the book, what was it about the fox that made him such a great choice for this role?

TB: Haha – thanks! We get lots of urban foxes around where we live. They rummage through the bins and howl at pet cats on summer evenings. I thought it would be good to have one as the main character because the book jumps forwards and backwards through time quite a lot, and foxes haven’t changed that much since the days when south London was covered in trees. I think a fox captures a sense of old wild nature, and also modern suburban life. Other than the birds, they were the only animal I could think of that combined the ancient forest and modern city.

Did you have to do a lot of historical research to get all the stories correct? Did you know a lot of the stories beforehand or did you discover them as you wrote?

TB: I did a lot of reading before I started writing the comic – researching the stories is probably my favourite part of the creative process. I knew a bits and pieces beforehand because I’m interested in local history, but I learnt a lot of new stuff. I enjoyed reading about London Folklore (mainly from Steven Roud’s book, London Lore) and learnt about the stories of Margret Finch and Ned Righteous. I also read a few books about how Forests have influenced folktales – they’re places that seem to inspire scary stories. I think its to do with feeling lost amongst the trees, and being in a place where nature has the upper hand over people. I’d recommend Sara Maitland’s book Gossip From The Forest for anyone interested in that sort of thing.

And the same with the artwork, did you do a lot of life drawing to get the locations and trees correct?

TB: Not really. I did a lot of walking and took some photos of trees. For the modern day sections of the book I relied a lot on Google Street view. I think my style of artwork is quite simplistic though, so I didn’t worry too much about getting everything to look right. I hoped to communicate an overall sense of the place. I don’t think you’d be able to identify species of tree from my drawing – as long as it looks like a tree I’m happy!

It has a really interesting mix of historical stories and some more folkloreish elements, was it important for you to give the book a spirtual side as well as a factual one?

TB: It was important for me to get the factual parts right (or rather, not wrong). But I didn’t want it to end up being like a textbook about the area, just a list of facts and historical accounts of place names, so it was important for me to include a contrast to that. Also – I’m interested in folktales and strange stories. I like to imagine woodland spirits from old stories surviving and populating the areas where the forest once grew. 

The book touches on themes like environmentalism, urban decay and the eradication of history through progress, so would you say the book has a quite pessimistic outlook on the world? Is that reflecting your world view?

TB: People have told me before that my comics are downbeat, so I suppose I must have that kind of worldview, but I didn’t mean it to come across like that! I like living in a house in a city instead of a shack in the woods, so I think progress is generally a good thing. On the other hand, parts of south London have become so gentrified over the last 10 years that communities of people have been forced to leave the places where they grew up and belonged. That’s not right. You also mentioned environmentalism – I do think we should be doing more to protect the environment for future generations – recycling, eating less meat, using public transport and so on. 

The book ends with nature reclaiming the city – trees grow through cracked concrete in an environment without any people. I’m not sure if this is a hopeful message or completely terrifying, but either way, I think nature will outlast us, and once we’ve blown ourselves up or handed our consciousnesses over to mega-tech companies, wildlife will quite quickly take back what we’ve created. Its all just a blink of an eye. A beat of a butterfly’s wing.

And finally, how long has this book taken to produce, as it feels like a real labour of love? And what can we look forward to from you next?

TB: I started getting interested in the Great North Wood quite a long time ago and thought it would make a good subject for a comic, but I didn’t do anything about it for ages. It stayed in the back of mind whilst I worked on other things. One of my earlier comics – From The City To The Sea – contains references to “ghosts of England’s ancient woodland” and paths through suburban forests, but it wasn’t enough to get it out of my system! I decided to do something about it last year. I spent a while reading about the local history of south London and the writing the comic. Once I started drawing the final piece, it happened quite quickly. 

I’ve been thinking about my next project, but haven’t started making it yet. Its shaping up to be a more personal piece – recollections of journeys from my childhood. The plan is for it to be quite short (so I guess you’d call it a comic rather than a graphic novel) and for me to self-publish it – hopefully in time for some of the comics fairs I’ll be at later this year.

You can pick up The Great North Wood for £9.99 from the Avery Hill Store. And you can find out more about Tim’s work at www.timothybird.co.uk.